Winter is probably the most challenging time of the year with cold and flu season upon us, as well as the mental and emotional stress the holidays may put on us; in addition to the common occurrence of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) which frequently goes unattended. SAD is actually one of the best examples of how the seasonal changes can effect us, simply through the decrease of sunlight we receive due to fewer daylight hours, cloudy weather and staying inside to avoid falling temperatures.
I recently had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Elson Haas at his practice, Preventive Medical Center of Marin, where he and his staff support people by employing integrative and preventive healing systems such as nutrition, body therapy and herbal and homeopathic medicines. Dr. Haas is the author of “Staying Healthy With the Seasons,” first published in 1981, one the ground breaking guides on keeping oneself healthy by staying mindfully attuned to the natural rhythms of the Earth.
With a little discipline and some simple tips, we can stay on top of our physical and emotional health during the winter months. In “Staying Healthy With the Seasons” Dr. Haas uses the model of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which associates winter with the element of water, as one way to guide us in making healthy seasonal choices. The chapter on winter begins by discussing its connection to the element of water, which makes sense, as it is the rainy/snowy time of year in many regions. However winter can also be very drying to the human system because of the cold air, so it’s important to stay hydrated with warm soothing teas, soups and broths. When we are sick and run down, our physical well-being greatly effects our emotional well-being.
The element of water is also associated with the emotions in TCM as well as many other healing systems. Winter can be emotionally challenging for many reasons, such as the aforementioned SAD and holiday stress, as well as loneliness for those who feel isolated by family or community during a celebratory time of year. Making time for self-care and reaching out for support is paramount now. Taking baths, exercising and getting extra sleep and rest are all ways to support your mood and body.
The cold, dark months are also a time for inner reflection. Many people take inventory of their life in the last year and make resolutions on January first, letting go of old patterns and starting afresh. So take some time to reflect upon both your past and your present, making changes where necessary for staying healthy through the season.
Many sacred holidays are celebrated this week which mostly focus on the memory of our ancestors, and in particular those who have died in the last year. It is through their memory that we honor their effect on the world and on our own lives. When anyone who has touched our lives, even in the smallest of ways, passes on, something inside of us shifts.
The loss of their presence may trigger a variety of thoughts or feelings. We may feel sadness or anger that they were taken from us. We may contemplate our own mortality and think about what we want to do with our short lives – What have I been putting off? There is no right or wrong way to move through the experiences of grief & loss.
This time of year brings these aspects of our inner experience forward, as the images of the macabre are more visible and acceptable, even if just for a short time. What is this mystery called Death? It is important to acknowledge and examine our own response to loss, and not to push it away.
Over the years of working with people it has become quite apparent that many in our culture have a hard time with endings of all kinds. Some people don’t like to say goodbye, some disappear on the last day of school or work, while others may pretend like everything is as it always was and then quietly slip out the back door. But acknowledging the end of a cycle is just as important as the beginning. There is completion, graduation, resolution, and space for something new to emerge.
So let us honor and remember what was and what has passed; let us feel our emotions of grief & loss to allow the suffering to wash through us; and let us celebrate that which is still to come in the space that loss has opened up for us.
And so ends another turning of the Wheel of the Year with Yule (meaning “wheel” in Norse). The sun is now at the farthest point south, making it the darkest night of the year in the north. With that dark comes contemplation of the inner mysteries. What resides in the darkest center of our hearts and minds? Will we return if we plunge deeper?
The rising of the sun after the longest night is a celebration, proving that all things return and cycle of life continues to maintain balance. Many people celebrate by lighting candles or a Yule Log to keep vigil through the night and eagerly await the rising sun, singing its praises upon first glimmer. A sign that the snow will melt and crops will grow, life returning again in the spring. What will you leave behind in the dark? What do you anxiously await for in the new year? Light a candle and contemplate this tonight.
Samhain (pronounced “sow-in”) means “summers end,” and is the Celtic feast of the Dead – a time to remember and honor our ancestors. It is the time when the veil between the spirit world is thin, which makes it easier to commune with the dead. It is traditionally celebrated on or near October 31st, All Hallow’s Eve or Hallowe’en. Many other spiritual traditions followed this theme, which is why we also have All Souls Day and Dia de los Muertos.
It is also a time of turning inward and reflecting on the past, which includes our ancestors. Commemorating our relationships with loved ones and honoring the ways they have touched us is an important part of the cycle of life. In remembering them we show respect to the paths we have walked, and we continue to carry all the love, wisdom and strength we gained in those relationships. Many do this by putting pictures on altars, sharing stories about or cooking recipes of those who have passed.
Take a moment this season to remember those who have touched and added to your life. “What is remembered lives.”
Once again the sun dips lower in the sky, moving faster across the horizon and the night is now longer than the day. The air begins to cool and the last harvest is collected as the summer vegetation dwindles, though most of us do not see much difference in the grocery stores produce section. Here in Northern California the harvest season is definitely apparent as the vineyards collect ripe, plump grapes from the vines to be juiced and fermented into wine.
We have worked hard to sustain our selves and enjoy that which our life has to offer. And even though Thanksgiving is two months away, it is a time to express gratitude and reflect upon all that we have reaped through the year. For as we harvest we take stock for what we need for the winter, discarding that which haven’t used and making space.
So what have you harvested in your life this year? Take a moment to celebrate your achievements and enjoy your rewards.
I confess that I missed that last holiday on the wheel of the year, Litha (also known as the summer solstice). Litha is the apex of the solar year, the longest day, when the sun is highest in the sky and our shadows are hardly seen as they lay directly below us. A time of year of activity, as the flowers continue to burst forth and the summer fruits and vegetables ripen in heat of midday. It was so much a time of activity for me that I had not enough time to sit down and compose my reflection. It was a reminder and a lesson for me, indeed.
Now we enter the season of Lammas, the first summer harvest. A time to play games in the sun and have picnics in the park or at the beach. The first round of seeds planted just months ago are fully ripened and ready to be consumed for our pleasure and nourishment. Historically, it was a time when the first grains were cut down and turned into bread, a symbol of sacrifice and gratitude for that which sustains us.
We also take this time to notice what in our life still needs tending to for the second harvest. What can we “weed out” to make more space for current growth to flourish? Where can we feed and drink to get the most out of our intentions for the rest of the year?
May 1st marks the time of year when the smell of summer is in the air; when fruits and flowers and vegetation begin to explode with the vibrant colors of life. Yesterday morning I looked out my garden window and was excited to see the first Nasturtium blossoms of the year. These blossoms not only mark the beginning of summer, but more so the fertile fortitude of nature.
My partner and I have been working on our wild garden for the last five years, putting in a lot of time, energy and resources into cultivating the earth. Last winter our garden was trampled by workers painting our apartment building, suffocating half of it with plastic sheets for almost a month. Later in the spring, I came home one afternoon and found another worker pulling up the wild grasses as well as the native plants we bought, telling me the landlord told him to remove the “weeds” because they were a “fire hazard.” We were heart-broken even though he left the rosemary bush and the sunflowers, which were already three feet tall. However, the next day we noticed many birds down in the dirt pecking at the hundreds of grass seeds which had shaken free while their stalks were uprooted; and we knew what that meant.
The rains came and the grass seeds germinated. Most of the native plants came back from their roots. A year later our garden is practically back to its original state, and with hardly any help from us — we are feeling Victorious!
Take some time this month to consider what is now blossoming in your life. What parts of you may have been uprooted and composted over the year, only to return victoriously?
Late March marks the Vernal (or Spring) Equinox, a time of balance when the day is just as long as the night. The earth begins to wake up and get warmer, allowing new shoots to grow on the trees and shrubs which were pruned a few months back. The popular symbol of the Easter egg represents new life and fresh starts – spring cleaning, anyone? Perhaps you’ll do a dietary cleanse or purge your home of unwanted items; resetting yourself and preparing for something new to come into your life.
This time of year I frequently go through my belongings, especially books and clothing, and evaluate that which I don’t use anymore. This is a good meditation on attachment! I have also recommitted to my physical fitness and moving my body more, now that it’s warmer and bit easier to get out of bed in the morning.
Take a moment to consider the themes of the season: Where do you seek balance in your life? What can you let go of in order to make room for new growth? How can you wake up that within you which has been dormant?
The beginning of February marks the celebration of Imbolc, a time when we might begin to notice the days are getting longer and the sun is shining its light in places which it hasn’t for quite a few months. In some parts of the northern hemisphere the snow and ice is just beginning to melt, and the streams are beginning to fill once more. We are considering leaving our homes more frequently, as the air is a bit milder. We start to reflect on what we’d like to accomplish for the year, sorting through seeds of ideas and intentions we’d like to plant in our lives. We make commitments (or resolutions) to ourselves about what we’d like to achieve, or what we want our life to be like as this year unfolds.
Allow yourself to take a moment and reflect on these ideas: Where are the shadows falling in your life, and what could use some long awaited light? What commitments would you like to make to yourself this year?
My pledge this year is to find a healthy balance with that which sustains my body and soul. I look forward to seeing what sprouts for you in the spring.