Just like that, the Christmas break feels like a distant memory. Here Kitty Wheater, Mindfulness Chaplain, explores how we can navigate the cold, dark winter months, when everything feels a bit bleak.
Over Christmas, my books piled high, and on a theme. There was Katherine May’s Wintering, a New York Times bestseller, about the power of rest and retreat in difficult times; the Chronicles of Narnia, beginning with an endless winter; and James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life. As the Meadows disappeared beneath the snow, I saw the Lake District in my mind’s eye: the thick white fells, the shivering sheep, the wind-chapped faces.
For winter is upon us. As Covid-19 cases climb to perilous heights, and snow clouds gather over Scotland once more, there is no doubt that we are in the midst of bitter weather. Some of our community are working in conditions likened to war zones. For all, there are direct, knock-on, and butterfly effects: a beloved family member lost, healthcare delayed, a locked-down relationship straining at the seams. And most days, now, are double-jumper days; the wind whistles through gaps in the Georgian sash windows; icy pavements snatch us off balance; lethargy and stupor subsume our afternoons. The word ‘bitter’ is related to the word ‘bite’, and if it isn’t wind-bitten hands and clenched jaws, it is the black dog nipping at your heels.
And yet. In the last few weeks, lines from a John O’Donohue blessing, sent by a friend in the first lockdown, began to whisper to me once more.
This is the time to be slow
Lie low to the wall
Until the bitter weather passes
Try, as best you can, not to let
The wire brush of doubt
Scrape from your heart
All sense of yourself
And your hesitant light.
If you remain generous,
Time will come good;
And you will find your feet
Again on fresh pastures of promise,
Where the air will be kind
And blushed with beginning.
What if this time, with its cold, peril, loneliness, and exhaustion, were the time to be slow? What does that mean, and where might it lead?
For May, Rebanks, and O’Donohue, the bitter weather is not a mistake. It’s simply winter, seasonal, sewn into the fabric of what it’s like to be alive. As sure as the earth turns, and for as long as we wake each morning, there will be times of winter. But it will not always be winter, for the definition of winter is that it is a season, and not for evermore.
This means that it will pass.
Let that sink in for a moment. If you are struggling right now, you may be experiencing a low lurking fog that whispers of permanence and doom. If your heart scraped raw by that wire brush of doubt were to speak, it might say something like this: ‘Things will never get better. It really is the end this time.’ For many, there will be a nudging, half-invisible follow-up: ‘It’s all my fault.’ ‘It’s all theirs.’
From a cognitive perspective, this is the voice of low mood or depression. Its power comes from its sense of finality, and certainty. It is the terrified creature in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, who fears the everlasting hold of the White Witch. And yet – one day, the snow begins to thaw; and often it starts just out of sight, so that after a while, you suddenly realise that you feel warm again. This is the nature of winter: inherently, it passes.
Light up that knowledge, like a lamp in the window during a snowstorm. This tough time will shift, change, and ease. If you are full of doubt and fear, and it’s hard to find your way, this light is something you can trust. Nurture it.
When the lamp is in the window, after a while something interesting happens: it becomes possible to honour the winter for what it is. The beauty of the falling snow, the harsh winds scouring the landscape clean, the trees and creatures hibernating, at rest, to make the spring anew.
So here another implication of the seasonality of winter: that this time has its own importance; that the dark, cold, sadness, fear, and anger are worth honouring, and tending.
This, then, is the time to be slow. But in times of stress, we find this hard. We rush over icy pavements, and are surprised when we slip. ‘Driven doing mode’ leaps to the fore, and depending on your preferred flavour of nervous energy, you will find yourself confrontational or avoidant, overworking or procrastinating. When you clock that this difficult time will pass, you may feel the urge to leap to that point quickly, skating over the moment like we might skate over ice on Blackford Pond.
Listen to the forces of slowness within you. We feel them in our winter lethargy, and in the half hour spent staring out of the window. Exhausted students and staff tell me that there is something weighing them down, diverting their energies. When the slow comes calling, perhaps it is time to tend it. We do so safe in the knowledge that to do so is not to prolong the winter, but to honour it ahead of the spring.
Here’s how we might take time to be slow.
1. Lie low to the wall
In the howling gales in the Lake District, sheep shelter behind walls, and small creatures go to ground. Our animal instincts serve us well here. Try a comfortable sofa, and a soft blanket; mulled wine, because no-one ever said you couldn’t drink it in January; a slow-baked supper, with chilli and lemon to warm you; or a pizza, and make it upmarket, because you need more than a marguerita. Find solace and shelter in mind, too. Watch David Attenborough, and read Terry Pratchett, and Mary Oliver. Prop a Christmas card from a beloved friend in a prominent place. Write back, with pen and paper, and a mug of tea beside you.
When the bitter weather is blowing at home and at work, the trick is to find the pockets of slow: a breathing space before a meeting, a mobile phone ban at lunchtime. Spend ten minutes with a book, before the kids get up; drink a cup of coffee, and don’t watch the clock. After work, try this Grounding and Releasing practice.
When you seek out moments of slow amidst the quick, you will find that life finds a new rhythm. It steadies. It’s a foxtrot.
I know, I know. You could do without another form of precipitation. But this one – Tara Brach’s acronym for Recognise, Allow, Investigate, Nurture – will tend strong feeling and agitation. Find a seat on a supportive chair, or on the floor, with your back against the sofa.
Notice what emotions are present in your experience right now. Sometimes they are hidden beneath whirling thoughts: stories, images, narratives. Notice if there’s an edge of sadness, anger, or fear. Sometimes we are simply numb, and you can recognise this, too, as an emotional state. Numbness comes from the very oldest part of the nervous system, the part we share with finned and scaly creatures. Gently name what you find: ‘here is sadness,’ ‘here is anxiety.’
Sense the soles of the feet on the floor, and your sitbones in their seat. If you are standing, press your back against a wall, and feel its support. Sense how strong emotion and bitter weather can be present, and so too can contact with the ground at your feet, and the wall at your back.
Bring a sense of gentleness and allowing to the feelings. This is simply winter, and that’s OK. You might even say, internally: ‘here it is. Here it is.’ Hold it gently, and sense the ground holding you, amidst it.
If strong feelings or thoughts are present, notice what they feel like in the body, and name this. It could be heaviness in the stomach; you might feel cold, or restless. Notice, too, your reaction to the winter you find within – there may be a sense of trying to push it away, or problem-solving. Note this, gently, and check back in with the soles of the feet, and your seat. These stay steady while the wind howls.
As you attend to what you find in the body, the body may well tell you what it needs. If it wants to curl up, then curl up, pull a blanket over you, and rest for a while. If tears come, give yourself space to cry. Sometimes, it helps to drop in the question, softly: ‘what does this need?’ Listen to what comes back. Give yourself permission to follow this through, however small it seems.
3. Fresh pastures of promise
As you walk down the street, across the Meadows, or in Grange Cemetery, look closely at the shrubs and trees you pass. Even as sleet falls, you will see tiny buds formed on bare branches. They are the buds of this year’s spring. We can’t feel it yet, but it is coming; the earth turns, and the seasons change.
Look for what makes you feel alive and hopeful during this time, and what lightens your mood. It may be, as O’Donohue says, only a hesitant light – but that is enough. Notice what brightens it: a regular call with a friend, a particular photograph, the view of the frosty Pentlands from Arthur’s Seat. Allow one poem to lead to another, and another. Try this Mindfulness of What’s Pleasant practice, for a reminder that there’s always something pleasant, if we look for it. When you stir from your rest, seek out nature, and airy spaces. In winter we need shelter, and we also need a glimpse of what is vast, wide, and deep.
This is the time to be slow. Go with it. It could be a blessing.