I used to look at solstices and equinoxes as purely physical events. I was skeptical about attributing any deeper meaning to them.

Even having studied meditation, mysticism, and the esoteric for about nine years, it’s only a relatively short time ago that I’ve begun to explore and understand the profound meaning and majesty of events in the sky.

I’d like to share my reflections and experiences here

The Solar Cycle

Every year — from the perspective of a terrestrial dweller — the sun completes an annual journey around the earth.

It is “born” on the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. It ascends as the days lengthen. On the Spring Equinox, day and night are in balance, after which the sun continues to strengthen as the days grow longer. This culminates in the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year, and then the sun begins to decline again as the days grow shorter.

The Autumn or Fall Equinox, which this year is celebrated today, September 23, is the fourth point in this solar pattern — the point at which the day and night are once again equal. After this point, the sun continues to wane and the days shorten as we proceed towards the barren times of winter.

The Solstices and Equinoxes Through History

In ancient times across many cultures, these solar occurrences held immense importance. The physical significance of these events as signals of the seasons and their connection to planting and harvesting is one explanation for this importance — one that is comfortable for us moderns to accept.

But the solstices and equinoxes were not celebrated as purely physical events. They also held enormous ritual and spiritual meaning in many cultures. The life cycle of the sun finds its parallel in the lives of solar deities and spiritual figures around the world and in the mythologies of societies spanning time and place.

Such practices are fascinating to study, but they can still easily be framed as simple sun worship by primitive peoples. It is intellectually unpopular to even suggest that any objective, universal meaning lies beneath the ancient myths, and that the symbols, figures, and rituals might be far more connected than we suppose.

How can we make sense of it all today?

The Solstices and Equinoxes for Mystics

For mystics, the cycles of the sun have their own special significance. Going back to their most ancient origins, the various myths and rituals surrounding the solar journey are reflective of a universal process of spiritual change: the ascendency from the material to the spiritual, the struggle against inner darkness, and the victory of spiritual light.

This is a process that mystics aim to experience within themselves, on a personal level. It’s a universal process, not owned by any place or time but having clear and unique manifestations in many cultures throughout history. These ancient cultures — of Egypt, India, Sumer, Greece, Rome, Peru, Mexico, and so on — had within them people that understood this inner spiritual journey. They saw it being reflected in the heavens themselves.

And at the center of these cultures, we can find many ancient monuments that align with the solstices and equinoxes, built with such enormous effort and immense precision. How these feats of engineering even took place is still unclear to modern science. (For a useful summary of some of these sacred monuments, you can check out this article on Ancient Sacred Sites and the Autumn Equinox.)

It can be difficult as a contemporary person to understand the need for these monuments and even harder to grasp the underlying spiritual meaning they communicate. To do this, we need to understand the mystical meaning of the solar cycle, and today in particular, the Autumn Equinox — an event which recognizes the spiritual descent into darkness.

The Meaning of the Autumn Equinox

Note: much of this section is inspired by an article I read on The Spiritual Meaning of the Autumn Equinox from a modern mystic's perspective, but I wanted to summarize it and add my own reflections as a simple student of mysticism. I’d encourage anyone interested to read the articles linked to for a more in-depth exploration.

To me, the Autumn Equinox stands out as an event relating to darkness and death. Many spiritual philosophies today focus on light and happiness, but it seems to me there is a gap when it comes to understanding darkness and evil.

Whatever your views, darkness and evil undeniably exist in the world — in others and within ourselves. This is our inner starting point as students of mysticism and the esoteric.

We begin as flawed and imperfect people. Our thoughts and emotions are influenced by anger and hatred, greed and jealousy, intolerance and pride. This happens in ways large and small, in the simple irritations and worries we experience in daily life and in the bouts of sadness, anxiety, and even depression that are far too common.

From my understanding and experience of mysticism, the spiritual process involves inner transformation and change of a very tangible and practical kind.

It’s about changing the way we think, feel, and act in the small, everyday things of life. It’s about experiencing something spiritual during the mundane and even during the painful events we go through. It’s about descending into the darkness – not to embrace it, but to understand it, to fight it, and to vanquish it, leaving the light of the spiritual in its place.

The seeds of the harvest have to die for future crops to be born (a symbolic connection with seeds, wheat, and barley has been retained in many surviving equinox ceremonies). Similarly, the season of death and darkness that begins with the Autumn Equinox is reflective of a descent into inner darkness and an inner death that also leads to an inner birth.

To quote from the article referenced above,
The mystic walking the path must descend into the Abyss to face their own inner darkness—the evil of the egos and subconscious—to prepare for the birth of the god of light within, celebrated at the winter solstice.
In my own internal studies, I have seen some of these truths first hand, in an incipient way. I once wondered how this kind of spirituality fit in to a world that seemed alien to it and concerned with other things. Studying the equinoxes and solstices has helped me see that this is not fully true. To students of mysticism, the path of spiritual awakening is woven into the very fabric of the universe and revealed all around us. But we only recognize it if we move ourselves into alignment with these cosmic rhythms.

The Mother Goddess

With this in mind, the emphasis on death in ceremonies surrounding the Autumn Equinox resonates on a few levels. The purely physical death that happens in the world as we approach winter mirrors the need for inner death of the darkness and passions within, in preparation for the birth of the spiritual that occurs symbolically with the Winter Solstice.

Death and destruction may seem antithetical to spirituality in some views, but historically we can find the symbolism and imagery of God as destroyer appearing in many places.

One of the best known examples is the goddess Kali in Hindu mythology, who’s role as Mother Goddess is explained in this article:
The divine mother goddess, symbolized as a female of great power, is a feminine aspect of each person’s own spiritual being. She has different roles, but in the autumn equinox her role as the one who fights alongside the mystic and destroys their egos, with her connections to death and the underworld, is most prominent. This is most clearly portrayed in an aspect of the Divine Mother found in the depictions of the Hindu goddess Kali (not to be confused with the demon Kali) meaning “she who destroys,” who brandishes a weapon in her hands which beheads numerous demons. Her hands are bloodied and the heads of her enemies hang around her neck. Her enemies are the egos of the mystic, and she fights them within the person working to change. Kali is said to inhabit a cremation ground, which is the place where the egos are killed and destroyed in alchemical fire.
The incredible range of imagery displaying the Mother Goddess in her destroyer aspect can be seen in this video, which features a spiritual mantra that is also related to the Equinox.

The Equinox Ceremony

Having all this in mind is one thing, but it is another to actively do something to connect with the solar drama that is taking place.

On the one hand I find this can be daunting, as the depth and mystery of these things are not easy to understand without a corresponding depth of experience. And yet by taking the steps to commemorate solar events using mystical ceremonies, I’ve found we can gain insight, inspiration, and strength that lead us towards that experience.

With that in mind, I’ll be participating in an Equinox Ceremony this evening for the first time.

Some of it may seem weird, some of it may seem wonderful, but I do find that even with the experience that I have, I can understand much of the meaning and symbolism behind it. It is not an arbitrary or strange ritual to me, but something profound, even though much of it is beyond my ken.

The heart of mystical practice is internal, and is usually invisible and unnoticed by everyone else. But in this case I’ll be enacting the mystical with a physical ritual, something to both recognize and make concrete the spiritual process that is part of reality.

I look forward to exploring this, and for those that are interested, I wish you all a reflective and spiritual Autumn Equinox.