Winter is the season associated with introspection, slowing down and conserving resources. It is also the season associated with the emotion fear. Some of us know well the anxiety which arises the minute we stop DOING something. What we are forgetting in that moment is the importance of rest and recovery.
Nature knows how to rest and how to trust. As the tree pulls it’s life-giving sap into it’s roots in cold weather, it is allowing for the possibility that some of its twigs and branches may be sacrificed in winter storms. As bears go into hibernation and frogs literally freeze during winter months, they do so with some innate knowledge that winter won’t last forever.
That time of darkness can be scary. To survive winter requires a certain amount of faith that spring’s thaw will indeed come again. While NC winters aren’t typically harsh, there are those ice storms that lock us inside for several days, sometimes without power or phones. Some people appreciate these days as a forced method to “unplug.” For some, the prospect of being alone without modern distractions leaves us feeling vulnerable. And for others, these days are physically dangerous–leaving us without heat and the ability to cook food.
Alone with our thoughts and discomforts, we might have to face difficult feelings of fear, anger, grief or shame. Even without ice storms, we may have experiences or circumstances which leave us feeling trapped, frightened, vulnerable. Something happens and we are left frozen in a state of panic. We know we need to move in some direction, but can’t see how we can possibly take that first step. Obviously, rectifying a threatening physical situation is the first order of business. But what do we do when the pain is not life-threatening but extremely uncomfortable?
Teachers like Pema Chodron and Jon Kabat-Zinn emphasize the importance of giving our undivided attention to both physical pain and difficult emotions. Our natural tendency is to resist discomfort…to want to push it away. But just like a two year-old wanting your attention, the physical and emotional pain you ignore only cries louder. Sometimes just picking up the child is enough to quiet her down. Similarly, looking directly into the fear or acknowledging the pain is sometimes enough to calm it to manageable levels.
To do this, mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat Zinn suggests beginning with deep breathing followed by a body scan type of meditation. The idea is to allow yourself to actually feel what you are feeling, including difficult feelings like emotional and physical pain, fear and anger.
Similarly, in her book Walking the Walk, Pema Chodron offers an exercise with the acronym FEAR:
Find the feeling in your body. Locate the pain or difficult emotion. Where is it exactly in your body? What does it feel like? What color is it? Does it have a shape? Does it have any words?
Embrace the feeling. Treat that pain or fear or anger or grief the way you would treat a crying baby…with compassion and kindness. With an acceptance of the upset and a loving embrace.
Allow the thoughts that surround the upset to begin to dissipate. Don’t try to avoid them, don’t shame yourself for having those thoughts. Simply acknowledge that they exist, but let them fade into the background. Continue to notice where the discomfort is, what it feels like and how it changes as you focus on it with loving attention. How does it change when you stop giving credence to the thoughts and meaning surrounding the sensation of discomfort?
Remember others who might be experiencing similar pains or fears or difficulties. Pain and suffering are human experiences. Although our particular grief or anger feels unique to us, chances are there are thousands of others around the world feeling very much the same way we are feeling. In your mind, send those anonymous others your empathy, your compassion, and your hopes that thier suffering will be lifted.
You can here more about this practice from Pema Chodron.
Local Quaker minister, SaraBeth Terrell, also offers this guided practice.
Jon Kabat-Zinn’s guided meditation for physical pain.
If you just need a laugh along with some scientific reasons that doing these kinds of exercises might actually help real pain, listen to Lorimer Moseley’s Why Things Hurt. In this short TED talk, Moseley discusses what’s happening in the brain when we feel physical pain. He explains why it is that we continue to feel pain–sometimes even severe pain–after the injury to our body is healed.
Finally, if you need some help, community acupuncture is a great way to turn inward without being alone. In a room with other people all intent on healing, you can receive acupuncture treatments designed to calm that “fight or flight” response. You can practice these techniques inwardly while under the compassionate care of a practitioner and commumity who are committed to nuturing your best self.
— Heather McIver, LAc
Winter time in Chinese medicine is when yin is plentiful relative to yang. Yin is cool, dark, inward, still, as opposed to yang which is warm, light, outward, and active. Winter is about conserving and storing energy. After the harvest in the fall, perennial plants must rest and replenish over the winter, so that they will not become depleted and will be productive again in the spring.
This is also how we should regard our bodies and minds in the winter. The emphasis is on conserving, storing, and replenishing our energy for the upcoming year ahead. Some things we can do during winter to live according to the seasons are:
All of these things will help nourish the kidneys–the root of life–and allow you to live a long and healthy life, say the ancients. Living according to the seasons can help prevent health problems before they arise.
–Jesse Andreas, L.Ac.
Chinese medicine operates from the belief that the body possesses its own innate ability to heal, and that disease symptoms manifest when elemental energies are out of balance. When proper balance is restored, health is the natural result. Not long after I began to study Chinese medicine, I noticed a similarity between how human health is cultivated in this ancient system and how an organic gardener promotes health in plants.
Organic gardening uses natural methods to promote the plant’s powers of growth and healing. In a general sense, chemical gardening follows the approach to health used by Western medicine. An organic gardener ensures a plant reaches its full potential by making sure that the elemental energies the plant depends upon are in a relative state of balance. Temperature, moisture, ph and the gases and minerals in the soil must be in balance for the health and optimal functioning of the organism.
When trying to control a pest population in a garden, there are two ways to proceed. The organic gardener would make sure that the diversity of plants in the garden brought about the right balance of insects in order to control pest populations. They might introduce predatory insects that would feed off the bugs eating the plants without harming the plants themselves. They would also make sure that the soil was well balanced, so that the immunity of the plants is strong. Strong plants can fight off the pests on their own.
In another approach, the conventional gardener might spray the plants with chemicals to kill the pests. This may be effective in the short term, but does not ultimately solve the problem, because it does not address the reason the pest infestation arose in the first place. It may also cause other problems down the road. Modern medicine has such value, especially in emergency situations. But similar to chemical gardening, it can produce unwanted side effects, and does not always deal with the underlying causes of disease.
You may be asked questions by your Chinese medicine practitioner that seem entirely unrelated to the reason you are seeking treatment. Questions like “Do you have an intolerance for cold weather, or get cold hands and feet”? “Do you get hot flashes, or sweating at night”? We ask these questions because every symptom in Chinese medicine is understood in a larger context. Your answers to these questions help us understand how to treat your back pain or your headaches. Chances are that your treatment will be very different from another person’s treatment even if they have very similar complaints.
We look at the environment in which you are growing and try to help you adjust your internal and external influences so that you can be stronger and more resistant to disease. Much like an organic gardener, we hope to support your own natural healing power by bringing all the elements into balance.
–Jesse Andreas, L.Ac.