“Nothing is more creative than death, since it is the whole secret of life. It means that the past must be abandoned, that the unknown cannot be avoided, that ‘I’ cannot continue, and that nothing can be ultimately fixed. When a man knows this, he lives for the first time in his life. By holding his breath, he loses it. By letting go he finds it.” –Alan Watts
“We need the coldness of death to see clearly, life wants to live and to die, to begin and to end.” Carl Jung, The Red Book
Our modern world affords us the comfort and luxuries of central temperature control, artificial light, and a grocery store full of food from all over the world any time of year, but in the Northeast and other geographical locations with extreme seasonal fluctuations, it is nearly impossible not to be effected by environmental signals. Even in climates that experience less dramatic change there is always some shifting from season to season that influences day to day life. Regardless of our efforts to keep comfortable, our body systems, neurotransmitters, and DNA hold the intelligence of the ages and cannot be easily fooled by contemporary technological environmental management. When we live in a Northern climate the deep, darkening of Winter is difficult to refuse, try as we may. No matter how we may attempt to keep warm and avoid the impact of lack of sunlight, most of us still experience the effects of long nights, cold winds and the isolation that comes along with not wanting to leave the house and go out in the cold any more than necessary.
Winter is the opposite of Summer on the wheel of the year and has been celebrated since ancient times by all cultures as an aspect of the Life/Death/Rebirth cycle. This cycle is the primary creation pattern of the universe and governs the transformation of energy from one form to another. This pattern is eternal and of vital necessity for life to occur. However, in the context of our current world paradigm and cultural indoctrination, the death side of this rotation has come to be feared and misunderstood as something to be avoided, denied, resisted and even fought against as if it were life’s enemy instead of life’s source. Winter is the seasonal correlation to the death aspect and has been honored throughout primordial history as such a force. Winter yearly return can bring dark challenges testing the tinder and resilience of even the most robust of souls. This time can yet be rich with gifts and fulfillment when we open to the natural ebb of the Earth's spin away from the light, active, productive seasons that come before it.
The acknowledgement of this eternal pattern of life has occured across many traditions including religious, mythological, spiritual and scientific. American biologist and one of the major contributors to the theory of evolutionary Symbiogensis, the late Lynn Margulis explains:
“Life and death exist, not as two separate states of being, but as one state that can shape shift, reconfigure and reconstitute elemental qualities in order to animate and re-animate the world. It is because of Death that Life happens. Death gives Life and Life gives Death.” (Lynn Margulis, 1938-2011)
Mythology is rich with images and deities that express the template of this cycle and most indigenous cultures celebrated these phases of life with ritual, story and seasonal activities meant to provide a healthy and solid container for the human psyche and physical body through these processes.
The Inuit version of “Skeleton Woman” myth as told by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, expresses this universal truth as it correlates to love and relationship and the natural cycles of life and death that occur between two people as they navigate the bond of love. In her commentary on this story, Estes says of the Life/Death/Life aspect:
“Rather than seeing the archetypes of Death and Life as opposites, they must be held together as the left and right side of a single thought….The skeleton is an excellent image for the Life/Death/ Life nature. As a psychic image, the skeleton is composed of hundreds of small and large odd-shaped stick and knobs in continuous harmonious relationship to one another. When one bone turns, the rest turn, even if imperceptibly. The Life/Death/ Life cycles are like that exactly. When Life moves, the bones of Death move sympathetically. When Death moves, the bones of Life begin to turn too.”
This is a very simple concept. Without Death, there is no Life. But in our day to day reality, allowing ourselves to relax into this natural rhythm can be extremely difficult because most of us don’t have the role modeling and lifelong conditioning that would enable us to do so. Letting go into the Death aspect can feel as if one is losing control and reeling into emptiness and non-existence. As human beings, fortunately, regardless of our external life experiences and our cultural indoctrination, we have an innate capacity to align with the tempo of nature. In fact, it has taken at least 200 years, if not more, of technological and industrial programming to disconnect the human animal from indigenous community, livelihood, social structure, and seasonal rhythm. This has come at a great cost. We now live amongst incomprehensible environmental ruin with our physical, emotional and societal values held to the external expectations of a system that places profit above the soulful needs of the people. The sacred and simple have become devalued has time consuming and unproductive.
By tuning into the steady, constant turn of the seasons we can re-establish our own resonance with what is sane, natural and life affirming. It is not necessary to drop out of society and become a hermit to take some small motion toward re-connection with nature.The eternal revolution of the Life/Death/Life cycle can be seen in every cell of the cosmos from the inhalation and exhalation of our breath, to the waxing and waning of the moon, and the contraction and expansion of our muscle fibers. It includes the beating of our heart and the rise and fall of the Sun every day. Even as we walk, one side of our body must move forward while the other falls behind. It is because of this polarity that we can move through the world embodied and act creatively to bring forth our unique gifts, to love and to play.
Winter is the time of natural contraction and retreat. It is the time of gestation for all things to come in the following year. The light wanes bringing long nights along with less outdoor activity which in turn allows for time to rest and restore after summer's busy schedule. It can offer time to incubate new projects, gather resources and plan goals for future endeavors. The dark nights can be a comfort when we realize they hold within them the sparks of potential ready to ignite with the impulse of our dreams, as are the seeds buried in the darkness of the soil patiently still in a seeming state of inertia, but in reality awaiting the precise moment for germination to be possible.
Winter is also a good opportunity to take stock and evaluate the lessons from the past year and what changes we would like to make in the future. It is time to determine what we must let go of in order to make these changes and discern which shifts would better serve our health and happiness or our intentions. There may be behaviors and habits that no longer serve us and these can become good compost. When we are ready to release our old patterns they die, in a sense, and decompose, freeing the energy that was bound up in them. This energy can be turned into newly enrich nutrient dense soil providing the needed motivation, resources, and power to support our aspirations for the year ahead.
Death breaks things down to the bare essence, the underground mycelia, the stem cells, the archetype, the bones, and as soon as the break down is complete, the forces of creation begin to re-create and regenerate. This process is dynamic and in perpetual motion, although there may be an incubation period where patience may be required to allow ripening to occur. When we are tuned to the Life/Death/Life nature we know that nothing is fixed or finite and that even in emptiness and stillness there is always a soft, subtle pulse of existence. With this knowledge we can trust that when we find ourselves in a period of scarcity, emptiness, or darkness, that it is not only temporary, but a time to savor, drink in, and receive this deep sustenance. When we can relax into this, we can let go of the need to act and produce and grow until the time is right again. When it is light all the time there is no way to differentiate what is gold and what is just shiny plastic crap. In the darkness the true treasure shines, and as with all treasure, it is placed safely and sacredly in the dark. True treasure is precious and always sheltered away from the mundane and obvious.
This releasing, letting go, and receptivity is symbolized by the feminine force of the universe in archetypal and mythological practice and study. Femininity is not to be confused with the female gender, but is one of the two primary energies contained in all life with its opposite being masculine. The feminine principal exists in all of us regardless of whether we are male or female and is manifest in every facet of nature. We access the feminine when we practice being with "what is". Being with "what is" can be a great challenge for people conditioned by patriarchal ideals that value action, growth and productivity over 'beingness'. This lack of action can feel like death itself and calls us, again, to honor the cycle of life. These forces are symbolized by many images including the yin/yang, the chalice and the blade, the pre-Christian and Christian cross, and the Gods and Goddesses of ancient Europe.
One such image is that of the Cailleach. Cailleach is the Celtic Winter goddess and means “veiled one” in Irish. She is often portrayed as an old woman or ‘hag’, but can take many forms. She is also considered a death goddess in her role as alchemist turning one season into another and calling us to descend into the depths of our souls. The death goddess appears across many cultures and has been misinterpreted as evil or as the bringer of pain and suffering, whilst she is actually the one who comes to comfort and embrace the dying acting as midwife and shaman carrying the soul safely from one world to the other. She has been perceived as a goddess of both destruction and creation, as she who creates must first destroy. All creative activities require destruction and breakdown of materials in order for something new to occur. Winter is an opportunity to call on the Cailleach to guide us into the darkness so that we may find our intuition and know the next steps and also what we need to let die in order for us to move forward. This is the time when we disassemble constructs that have stopped working, salvage the useful substance. and begin the process of regeneration
In Hindu mythology Cailleach appears as Kali Ma another death goddess: “Kālī is the feminine form of kālam ("black, dark coloured"). Kāla primarily means "time" but also means "black" in honor of being the first creation before light itself.” Wikipedia
Ereshkigal is the Mesopotamian goddess of the underworld and ancestors. She represented the changing of the seasons, another alchemist, and, agriculturally, the unproductive season or Winter.
The triple spiral of Celtic origin and found on megaliths and sacred sites all over Celtic Europe. The triple spiral represents the three aspects of Life/Death/Rebirth with each spiral segment symbolizing one part of the cycle.
In mathematics we(well some people do, certainly not me) map oscillating cyclical patterns with sine waves. The upside of the wave is the polar opposite of the the downside of the wave both outward limits of the same vibration. Sine waves are used to predict and define natural and technological cycles. Everything that exists oscillates including ocean waves, heartbeats, electronics, and even light.
Below are a list of ideas for embracing the bounty of Winter's dark peace and connecting us to nature's seasonal cycle:
Start a meditation practice- This can just be a time that you sit quietly each day away from external stimulus just noticing our inhalation and exhalation and feeling what it's like to be still
Cook nourishing seasonal foods-Eating with the seasons aligns us physiologically with the best foods to keep us warm and grounded when it's cold. Root vegetables, wild meat, teas made from dried teas and foods preserved through fermentation, smoking and other methods would have been staples for people indigenous to Northern climates. A purely seasonal diet would be nearly impossible when there is snow on the ground for 6 months a year and may not be advisable for most of have nutritional deficiencies due to our modern food practices, but just becoming aware of seasonal recipes and implementing them occaissonally is a great way to fill up on Winter nourishment
Light candles-This can be part of your meditation practice or just becoming a daily ritual to remind you that there is light in the darkness. It's comforting to light a candle at dusk to bring in the evening.
Learn a new skill- If your snowbound, like we end up here in the Adirondacks sometimes, there's no reason to ever be bored. There must be something you have always wanted to learn how to do and with the internet it easier than ever. Learn to knit or play the banjo. One winter I taught myself to hoop dance by watching youtube videos and practicing in my living room.
Journal, draw, paint-Explore your own depths and dreams through writing or visual art. Maybe start taking photos. Winter brings so much beauty outdoors and there are lots of fun photo editing programs that can be expirimented with.
Go outside-snow shoe, ski, experience the weather. Feel your feet on the Earth, breath deeply, follow animal tracks. Tracking is fun and easy in the winter and you can learn alot about the wildlife in your bioregion.
Sleep, nap, rest-Above all winter is a time to restore and rejuvenate. Try to cut back your commitments. Snow storms are good excuses to stay home.
Move-Dance, sing, do yoga, play! Find some local classes or youtube videos. Dance in your living room!
Winter will come to pass as all seasons and Spring will return even if it sometimes seems impossible. The Sun will return with longer days and shorter nights and the warm air will surround us once again. In the meantime, embrace this cold season with the warmth of your soul.
Women Who Run With the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Tracking and the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Signs, Paul Rezendes
Full Moon Feast, Jessica Prentice-Great book about eating and living with the seasons!