Without fail, around this time of year, every year, I observe an increase in people disparaging themselves for feeling slower and sleepier, or maybe more introverted, more longing to be at home.* I see it among family, friends, and patients. Many begin extrapolating this increased sleepiness and slowness into negative judgments upon their own character or pathologies in themselves.
But I look out the window and what do I see? This is exactly what is happening in the natural world. Energy is moving underground. Plants and animals are going to sleep or slowing way, way down for the winter. Likewise, our bodies naturally need more rest and quiet in the fall and winter. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, we are in fact part of the natural cycles of the land we live in. We cannot entirely disconnect from it, even if we try. So, as the cycle returns to darkness and quiet, our own systems ask the same of us. I propose that we are better off if we listen. That this is an evolutionary reality that we can fight, but at a cost to each individual and to the collective, even at the level of the public health.
I would like to propose that instead of pathologizing ourselves in this that we first notice it without judgement; then, second, explore for a moment what this might be about.
Mainstream U.S. culture is driven by the need for productivity, every-minute money making, dedication to the machine of capitalism, proving ourselves worthy (of?), and the striving for "infinite perfectibility” (thanks for that phrase, Simone Roberts), facilitated by the manufactured need for the right goals journal, tea and yoga morning routine, weekend workshop, whatever, etcetera etcetera ad infinitum, until we reach some earthly nirvana where nothing hurts any more.
Even if we're lucky and experience some form of Nirvana here and there, still, it only comes in flashes and moments and we can't live there on the daily because we are human/mammalian bodies with actual (even autonomic) nervous systems that are outside of conscious control and respond therefore automatically to certain stimuli and we can't positive thinking or soul healing or meditate or yoga or even drug our way out of that. Yes, we can unvelcro the reactivity left over from past experiences from our present moment body reactions, mostly, to some extent. But we'd better hope our autonomic nervous systems never stop responding to threat or stress, because that's exactly what would make the tiger behind that tree (or the next sociopath who tries to charm his way in) happy.
We live in a culture that prods us toward constant business, with resulting feelings of never doing enough. Much has been written lately on this subject, some calling it a “being busy disease.” I concur. Furthermore, the machine of capital does not rest. Therefore, it insists that we do not rest, either. This has colonized -- that is, forcibly imposed it’s destructive system over our natural systems -- our beings so thoroughly that we don’t even need formans and overseers shouting at us, we’ve got our own internal dialogs positioned on that job and tenured. And why? Because the machine does not want profits to wane. And all workers are replaceable. This is true up and down the chain, though it may be that at the top there is actually less stress. At the top levels of the culture of capitalist-based work the tangible (money) rewards and intangible (making your own schedule, having people be super nice to you, expense accounts) rewards are so great, the joys of making the rules rather than conforming to them so mood elevating, that well, studies show that after a certain level more responsibility does not equal more stress. When the reward is power more responsibility equals less stress. Also, power is ab ovo usque ad mala its own reward (ask any Lannister). Indeed, studies show that those with more power show less physiological symptoms of stress than those with less (see this Harvard study).
Thus comes our indoctrination into this belief that we are supposed to be at the same or always-high levels of productivity all the time, and that when we are not, we are failing. Thus we are colonized with self-disparaging narratives about ourselves when we feel tired, private, or even sick with a cold or other passing illness. We call it “unmotivated,” as if we’re supposed to be consistently “motivated” at all times (it could be an entire article, unpacking whatever “motivated” even means, and where that idea comes from). Underneath all this is the screaming Puritan ancestor, overseer, owner, colonizer berating us to get up and get to work lest our idle hands become the devil’s workshop (quaint old Puritan idea) (modern case in point is this mess). We don’t even notice how relentlessly we are comparing ourselves to the bouncy productivity of “everyone else,” while, incidentally, all those other people are feeling the same inadequacies and making the same erroneous comparisons, at varying levels of consciousness. And ta-da: there’s the internalized oppressor.
Puritan-influenced entities love to talk about “productivity.” About getting up early, keeping busy, accomplishing. They rarely include collective reward or support in that expectation, as most European countries, and especially the northern and Scandinavian one’s do. One of the central tenets to this punitive cosmology is that people only improve if they’re punished. In the early years of the New England colonies, it was the stocks in the middle of town (or worse), where everyone could see and shame the transgressor. There is still so much that is punitive in US culture and society, including the rampant overuse of jail and prison, and the criminalization of the poor (e.g., Arch City Defenders White Paper).
All of this is bound up in Puritan's attachment to extreme ideas and standards of spiritual and physical “purity,” conformity, Godliness, deservedness (were they the first to articulate the particularly un-Christ-like concept of a distinction between the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor?), and the involvement of the unified church and state in day-to-day life at every level, which the Puritans migrated here to enact. The ruthlessness with which they did so upon the lands of the indigenous peoples, whose ways of life the Puritans and later colonizers judged, discounted, and decimated at every opportunity, is infamous, of course, and also echoing in our cultures now. This superimposition of the artificial upon the “heathen” ecosystem is not unlike that which the dogma and its remnants continues to attempt to impose on our individual systems. In the colonies, those varying from the accepted form of piety and submission to the authority of the patriarchal structure (most sources agree that there were fewer women in the Puritan colonies than in a natural population and that women were not allowed any voice in making policy for the community) were subject to severe punishment for anything but quietly doing as they were told (Scarlet Letter, anyone?), laws were passed against “witchcraft” (aka, scapegoating women, healers,non-conformers, non-Christians, the poor, and “the different”; May I give you this herbal infusion for your cold, said the old woman before she was brought before the elders, then banished or executed).
And yet, many of us who are lefty activists, resisters, dismantlers of Patriarchy and white supremacy continue in subjugation to this internal colonization. Underneath our nearly-automatic self-flagellation is a persistent, inherited belief, the same one that’s inherent in US culture, that we must at all times be productive in order to prove our worth to a certain angry, vengeful Christian God (that even many Christians among us we don’t buy, anyway) so that we can get to heaven (check out this great little BBC animation on Max Weber’s, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism). For most of us, these roots are well below consciousness.
Let’s go another way.
Let’s reunite ourselves with the land and the rhythms of its “witchcraft.”
Across the tens of thousands of years of human history, in the temperate climates (and possibly in other climates, such as those that have rainy seasons; but I am less familiar with those), by late autumn the harvest was done. The foods collected for winter were processed, fermenting, tincturing, stored, or well underway to being so. Seeds were in dry, cool storage for the winter. Musicians and storytellers were anticipating the long season of darkness and cold, when they really had an attentive audience at hand and could hone their chops. Those of the priestess class were preparing for their own kinds of stories, rites, blessings, and illusions. The materials for weaving, sewing, and other necessary and artistic crafts were ready for the making endeavors of the coming long winter, and the dwellings were well into preparation for closing up and warming by the big communal fire. This time was different. I imagine it being felt deeply. Restlessness and too much energy popping off in the confined space would not have been rewarded. And this is likely how people lived for tens of thousands of years, in the temperate regions (and those subject to rainy and monsoon seasons, possibly).
The stillness necessitated by moving life indoors in winter would have created much time for quiet reflection, and can now. For storytelling in communities, in the common rooms and extended family circles, around the fire. For the development of guiding myths and stories, hunting, fighting, exploring, foraging, preserving, medicine, dreaming, and other essential survival wisdoms that need elaborated and passed on, the sharing of dreams themselves, and distillation of the wisdom of the land, stories, and dreams into music, art, and ritual. The slower time may, in fact, have been the incubator of human culture and civilization. What of deep and wise civilization do we lose when we lose the stillness and incubation of fall and winter?
These changes in the rhythm of the year and our attunement with them are important to our health, body, mind, and spirit. We have evolved to be sensitive to changing climate, to sense the ebbs and flows of the uncountable adjustments within the natural life around and within in us, likely even on the cellular level (seasonal microbiome changes; processes as deep as our mitochondrial engines responding to light changes; etc.), some we can see and some we cannot see, regardless of what part of the earth we or our ancestors come from originally. Even the tropics have seasons, and they are apparent to those who live close to the land. Here, in the temperate United States, we see leaves falling from the trees, annuals dying off, perennials dying back, fall mushrooms emerging, mosses and lichens and hornworts and slime molds changing, birds flying south, monarch butterflies flying south, insects going underground or into shelter in plant matter, microbial colonies changing and moving, the millions of processes in all of the life forms in our environments changing around us constantly, preparing all of these forms for the cold and dark of winter. These processes require that chemical/biological mechanisms to be cued by changes in the environment. We are not separate from those processes. We are these processes. The more science learns about how natural systems work, how interdependent they are, how locked together, synergistic, how they sense one another’s needs and changes and facilitate them (just one stunning example, the science of how trees communicate through fungal networks), the more likely it seems that we are being communicated with, too, and communicating, in these chemical/biological ways, with the natural world.
I lived in Sweden for a short while in the 1990s. I very much enjoyed talking with locals about their culture, beliefs, and experience. Some of my friends were Swedes of many, many generations, others were immigrants, like me. I was the only American I knew, other than my family there with me. One of the many wonderful things I learned came from a conversation at my daughter’s little forest Waldorf school, where I and other parents were working on the grounds, trimming trees, moving things around in autumn, for the winter preparation. We were talking about nature, and the differences in mainstream US and typical Swedish culture, when one woman said, “We Swedes, we live in nature. You Americans, you live on nature.” I thought this was the most apt thing. Yes. So true. I think that what we realize now, though, even from the most recent science of microbiology (like the importance of the microbiomes of all living creatures, even the living soil that sustains everything), is that our feeling that we live on nature, and that it is optional or separate, and that we don’t experience it unless we go out into it, is an illusion.
Our spirits know this. The moving into the quieter season has through human evolution also been accompanied by ritual and offering to the land and elements and their spirits. As Toko-pa Turner says, “Westerners have forgotten what indigenous people understand to be cardinal: that this world owes its life to the unseen. Every hunt and every harvest, every death and every birth is distinguished by ceremony for that which we cannot see, feeding back that which feeds us. I believe our alienation is, in good part, the felt negligence of that reciprocity” (Toko-pa Turner, Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home). Honoring our bodily wisdom, feeling it without judging it, noting the changes in how we feel as the wheel of the years turns is, attending to the changes the earth around us is undergoing, possibly even developing or adopting rituals to acknowledge them, then, is a deeply spiritual act.
Whether we conceive of that which we are alienated from as spirit or as chemical/biological (I’m not so sure they’re different things, when it comes down to it), it is interesting to hypothesize that in either case this denying, ignoring, judging, or pathologizing our body’s signals and states as flaws in ourselves is negatively impacting us. I often recommend that people incorporate small rituals into their lives, things that connect with the flow of the day, the week, and the seasons. I rarely think I’m communicating why particularly well, though. Which is one reason I’m writing this essay. I want to say: so much of what we are is rhythmic; we must feed that through our noticing. I want to say: deep parts of our systems need to feel the overarching “we,” the whatever the watcher consciousness is, seeing, sensing, attending to that. And here is what ritual does, I think. It does that. Communicates that. Especially when the elements are incorporated, earth, air, fire, water. The unconscious does not speak English, my friends. It speaks in ritual, image, sensation, music, dreams, the elements, the unseen. Ritual brings us into alignment with the beating of life around us. These can be tiny things, small things, we do, that mark the changes and movements of the land, and the year. Burning sage at a certain time of day. Placing a new seasonal object from nature, like a leaf or a rock or a piece of moss, on an altar or nature shelf or table at each turn of the season. Noticing and respecting changes in mood or body or dreams or needs as the seasons change.
When we wake up in the morning and notice that we feel drowsy, that we’d like to remain enveloped in the blankets, to not go out into the frenetic world, maybe we can just stop and notice those feelings. Where do we feel that in our bodies? What additional details about those sensations can we notice? What is their color? Size? Texture? Temperature? What happens when we continue to notice? What do we notice next? Those who have been in somatic psychotherapy work for a while, as patients/clients (I count myself among these, too) know that some deep magic happens when we stop and notice our bodies in this way. It’s a magic akin to that which happens when we stop what we’re doing and really, quietly and respectfully attend to a little child. That attention helps what is present go ahead with its processing. We don’t know the science under this phenomenon yet, in either our bodies or in children, but I suspect we will one day. Nonetheless, we consistently observe that there is something about attending fully and at length to what is present in the body that facilitates the metabolizing of whatever is present, especially suffering, but also pleasant sensation. It is also vital that we notice joy and pleasure and the absence of pain just as fully. We must develop the capacity to notice one, in order to also notice the other. But we tend to turn away from the sensations of suffering and look for logical/cognitive reasons for it, which, again, often can lead to stories of inadequacy and failure, or “solutions” involving pressing ourselves to more action, rather than the simple noticing of the suffering (which probably exists also for the illusion of control: If I just flog myself enough I’ll do better tomorrow; This. Does. Not. Work.).
This attention to the body’s sensations simply as they are moves us away from judgment and away from latching onto and following some habitual story in our cognitive minds about what it means to be cozy in bed and drowsy, or not feeling like going out tonight, or spending the whole weekend with a book and doing zero else. Maybe we still have to get up, because the bills aren’t going to pay themselves, but we can then do so without pathologizing ourselves for the suffering of it. And then if there is anything we can do, anything we can adjust to give ourselves more hours in the cozy hygge of house or bed, either on the evening end or on the morning end, maybe we then have more room in our hearts for ourselves to figure that out.
Of course, people working several jobs, people with young children, and many others may not have the luxury of such control over their own schedules. It took me into my 50s and lots of trial and error to find my true vocation in life, and that vocation includes that I don’t start the interactive part of my work before noon, regardless of the season. Especially in the winter. In the spring and summer, it’s often hard to contain myself in the mornings, as I love to garden, and adore to rush out to it in the mornings with my coffee and check on all the goings on, then either work or gaze quietly from my chair at all that life and movement. This slow, earthy morning time is vital for me. It has healed parts of my system that had henceforth been rather unreachable. I also realize how privileged that sounds, and I’m sitting with it. But heck, I also know that I paid a lot of dues, worked since I was too young to legally work, was a single mother with almost no options and zero money, taking any job I could get for years and years, and clawed my way to this moment with every ounce of strength and wit in me. So I’m not going to spend much time feeling bad about it. I am, though, going to notice what the sensations of privilege guilt feel like now, as they arise, and feel them for what they are.
Summer is over. Summer, with it’s long days, the bustle of gathering, preserving, planting, tending, discovering (though hunter-gatherers did, it seems, work only a few hours a day), is gone. In the autumn and winter, however, the bodily rhythm changes radically. Now is the time for long mornings with dream journaling, reading, or just listening to music or podcasts. Or simply dozing and gazing. I find suddenly I am interested in experimenting with things inside the house, and my writing has picked up and deepened, after a lull at the end of summer. I give thanks to the gods for the priviledge to notice and flow with these rhythms, every single day. After a lifetime of internalized relatives pathologizing my late morning Circadian rhythm (which even my DNA analysis shows is hardwired in), what a relief. This is the frame I was born into, I shall give it love and respect, I shall listen when it speaks, and I shall not try to force it into an imposed mold.
If we can’t arrange our schedules right now, we can all of us practice noticing what’s present without self-judgement. We may be rewarded with increased creativity (this right here), or enhanced well-being. Rest brings the room for the work of the deep unconscious to unfold. For dreams to connect more fully with those unconscious processes and bring forth fruits into conscious awareness. So that we may find our way, find ourselves, notice interesting pathways we may pass by if too hurried.
Maybe we at first have a hard time conceiving what “the unconscious” even means. That’s ok. Whatever it is, it’s unconscious, that which our conscious mind only has access to through dreams and synchronicities. That which is trying to take care of us without our entering it into our day planners. That which at its deepest levels is connected to the Collective Unconscious, where the knowledge and wisdom of all times flows like a clear, dark, underground river full of love and treasure. Yes, it is always flowing in the direction of our growth. And yes, it does contain Shadow elements, and we must also meet and understand these in order to be our whole and true selves. It runs by the laws of nature, and that means that its energy is dedicated to the survival and growth of the organism, you. We run into problems when we try to repress it, escape it, ignore it, wallpaper it over with manifestation manifestos and notions of order and control. And it's not just an esoteric idea, this unconscious. Recent neurobiological research shows that unconscious processes are activating far more than was ever thought, in all sorts of tasks. That little one millimeter strip of brain matter (the cerebral cortex where our conscious thought lights up neural circuitry is the smallest bit of what we have going on (“cortex” actually means, “the outer or superficial part of an organ or bodily structure” according to Webster here https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cortex). The rest of the brain extends downward, and then through nerves down our spine into all our muscles and organs, and very significantly, our guts. The river of the nervous system, flowing along without us even trying to make it flow. The personal unconscious, or its parallel structure. Depth psychological theories have described this all along.
But we must be patient. This doesn’t mean that the first week we let ourselves rest a bit and notice that we’re suddenly going to have all sorts of great ideas or feel differently. Emphasis here is on the word unconscious. We don’t know when the fruits of our rest and incubation are going to emerge, and we don't know what they will be. Perhaps in the spring. Perhaps in some years hence. Probably when we least expect it.
This essay is also available on the Huffington Post here.
Margaret Howard, MFA, LCSW
I am a psychotherapist, gardener, writer, mother, grandmother, and dreamer.
Cover image: Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Queen of the Night, from the stage set for Mozart's Magic Flute