How to be Winter...
The bare bones.
What is known of the unknown?
What wordless wisdom
lies down deep within my bones?
Beneath the skin,
beneath the flesh,
beneath the firing circuitry
Winter has asked me
to be heavy
to drop deep
to let myself steep
in the obsidian tonic of sleep.
Winter's wisdom seeps
down to my bones
and all that is not known
It is fine to not know.
with faith as my stepping stone.
Drop me down.
Drop me down to the level of bone.
I can face what is not known.
Embracing unseen mystery,
Winter says to me:
I am not the rising sap of the tree
I am not the beckoning bloom
I am not the ripe, round fruit
I am not jeweled leaf, descending
I am the root
entwined in cold, damp earth.
I am the seed that sleeps dormant,
teeming with potential,
my destiny coiled and ready to spring,
But for now I sleep.
I surrender to the deep,
to the unknown,
to what is known
only in the bones,
to the wordless wisdom
of buried root and seed.
The above poem came to me last year as I contemplated the energetic quality of winter. The darkest time of the year, this is a time when we too go into darkness, into greater stillness and quietude. In this dark, still, and quiet place we can sit with the mystery of life; we can discover what wisdom or insights might lay dormant beneath the surface of our conscious, active minds.
Winter is an opportunity to drop down into our depth of being. To do this, we need to shift down into a much slower pace. We also do this shift so we can preserve and replenish our vital energy. Winter is the season of deep replenishment, deep rest, deep repair. A time for restoration and going inward. Hibernation. If we never stop moving in life, we will burn out. Winter is the time to stop, or at the very least, to really, really, REALLY slow down the pace, as much as we can.
"Nothing in the world
is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
nothing can surpass it.
The soft overcomes the hard;
the gentle overcomes the rigid.
Everyone knows this is true,
but few can put it into practice."
~Lao-tzu, Tao Te Ching
In the system of the Five Elements, Winter is the season of the Water element. Water teaches us so much about surrender, about yielding, about dropping down into one's depth. Water is also a great source of vitality and power; it is the essence of life itself. In Chinese Medicine, winter and the water element are connected to the kidneys, which are understood as holding our deepest reserves of vitality (in western physiological terms, we can think of the water element as relating to the adrenals, hormones, and the nervous system).
Winter is a time to nourish our Water element: we support the health of the kidneys and balance our adrenal function. We shift our nervous system from being predominantly in sympathetic mode (fight, flight or freeze) to parasympathetic mode (rest and digest).
But how, in practical terms, do we do actually do this? How can we actually shift to be in greater alignment with winter and the water element? The short answer: less output, less input, and waaayyyyy more rest. Here are some practical ways I suggest embodying the energy of winter...
*Do less (less output):
It is a great practice of seasonal alignment to simply make and accomplish fewer goals in winter than you do in the other seasons. Pare down your "to do" list to only what is absolutely essential, or stretch out your "to do" list so that what you might do in one day gets spread out over a few days instead (or even a few weeks if you can). If there is a big project or goal brewing inside of you, try waiting until early spring to start it. For now, dream about it and hold it inside you, like a seed that awaits the sun of springtime to sprout and grow.
The days are shorter in winter; keep them simpler, and do less. Allow yourself to actually physically move more slowly through your daily activities, with much greater mindfulness. This is not being lazy, though it does go against the grain in a society that places so much value on outward activity and productivity. But this is actually how we replenish our vitality- by slowing down, and even stopping. Winter is about conserving our energy, it's about preservation.
There needs to be the balance between the doing-ness of yang and the being-ness of yin. Winter is a time to do less. Like a bear in a cave, like a seed dormant in the ground, we store and preserve our vital energy in the season when the yang energy (of activity and manifestation) is at its lowest.
*Pare back on screen time/technology (less input):
Though it does have some virtues, modern technology is really wrecking havoc on our nervous systems. Aside from the negative effects that excessive screen use and wi fi has on the physical body, on a spirit level it is depleting to be constantly consuming all of this information and stimulation through our eyes and into our consciousness. This constant input into our nervous systems takes a toll physically, emotionally, and spiritually. This is especially true at night, when we should allow our consciousness to drop down into a place of greater quiet and stillness.
*Sleep more (replenishment):
Just as the sun sets so much earlier this time of year, so too should we move into sleep and darkness at an earlier time in the winter. I recommend going to bed an hour earlier than you do in the spring and summer, and no later than 10:00 pm, with 9:00 or even 8:00 being ideal for some people's optimal winter replenishment.
Sleep is how the tissues in our bodies repair themselves, and it's how our minds process and release content. As my incredibly wise teacher Thea Elijah says regarding sleep, "If there is something you can do for eight hours and feel completely transformed at the end of it, that is not inactivity. Something unbelievably profound is happening. Something without which we could not survive even with all the willpower in the world. Healing does not happen through activity. Healing is a rest state response."
Winter is a time to get whole lot more sleep, allowing our bodies to heal, and our minds to untangle and release their various knots. We also strengthen our immune system with more sleep, which of course is vitally important this time of year! If you want more sleep, but struggle with insomnia and sleep issues, I recommend the previous two suggestions of less output and less input, as well as the following suggestions.
When we drink too much caffeine, especially coffee, we send our body into a stress state response, where more stress hormones such as cortisol are released. Caffeine sets our nervous system to the fight, flight or freeze mode. We may feel more alert and productive, but we do so at a steep cost to our adrenal health and our kidney energy (in CM understanding, caffeine depletes our kidney energy and water element). Tiredness, after all, is an indication not that we need more caffeine, but that we need more rest (or that our body needs tonification, which Chinese Medicine can greatly help).
*Regulate your stress response:
Easier said than done, but necessary nonetheless! The negative health effects of chronic stress are simply too many to list, as I'm sure we all know. All of the other suggestions listed above will be helpful to having a more balanced stress response; so will having a daily stress management practice such as meditation, yoga, tai chi or qi gong.
In addition, acupuncture can be greatly beneficial for stress and anxiety. In my clinical practice, I use the synergy of acupuncture, bodywork, personalized herbal prescriptions, nutrition, and lifestyle counsel to help guide my clients into a calmer, more balanced state of body and mind.
I am a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist with a Heart-centered practice in the Santa Cruz mountains. See my About page for more about me and the work I do.