Winter's Wisdom

By Jeanne Mackey

(Jeanne Mackey is a singer/songwriter and workshop leader. Her essay "Field Notes from an Elder-in-Training" was featured in our September through December 2015 issue.)   

Putting a positive spin on winter in Michigan is a bit of a hard sell. Our winters can be bleak, what with the gray skies and long nights. And I've got the audacity to suggest that you greet winter by slowing down and engaging in solitary reflection—at what is arguably the busiest time of the year. What was I thinking? Well, it's all about choice and attention. The choice to shift our attention in the midst of frenetic activity could bring magical moments of connection to winter's essence.

In the natural world, life moves in cycles. There are cycles of seasons, of a day, a relationship, a life. There are times when energy is on the rise, and times when it is falling. As you have undoubtedly noticed, we are experiencing descent! The earth’s energy is moving downward and inward. Darkness falls by dinnertime. Not much is growing. The trees have dropped their leaves. If we didn't know better, we would think they are dying. And our bodies respond with fear at some cellular level. Despite our civilized surroundings, we retain the primal knowledge that we could die out there in the cold.

But the trees are not dying. They are shedding what they no longer need and pulling vital energy down into their trunks and roots. Life is held internally and underground. Plants rest in winter, gathering potency so they can burst forth when the time is right. The cold and dark allow them to gather power for an energetic start in spring.

In the five elements system of traditional Chinese medicine, winter is a time of deep listening—to ourselves, to Spirit, to silence. Winter is a great time to allow ourselves to dream without committing to action—to simply take pleasure in visions of what might be. It is a time of inquiry and uncertainty, which may evoke doubts and hard questions: "Am I living the life I want to live? Or am I playing to the crowd, trying to look good?" Hopefully we can learn, as Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in his "Letters to A Young Poet", to "be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves..."

It is easier to see the essence of things in this season. The trees are no longer shielded by their leaves, so we can see their fundamental structure. It may be a time when we can see our own true nature more clearly. That feels true to me on a personal level. Now in the winter of my life, I find opportunities to live more authentically. The lessons are not always gentle ones, but they offer greater freedom.

So how does all this honoring of the season fit with modern culture? Truth be told, it doesn't! The period between Thanksgiving and New Years' is notoriously overscheduled, between socializing, shopping, family, and work. We expect ourselves to go full tilt, 24-7-365. And yet nature reminds us of ebb and flow. What is full will one day be empty. Each of us must face times of darkness and not-knowing.

Approaching winter in a more balanced, harmonious way could start with a shift in attention—even for just a moment. Pause to appreciate the silhouette of bare trees against the setting sun, or the honk of wild geese overhead. Stay warm. Spend time in silence. Take a walk that's more about experience than exercise. Watch an entire sunset or sunrise. Sit in nature and watch wildlife. Take a long, soaking bath. Watch and listen to water. Look at the stars. Sleep when you are tired. No matter where we come from, it is likely that our ancestors gathered around a fire and told stories. We can draw on their wisdom, even if the fire is a flickering candle. There's a reason that so many religious traditions in this season celebrate images of light in the midst of darkness.

As we descend into the sacred dark, I wish you strong dreams and deep peace. May each of us find times of solitude, rest, and contemplation. May we discover ways to explore the fertile darkness and make friends with silence, knowing that a good winter means a strong spring. Imagine how much force it takes for a seed to break out of its casing and push through the soil to reach the sun. If we truly allow ourselves to restore and replenish ourselves in winter, we will have the strength to burst forth in the spring with restored energy, clear vision, and a sense of purpose. So may it be!


To learn more about Jeanne Mackey's workshops and music, visit umich.edu/~mackeyj. Jeanne's band, Harmony Bones (with Laszlo Slomovits, Tom Voiles, Linda Teaman, and Eric Fithian), will play at the Crazy Wisdom Tearoom on Friday, December 11. 


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Posted on November 30, 2015 .