Updated: Jan 20, 2021
So here we are, at the start of a new year. The onslaught of 2020 is behind us, and we’re looking ahead to what 2021 might hold in store. So what can we learn in this transitional time?
The Sparks of 2021
Even in normal circumstances, January and February pose difficulties for those of us in the northern hemisphere: we’ve emerged bright-eyed into a new year, but we still have two dark, cold and wet months ahead of us before the natural world begins to bloom and the light holds. Because of this, it’s easy to get stuck in an attitude of waiting and wishing the time away: ‘when Spring comes, then I’ll do this…’, ‘when the weather’s better, then I can do that...’. It’s particularly heightened for us at the moment too, because we’re also waiting on our lives returning to some kind of post-pandemic normality: ‘when the vaccine arrives, then I’ll be able to…’, ‘when everything’s back to normal, then I’ll do that thing I’ve been thinking of.’
And God knows, we need to keep hoping for those things – after the year we’ve all just had, sometimes they’re the only fuel we've got to feed the inner fire. But we know from listening to the teachers throughout time, as well as from our own experience, that we don’t live in the future and we can’t control it. So the question I’m asking myself – and what I’m interested in finding out from those around me – is what sparks of energy and pleasure are still living in us, even now amidst the darkest months? How can we make sure we’re still aware of these glimmers of creativity, passion, excitement – and how can we make use of them right here and now, rather than saving them up or letting them burn out whilst we wait for more favourable conditions?
A spark can set a whole forest on fire. Just a spark. Save it. ― Charles Bukowski
Spark in Myth and Evolution
The spark is an incandescent particle that has changed the course of human history: it’s the first step to creating that most essential life-bringer, fire. This is summed-up brilliantly in the astounding Book of Symbols: ‘We can imagine the awe inspired in ancient humans the first time that two stones struck together released sparks, as though from hiding deep within.’ (Taschen, p.86) Because of their place in the history of our survival, the image of the spark is a powerful one in the human psyche. The spark represents the arrival, as if from nowhere, of a new idea or inspiration; it is a symbol of a vital creative essence and the potential for life in the midst of darkness.
Throughout the world, early cultures and religions have imagined fire as a deity and a vital part of the story of humans’ distinction from the animal world. Agni, god of fire, was central to early Hindu mythology. Devotees would keep sacrificial fires burning through the day and night, and Agni’s gift in return was not only to help build civilisation, but also to illuminate the inner world. Karen Armstrong puts this beautifully in her new book, The Lost Art of Scripture:
‘when sticks or stones were rubbed together or struck, Agni flared forth again and conveyed the gifts thrown into the sacred fire back to the heavenly world. Agni was also the ‘fire’ of the mind that rises from mysterious depths of our being and is manifest in thought.’ (Armstrong, p.47)
The story I have always loved, and the one that is serving as a vital image for me at this point in time, is the Greek story of Prometheus – the Titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind. The story goes that Prometheus, taking pity upon mankind who were being scorned and neglected by Zeus, king of the gods, crept into the forge of Hephaestus – the blacksmith – on Mount Olympus and stole a single glowing ember. He concealed it within the stalk of a giant fennel plant, and carried it down from the seat of the gods to earth, where he gave it to mankind and taught them how to make fire.
While Prometheus and his journey from Olympus are a myth, the ember and fennel stalk in the story have fascinating links with evidence found of pre-historic humans using types of tree fungus to carry their fires over great distances. What looks like an unassuming bit of tree growth to us must have been prized as a vital possession – much like we feel about our smartphones these days. With these natural tinderboxes, our ancestors were able to light the darkness of a desert night or bring warmth to an Arctic winter.
There’s a Bible quote I’ve always loved, and found bemusing. It comes from the Book of Job – the great spiritual interrogation on why, in a world where God exists, bad things happen to good people. In the midst of his spiritual doubt and dilemma, one of Job’s friends says to him, “Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward." (Job 5:7) There will be hundreds of commentaries on this line, by much wiser people than me. But to my mind, this line contains both the tough recognition that, as humans, we are bound to live with complexities, struggle and doubt, as well as the enlivening image of these very ‘troubles’ being the things that might give rise to new life, new heights and experiences.
Sparks and Us
Sparks remind us of our potential for great energy, though the beginnings of that energy might be small and fleeting – perhaps only a trace of feeling or thought. They need to be caught by something more substantial and receptive, tinder, in order to achieve their potential. In yoga, the field of our awareness is this tinder.
The sparks are the spontaneous glimmerings of our interest, our curiosity and delight. At this time more than ever, we can’t afford for these sparks to go out. It’s true that, to quote the poet William Stafford, ‘the darkness around us is deep’, so how are we going to use our gifts, our time, talents, and consciousness to light the way? It’s no use waiting until the Spring, and depending on the light of Mother Nature to do the job for us – there’s other people out there, right now, who need our sparks. It’s on all of us to keep the collective fires lighted.
Daily practices to keep that spark alive The ways we spark our imaginations and gather awareness won’t all look the same – we all respond to different stimulus – but here are the things I’m doing every day to keep reminding myself of the time and space that I can influence, the present moment:
Journaling – it doesn’t have to be poetic, it doesn’t have to be pretty, it doesn’t even have to make sense. But you know all of those thoughts and ideas and worries you’ve had over the past few months? They’re all still in there, so take some time to get them down on paper and in a physical container. Then you can look at them objectively – and who knows, there might even be a little red-hot spark in there waiting to be turned into something else…
Focused awareness – this might change day to day between meditation, focused relaxation, yoga practice, conscious emotional releases (think music, dancing, jumping, howling into pillows and generally shaking it out) breath work, or even conscious day-dreaming and fantasising. The important thing is to be right there with whatever experience I’m having, and not bypass, distract or layer on judgements.
Having conscious conversations with people about what’s going on. This is pretty self-explanatory: we all need to talk about what’s going on at the moment, and having someone else’s perspective can be a welcome revitalising breeze when you’ve got yourself in a thought-swamp.
Limiting doomscrolling and increasing curiosity. Noticing that I’m excited, intrigued or puzzled by a thing I see or hear and then pulling that thread to see where else it might lead feels like a way of blowing on that ember to make it glow. Finding and clicking on all the headlines that begin with the words ‘Government takes a U-turn,’ does not…
Online Classes: Light of Awareness
In my online classes this month, I’ll be using the theme of Light of Awareness as an essential reminder not to waste our sparks by ‘waiting’ for brighter days: Spring, the vaccine, being able to travel or see people we haven’t. These are good things to hope for – but we are still here, now. So what can we do now, however small or unassuming, with what Mary Oliver called our ‘one wild and precious life’?
The burnt-out ends of smoky days
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney pots
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps
And then the lighting of the lamps.
The Book of Symbols. Reflections of Archetypal Images. Taschen, 2010
Armstrong, Karen, The Lost Art of Scripture. Penguin, 2020