Now in the darkest and coldest time of year, I have brought more warmth into my home in the form of turning on the heat, adding more layers of wool clothes, lighting more candles and inviting small groups of friends and family to join me for soups, drink and quiet conversation. Life has become less stressful and more enjoyable and meaningful as I have learned that clues to a healthy and happy lifestyle may be in what ancient Chinese medicine discovered some 5,000 years ago. More about that later.
For some of my friends and family, winter represents the stress of holiday frenzy, colds and flu and a need to keep up an active pace. In January, there comes the big push to join gyms, lose weight and actively pursue New Year’s resolutions. The end of the calendar year becomes the focal driving force to seize the day and push forward into the new year. It may not occur to them that winter can offer a slower respite time and that stress and illness is not inevitable even with busy work and life responsibilities.
I was once in that frenzy mode. My growing up years in Minnesota brought the annual snow, ice, freezing temperatures, and yearly cold. New year’s resolutions focused on setting goals to make the coming year a better one than the last year – Resolutions that often fell flat by March. Yet, winter did have its highlights and building resilience skills have formed the resourceful independent character that I am today. I am grateful for those experiences.
Now some years later I look at winter a little differently. Granted I now live in Northern California where rain in winter has replaced the snow I grew up with. It has become more like a special time of year to move inward. Just as bears find the instinct to burrow inward into their caves to hibernate, so I find winter to be an ideal time to look inward to my hopes, dreams, and passions in life. It’s a time for self reflection and self nourishment. Taking the time to travel inward has given me multiple benefits that have kept me healthy in body and spirit. Flus and colds are things of the past for me as I take the time to nourish my body with soups and herbal teas and nourish my spirit with quiet time for myself. Daily home and work responsibilities are still present but what seems to have changed is my approach and attitude to balance my life even in the midst of chaos.
The flowers and trees in my garden are dormant and resting in the earth. The job of fruit and flower production is over. I am confident that they are resting in anticipation for the time when spring comes to begin the growth cycle for another year. It happens every year and I trust that it will continue even as we in California experience a drought. Seasons change. Life changes and it is in our best health and well being interests to build our resilience skills to adapt to the changes with grace and fortitude. Taking time inward helps.
In the Chinese medicine viewpoint human beings are viewed as a microcosm of the universe. Just as there are daily and seasonal cycles in nature, there are cycles of change within our bodies. The 5 Element Theory in Chinese medicine captures this dynamic relationship of Nature-Man. It offers a holistic body/mind/spirit approach to help us to maintain strong health and well being. Each element found in Nature (Water, Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal) has various associations. For example the Water element is associated with winter, color of blue/black, the emotion of fear, Kidney meridian and the spirit of Zhi (our vital life force and will power).
The emotion associated with Water Element is fear. That has shown up for me in the past as fear questions: Did I do enough this year toward my life goals? Am I doing enough to love and support those around me? Am I making enough money? Today I ask the question: Does any of this really matter in the grand scheme of life? And when I reflect on this last bigger question I see that the answer lies in sorting out my values and living my priorities for health, friendship, family and my place in the world. Fears can creep up in our lives – sometimes for a good reason but just as often for no good reason. Dark cold days can bring on fear, depression and SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) that can deplete energy and make us sick and dampen our spirits.
It’s a challenge to realize that within the darkness there is light. Chinese medicine teaches this concept of balance to bring harmony. Winter can give lots of opportunity to go deep within and to discover values and practices that can help to address our fears and support and sustain us through the most difficult of life challenges at other times of the year. The antidote to fear is courage and determination. Taking “time inward” to discover those attributes within ourselves can make winter a necessary part of our overall being. It takes courage and patience to take the time to delve into winter’s messages to slow down and reflect. It takes courage and patience to accept the fears we might have about our life situation. Looking inward offers an opportunity to plant a seed of intentions (not goals or resolutions) that can be nurtured now and blossom throughout the year.
Here are some ways that I have found winter to be of benefit to my health and well being:
I find myself going to the ocean to watch the annual gray whale migration from Alaska to Baja, Mexico. Each of these pregnant whales bears new life following a pattern coded in their DNA to follow the same path. I will welcome them as they swim back to Alaska with new born calves in the Spring. I breathe in clean ocean air and marvel at the beauty and continuation of life.
This is the time of year when the elephant seals mate and give birth. Going to the beach this time of year takes on a different experience than in the hot summer. I stand in awe of these huge masses of beings who find their way to the same stomping grounds each year. Again reminding me how nature flows on its own in its own time.
My walks also take me into the woods where over the past three years I have discovered this little pine tree growing within a rock. What courage and determination it takes to flourish in what seems like an unnatural environment!
FRIENDS – Winter offers me an opportune time to invite special friends for coffee and in-depth conversation. It adds to my happiness and well being to slow down and make this happen. According to the United Nation’s World Happiness Report released in 2013, Denmark was named the happiest country in the world followed by other northern European countries. It’s interesting that countries facing the darkest time of year in winter also balance and welcome the darkness with light and friendship. The Danish concept of “hygge” (pronounced hYOO-guh) is a major contributor. It is the idea of “cozying down” and togetherness that creates intimacy and a sense of comradeship, conviviality and contentment all rolled into one.” Beyond the holidays that sense of close friendship is so needed to light up the darkness and warm the cold.
And speaking of friends – one of my best friends is Max, my cat of 20 years! After five operations to remove phone cords, wine corks and other non-nutritional household items and surviving the fall from the third story flat we lived in, Max lives to exemplify what it means to live with courage and determination to make every day count. So we do “cozy down” together every day. What joy our furry friends offer us!
MEDITATION/REFLECTION TIME – Winter teaches us to slow down and find some time for introspection. These are both keys to helping to sustain ourselves throughout the rest of the year and the rest of our lives. A daily practice of meditation has helped me to remember and appreciate my true essence. It brings balance and perspective on where I am going in life and how I can best meet the challenges thrown at me. Gratitude for what I have helps me to scare away the fears in my life. Mindful breathing practice has helped me stay focused in the moment, sleep better and maintain a healthier outlook. To be alive, healthy, happy, takes a practice of “time inward” to nurture the vital life force ZHI that Chinese medicine defines.
It has been fourteen years now since my mother passed away in the dead of winter in Minnesota. I was a major caregiver during her four months of hospice care. Caregiving is grueling. The pain and strain of losing my mother wore me out. Yet, every night at 11:00pm, I took the time to sit in meditation to quiet my spirit and replenish my energy. I took the time each day to go out and walk in the snow near the frozen lake I had grown up with. Meditation and walking in nature helped me to accept the inevitable event of my mother’s death. It helped me to stay focused and grateful for that time of transition that softened the grief I experienced after.
ACUPRESSURE/REIKI SESSIONS – Acupressure therapy has become a mainstay in my life. Through its many benefits it releases my muscular tension and promotes blood circulation. But most of all I appreciate acupressure for its soothing touch that releases the oxytocin in my brain, the neurotransmitter of “calm and peacefulness”. And it is through the experience of calm and peacefulness that I can regroup within and appreciate my strengths and attributes. Acupressure and Reiki offers me self-nourishing care options that I can do any where (even standing in line at the grocery store). It helps to keep me grounded. I love that I can share this magical touch therapy with friends and clients knowing that calm nurturing touch can offer a gift of health and balance.
Winter is a time to listen to one’s soul. A time to love and appreciate what life brings now. A time to plant seeds of intentions, dreams and hopes for where life can lead next. A time of faith that all that we dream and intend will come forward or something better.
And lest we fear that the winter will never end, we can take heart in the words of Albert Camus, “in the midst of winter I finally learned that there is in me an invincible summer.” Seasons change and so do we with strength, courage and patience.