Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Wisdom of Winter

Just as each of the seasons of our lives – infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, old age – bring their own challenges and rewards, so too each season of the year offers an opportunity to shift into deeper awareness and align our lives with the larger forces around us. Every season is an invitation to reorient ourselves to the wider world, and as the world changes around us, we too are changed.

Winter is subtle – it hides its treasures beneath a blanket of cold, grey stillness. It reminds us that nothing is ever known by its surface alone. We have to go deeper. And nothing invites us so powerfully into the depths of our own lives as the wisdom of winter.

Slow down. Winter teaches us to move differently. In the rain and snow we change our pace. Slipping and falling on ice is sudden – the first sign of trouble is your skull smacking the ground and your groceries skittering down the driveway. Haste does indeed make waste, and not just the spilt milk. Rushing ahead to some imagined goal, we miss the ordinary perfection of the here and now. Why we are so eager to abandon this now moment in exchange for an illusion is a mystery wise women and men have been pondering for eons. Even though it is counterintuitive and paradoxical, all our best evidence points to the fact that slowing down gets us farther.

Withdraw. In winter, plants and trees draw their energy down and into the roots. They drop their blossoms and leaves and take on a dull, dusky hue. No longer concerned with outer growth and attracting attention, they shift inward and settle down for a long, slow period of stillness. Safe in the knowledge that a far-away spring will one day awaken them from their dream world, they rest peacefully, nested where they stand. Winter is also a good time to drop our busyness, pull back from the realm of achievement, and retire from the ceaseless competition that normally characterizes our lives. It’s O.K. if you don’t answer every email, voice mail and text message. Your silence is answer enough for now.

Take comfort in simple things. The days grow short and the nights grow long. Cold winds bring rain and snow clouds from the north. Walking through your neighborhood in the falling darkness you see the lights of home and the smoke from the chimney trailing out across the stars. On the porch you kick the snow off your boots and inside you hang your coat on the hook by the door. The smell of the soup rises up like a prayer of thanks to the earth and you let it soften your heart and unwind the last coils of your busy mind. You break bread with the ones you love by the fire. No Taj Mahal or Palace of Versailles could possibly compare with the joy and comfort of your own four walls. A hot bath, a warm bed and clean sheets are all you need to ever know about heaven.

Learn how to wait. Winter places everything on hold. Time slows down to a crawl. It’s dark most of the time. There’s nothing you can do to change any of this. The bulbs of spring lay dormant under a blanket of snow. It takes some imagination to see a white snowfield as a colorful meadow of columbine, but that’s what it is – the two contrasting conditions separated only by time. Winter withers our demands by simply waiting them out. Winter helps us leave behind our tiny orbits of craving and satiation by lifting us into the infinitely generative cycles of the natural world. As we surrender to the larger forces around us we are liberated from our small-minded petulance. We let go of me-time and enter into the grace of eternity.

Learn how to trust. A hibernating bear surrenders to a deep unconsciousness, trusting in the safety of its cave. We too can learn to trust, safe in the knowledge that the wheel of the heavens is turning without our anxious interference. Trust is an opportunity waiting for us within the core of each moment. Religious people call it faith. Simply put, it is the consciousness of optimism – the knowledge that despite current appearances, the universe is by nature an abundant field of unlimited possibility. Contrary to popular usage, faith is not believing in things for which we have no evidence. Faith is a way of being in the world, an empty-handed acquiescence into the wonder of it all, a deep and joyful knowing that we absolutely belong here. Faith is the simple-hearted recognition that despite all the temporary set backs, in the long run the universe is conspiring in our favor.

Renew and restore. In winter the earth and all her energies turn inward because without this necessary time of rest, the bursting forth of spring and the bounteous fruition of summer would not be possible. Winter and summer are not two separate things – they are two points on one circle. The circle cannot be broken anywhere without damaging it everywhere. Taking the time to rest and restore your body, mind and soul is an essential and often-overlooked aspect of our productive creativity. It is literally true that sometimes the most productive thing you can do is nothing.

Let silence speak. In winter the world lies muted under a blanket of silence. The raucous frenzy of the spring mating season is months away. A few remaining birds stare silently from their frozen perches, their coal-black eyes set deep in their ruffled faces. The voices of hidden springs are muffled beneath thick drifts of snow. Only a faint wisp of wind high in the pines reminds us just how silent it really is. In our own lives, winter calls us away from the clatter and clamor of the world of commerce and so-called productivity, and invites us into the wide open space of our own weariness. We sit bone-tired on the bus, or stuck in rush hour traffic. We wait for the light to change. We stand in the driveway under a full-moon sky and taste tomorrow’s rain on the wind. We are inspired by the unexpected kinship we feel with these fellow travelers all just trying to go home, and with this moon, and with this wind, and with tomorrow’s rain. And we have no words, no clever thoughts with which to frame all of this unmediated experience. It feels right not to talk. Winter has shown us how. And in the silence we hear the words that can never be spoken, the melody that can never be sung, and the knowing that can never be grasped. And in that moment we are amazed, and we know now how to go on.

Winter gives us all of these things and asks for nothing in return. It doesn’t need anything. In fact, it is busy letting go of what little it has. And in the letting go there is a great freedom, a great emptiness, and great openness and a great clarity. We have only to slow down, wait, trust and feel ourselves awakening to the wisdom of winter.