The Year of the Fire Bird

Here is the moon of great bliss and skillful means. And here is the sun of wisdom and shunyata.”

Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche from The Sadhana of Mahamudra

 Calendar Makers

For millennia, Asian countries and cultures have celebrated the Lunar New Year. Depending upon the country, this new moon holiday will fall within two months after the Winter Solstice. In the Shambhala community (we follow the Tibetan tradition of Losar or “New Year”) the first day of the new Fire Bird year is Monday, February 27th. Shambhala Centers worldwide will celebrate this day. Everyone is welcome.

Greek civilization used a lunar calendar. Thanks to the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar, since 46 B.C.E. we’ve been using a calendar aligned with the earth’s orbit around the sun. This calendar was refined in the Middle Ages by Pope Gregory, which is why our current calendar is called Gregorian.

Why a sun-centered calendar? The position of the sun defines growing seasons. The solstice (a word that literally means “the sun stands still”) —occurs at the shortest and longest days of the year. The Winter and Summer Solstices, opposite points along the earth’s orbit around the sun, are key to measuring the onset of spring and the arrival of fall — the seasons for planting and harvesting, respectively. An accurate solar calendar is more practical, agriculturally speaking.

This is all by way of observing that the calendar popping up on our smart phone is a gift from a long-dead Roman Emperor, tweaked by a Pope along the way. With its colorful matching of animals and elements, the Chinese calendar also came from the court of an Emperor. The animals were added to help a peasant population tune into a subtler message from the Court about living in balance with the energies of yin and yang.

Time and Industry

If you’re reading this blog post at work on your lunch break, you might reflect that an accurate measure of time wasn’t always possible. Beginning in the 1800’s, in textile mills in England, the clock on the wall became the norm in the workplace. Before that, timepieces were forbidden at work. Mill managers might have them, but not workers. (Your boss could dismiss you for bringing a watch to the job!)

A mutually agreed upon time allowed workers and their bosses to perfect a system of compensation. So important was the clock to modern work, one prominent sociologist called it “the key machine of the industrial age.”

East Time, West Time

In the East, traditionally at least, time is cyclical. The last Fire Bird year was 60 years ago. (12 animals, 5 elements. Calendars have always been about math.) On the Lunar New Year you clean house, settle debts, heal family rifts, and prepare to begin again.

Calendars connect us with the natural flow of the seasons, but in Western industrialized culture they have become a tool to measure progress. This started as an economic narrative (Return on Investment), but in our consumer culture, the personal and economic have become one. Every year should be an improvement over the last. The assumed direction is forward and up. Life is a race. The circle has become a line, the line a timeline, and the timeline a deadline. There is less and less room to relax.

Another Now

If you find yourself stuck in the idea of progress in your meditation practice, it’s good to remember that how we think and feel about time is a product of our society — an idea refined by emperors and popes, and in the West, institutionalized by factory bosses at the onset of the industrial revolution.

Looking for steady, measurable improvement in the quality of our meditative experience reflects this conditioning. While the notion of progress motivates us to pursue meditation, it also creates a feeling of anxiety. We find ourselves looking forward to what Sakyong Mipham calls “another now.” With this forward push, our meditation overlooks the one resource that never exhausts — the present moment.

Time to Wonder

Measuring time may be essential for the economy, but the math behind calendars doesn’t always add up. For instance, the time it takes the earth to orbit the sun is actually 365 and ¼ days — hence the need for a leap year every 4 years.

And if you assume that calendars simply measure a harmonious cosmic reality, lunar and solar cycles aren’t the same. True lunar calendars require that a 13th month be added every 3 years to catch up with the solar cycle. (This 13th month is one of the origin stories for the bad rap received by the number 13.)

Clocks seem accurate, but they tick more slowly on earth than in outer space — satellite systems compensate for this when predicting our GPS coordinates. Clocks purport to measure time, but sometimes time “flies”, and other times seems to “crawl.” (The comedian Jon Stewart complained that he is aging faster under the current White House administration.) In short, although we assume that time is a real, steady, measurable thing, when you look closer, you have to wonder.

Blue Moon

Trying to schedule our meditation practice, we find ourselves wondering how we will “find the time.” Subconsciously perhaps, we weigh the prospect of time spent in meditation against another more beneficial activity. We feel stuck with the ideal of progress and a sense that, any minute now, we may be “out of time.”

Habitually, we seek quick, short-term solutions to the challenges of the moment, embracing what the teacher and author Ethan Nichtern calls a “fast-food orientation.” Like an anxious factory-worker slipping behind on their quota, the idea that time might be wasted is subtly terrifying.

All of this raises the question of our mood. As a society, did the shift to a solar calendar distance us from the subtler emotional energies of the lunar cycle? Asserting our mastery over nature, have we stepped back from feeling and intuition – feminine energy, toward the safety of science and rationality – associated with the masculine?

Easter Sunday is scheduled around the full moon, and in traditional cultures, like Tibet, sacred rituals are scheduled on full and new moon days. The words “honeymoon” and “lunacy” signal that the moon speaks to how we feel. While scientific data doesn’t support a “lunar effect” (the relationship for instance between ER visits and the lunar cycle), maybe science has trouble gauging how we feel.

Time to Rule

Not to say that productivity and efficiency aren’t spiritual. In fact, scholars suggest that the modern workday traces its roots to pre-industrial monasteries organizing the day around prayer times.

And by the way, the Fire Bird year is said to reward punctuality and hard work. Perhaps, as the Chinese Ancients thought, the question is one of balance. The calendar that brings us the Fire Bird year is actually a blend of lunar and solar – called, predictably, “lunisolar.”

Meditation does embrace the notion of progress, but not exclusively. In meditation, we work to overcome habitual patterns and small mind. But because our nature is naturally expansive and caring, we can’t make progress in meditation, we can only recover it. And how does progress happen anyway? When puzzling through Relativity (the physics that makes GPS tracking possible) Einstein found the insights he needed by putting down his pencil and picking up his violin.

My meditation teachers may be burdened by a demanding schedule, but one thing I’ve noticed — they never rush. Starting meditation practice, we may feel that our time is wasted. But according to Sakyong Mipham, in meditation we begin by tuning in to how we feel. At first our awareness is like the moon, a faint light glimmering in a shadowy and uneven landscape. With consistency in our practice, a sense of care and friendliness toward ourselves develops. The healing light of awareness begins to shine in the places we have been afraid to look.

Over time, as we settle in meditation, a confidence dawns. Our feelings and sensitivity reflect and reveal something deep and bright — a knowing awareness that, like the sun, is always shining. This play between care and confidence in meditation brings relaxation and dignity. It is the dignity of a ruler — a sovereign in their own time.