Right Relationship to Shorter Days and the Coming Winter

Daniel Schulman

/ 4 min read

Wednesday, 25 November, 2015

Here in the Northern hemisphere, we are now well into the darkest part of the year, that slow slide towards late December and the shortest span of daylight in the diurnal cycle.  For most of us, this means waking, getting up and getting out the door in darkness and returning home at the ‘end of the day’ also in darkness.  It can be a very difficult time.  It often goes hand in hand with a darkening of our mood, a felt contraction in our emotional lives, even for some a sense of foreboding, like we are literally on the dark side of the moon, out of contact with mission control and feeling unclear if we will make it back around to the other side.

Most of us have come to classify this experience as ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder’ or ‘SAD’.  Although not considered a fully ‘separate disorder’ in formal psychiatric circles, it is formally recognized by modern medicine and modern psychiatry.  And ‘treatment’ for the most part involves ‘light therapy’ with or without anti-depressant medication, the ‘cause’ being considered to be either a lack of light or an ‘issue’ with serotonin uptake or some combination of both.

Chinese Medicine offers a very different perspective, one in which our health and our place in the Universe are all one big seamless thing.  In that grand cosmological context, we humans are intimately embedded within the Universe, within our solar system and within and on our particular planet.  Our physiological functioning is nothing less than a full reflection of all the cycles and patterns operating at all levels in that system.  Our health reflects the degree to which we are either aligning with or resisting against the patterns and cycles within which we live.  The notion (and all it’s implications) that we humans live our lives positioned between ‘Heaven’ and ‘Earth’ is central to Chinese Medicine.  Our task is to live lives aligned with that core context.

The four seasons of yin yang are the end and the beginning

of the ten thousand beings; the root of death and of life. 

Going against their succession destroys life. 

Going with their succession prevents illness                  

Nei Jing Su Wen 

In the vast formlessness that gave rise to the Universe and remains a large part of the Universe, images are generated in ‘the Heavens’.  As they make their way down to earth, they go through intermediate stages of weather patterns and seasonal cycles and ultimately express materially on earth as ‘the ten thousand’ things, which include us and our bodies.  The entire Universe is essentially seen to be one vast breathing mechanism of expansion and contraction, a cosmic bellows.  We are but ever-so small alveoli within that mechanism.

The art and science of living our individual lives consists in attuning ourselves seamlessly to this grand scheme.  This includes resonating with the qualities and characteristics of each season; fall, winter, spring and summer.  Because we humans are endowed with a particularly high level capacity to exert our will, even a will to powerfully resist, deny or ignore what is going on around and within us, there is no guarantee we will lead such aligned lives.  We must make it so through our intentions, efforts and undertakings – our chosen rhythms of work, play, rest, pleasure, nourishment, exercise, contemplation, and intellectual activity.

As we transition from Fall through to Winter, the trees lose their leaves, migratory birds head south, insects head underground and winter residents grow thicker coats – all different strategies for dealing with the dangers and scarcities of winter and the challenge of getting to ‘the other side’.  It is a time for us to resonate with this phase of the annual cycle of seasons; not by fighting it, denying it or opposing it, but by embracing it fully.   This time of shortening days and lengthening nights is a time to become more contemplative, more meditative, more reflective.  It is a time to keep the lights off, to sleep more, to meditate, to replace light summer fiction with books more dense with meaning and insight, even sacred texts or classics of poetry.  It is a time to embrace all of the winter preparations we must undertake, whether they be food preservation and storage, stocking of firewood, preparing our homes and yards and vehicles for the vicissitudes that are most surely on their way.  It is a time to shift away from light summer salads and tropical fruits towards soups, stews, denser root vegetables and well-cooked food. It is a time to be with the darkness, to go into it fearlessly and to trust fully in the reliable cycle that will have more light returning in a matter of weeks to months.

In Chinese Medicine, a major source of illness and pain is our self-inflicted obstruction to our full-hearted unfolding, our resistance to full alignment with our lives at the deepest levels, with our true nature, and with the grand breathing mechanisms of the earth upon which and the heavens under which we find ourselves.  The Illnesses and pains in our lives are in direct relationship to how much we are standing in our own way.  Healing and the higher calling of medicine is not so much about ‘fixing things’ as it is about getting what is in the way out of the way.  The most important response for us to undertake towards the enfolding darkness of this time of year is to be fully in and with the darkness and the coming winter rather than against and in resistance to it.