For most of human history, before there was artificial lighting, the amount of daylight determined the course of activities. Our species, by necessity, was attuned to the natural world. Winter energy represented a quieter time of hunkering down. It was a time of respite, solitude, and going inward. However, it is easy to ignore winter energy now. Even during a pandemic, there is a constant virtual pull to be busy, engaged with others, or entertained.
If you live in a part of the country not covered by snow, you may feel that winter does not have much to teach you. But even in locations of relative warmth, the nights are long, and days are short, pulling us inward toward contemplation. It is an opportunity to hone our mindfulness skills by intentionally embracing winter energy.
What follows are three mindfulness practices for aligning with winter. The first two practices focus on opening to the natural world. The third is about embracing the quieter energy of winter as a time of respite and reflection.
Practice 1: Noticing Deeply
Bundle up and head outside to walk in your neighborhood or nearby park. Begin with the intention of noticing what is taking place in the natural world, not on a superficial level, but truly paying attention to what you are seeing. This might seem like a simple task, but people often walk without seeing much of the world around them. We sometimes engage with the world through memory. We know—or think we know—how it is supposed to look, and we use those memories as a kind of placeholder so our brain can think of other things. The goal of this walk is to notice the natural world in a deeper way.
Winter is a time of subtle colors and interesting shapes. It is a contrast to summer's brilliantly colored plants, wild growth, and intense fragrances. Winter colors may be muted, but when we turn our attention to them, we start to see the nuances. Browns and greys can be copper, bronze, rust, chocolate, silver, bluish, and black. Taking the time to pay attention allows us to appreciate the subtleties.
Some plants hold onto their green color for most of the winter. Sage, lavender, rue, holly, and pine trees fall into this group. Notice the vast variations and shades of green.
We might also discover berries on trees or bushes. The reds of hawthorn berries and orange of mountain ash can be striking against the darker colors of branches and trunk.
In addition to colors, the shapes of the winter landscape can be a feast for our eyes. Summer colors and foliage sometimes block our view. Note the beauty of unleafed branches against the sky, and how the wind and direction of the sun may have shaped them. Noticing the intricate patterns on the barks of trees can be the focus of an entire walk (or many). We might find images that speak to us or patterns to emulate in our own artwork. Each time we walk, we can challenge ourselves to see in a deeper way. The natural world has infinite wonders into which we can choose to tune in, even in the middle of winter—plants, rocks, stones, wildlife. We can wake up and be present to all of it.
Practice 2: Connecting with Winter Trees
While the last practice was about noticing beauty and patterns in the natural world, this one is about tuning into trees as living entities. Begin if possible, with a tree that you know—maybe one you pass every day.
As you approach the tree, take the time to connect with it as another living being. It is probably taller than you. Consider also that it might be older than you and that it lives its entire life in this one place. Its experience of life on the planet is vastly different than your own. However, like you, it is a living and breathing entity.
Stand near the tree and breathe in its energy and observe. Notice its uniqueness. If it is a deciduous tree, it will have lost its leaves. When trees are dormant, they are not actively growing, but other processes are happening that maintain the life of the tree. In a way, the tree is hunkering down to deal with the cold. An evergreen tree will have kept its leaves or needles but will still have slowed down for the winter months.
Trees in winter are a symbol of resilience, and we can appreciate that attribute when we interact with them. There is a strong life force in trees that enables them to emerge vigorously in the spring. Take the time to sense it. Step back from the tree and gaze at some of the branches. You may be able to see the aura, the energy field around the tree.
Thank the tree for being here and for everything it contributes to the world: beauty, habitat, food, shade, and oxygen.
We can develop a simple practice of greeting this tree and other trees as we walk by them. Either silently or aloud, say, "Hello tree. I see you and recognize you as another entity on the planet. I am thankful you are here." This simple practice acknowledges our connectedness to the green world and the beings we share it with.
Practice 3: Making Winter Energy Our Own
This practice is a contemplation on winter energy. It is helpful to have a journal and pen ready to capture any insights. Sit quietly and begin by focusing on your breath for a few minutes. State an intention to align with winter energy. When ready, allow your mind to settle on the concept of winter from the perspective of the natural world.
Plants are quiet in winter. The annuals have spread their seeds before they died and the seeds are biding their time, waiting for spring. The perennials and trees have hunkered down and are conserving energy. They are holding their own. We can take a cue from the green world and use this time to do the same. What parts of slowing down and self-care resonate with you? In what ways do you embrace this season of respite? How might you do it in a better way?
Before winter set in, trees have rooted themselves deeply. During winter, tree roots continue to reach out for nutrients. In what ways does that imagery speak to you? How are you rooted in your spiritual practices and values? Do you need to send out more feeler roots to find additional ways to nurture yourself during the winter? What might that look like? Where else would your roots like to explore to provide more stability?
Apples and other fruits need a period of cold in order to set fruit in the spring. How might that concept apply to you? In what ways might this period of cold and dark nurture you and help you blossom later in the year?
Annual plants have created seeds that are awaiting the right time to germinate. What dreams and creative ideas of ours are waiting for the right time to germinate? How might we nurture and protect them until the time is right?
Rest, calm, and quiet are not key components of the modern world, but we can recognize this need in ourselves for quiet and find ways to intentionally honor it, especially during this season of respite.
Consciously aligning with winter allows us to be more in sync with the changing seasons and helps deepen our connection to the natural world.