Cleansing and Renewal: Rituals for Welcoming the New Year

Winter Waterfall for Cleansing and renewing blog post


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.

The god Marduk for cleansing and renewal blog post

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 Something in us wants a chance to be cleansed of accumulated debris—outdated ideas, stale habits, outgrown beliefs.

Japanese character Sho Shin for Cleansing and Renewal blog postIn 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.

The dragon Nian for Cleansing and Renewal blog postIf 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.

New Year’s Eve postcard from 1911 for Cleansing and Renewal blog postThe 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 

Whither Spring?


What’s on my mind these days is spring, SPRING! shouted in capital letters into the milky-white March sky. My call and response goes like this:

Dale: Spring, are you there?

Melodious Spring replies: I’m here. I’m on my way.

Dale: Jeez. Can you hurry? Tulips, daffodils, warblers—PLEASE!

Laura Rock Art Cape York Australia-645518-rock-art-thomas-georgeAm I the first human on my knees beseeching the heavenly spheres? Not likely. How reassuring, how intimidating and yet AWE-some must it have been for our primordial ancestors to converse with the vast Divine. How comforting to feel the abiding presence of cyclical time, the predictability of seasons, the endurance of species assured and unquestioned, the shifting angles of the sun and the pull of the moon felt in one’s bones.

TCOL ppbk_hi-res And I have to admit to another reason I want it to be warm and inviting everywhere. The new paperback edition of The Conditions of Love will be sprouting on bookshelves come May. In the book world, paperback editions are truly thought of as a new life for a book. May this be so for TCOL, and may it reach many new readers here and abroad. I’ve just added links to the pre-order pages for the paperback on my home and book pages, if the mood strikes you. [Nudge. Nudge. Wink. Wink.]

But back to Spring! As far as I can tell, in the Midwest its span has been shrinking for decades. Last year the ice wasn’t out on our north woods lake until mid-June, almost a month later than usual, the chill air suddenly bolting into summer. This rapid-shift forty-to-eighty degrees seasonal pattern forces buds to mature and unfurl with unprecedented quickness. lake_ice_melt_sunset11_7463 Gnats and no-see-ums whirl in knots while islands of ice still pattern the woods. The change in weather is kind of freaky, gut-deep alarming, as is the disappearance of frogs in our shallows. But what to do except shrug, sigh, stay green, pray?

Delayed or not, at least we still have seasons. Just this morning I hung a bird feeder filled with fresh thistle seed and the next time I looked, two lovely goldfinches, a bright yellow male and a muted female were plucking at seeds.

Spring feels like a season of surprises, maybe because it lifts the mind into imagining possibilities. sunflower-crow-kathleen-a-johnson That the rose bush will sprout its pinky buds is no surprise, but what volunteer weed or flower will pop up near the spruce? Two years ago my front yard was adorned with giant sunflowers of varying russet and gold hues undoubtedly sown by crows from a nearby farm. The whole concept of renewal, of starting again, of rebirth ushers in hope that has thinned during long, gray winter days.

Spring is going to be a busy time for me, an exciting time. I’m so honored to be one of the keynote speakers at University of Wisconsin-Madison Writer’s Institute Conference (April 4-6). You can view the program here. I’ll also be meeting privately with students and teaching a poetry workshop.

In May, I’ve been invited to be the featured speaker at the Friends of the Madison Public Library’s 17th Annual Book Club Café on Thursday, May 22 at 7 pm. This will take place in the gorgeous Olbrich Botanical Gardens amid tea and desserts.

I’ll be writing more about these later. For now, I’d like to recommend a poem very much of the almost-but-not-quite-yet season by my friend and one of my favorite poets, Jack Ridl, “Here in the Time Between.”  Here’s a tease from it:

Here in the time between snow
and the bud of the rhododendron,
we watch the robins, look into

the gray, and narrow our view
to the patches of wild grasses
coming green. . . .