Times like these are challenging, and they’re likely to stir up feelings of agitation or unease within us. So it’s especially important right now to take good care of ourselves—to keep mind and body together, moment to moment, day by day.
There are of course many practices for doing this, and everyone has their favorites, like watching yourself breathe in and out, which helps to anchor your mind in the body and keep your awareness more steady and peaceful. Or we might touch the soil, place a hand on the ground, and remember that we are earth.
And today I’d like to talk about another practice that was recently brought to my attention. It’s the practice of lifting our eyes from the immediate concerns of daily life and stretching our gaze to the horizon. It’s the practice of looking toward the dawn.
Every one of us has probably watched the dawn break at one time or another. In any case, we all know how it goes. Just before dawn, everything is dark. It’s the thickest kind of darkness, too, the kind that seems like it might never lift. And if you’re outside, it’s cold as well, because the temperature of the air is bottoming out to the lowest point it will likely reach during the day.
And as you wait and look toward the east, the stars begin to dim, because ever so gradually the sky is a tiny bit lighter. The color at the horizon creeps from blue-black to blue-gray, and a haze of blue keeps washing farther and farther across the sky, chasing the stars toward the west, and one by one they disappear into a spreading pool of watery light.
The horizon brightens even more, and finally there’s that magical moment when red fire peeks above the edge of earth—first just one blazing point, then a narrow orange line. And you can’t look at it directly anymore because it is turning into a sliver of orange-red, then a semicircle, bold and bright. And after only a few more minutes, the full yellow-orange disk pops free of the horizon and sails into the sky. And a new day is under way.
This miracle takes place every morning. The blazing star that is our sun travels every day across our sky, a powerhouse of light and warmth, providing more than 99.9 percent of the energy we receive at the surface of the Earth.
We live because of the sun’s power. We follow rhythms of waking and sleeping because of the dance between Earth and sun—an eternal pas de deux of pirouettes powered by the sun and its gravity. Our precious planet exists at all because it was gathered from the same dust and gases that formed the sun, and now, after billions of years, we are enlivened, day after day, by the bright rays of that sun.
So every day that we live and breathe is a gift that we can trace to the star blazing its path through our sky. And to witness it rising in the morning is to witness the miracles of life that brought us into being. Every morning we can watch the source of our life exploding with ferocious energy as it has done for billions of Earth-years already and as it will for billions more.
To watch the sun rise is to cast one’s gaze far away to the horizon, and here is where the image of the dawn can become a source of power for our minds and hearts as well, to help buoy us through troubled times. This was brought to my attention during my contemplative time in a spirit journey, so I’d like to offer a little bit of what I learned from that journey.
A spirit journey, as I’ve mentioned before, is a kind of meditation or prayer that uses our imagination, our ability to picture things happening in our minds. And, as with all authentic prayer and meditation, a person engages in it in order to become clearer inside—to “loosen the knots of the heart” so that we’re not all tangled up in our own stuck places. That way we can be more aware of the present moment, more able to enjoy life, and more able to be of service to others and maybe be of real help in this world.
So a spirit journey is always done by connecting first with a spirit helper and taking cues from the helper so that the journey is guided by Spirit rather than by one’s own ego. Going on a spirit journey takes some openness, because you don’t know ahead of time what will happen, and you could be surprised, just as you can be in the rest of life. So I find that it’s a good way to build trust in the process of life unfolding—some trust in how each moment leads to the next.
So in this particular journey, I met up with Bear, who is my spirit helper. I use a simple process to come into the helper’s presence. I just sit in a quiet room with the door shut, and I close my eyes and turn my attention to that inner sanctum, the quiet place inside. It usually takes a few minutes to turn down the volume of daily life, and sometimes it takes quite a while.
But when I’ve gotten a little quieter inside, and I’m feeling a little less distracted and a little more open, I look around for my helper. I might bring an image of my helper to mind, which helps me grew even more focused and still inside, and before too long that image becomes stronger and I feel a sense of warm connection with the helper.
So on this particular day, when I entered the quiet and looked around for Bear, he was just standing and looking into the distance. And the light around us was very dim, almost completely dark. Bear was directing his gaze very far away toward the horizon, and I got the feeling I might want to look there too.
So I did. And he asked me what I saw. Truth was, I didn’t see very much at all, because it was dark all around us. But far in the distance I could see some pale light, and the light was growing. “It looks like dawn is breaking,” I said. “Like day is coming.”
Bear nodded, and he commented, “The horizon is where one looks to see something new coming.” I got the feeling that I need more of this—staring far away at the horizon to be inspired by the new. Bear agreed I do need more of this, because I can easily get tangled up in what’s right in front of me. He suggested it would be great for me to practice jostling myself out of my everyday concerns and coming to stare into the distance more often for inspiration. And especially to watch for a new day—to watch, as it were, for what is coming on the horizon. “Because,” he said, “even in the bleakest of times a new day is always on the horizon! Morning. Always. Comes! Something new is always coming! And to lose sight of that is to lose sight of an immense amount of power.”
We talked a few minutes longer in the journey, and the conversation was all about joining up with what is new, lining up one’s own strength with the power of the new day, metaphorically speaking. Living so that one can remember what is coming on the horizon. And making it a practice in daily life, so that every day I spend a little time lifting my gaze from what’s right at my feet in order to look a little farther ahead and make room for the new.
Bear put it this way: “To be a part of the new dawn breaking, one needs to be able to see it. Which means practicing a far view. The heart discipline is one of looking toward the dawn.”
In the days since that meditative journey, I’ve been thinking about what it means to look toward the dawn. After a journey, I find that it’s good to keep a feeling of openness about what I experienced in the journey. So I just let the images from the journey be, just let them hover around the edges of my awareness.
What I don’t do is sit down to try to figure them out, because that would be pinning a butterfly to a board. A pinned butterfly has a certain kind of beauty, and its wings still reflect some light, but it remains quite dead. So when it comes to images from a journey, it’s good to give them room to breathe and flutter about and reveal their beauty in their own way and their own time. They remain full of life then, able to work on a person and bring about change in a person, which is a real-world kind of magic.
So over the past week or so, as I’ve sat with this image of looking toward the dawn, I do notice a few things. One is that the more intense that world events get, the harder it is to train my eyes to the horizon. It’s just so easy to get caught up in the urgencies of the present moment. So, for me at least, it takes a conscious choice to lift my eyes and look far away toward the dawn.
So what happens when I do look toward the dawn?
For starters, the urgent things right in front of me shrink a little, down to a more normal size. I get a little perspective. I’m reminded of what truly matters. And when the things right in front of me are large are troubling world events, looking toward the dawn helps me remember an even bigger horizon.
I get in touch again with the source of power. As the sun is the immense source of power for our physical world, so in a metaphorical way, tracking any new life-giving forces on the horizon can help us live in alignment with their power. Can help us harness our abilities and our energies to things that give life rather than death. I mean, we often have a super-heightened ability to sniff out disasters coming down the road, and even to imagine them when they are not there. So to look toward the dawn means to train ourselves to also see positive, life-giving changes that are coming. To note the positive movements arising, and to harness our energies to their power so that they can release their life-giving force fully into the world.
I’m being intentionally vague here about details, because each of us will likely see different life-giving forces arising, and that is part of the genius in each person—to see the possibility of positive change where others might see only hardships.
But let’s take climate change as one example. Clearly it is already making life harder for many people and animals, and clearly, by continuing to burn fossil fuels, we are eroding the life-support systems of Earth and undermining our own ability to survive.
And yet a moment like this also presents undreamed-of opportunities to imagine a new world and to create fresh systems of relating to one another and to the rest of nature. And this is the positive power of the new day coming. But to be able to yoke our energies to these great new possibilities, we have to be able to see them. And that means lifting our eyes from the muck at our feet and casting our gaze to the horizon, metaphorically speaking, where a new day is coming, whether or not we have prepared for it.
This is not a plea for cheap optimism. The dawn does not usually bring miraculous changes all by itself. The world we wake up to is pretty much the same one we went to sleep in the night before. But we are different in the morning. We are more rested and have more energy for tackling what is before us.
And the coming of dawn is a daily reminder that this world is not static. Change is always developing; something new is always arising. This is what it means to live on a dynamic, evolving Earth. New unexpected elements are continually coming into being—things that were previously unknown and even unimagined. And many of those new elements hold the power to help us move in positive new directions. And if we are alert to them—if we can see them—we can take advantage of them and align ourselves with their life-giving potential.
To look toward the dawn also suggests to me that we always look toward what is actually fresh, like a new day, rather than what is old and is passing away. This can take some diligence on our part, some effort to discern what is truly new and what is just old worn-out clothing being served up in new colors.
To use climate change as an example again, there are plenty of people and groups trying to solve it in new and novel ways. I think of geoengineering plans for keeping the sun’s rays from entering the atmosphere, or seawalls getting built to keep the ocean away, or planting trees in places that were not historically forested.
But all of these approaches share a few things in common. For one thing, they all got called out this week in the new IPCC report on climate change. The new 2022 report is detailed and it’s adamant: we have to get off fossil fuels, and we need to do it in ways that build more equitable relations between people and that don’t cause more complications. Those three novel approaches that I mentioned? The new report names each of them as an example of a poorly thought-out response; each of them could easily compound our problems instead of solving them.
They are poorly thought out because each of them works against nature rather than with it. Geoengineering the sunlight out of the sky or planting forests where they haven’t grown before or building big walls of concrete to keep out the sea are all premised on the idea that we can control nature—that we have to in fact counter the forces of nature in order to survive and thrive.
This is profoundly mistaken thinking, and it’s the very thinking that got us into our current troubles. We have tried for many centuries to dominate nature, and it has brought us to the edge of a very big cliff. What we need to learn now is something brand new—something new, that is, to us in the Western world: how to be humble. How to work in harmony with nature’s power.
Audre Lorde was a Black lesbian poet and philosopher and activist, and she famously said, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” It’s true in any relationship based on domination, including our relationship with nature. The old tools never work. Lorde said they “never enable us to bring about genuine change.”
So looking toward the dawn means looking for real change, genuine change. Approaches that try to solve our problems by trying to control nature may look cutting edge, but beware: if we act now to undo the problems with the exact same mindset that we used to create them, we will likely not solve anything at all.
Looking toward the dawn also means being willing to see a more spacious view. That life-giving sense of possibility that fills us when we watch the sun rise? It is something to cultivate in every part of life. For most of us, this means being willing to step out of our own sometimes-cramped mindsets, like opening a door and leaving the cramped quarters where we often reside and stepping into something more spacious. Into something as enormous as the dawning of a new day. The sun shows an enormous face every morning. It can be a reminder that even in times of stress or trauma, we are still being fed by the enormous power of life. That life-giving light in our sky has been shining for billions of years, and it will shine for billions more. And it comes free to us every morning.
Here’s wishing for you the ability to lift your eyes to the horizon, to be filled with the power of the dawn, and to work in harmony with all that gives life.
For digging deeper
“Loosening the knots of the heart” is how the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad describes waking up or becoming enlightened:
When all the knots that strangle the heart
Are loosened, the mortal becomes immortal,
Here in this very life. (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.6)
This lovely translation is by Eknath Easwaran, The Upanishads (Nilgiri Press, 2007), 115. It’s available in all the usual places, also from Blue Mountain Center of Meditation, founded by Easwaran. For more on this passage from the Upanishads, and for a wonderful story of how a friend’s dog helped me untangle knots in my own heart, see Kissed by a Fox, chapter 9.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2022 report can be downloaded as a pdf from the IPCC website.
For a fantastic short and accessible summary of the IPCC report, see a Twitter thread available at this link, written by Kimberly Nicholas, professor of sustainability studies at Lund University in Sweden. Kim is a genius at communicating complicated ideas in simple language. Her mantra is: “It’s warming. It’s us. We’re sure. It’s bad. But we can fix it.” She writes a monthly newsletter focused on what ordinary people can do to help fix it, and her 2021 book, Under the Sky We Make: How to Be Human in a Warming World, is a must-read on how to live in ways in line up with the values that people already hold of preserving life on Earth.
Audre Lorde’s essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” appeared in her 1984 collection of essays, Sister Outsider, where she tackled issues of intersectionality. She first delivered it as a conference paper addressed to the primarily white feminists who had planned the conference, where she called sharp attention to all the differences between women that were getting pushed under the table in order to preserve conventional patterns of power. The full paragraph reads:
Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucible of difference—those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older—know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.
Sister Outsider was rereleased in 2020 by Penguin with a new foreword by Mahogany L. Browne.