Time, Space and Classical Sciences on The New Year

January 1 marks the new year for most of us, but it does not sync with anything in nature. That might be why ‘New Year’s Resolutions’ on January 1 are notoriously impossible to stick with. The Chinese New Year, on the other hand, gives us a brilliant image to help us create change in our lives.

Why January 1?

The ancient Romans had a god named Janus with two faces. One face looking to the past and one face to the future. Ends and beginnings, the sun and moon, and the passage of time. Janus was invoked at the beginning of ancient Roman rituals and was carved above doorways throughout the Republic.

This all makes Janus an natural choice to lead us into the new year in January, his namesake month.

The mythology lines up well, but that’s about all that does.

Since 46 CE, the Julian calendar (predecessor to the Georgian calendar, which today sets the tempo for the world’s business affairs), seems to have picked January 1 for one of two reasons:

    1. a religio-cultural story about a man with two faces; or,
    2. a really bad understanding of astronomy.

They might have been aiming for the winter solstice (December 20). But, in seasonal time, ten days is pretty far off the mark.

Astronomically, what’s happening closer to January 1 is something called the parhelion. The Earth goes around the sun in an eclipse, not a perfect circle. At the start of January, we are slightly closer to the sun. Very slightly. So slight that it actually has little effect on our planet.

Animals, plants, rocks, none of them care at all what day is called “New Year’s Day”. But humans do. Marking the passage of time is extremely important to us. We have a million ways to cut up time to create meaning, rhythm and pace across our lifetime: birthdays, anniversaries, weekends, summer vacation, winter holidays, graduations, marriage ceremonies.

Many of these significant events are personal. One of the few moments in time shared around the world is the new year.

A Different Beginning

I may not be able to single-handedly shift our collective new year from arbitrary January 1, but nevertheless let’s take a look at another option—one based on the most important cycle on our planet, one that may change how you think about all kinds of beginnings.

The cycles of life on Earth are deeply connected with the four seasons. Seasons are caused by the tilt of the earth’s axis, which brings the northern and southern hemispheres closer or farther form the sun. The tilt is, in turn, governed by the gravitational marriage between us and our moon.

Using the shift from one season to another to mark the new year makes a kind of obvious sense to me.

The winter solstice itself is not a bad idea, since it marks the transition from days growing shorter to days growing longer (and as daytime creatures, humans associate sunlight with life and activity.)

Many civilizations have marked the new year with spring: the emergence of new life. An easy choice rooted in real events in nature.

Most of these civilizations, ours included, have marked or still do mark the first of spring around March 20. The spring equinox is when days are as long as nights, when ice is melting and the first signs of life begin to pop up out of the ground, at least theoretically.

(My observation, and that of others in my sphere, is that climate change is pushing the start of spring in Toronto and across eastern North America back one month later in the year. It is also making seasonal transitions into a game of climatic ping pong, so the equinoxes have been pretty turbulent times the past few years.)

For ancient Chinese astronomers, scientists and scholars, the start of spring is not the equinox, but two new moons prior to that, or two moons after the winter solstice. This puts the new year deeper into what we in North America think of as “the dead of winter.”

Why start spring when it's still dark and cold?

Life begins to grow before it is visible to us. The winter solstice is the peak of winter from a solar perspective. It is the darkest day of the year. After the solstice, the yin of winter starts to wane. The first stirrings of life out of winter’s stillness begin a couple of moons later, when yang accumulates enough momentum and warmth to crack open the underground seeds.

Another way to think about it is trees. As the northern hemisphere starts to lean towards the sun, tree sap rises up out of the deep roots, past the thawing ground layer, into the trunk and finally, at the very end, into the small branches up in the sky. Only then do the buds pop and we all go, “Spring is here!”

By the time sprouts are poking out and buds appear on tree branches, life has already been moving for a while. Spring is the rising movement of nature. Spring begins as soon as fluids and nutrients (and also our spiritual and emotional focus) begin to rise up from deep winter storage.

This is one of the beautiful lessons tucked into the traditional Chinese calendar:

The beginning is always hidden

This is true of all things in nature, including in us humans. If someone erupts in anger, this expression is the result of an unseen chain reaction. Maybe it started with learning that their mother was diagnosed with cancer that morning, or from neglect as a child, or even intergenerational trauma rippling through genetically-inherited reactions and subconscious learning.

By the time you see something happening, it has actually already happened.

The expression “tip of the iceberg” is a spatial version of what I am talking about. We see a block of ice floating on the water, but what makes it an iceberg is the unseen mountain of ice underwater. The first buds in spring are the little chunk of ice sticking out from the water. But spring itself—this process of new life emerging out of the dark stillness of winter—begins under the ground.

My Tai Ji teacher, Paul McCaughey, often tries to show me this when we are sparring. When he lands a strike, it is not because his fist touched my face. He lands the strike because he shaped himself around my power, stepped to the right place, he shifted and turned and released from his center through his shoulder, his elbow, his wrist, and then, at long last, into his hand at the moment it makes contact with my face.

New Beginnings In The Acupuncture Clinic

Bringing this lesson to medicine, the Neijing tells us to find the root. In nearly every case, treat the root first. Not the manifestation, not the symptom that grabs our attention, screaming in pain or prominent skin lesions.

When someone comes into my clinic for, let’s say, seasonal allergies, I am not really interested in the sneezing, the itchy eyes or the runny nose. I want to know why this person is reacting to a normal environment in this specific way. What happened in their past or in their family history that broke their ability to adapt to seasonal change?

How did they can get from a balanced state in the past, to this specific imbalance in the present?

Most illnesses, and even many injuries and musculoskeletal pain, are like this: they do not begin in the place where they are now making the most noise.

My role as an acupuncturist is to look at the issue that brings you to my clinic, to see that issue in the context of all the dimensions of body and mind that make you you, and then to track that specific pathological movement back to its source, hidden somewhere in those dimensions, somewhere in your history, somewhere in the landscape of your body.

This is not about celebrating the Chinese new year. This is about understanding that everything we see and do begins out of sight. This is also about tying your efforts to the larger movement in nature that is already doing what you hope to do. Why try to generate something new when everything in nature is quiet and still?

Be patient on that new year’s resolution. Give it a try when the rest of nature begins to wake up.

Henry Claflin

Henry is an acupuncturist, herbalist, martial artist and writer. He practices in the Queen West area of Toronto, Ontario.

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