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“Only that day dawns to which we are fully awake”

With these words of wisdom by poet, naturalist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau echoing in my mind, I set off into the warm midsummer morning to watch the sun announce the dawn of the longest day.

Walking mindfully along the tree-lined path leading into the countryside, I stepped appreciatively into each precious moment. Each oak, ash, sycamore and horse chestnut bore witness to my gentle pilgrimage to take part in a cosmic drama that has inspired people for millennia: the summer solstice sunrise, when the earth, because of the tilt of her axis, seems to bow to the heart of our solar system.

Clouds sailed effortlessly towards the horizon, briefly unveiling a waning moon still gracing the dawn sky with her reflection of the sunlight to come. Early birds blessed the breeze with song. On reaching the brow of the hill, I gazed in awe upon the earth undulating towards lands where morning had already yawned, stretched and sat down for breakfast. Meanwhile, here, the only evidence of the sun was clouds soaked orange, then crowned in halos of gold.

The clouded horizon hid the immediate sunrise, but the crescendo of birdsong and a sudden but subtle shift in the quality of the light and the energy of the land left no doubt that the sun had ascended the stage. Three soft beams poured gently through gaps in the cloud, then a torrent of sunlight gushed bright through a breach and flooded the fields, casting long shadows across the earth. “Turn your face to the sun and the shadows fall behind you,” says the Maori proverb.

Gazing in awe at the majesty of this moment, the year’s crowning glory, reminded me, however, that in the sun’s rise is also the seed of his demise, because now the days start to shorten. As he rises, so he must set, in order to rise again.

Nothing, not even on a cosmic level, lasts forever. 

And, just as life is a gift to us, so we become our gift back to life. We are born as a “question which our life must answer”, says psychiatrist Carl Jung. Our heroic task is to become the noblest expression of our unique potential that we can be, so that by the time our sun finally sets on this life, our existence has enriched the world in some way, however seemingly small. We have borrowed our life, and must eventually return it to the earth, the cosmos, in order to feed the future. Each one of us is like a wave rising high before returning to the endless ocean that we might call the cosmos, God or Goddess – depending on our religious, or non-religious, viewpoint.

As Prof Brian Cox says in his inspiring BBC TV series, Wonders of the Universe, it is both the joy and the tragedy of life that its beauty lies in its impermanence – because change is the essence of life as it arises, decays and rises again. No change means no life. We live because we change; we change because we live.

The summer solstice is a celebration of this life, this change, this transformation.

Much of early life is taken up with learning to be independent, building an identity and finding a place in the world. This is a necessary stage as we grow towards wholeness and fulfilment, but it is only a prelude to what is to come – the deepening of experience as we learn that our true value lies not in outer accomplishments, but in our inner evolution as humane beings. Because, whatever we do in life, ultimately we do to ourselves.

We discover that real freedom comes only as we let go of that seemingly solid identity we have spent a lifetime in building. We come to understand that what we are is not ours to keep but merely our gift back for the life we have lived.

It is through life’s impermanence that we are encouraged to live each given moment, each present, as fully awake as we can, because each moment lived in sacred awareness is a gift of gratitude to God, Goddess, the cosmos, life. 

When that realisation dawns, then our achievements, worldly or otherwise, take on a whole new meaning as we continue on our pilgrimage around the wonderful wheel of life.

NB: This is based on an article I wrote just after last year's summer solstice.


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