Now, on the shortest day of the year, with even northern California cold enough to wear hats, scarves, and gloves, I'm reflecting on the seeming polarities like light and dark, love and fear, that have swung us back and forth over our political and personal landscapes this past year. For me, the experience has been like standing on rock cliffs, being battered and splintered by an ongoing series of huge waves under the low-hanging clouds of a storm.
One such wave was the result of the presidential election in the United States in 2016. For myself and the majority of the electorate we've now seen what it's like having a president, a Congress, and a Supreme Court actively working against what we hold dear for our society— a healthy environment, health care access for all, up-to-date public education, and fundamental equal rights for all— so that we may have work and build lives in connection with our authentic desires, our relationships, and our world.
At such times, it seems that there are only the polarities of storm or calm, vitriol or caring, hate or love, dark or light. But when we're able to stand steady in the storm, listening with the heart to the connectedness of life, we can bring oppositional forces into calm and wholeness. And it is in this place of heart-centered awareness that positive change can emerge.
There's the story of the brilliant poet, songwriter, and singer, Leonard Cohen, who died in 2017, and how he quelled a riot at the 1970 Isle of Wight rock concert in England. I was there, too, one of 600,000 in the passionate, free-flowing audience, many of whom were upset about political, economic, and social injustices of that time, including the Vietnam War. However, since the concert went on day and night, I seemed to have slept through Cohen's 4 AM performance on the last night of the festival that followed a literally blazing Jimi Hendrix set.
This was what I missed. Apparently, on that dark, rainy night, the audience was cold and restive and trashed the stage. Cohen, awoken at 2 AM after Hendrix played, was only bothered because the organizers couldn't locate a piano and organ for his musicians. "I'll come out when you find them," he said, and did, two hours later. As film reviewer Mike Springer wrote, "Perhaps the most moving moment [was] at the beginning, when Cohen [brought] the massive crowd together by asking a favor: 'Can I ask each of you to light a match, so I can see where you all are?'" In this way, he gathered that huge group of disparate, upset people in a cold, damp, inhospitable place into one whole, and transformed their mood and attention by listening to their hearts with his calm and deeply centered presence.
Fast forward to 2008, to Leonard Cohen's concert in London at a time of world-wide economic depression. I was very moved by what he said before performing his famous song, "Anthem," to the people in his audience. Again, he changed the atmosphere in the concert hall by speaking to their feelings of fear, anger, and upset with lovingkindness— "Thank you so much, friends. We're so privileged to gather in moments like this when so much of the world is plunged in darkness and chaos."
And then he sang:
"So ring the bells
that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything,
That's how the light gets in."
In our lives, it's not so imperative to seek perfection as to embrace our wholeness. This includes our stormy encounters, as well as the thin band of light we see on the horizon. When we put our attention on this light, we can see it radiating outward, reflected on the waves of the sea, reaching and opening our listening hearts.
So try this— when you find yourself in a difficult work situation, relationship, or political landscape, focus on whatever you can that is beautiful or inspiring in the midst of that challenge. Find that crack where the light gets in, whether it's a compassionate glance from a colleague, a memory of a loving moment, or a song that opens your heart. In this way, allow the change you long to make begin from listening with your heart.
As poet and inspirational speaker, Mark Nepo, wrote in his book, The One Life We're Given: "When we can keep breaking through what has hardened and keep what is alive soft, the cracks turned into openings fill us with an undying light." In this season's darkest days, may we celebrate the beauty of the light and love within us as we move forward into the challenges and changes of the new year.