Seasonal Mindfulness: Getting to Grips with Winter

Winter can be long; the nights are dark and we are often subjected to dank, drizzly days. But over the past few years, my attitude towards winter has gradually begun to change…  – by Amy McMillan

I didn’t always look forward to winter – in fact, I dreaded it with a passion.  In the UK, winter can be long; the nights are dark and we are often subjected to dank, drizzly days.  I used to resist the onset of winter, resenting the freezing wind, slippery mud, the hair frizz caused by the rain…My mood would suffer and I’d sometimes wonder if I had Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) which is a low mood condition thought to be brought on by lack of light and low serotonin.

But over the past few years, my attitude towards winter has gradually begun to change.  Don’t get me wrong, I still get frustrated by having to bundle up before leaving the house (especially as I now have two small children who seem on a mission to make this a particularly arduous task.)  I still dislike waking up in the morning and thinking it’s the middle of the night.  But I find that the resistance I used to feel is less intense.

So what’s changed?  I have a well-established daily mindfulness practice that has been deepening over the past few years.  I have learnt that a key aspect of suffering is resistance.  Resisting what can’t be changed, resisting what I have no control over, resistance to what IS.   Meditation has made me aware of my habit of controlling and trying to change anything that seems less than perfect – and of course, resistance is futile!  I have a tendency to label things ‘pleasant and ‘unpleasant’ and resist what I perceive as unpleasant.  This pattern is still evident in some aspects of my life, but I find that my practice is gradually helping me to loosen my grip, at least over things I know I can’t control, like the winter weather.  Winter is what it is – neither good or bad, just a necessary part of the natural cycle of life.  Meditation has also increased my understanding of impermanence; how everything is in a constant state of change.  Meditation reveals the transience of our thoughts and feelings, and this mindful awareness expands to noticing the impermanence of nature and of life itself.  There is something poignant about observing the seasons going through their natural cycle of birth, flourishing, decay, death, and birth again.

Winter is a time of slowing down and turning inwards, a time of rest so that the renewal of Spring can occur.   I now understand that I can choose to listen to the lack of energy that winter brings and slow down, turn inward and look after myself (instead of giving in to new year pressure to transform into an entirely different and much improved person overnight).  And since I stopped resisting it, I’m now more able to see the subtle beauty that winter brings.  There are the crisp, sunny mornings where the frost sparkles and the cold air is exhilarating.  The excitement of snowy days and the comfort of getting cosy by the fire.  But there are more subtle things, if we learn to look harder.  In fact, I was inspired to write this post while doing the school run on a particularly drizzly grey day.  I looked across the sodden playing field at the bare, windblown trees and was suddenly struck by their stark, magnificent beauty.  On cold, rainy days, the birds may not sing as much, but if I take a moment to listen mindfully, I can still hear their cheerful chatter.  And although it’s only mid-January as I write, a closer look at the mud shows that new life is already appearing in the form of hopeful snowdrop shoots.  As in nature, so in life; there are little gems of beauty all around us if we learn to look more closely.

Meditation has also showed me that beneath these endless natural cycles of change, growth and decay, there is a deep unchanging stillness that I didn’t know existed.  An infinite, eternal stillness beyond words, that is usually obscured by the busily thinking mind.  Perhaps you can relate to Eckhart Tolle when he says: “We need nature to show us the way home, the way out of the prison of our own minds.  We got lost in doing, thinking, remembering, anticipating. Lost in a maze of complexity and a world of problems… We have forgotten how to BE, to be still, to be ourselves, to be where life is, here and now.”  I’m not naturally a particularly peaceful person (more on that here), but I know that I can find a glimpse of this deep unchanging peace on any day and in any season if I stop to observe nature deeply.

So how can we develop this mindful connection with nature?

– Take a moment to appreciate one aspect of the season each day. Stop and tune in to the stillness beneath the busyness.  This might mean looking closely at a tree or exploring the textures of its bark, breathing in the crisp air, listening to birdsong or observing the clouds in a wintry sky.  It might even mean observing how the rain feels on our skin or the sensations of cold in fingers and toes.  If we’re based in a city, we might have to look more carefully, but if we go outside, the sky is always with us.

-Notice our tendency to judge and resist the weather. Don’t add another layer of judgement; simply notice these natural tendencies with an open curiosity.  Observe if the judgements lessen as we learn patience and appreciation for the cycles of nature.

-Those of us with children can involve them too; we can cultivate our mindful connection to the world together. Children usually still have a natural sense of joy and fascination with the world around them and we can learn much from them.  We can take time to collect and observe objects for each season.  Feathers, pinecones, twigs and stones can become our teachers as we bring our mindful attention to them.

While I’m learning to be more accepting of the dark months (in nature and in life), I have some way to go before I can fully embrace them.  But that’s the beauty of meditation; endless depths to be explored and insights to be had.  My task is now to transfer the lessons that nature is teaching me to the more demanding aspects of life with two small children.  It’s a comfort to know that even in chaotic and challenging times, that deep stillness is always there, with wisdom ready to be heard if I take the time to listen deeply.  Who knows, one of these days I might even bundle the children up, get the wellies on and go and play in the rain.

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