If you’d been a lad some four thousand years ago in ancient Babylonia, you might have celebrated the New Year as part of a group carrying statues of the gods, singing praises to Ishtar and Marduk and asking for their blessing. This would not have occurred at the beginning of winter, but in spring, after the vernal equinox.
Had you lived in China around that time, your New Year’s celebration might have included sweeping out your house to get rid of evil spirits lurking in corners and decorating it with red trim to ward off the blood-thirsty creature Nian. As protection against bad luck and to insure an auspicious year ahead, you would have paid off old debts, examined the lessons from the previous year’s failures, renewed friendships, and mended broken ones. Always you would show devotion to the gods.
Whether celebrated according to a lunar, solar, or Hebraic calendar and held after harvest time, or in winter, or in spring, after the vernal equinox, rituals marking the New Year are as ancient as humankind, and still exist across time and cultures. They go by many names—Diwali, Samhain, Rosh Hashanah, Nowruz—but represent a common archetypal (that is, inborn) human desire to be released from mistakes and difficulties of the past and to begin anew. In the West, our comic image for this is the hobbled old man going out a door and a fat baby in diapers entering. The “death” we celebrate on New Year’s Eve is also an honoring of what is yet to be. Something in us wants a chance to be cleansed of accumulated debris—outdated ideas, stale habits, outgrown beliefs.
In many meditation practices, the focus on each inhale signifies a new beginning. When our mind wanders and grows cloudy, we direct our attention to the next breath with a sense of a brand-new opportunity to start over. In Zen Buddhism, practitioners are encouraged to cultivate shoshin, Beginner’s Mind, which is a mind free from old associations and patterns, a mind that observes the world with a child’s awe and innocence and without pre-established conditioning. The chance to start over in a breathing meditation practice isn’t simply symbolic. Each breath we take is indeed like the beginning of a new cycle. No two breaths are the same; the old breath is gone, the new breath, pristine.
In the cusp of this New Year, I invite you to consider how you might like to mark this ritual time in a personal way. Sitting quietly in solitude, consider what needs to be cleansed from your inner and outer world. What is asking to be transformed? What qualities seem to be missing from your life?
Let these questions dwell in you. Don’t rush for answers.
If you were to create a private ritual for the New Year, what symbols might represent your hopes and wishes? Symbols surround us, but for many, they no longer feed our spirit and imagination. We may dutifully attend services at our houses of worship, take communion, wear a skullcap, kneel toward Mecca—symbolic acts of reverence—but our prayers may have lost their vigor and the power of belief. The ring we’ve slipped on our partner’s finger to symbolically represent eternal love may no longer carry the significance it once did. For just that reason, years after their wedding, some couples renew their vows, sometimes writing their own new ones.
The New Year presents an opening to creatively explore uncharted territory in your psyche. One way to do this is by watching what images are currently appearing in your dreams. Do certain images repeat? Do they bring you peace, joy, dread, longing? If dreams are a personal inventory of our psychic processes, what might your dream images be telling you?
In the northern hemisphere, winter approaches. The landscape appears dead, but under the soil, life hibernates and prepares for new blooms. Consider what might need rest and hibernation in you. Consider that the darkness is seasonal and temporary. Consider that we, too, experience seasons and cycles. What might be preparing to bloom in you?
This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”