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Autumnal Equinox Day (秋分の日)

zen garden in autumn

Regardless of whether today or in the past, people who work and live close to nature are more aware of the constant change in duration of day and night. This helps them align with the natural flow, and opens an easier access to understanding the natural processes of the ever - changing balance between opposites, between light and dark, between negative and positive forces in nature, between yin and yang.

Twice a year, when the Sun and all of its planetary companions move, the Earth encounters points where day and night are about the same length, and where equilibrium of light and darkness is reached. These days are known as the equinox: the vernal or spring equinox and the autumnal or fall equinox.

For those living in the Northern Hemisphere the autumnal equinox occurs this year between the 23rd and 24th of September, marking the astronomical arrival of autumn. Although celebrated from the earliest times around the world, this event often goes unnoticed by most modern humans and its original meaning is lost. Nevertheless, a certain spiritual context of equinox has been preserved to this day.

The celebration of the equinox in Zen Buddhism is known as the Ohigan, which literally means “the other shore” or passing to the other side and reaching the “shore of enlightenment”. Zen Buddhists use this opportunity to contemplate on, and practice six paramitas: generosity, morality, perseverance, concentration, meditation and wisdom, which are symbolic “boats” that can take us to “the other shore”.

Thus, equinox is used as a great occasion for spiritual practice and is considered as the right time to contemplate on transience and embrace ascending darkness. Since darkness is always associated with death, as nights get longer, an opportunity to face the thoughts of death presents itself, offering the chance to see death, as it is - a constant companion on our way. By accepting this reality, our journey is transformed and we learn to travel lightly and without fear.

To travel lightly means taking good care of our entire existence. To do this, we must approach life with full awareness. Only then can we see all the weight that we carry with us, and only then can we learn to let go of everything that is harmful or not needed. Symbolically, we learn to get reeds of anything that damages the boat that carries us across the river of life, or in other words, we learn to let go.

Autumnal equinox is the time when we harvest what we have sown and cultivated in the past seasons: ideas, dreams, relationships, love, our bodies, family, friends and much more. It is also our reminder to rebalance our body-mind-spirit that gets easily scattered in today’s modern culture that has conditioned us to a fast-paced-never-stopping attitude to life.

Unfortunately, a natural transition into darkness is nowadays covered with artificial light, which prevents aligning with the rhythm of nature. The cities are buzzing without interruption and at any time of the day or night someone is busy doing something that seems important to their personal or global prosperity. A steady light and internal and external noise keep people awake, even when the rest is needed. Many can only fall asleep after taking sleeping pills or relaxants; others can only stay awake with the help of stimulants. Our bodies and minds are constantly busy, and natural switches designed to run our system down for proper recovery are increasingly losing their functionality. We are no longer able to decelerate, which causes various stress related disorders.

Equinox is a nature’s call to slow down our raging activities and take time to rest and reflect inwardly. If we listen to it, autumn will greet us with the vegetation that is increasingly fading as winter approaches. A sacred truth that says that we really do not differ from a tree or any other existence on this Earth is revealed. What is different is only our resistance to accept natural changes what causes great pain and suffering not only in us, but also in our environment, to which we are connected by visible and invisible threads.

Our alienation from nature blinds us to the beauty of our own aging and maturing. We are denying our own mortality, yet the colorful splendor of the dying leaves under our feet and in treetops fill us with peaceful joy. If we contemplate on it, we will realize that it is only fear that prevents us from seeing the beauty of every moment and in every event. We overlook the fact that there is no difference between the joyous beauty of the birth in spring, the ripening in summer and the visible transition to death in autumn.

As we watch the trees begin to drive the juice into its roots at this time of year, and animals begin to store food for the winter or to prepare for hibernation, we are also invited to align with nature. It is time for us to prepare for the coming cold season by slowing down and turning focus on internal cultivation. Being one with nature, we also find ourselves, in the transition from expansion to contraction. This challenges us to gather all our physical, mental and emotional energies and store them for the future shift in activity and energy.

Autumn invites us to enter our sacred inner space and seek refuge in the silence. There, in the stillness of our essence, we can discern the true nature of darkness and death, and - the fear disappears.

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