“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
- Audrey Lorde
The days are getting shorter and even before the sun sets, the horizon is dim. Darker, wetter, colder, winter is the season of Yin. It is a time for replenishing resources, sleeping more, eating more, and cultivating stillness.
In Chinese philosophy and medicine, winter is the season of complete Yin. Yin refers to everything colder, darker, wetter, slower and more substantial. The associated organs are the Kidneys and Bladder, the colors that characterize the water element are black and dark blue and the emotions are deep inner strength and its opposite, fear.
Winter is a time to check in with our deeper selves. External distractions are at a minimum. The interior landscape calls. The deeper we go the more we can connect with the collective subconscious, the ancestral energy, the endless well of resilience.
Although winter can be a time of solitude and hibernation, we don’t have to do it alone. Our connections with others are extremely valuable in the darkest hours. They keep us true to ourselves. They keep us from getting lost. And our love for and from others is actually able to regulate the nervous system.
The Autonomic Nervous System
Fear triggers deep instincts in the human nervous system. Fear contracts the body into a sympathetic response, fight or flight mode, where our resources are preserved in the form of mobile energy. Also called “hyperarousal,” or the “acute stress response,” it is a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival.
In ancient times that was the system that told you to run from the bear. Most of us don’t encounter dangerous predators of the animal world on a day-to-day basis. The threats to our survival come in other forms, from other directions. We have different perceived threats. Still, the body’s response is the same.
If a part of the brain called the amygdala perceives a life-threatening situation, it will contact the hypothalamus which sends out a call through the autonomic nerves to the adrenals to release epinephrine, otherwise known as adrenaline.
This leads to dilation of the vessels in certain muscles- the ones that poise us to run and fight- while constriction of blood vessels in other parts of the body slows down or stops the digestive process, the immune system and our ability to rest and replenish. A stress hormone cascade affects all of our hormones, dilating the eyes, relaxing the bladder and inhibiting erectile function, narrowing peripheral vision.
Epinephrine and Non-epinephrine, which initiates the balancing parasympathetic response, are produced by the adrenal glands, which live on top of the Kidneys.
The parasympathetic nervous system inspires rest and digestion, and together with the sympathetic makes up the Autonomic Nervous System, which regulates the body’s unconscious actions.
After the alarm bells have sounded, the body has responded and is no longer in perceived danger, the sympathetic nervous system falls back into balance with the parasympathetic, into a “Window of Tolerance” which is a balanced form of arousal that allows us to thrive in the everyday.
Yin and Yang in the Body
This relationship between the sympathetic response and the parasympathetic response illustrates how yin and yang work in the body. When there is a good relationship between the substantial resources (Yin) and functional energy (Yang) then we are in health.
If the body is often in a sympathetic state, it can be hard to bring it back to homeostasis, or into that “Window of Tolerance.” A constantly heightened state then leads to continued production of stress hormones, deduction of digestive function and difficulty with sleep and relaxation. One might feel more agitated, anxious, dissatisfied and frustrated.
Over time this can wear the body down. Burn out can lead to adrenal fatigue and collapse.
So thank goodness for winter and the energetic shifting of the natural world. Our season to rest and repair. To become resilient again. It is a good time of year to take note of the deep resources of the body. Our “Jing,” or essence, which is stored in the Kidneys. By resting enough and eating well, one can rebuild those deep resources. By engaging with community and coming back to a sense of wholeness we can move forward into the fray once again.
The Importance of Self Care in Difficult Times
To refuse self-care, to ignore the guidelines of nature that requires a season of rest is to risk total burnout. Now, more than ever, it is essential that we not burn out. It will take all of us, lifting each other up, finding safety in community, connecting and pooling together our resources to make it through this difficult time. It is the only way to face fear, to be bigger than the fear, to stay awake and mobile. The alternative is paralysis. The alternative is to give in.
Uncertainty and lack of safety are part of life. For some to a much greater extent than others. For some the worst is yet to come. Which is why it is essential for us to take care of ourselves so we can show up to support those most in need. We must cultivate our inner strength.
The two emotions associated with the water element and winter- deep inner strength and fear- are opposites, in a sense, but sitting with and contemplating fear can lead to great inner strength. But we also must sit with and cultivate joy. It is essential in difficult times to ask oneself, “Where is the joy?”
Now is one of those times when it is necessary to remember joy. We must cultivate the joys of friendship, collaboration, the deep wells of creativity that push us beyond what we thought possible, into an endless pool of possibilities. The formlessness of water is the well from which our creativity springs. I use these water metaphors intentionally. To show you that intrinsically we know all of these human pleasures to be based in our watery oneness. Our deep mysterious origin. The collective sea of our being. Resilience requires the quiet rest of water. The still season of winter.
It is a great challenge to live from a place of love instead of a place of fear. Especially in a time when things are changing quickly, beyond our control, with the threat of taking essential resources away from the people who need them most.
Fear is our animal nature and love is our humanity. Fear causes us to contract, to hoard, to be weary of the “other.” Love brings about opening, reaching out, connecting, drawing from our deepest resources for the good of all. It inspires compassion, resilience, awareness, creativity.
Fear is real. It is appropriate during difficult times, when because of certain ideologies and patriarchies our freedom, our bodies themselves are under threat. All the emotions have their place, but regulating the nervous system so that fear, anxiety and stress do not replace love and compassion is essential.
Self-Care Strategies in the Season of Fear
We all have a huge impact on each other. Our compassion toward each other matters greatly. Approaching people with loving kindness is an act of rebellion against individualism, capitalism and bigotry. Even just in passing on the street. Especially now.
Feelings of love, safety, belonging and human connection create a hormone reaction that changes our physiology. They release oxytocin, the hormone associated with bonding, which is a key influence in maintaining the “Window of Tolerance.” It settles the sympathetic response and brings on the parasympathetic influence. Even thinking about people you love and feelings of love and safety can relax the nervous system. A cultivation could be to spend five minutes a day or longer just thinking about and being grateful for loved ones or feelings of love even from those far away. The gentle gaze or kind words of a stranger can be enough.
Coming together to stand up for what we believe is essential, be it in the streets or over food and drink. Direct action can move mountains. Discussion, planning and strategizing can educate and prepare us. We must be willing to show up for each other now and always. It is how great change occurs.
Because the Kidneys govern our deepest resources and connect us to the great void, the mystery, the collective subconscious, they house the source for our creativity. The water element represents our relationship to the universal muse, the drive and inspiration to create. This is a time to create. This is a time to make beautiful things.
Art is an act of political warfare, after all. Art is not just thinking outside the box, it is deconstructing the box and making it into a rhinoceros. Or a song. Or a love letter to someone far away.
Art is transformation. If we want to transform the negativity, the hate, the small-mindedness, creativity is an essential ally.
Deep Breathing and Meditation
Deep breathing directly stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. It’s free. You can do it anywhere. It reduces anxiety and stress. Deep breathing increases the oxygen supply to the brain, which increases brain function and can help prevent dementia. For more on this: http://www.npr.org/2010/12/06/131734718/just-breathe-body-has-a-built-in-stress-reliever
Breathing and meditation can be used together to inspire a deep calm. Winter is the quiet season, the dark, still season. It is a perfect time to sit with the breath and let thoughts and feelings recede to the back of the mind. Finding a place of quiet deep in the self can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, bringing the body out of fight or flight. Once you find the still place inside, it is always there in difficult times. For some guided meditations by one of my teachers: http://everydayzen.org/teachings/?sort=date&keyword=guided%20meditation
Fear often lives in the mind. In theory, the body knows what to do in a dangerous situation, but ruminating on these possibilities can lead to chronic worry, anxiety and depression which then tips the body out of balance.
The body houses so many of our earthly joys. Food, movement, music, sex, visual art, the smell of flowers… It is easy to become stuck in the mind. We use our minds so much our bodies can become neglected. When we are only in our minds we cannot pay attention to the beauty that surrounds us.
Find physical practices like yoga or martial arts that bring awareness to the body. Do meditations that focus on breathing, sounds and bodily sensations. Choose to bring your awareness back into the body whenever possible. Ask yourself, “Where is the Joy?” If you look for it, joy is everywhere.
Even bodies that experience pain and discomfort can be filled with joy. Pain, like fear, is something that can be sat with, examined with curiosity. Pain, like fear, is a necessary part of human life. It can be a teacher.
For people who have chronic pain or have experienced trauma and don’t consider the body a safe place, learning to trust and live in the body again is a process. Acupuncture, bodywork, therapy and meditation can be transformational in healing those wounds.
“Radical simply means ‘grasping things at the root.’” –Angela Davis
“Radix” is Latin for root and the word is present in the Latin names for many adaptogenic Chinese and Western herbs used to nourish the Kidneys and essence. The root of our systems. The deep resources called upon in times of trauma and survival.
Dang Gui- Dang Gui is first and foremost a blood tonic. Blood houses the mind and the emotions. When blood is abundant and flowing smoothly, the body has the resources it needs and the spirit has an adequate place to reside. Dang Gui also tonifies the qi, so the blood has direction, movement and circulation. Dang Gui is always bringing you back home.
Rehmmania or “Di Huang”- Di Huang comes in two forms- “Shu” and “Sheng”- prepared and fresh. The prepared herb is a heavy, sticky blood and yin tonic. It resonates with the kidneys and the water element. Shu Di Huang takes you to the bottom of the ocean. A good herb to assist meditation. Caution: its cloying nature makes it difficult for some to digest. Sheng Di Huang also tonifies blood, but it is fresher and so more moving, clearing heat from the blood that may cause agitation and anxiety.
Ashwaganda is used in the Ayurvedic tradition to moderate the effects of stress in the body. It helps transform past traumas into resilience and facilitates the body’s ability to adapt to short and long-term stressors. Ashwaganda is used to directly combat fear and nourish the body, spirit and mind’s inner strength.
Kava Kava promotes a general sense of well-being and calms anxiety of all kinds.
Other herbs that are helpful in these times are light and uplifting, the leaves and twigs of the plant, while berries resonate with creation, creativity, the seeds of our possibilities.
Schisandra or “Wu Wei Zi” is an astringent, helping the body hold on to its resources. This protects a stressed out system from potential burnout through depletion.
Skullcap is grounding and calming to the mind and nervous system. It helps moderate the physical effects of anxiety as well.
Tulsi is good in times of depression and low energy. It is gently uplifting and opens the perspective when one is unable to see beyond sadness.
Mushrooms have many beneficial properties to the system. The most commonly used medicinal mushroom in most western and Chinese herbal traditions is Reishi or “Ling Zhi.” It calms the spirit while nourishing the blood and qi. This is a wonderful, balanced combination of properties that helps insomnia, forgetfulness, fatigue and listlessness. Ling Zhi builds resilience by helping us deal with and moderate stress. It is also excellent for the immune system, another form of resilience.
Rose or “Mei Gui Hua” is considered a qi regulator in Chinese herbal traditions. It gently moves the qi allowing a new perspective. It also regulates the liver- in charge of stress response and emotional regulation and resonates with the heart for heartbreak, grief and recovering from trauma.
Blending the raw form of these herbs into tea and sipping it throughout the day can cause an overall calming effect. I recommend a consultation with an herbalist and a personalized diagnosis whenever possible. See your local acupuncturist who practices herbal medicine or local western herbalist or herb shop. In Seattle excellent local herb shops are: Sugar Pill, Rainbow Remedies and the Herbalist. In New Orleans check out Maypop Herb Shop. In Asheville Silver Leaf Apothecary and Take Care Herbals.
Essential Oils are strong medicine. They are the essence, or “Jing” of the plant and therefore resonate with our own essence. When using essential oils it is important to use them medicinally and therapeutically. If applying to the skin, most essential oils require dilution. Inhalation has a rapid and profound effect on the system.
Bergamot- Brings light into darkness and is good for depression. It is balancing, uplifting and gently warming; helping to resolve emotional conflict, uplifting the mind and balancing mood swings.
Clary Sage is for people who worry about external factors, the future and things that haven’t happened and may never. It helps to see clearly the things we are afraid of. Calming, euphoric and balancing, Clary Sage oil is for excessive or prolonged overstimulation leading to mental, emotional or physical tension and restlessness.
Siberian Fir grounds the mind into the body and strengthens in states of grief, fear and insecurity. This oil is also beneficial for emotional roller-coasters. Siberian fir can clarify and resolve confusion, apathy and indecision.
Frankincense uplifts, calms and grounds at the same time. By producing a focused mental composure, Frankincense oil encourages insight and creativity and helps with meditation. It can reduce overstimulation and relieve worry and listlessness and bring about liberation from sadness, and the cultivation of detachment with compassion. Good for meditation, it enhances levels of consciousness for “the mind that can accompany all experiences.”
Geranium helps treat anxiety, insomnia (applied on chest) and mental overwhelm. It is a good oil for someone who is always questioning their own knowing
Rose is considered the “Oil of Humanity” and allows us to be present with liberation and free expression. Rose is about enjoying the blossoming of each moment.
Sandalwood inspires the harmony of mind-body connection. The oil supports centering, inner security and self-assurance. Sandalwood is also used for withdrawal and worry, and for general tension or apprehension.
Stone medicine is also very powerful and to be taken seriously. Stones resonate with the Jing or essence of the earth and therefore the Jing in the body. I am only going to talk about two of my favorite protective stones. Both are black in color, resonating with the winter season and the water element.
For more information look for The Book of Stones by Robert Simmons and Stone Medicine by Leslie J. Franks.
Black Tourmaline is used for psychic protection for anyone living in challenging places or situations. Which is all of us, right now. It protects against electromagnetic radiation and can keep one’s personal energetic sphere clear of destructive or chaotic energies. You can meditate with it or carry it around with you. The stone also clears its holder of negativity and imbalance. It helps purify the energetic field for deeper consciousness.
Shungite contains Fullerenes, a powerful anti-oxidant. It is said to absorb and eliminate health hazards that affect the mind and body. Shungite also protects against electromagnetic radiation and has been proven to purify and revitalize water. For more on Shungite: Shungite: Protection, Healing and Detoxification by Regina Martino
A Note on washing stones: Because many stones remove negative energy, they can collect it. When you first acquire stones, or after using them for a while, it is good to cleanse them. Here are some tips on how to do that: http://healing.about.com/od/crystaltherapy/a/cleargemstones.htm
Welcome to winter. May we and all living things benefit from a period of rest and reflection. Even amidst what can feel like chaos beyond our control.