Like many Americans, I’ll be spending the 2020 holiday season much differently than in years past.
A week ago, I had a phone conversation with my mom that likely echoed the decisions many families are making across the country right now: we agreed that we wouldn’t be traveling to see each other for Christmas.
Instead of hopping on a plane to be with family this winter, I’ll be hunkering down at home, out of respect for their health & mine. As someone who lives alone, this means my winter holidays will largely be spent in solitude.
A scary word for many people.
Being completely alone, especially on a significant holiday, can understandably trigger feelings of sadness and loneliness in many of us.
Missing holiday celebrations with family this year due to COVID might also provoke anger and frustration - that we’re still having to make such hard sacrifices due to this virus, nearly nine months after the first stay-at-home orders were issued.
So believe me, I’m not exactly thrilled at the idea of spending Christmas morning alone.
But thankfully, I’ve always had a pretty good relationship with solitude. As an only child & an introvert by nature, spending time alone has been a common feature of my life, one that I’ve come to embrace over the years. I’ve continually found that periods of intentional solitude are rich opportunities for introspection, spiritual growth, and deeper self-knowing.
So, if you find yourself in similar circumstances and will be joining me for a more quiet, solitary holiday experience, I wanted to offer up some tools to help us transform this winter experience… from a time of disconnection and loneliness into a period of inner connection and self discovery.
THE INNER CAVE
In symbolic terms, I see this winter as an opportunity to enter into our Inner Cave.
Looking towards the wisdom of the natural world, we might think of bears & other creatures who seek out caves to spend their winters in hibernation.
In many spiritual traditions, caves are often symbols of contemplative retreat from the world. Spiritual hermits of all kinds - Buddhist monks, Indian sadhus, and early Christian monastics - were known for seeking out caves for periods of silence, solitude, and deep meditation.
Caves are also a mythological symbol for dark places where we fear to look. Heroes in myths & fantasy novels are likely to find dragons and other monsters waiting in the depths of deep, dark caves. But in these stories, it is precisely those dragons & fearsome monsters who are guarding the treasure the hero seeks.
These stories point towards a deep psychological truth: when we peer into the depths of ourselves during times of deep solitude and introspection, we do run the risk of discovering dragons - our fears, our doubts, our unhealed wounds. But it is precisely beneath those fears, doubts, and wounds that we also discover gold - specifically, the gold of a deeper self-knowing.
Joseph Campbell was absolutely right: “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”
So, let me offer some tools for entering into this season of the Inner Cave - resources for uncovering the inner treasure that awaits you. May these be like torches that help light your way through the dark.
QUIETING SOCIETY’S VOICE
Spiritual seekers across all cultures have traditionally retreated to solitary places in the natural world, such as caves, forests, and mountaintops, for periods of deep spiritual practice. In order to better hear the voice within, these seekers found it necessary to distance themselves from the noise of the social world.
We don’t have to literally move to a cave or live like a hermit on Cold Mountain in order to heed this call. We can enter our Inner Cave symbolically by creating a space in our lives free from distraction & the noise of society.
This winter could be the perfect time to commit to a social media fast, or limiting your daily screen time. If a particular app is a consistent source of distraction & anxiety for you, delete it off your phone and commit to keeping it off for at least a week.
If you are someone who was frequently overwhelmed by the news & politics of this year, you could commit to limiting your news intake for a certain amount of time. This could look like checking the news only once a day, or choosing to go news-free for several days or more.
Pay attention to what forms of media & entertainment you habitually turn to when difficult feelings arise, like boredom, sadness, or worry. Has watching a new Netflix series (or re-watching an old favorite) become just a way to avoid looking at yourself and feeling what you’re actually feeling? If you suspect this might be the case, take a break from your favorite series for a while and instead choose an activity that puts you more in touch with yourself.
Finally, consider replacing some of the indoor, electronic-centered activities in your life with time outdoors in nature. Seek out nearby trails, woods, creeks, quiet parks, and uncrowded beaches that allow you to commune with energies of the earth, the water, and the open sky.
This winter we have a chance to take a break from the constant sensory overload we are often experiencing in this modern-day culture. By embracing a more silent, solitary holiday season, we have the opportunity to hear what lies beyond the usual social noise. This is a time for quieting the voice of society so that the soul might speak more loudly & more clearly.
ALLOWING THE SOUL TO SPEAK
Once we have created this quiet space of our Inner Cave, we can turn to activities and practices that nourish the soul & allow it to speak to us.
Like those ancient seekers of truth, this is a space to commit ourselves more deeply to our spiritual practice, to activities that deepen our connection to the sacred - whether that is meditation, yoga, prayer, ritual, the study of scripture, or any act of worship or reverence that aligns with your soul.
As a writer and lover of words, I’m of course going to recommend journaling as a powerful form of communication with your inner self. Committing to filling a few pages in your journal each morning is an incredible way of starting your day with the deeper voice of soul. Any creative act can be a doorway into soul - whether it’s journaling, writing poetry, playing music, drawing, painting, or dancing in your living room. This is a perfect time to reawaken an artist pursuit, if only for yourself & the joy it brings you to be creative in that way.
I’d also recommend paying closer attention to your dreams. The visions & stories within our dreams are another doorway into soul, into the unconscious, into the deep depths of who we are. Keep a journal by your bed and write down the images & scenarios that emerge in your dreams. Reflect on what meaning these images and events evoke with you. If you’d like a practical guide to interpreting dreams, I highly recommend the book Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth by Jungian analyst & scholar Robert A. Johnson.
Through these soul-centered practices, we can peer more deeply into ourselves, even into those places we might often fear to look.
MAKING THE DARKNESS VISIBLE
A common fear that prevents many people from entering into the Inner Cave of solitude & self-reflection is the fear that they will have to confront aspects of themselves they’d rather not see.
And they are absolutely right.
This is why the spiritual journey is not for the faint of heart, but actually requires the courage of a mythic hero.
Myths & fantasy stories are full of brave heroes that take underworld journeys into the deepest, darkest places imaginable - caves, dungeons, dragon lairs, and the land of the dead. They take these underground journeys because they are in search of something precious - hidden treasure, hidden knowledge, a hidden cure for what ails the kingdom.
But before they can seize this precious gift, they usually must confront something dark & terrible.
One of my favorite cinematic underworld journeys takes place in The Empire Strikes Back, when Luke Skywalker enters into a dark cave on the planet Dagobah during his Jedi training with Yoda. Luke descends into the cave, armed with only his lightsaber, and there meets his greatest fear - a vision of Darth Vader. Their lightsabers clash and Luke manages to cut off Vader’s head. But when Vader’s dark mask explodes open, Luke witnesses a deeper horror - his own face staring back at him.
The lesson for Luke is clear: his greatest fear is not out there, in the form of the villain Darth Vader. His real fear is within - that his own inner darkness could lead him down an evil path, just like Vader.
Time spent in the Inner Cave can help us see our fears more clearly, making the darkness visible. When we lift the light of truth in our dark cave, in the form of a lightsaber or the light of our conscious awareness, we might reveal monsters - but we’ll also reveal the hidden treasure beneath their feet.
We take the hero’s path in these situations by asking ourselves brave questions:
What fears have been holding me back from being my true self?
Who would I be if I decided to be courageous in the face of these fears?
What gold might be waiting for me on the other side of my fear?
The treasure awaiting you is of course the gold of a deeper self-knowing, out of which comes the gifts you share with the world.
So don’t be afraid to venture into your Inner Cave, armed with only a sword of light, determined to make the darkness visible.
RETURNING TO THE WORLD
Our underworld journeys into the Inner Cave are not meant to be permanent. We retreat from the world, in fact, so that we might return to the world wiser, stronger, and bearing healing gifts.
So even though many of us are spending time away from family and communities we love this winter, we can treat this time of quiet & seclusion not as a selfish indulgence, but as a deeper kind of gift - the gift of our real self, a healed & whole self, ready to share our gifts in the year to come.
That is ultimately the greatest gift we can share with the ones we love.
So in that spirit, I invite you to join me this winter for a journey into the Inner Cave, where a deeper self-knowing awaits.
I hope these words help you find your way.
- Matthew Foley