The Grief Stone

grief stone

When I was going through some very bad times at the turn of the century, I was reading way too much about depression and madness (Health Tip: that doesn’t help) and I came across a brief reference to a Native American belief in the use of “grief stones.”

I didn’t do any deep research into it but decided to give it a try. The idea was that you selected a small stone into which you would rub your grief.  Focus on the negativity, problem or grief and rub it into the stone. The stone I chose was smooth river rock and I used my thumb to rub it. When you feel that you have transferred those feelings into the stone, you bury the stone in the ground where the bad energy will slowly dissipate.

I know how “new age” that sounds. Did I believe it? I guess I was willing to believe it at that point. After a week, I felt better and I dug up the stone. Maybe I was supposed to find a new stone, but I was comfortable with this one.

Perhaps, my improvement had nothing to do with the stone. Science would say that it had nothing to do with it. But I carried the stone with me and rubbed it when things were bad. I buried it again and waited for things to seem better. That took a few weeks. I dug it up again and kept it in my car.

I began a practice of leaving work and rubbing into the stone anything bad that had happened during the day. I did that for two years before I felt that I had packed as much into that stone as it could hold. I had actually worn away a very comfortable groove in that stone with my thumb which I found pretty remarkable. 

I buried the stone a few times again in the woods nearby because I didn’t want the grief to dissipate too near home. I left it there for a season, dug it up, and put it back in the car. It is still there, but I rarely use it. It’s more of a reminder of what had happened to me back then.

This past week I did some searching online for grief stones. I didn’t find much more than I had found back in 2001. There were sites selling grief stones, which bothered me for some reason. I found stones called “Apache Tears” that are said to be good for “transmuting one’s own negativity under stressful situations.” It is a dark black stone of obsidian and when held up to the light appears somewhat transparent. I read that some people claim that when the grief one feels goes into the stone, it turns opaque.

I claim no special powers for my stone. I don’t even know what kind of stone it is. What I believe happened is that the practice of rubbing the stone and thinking about the grief, worry, sorrow, pain, anger, or whatever it was at that moment that was bothering me was what had some effect. Recognize it, process it, and try to dismiss it. More psychology than sorcery.

I did find a reference to the grief stone on a site about art therapy. In this practice, you create a stone to represent the pain, memory, and emotion and bury it. I also found the recommendation to cleanse the bad energy in a stone by burying it in a crystal bowl of sea salt or placing it in a stream or into the ocean.

But I don’t think you need a special stone or a special cleansing. A stone that feels comfortable in the hand and the burying is as much ritual as you need.

Do I still use the stone? No, things are pretty good right now. Do I think the stone still holds some of the negativity? No. Did it ever? I know I held some negativity and it went away. Coincidence?

I still have the stone in the car. I hope I won’t need it again, but it’s there. The ground around where I buried it is green and growing. My grief didn’t kill everything nearby.

Everyone has days when you need to stop for just a bit, focus on what is causing negativity, and try to rub it into some other place outside of you and those you love. It might take a long time to rub out all that grief. It might take many more days for the grief to be neutralized.

Listening To Stones

Desert Rose Labyrinth

Some years ago, I discovered the work of Dan Snow. He builds with stone things practical and artistic. He builds stone walls without using mortar or other binding material. They call that ancient method “dry-stone.”

A few decades ago, I built a twenty-foot stone wall along my own driveway with the help of one of my sons. It is nothing like Snow’s work and I make no claims to “art.” I bought my stones;in six unnatural sizes. I secured them with adhesive cement.

It took me more than a week to dig out the bed for the wall from a small slope. Then I had to create a base. The most enjoyable, frustrating, and almost artistic part was arranging and rearranging the stones for balance, aesthetics, and strength.

It was the kind of process that some people might describe as a “Zen” experience. I have spent some time studying Zen, and I don’t really like it when people attach the word to other practices, such as the Zen of tennis. But I know why people attach Zen to certain experiences. It means that they find some mindful, insightful, almost spiritual connection to the practice.

This gives us the Zen of: writing, gardening, running, building a wall  etc. John Stewart had The Daily Show’s “Moment of Zen” video clips. CBS Sunday Morning does a concluding ambient sound video minute that might be described as a moment of Zen.

I bought two of Dan Snow’s books. In the Company of Stone is full of photos of his landscape projects. Many have an “ancient” look, and if you passed by them, you might think it had been there for a century or more. I couldn’t find any images that I can reproduce here but look at the gallery on his website.  His “Star Shrine” recognizes that people in the past sometimes made places for the worship of celestial objects that had fallen to Earth. I like some of his phrases like “heaving and hewing” stone and “gravity as glue.”

My friend, Hugh, has a cabin in Maine on a pond (in New Jersey it would be a lake) that he bought decades ago. I remember the first time we visited the place many years ago (before I built my driveway wall) he showed me a winding stone wall he was working on that led from the cabin down the slope to the water. He had been working on it for several years and it was still far from done. He told me he worked on it every summer while they were there – collecting stones in the woods and from the pond and river. I didn’t understand at the time why he was making so little progress. I understand now. Hugh is a real artist and I doubt that Hugh ever wants to finish that wall.

Dan Snow is a good writer too. He writes about the natural world and our relationship to it well. His prose is sometimes compared to John McPhee and Annie Dillard. I like both of those authors and they are worth posts of their own.

Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, is still in the top five on my non-fiction list, but the book of that comes to mind today is Teaching a Stone to Talk. I read it more than 25 years ago and I found the meditations there both enlightening and frustrating. It contains essays written about the arctic, the jungle, the Galapagos, and one of my favorites about a cabin in the woods. For me, Annie Dillard’s writing is all about close and mindful observation. Take this excerpt:

“The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. Their every detail of stem, head and blade shone lightness and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print. This color has never been seen on earth. The hues were metallic; their finish was matte. The hillside was a 19th century tinted photograph from which the tints have faded… The sky was navy blue. My hands were silver.”

Writing is like building with stone. You set the words one against the other trying to create the strongest structure and still have some beauty. I find writing poetry to be much closer to that mindful building than writing an essay or a blog post. Still, I hope my essays and posts occasionally enter that place.) Revising is like sculpture where you subtract and carve away at to reveal the form.

Dan Snow likens his process to alchemy. I find his second book,   Listening to Stone, more poetic and thoughtful. His work goes far beyond walls – stand-alone sculpture, fences, pillars, staircases, arches, grottoes, pavilions, and causeways. He also combines stone, wood, and metal into many of the sculptures.

Snow started back in 1972 working on an Italian castle restoration, and his stone wall career began four years later. In 1986 and 1994, he apprenticed (a sadly lost word and practice) with Master craftsmen “wallers” in the British Isles. It took thirteen years fo him to achieve his Master Craftsman certificate.

I may need to have some formal study in all this. I definitely need to listen more often to the stones.

Further Reading
Dan Snow’s “In the Company of Stone” blog
Annie Dillard’s quirky official site

Slipping Into the Winter Solstice


Paradelle slips into Winter this Thursday when the sun stands still. Well, not really, but the word solstice is from the Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still). The sun won’t stand still on December 21st, but the winter solstice occurs at the instant when the Sun’s position in the sky is at its greatest angular distance on the other side of the equatorial plane from the observer’s hemisphere.

The December solstice will occur at 05:30 ( 5:30am) Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) on December 22, 2011. It is the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere and the summer solstice in the southern hemisphere due to the seasonal differences. The winter solstice always occurs sometime between December 21 and December 22 each year in the northern hemisphere (it depends on the shift of the calendar), and between June 20 and June 21 in the southern hemisphere.

It literally only lasts an instant, but most people mark the entire day on which it occurs as the solstice.

Solstices have significance is several ways. First, there is the seasonal significance of the winter solstice. Though many people see it as the start of winter and view it as sort of depressing (as compared to summer), in many cultural celebrations, it was seen as an optimistic sign. The gradually lengthening nights and shortening days actually will begin to reverse after this point. So, get happy!

This shortest day or longest night of the year is interpreted differently from culture to culture. There are many winter solstice observances around the world.


Though we can’t be sure, the solstice probably had significance even for people in neolithic times. Since all the seasonal astronomical events have an influence on the mating of animals and the appearance or disappearance of plants and resources in nature, solstices (which they probably did not mark accurately as a “day”) certainly would have affected their conservation of food reserves and then the sowing of crops.

Solstices are one of the oldest known holidays in human history. Anthropologists believe that solstice celebrations go back at least 30,000 years. Celebrations predate when humans were farming on a large scale, so this goes beyond harvest festivals.

The remains of sites such as Stonehenge in Britain and New Grange in Ireland show that the primary axes of both of these monuments are aligned to pinpoint the precise date of the solstice. New Grange points to the winter solstice sunrise and the winter solstice sunset is aligned at Stonehenge.

This was seen as the time when Virgin mothers give birth to sacred sons. That’s not just the birth of Jesus Christ, which is the best known and most celebrated, but Rhiannon to Pryderi, Isis to Horus and Demeter to Persephone. The birth of Horus was celebrated about December 23, shortly after the solstice, the time of Osiris’s final entombment. At this time of the year, Isis and Nephthys were said to have circled the shrine of Osiris seven times, symbolizing their mourning and search for his scattered body parts.

January to April were famine months, so a solstice festival before the tough times would include the slaughter of livestock. This may have once had ceremonial/sacrifice significance, but also had a practical point – because they would not have to be fed during the winter. Plus, wine and beer made during the year was fermented and ready for drinking at this time.

In Greek mythology, the gods and goddesses met on the winter and summer solstice. Those were probably some great parties.

Last year, we had both the Winter Solstice and a Full Moon occurring on the same day. In 2009, we had a Full Moon to end the year December 31 that was also the second full moon of the month and so it was a “Blue Moon.”

It is the shortest day of the year in that the length of time between sunrise and sunset is the shortest and the longest night.

Of course, if you believe that humans have any control over Time, then daylight saving time means that the first Sunday in April only has 23 hours, and the last Sunday in October has 25 hours. Of course, the heavens (if not the gods) laugh at this civilized hubris.

From the scientific side, as the Earth travels around the Sun, the north-south position of the Sun changes over the course of the year and that changing orientation of the Earth’s tilted axes with respect to the Sun. When we arrive at the points of maximum tilt (marked at the equator), we get the summer and winter solstice.

Navel Gazing

buddha5Since the dawn of time, the navel has been the focus of some reflective form of philosophical contemplation known as omphalopsychism.

Why do people stare on their navel? Maybe it is because the navel literally represents the location of their birth. Maybe it is because that’s just where your eye falls when your head drops during meditation.

I think of the Buddha’s navel. I’m guessing that he did quite a bit of navel gazing.

The navel is also called the umbilicus or omphalodium or just the belly button. Of course, it is scar tissue from where the umbilical cord was originally attached. That’s a pretty serious and symbolic connection.

Today, we also use the expression “navel gazing” to mean self-contemplation.

Obviously, thinking about yourself is important. Know thyself. This ancient Greek aphorism was inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi – according to the Greek Pausanias. It has been attributed to Chilon of Sparta, Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Socrates and others. Not so important to us.

Delphi was the site of the Delphic oracle, the most important oracle in the classical Greek world, when it was a major site for the worship of the god Apollo after he slew the Python, a deity who lived there and protected the navel of the Earth. The site was considered the center of the earth, represented by a stone, the omphalos or navel, which Python guarded.

So what was it telling those who entered the temple to do? Perhaps, it simply meant (though not simply accomplished) that if you can understand yourself, you can understand other humans as well.

Then again, most of those ancient Greek philosophers thought that no man can ever comprehend the human spirit and thought thoroughly. So, were they asking the impossible? Were they more simply saying that we should each know our habits, morals, temperament, and other aspects of our very human behavior that we deal with every day.

Another, more mystical, interpretation focuses on “thyself” as meaning the ego within self, the I AM consciousness.

Rodin's Le Penseur (The Thinker) at the Musée Rodin
Rodin's Le Penseur (The Thinker) at the Musée Rodin

I don’t know of any official navel gazing groups around today, but omphalopsychite groups have existed throughout history. I was reading about the Hesychasts, a sect of quietists who (from c.AD 1050) practiced gazing at the navel to induce a hypnotic reverie. The Hesychasts believed that through a rigorous regime of asceticism, devotion, and deep contemplation of the body, a mystic light (the uncreated divine light of God) could be seen. Based on Christ’s injunction in the Gospel of Matthew to “go into your closet to pray,”  Hesychasts practiced retiring inward by ceasing to register the senses, in order to achieve an experiential knowledge of God.

Today, we also use the expression “navel gazing” to mean something negative – the excessive introspection, self-absorption, or concentration on yourself or on a single issue. Too much of a good thing.

With the more widespread use of mental health therapies, you can easily see both definitions at work. First, you must know yourself and examine your own behaviors in order to recognize what is causing your problems. But, become too deeply involved in that looking inward and you will no doubt need more therapy and medication.

As with so much else, a question of balance…

Deeper Gazing

Quietism (philosophy) and as a Christian philosophy

Rodin’s Le Penseur (The Thinker) at the Musée Rodin

Stonehenge Do It Yourself

Wally Wallington  in Michigan thinks he has figured out how the Druids were able to move those massive blocks of stone to build Stonehenge. No joke. Pretty incredible basic engineering.

He demonstrates that he can lift a Stonehenge-sized pillar weighing 22,000 lbs and moved a barn over 300 feet himself using  gravity and  ingenuity.