December: Turn Inward Against the Tide

IMG_3664There’s a natural rhythm to each season and each month of the year, an archetypal energy that, if we could allow ourselves to tap into, would guide us toward loving actions that would serve our inner selves. In spring we’re guided toward the energy of rebirth; in summer toward celebration; in autumn toward letting go. Then we arrive at winter, a time of hibernation, stillness and reflection.

Yet, because our culture fails us quite miserably in the realm of transitions, rituals, and teaching us to attune to the energetic stream of each season so that we can align with its current and tap into the wisdom, we flounder through these thresholds, feeling alone, confused, and scared.

As such, quite often what I hear in my work with clients is that January, instead of a time to connect to the rich, quiet darkness of winter which would prepare them for the creative bursts of spring, is a month when they fall into a hole of darkness and collapse into anxiety, emptiness and despair. They then spend the next several months trying to claw their way out.

As always with transitions (and the New Year is a transition in this culture), the conscious path involves taking time before the threshold day to slow down, let go, grieve, reflect, and be. The crucial work of letting go around getting married ideally happens during the engagement so that on the other side of the wedding day the newlyweds can embrace the rebirth stage of their transition. The critical time to prepare and  for the transition into motherhood is to reflect and grieve during preconception and pregnancy so that new motherhood can be a time of embracing the new life and identity. When we resist these letting go stages we suffer on the other side: post-bridal depression, postpartum depression, and winter depression.

Thus, the preparation for the long, cold days of January begins in December, where the invitation is to exhale, contract, and turn inward. As the hours of daylight shrink each day, you too are being invited under the covers for longer stretches of sleep, or to sit by the fire in reflection. This is the body’s and soul’s time to unwind and rest. Nature invites soul contraction to occur in stages, a slow, gentle descent into psyche’s hibernation. If you resist December’s invitation you may collapse all at once in January.

The challenge is that this is in direct contract to the culture of December, which encourages you to turn outward: to shop, to spend, to socialize, to party, to work harder, to sleep less. The culture is quite masterful at inviting distraction as a way to avoid the discomfort that occurs when we slow down. Just when the conscious work is to turn inward and sit with what you find there, the culture does everything in its power to redirect you outward.

One of my clients recently asked in session, “Where does the Holy Spirit fit into all of this?” What a great question. She’s a practicing Catholic, but the Holy Spirit runs through all religions. I see it as the great breath, the ineffable Oneness, the mystery beyond the mystery that we know when we dip down into the darkness and stillness and allow ourselves to be breathed by this great breath, to settle ourselves into the embrace that arrives in the middle of the night, sometimes in the middle of the fear, but always in the middle of the silence.

“I feel held by the darkness”, another client shared last week. (Yes, my clients are poets.) During this darkest time of year, can you imagine what might happen if you allowed yourself to be held by the darkness, too? What would it be like to turn to face yourself in the middle of the night and find that there is something else there to hold you? Many people wake up at 3 or 4am, what I’ve come to know as the witching hour, and those that don’t resist the psyche’s awakening at this hour find themselves connecting to a source of comfort and guidance. The entire month of December is the witching hour: this time of progressively more darkness that invites you to turn in and in some more and in again.

We fear the darkness. Culturally and intuitively, we fear what we can’t see and know with our five senses. We fear the darkness and so we run into the manufactured sources of light: shopping, socializing, drinking. We seek the light in the wine glass; it is not there. We seek light in the distraction of parties, which mostly consist of meaningless conversation. It’s not there. The light, paradoxically, is in the center of the darkness, in the center of winter, in the center of this month. It’s what all of the holidays and celebrations – Christmas, Hannukah, Winter Solstice – are about when you pare them down to their core of meaning: finding light in the darkness. Celebrating light in the darkness. We seem to think that the holidays are about fencing off the darkness by creating increasingly more layers of artificial light, but it’s the opposite that’s true: we turn toward the darkness and there we discover the enduring sparks of light.

It’s difficult to connect to spirit when we’re moving and shopping and attending holiday parties every weekend. And yet, according to the ancients, this time of year is naturally infused with spirit and the desire to connect to light in the darkness. But we can only feel it when we stop. It lives in the silence and stillness. It probably also lives in the middle of the shopping malls, in tinsel and holiday music, but it’s a lot more difficult to feel it there. Light a candle, take a bath, settle into yourself at the end of your day, and pay attention to what you notice.

In no way do I mean to be a Scrooge about the holidays. Rather, I’m encouraging you to listen to your inner voice, to the place of stillness that longs for stillness and the place of silence that craves silence. I’m suggesting that if you don’t honor this part of you – which doesn’t mean turning inward completely but may mean saying no to some events and creating a boundary of protection that honors your inner sanctuary – you may suffer on the other side of December. What this practically means is that even if you’re attending weddings or parties or work events that you take time each day to stop completely. And I mean really stop.

I can’t emphasize how hard it is to stop in this culture, especially during these times when the pulse is to move you out and forward. But when I say stop, I mean really stop – even the nourishing stuff. It’s so easy to fill every slot with something to do, and sometimes that something may even be the good stuff, like journaling or exercise or meditation. But it’s important to remember that there is great value in doing nothing. We are not a culture that values doing nothing, so that even the nourishing activities can end up on the to do list. And we tend to associate words like “lazy” and “waste of time” to the idea of doing nothing.

Yet what we forget – or were never taught – is that the doing arises from the being. The tasks of next seasonal stage – the nothingness of January and the seeds of February – emerge naturally when we allow for resting spaces, the pauses in the day when we do nothing: When we just sit on a rock or a bed or a bench and be.
You may receive many other kinds of invitations this month, but this is my invitation to you: Stop each day. Amidst the hustle and bustle of the holidays, amidst the weddings and parties and shopping and lights and gifts and glitter and food, make time to stop. It could be five minutes. It could be longer. If you have the urge to retreat to your bed, heed it. Stop for a minute before you eat. Don’t reach for the gadget at the traffic light. Lay still in the morning when you wake up and pay attention to the dream world you just left behind. Sit down in the shower. Take a bath. Sit down in the middle of the day for no reason. Look at the sky. Listen to the geese. Wrap yourself in the dark blankets of night. Stop.

None of this is easy. Just as it’s not easy to cut down on sugar and alcohol in a culture that serves these substances on every platter, so it’s not easy to turn inward when the cultural current pushes you to externalize. To say no is to swim upstream. To go to sleep early instead of staying late at the holiday party is to turn against the current. It’s never easy to stand for the still, small voice that speaks to you from the depths of your soul. But, from what I’ve seen, it’s the only way to experience true joy  – the enduring joy that supersedes the frills and bells of the holiday season and will guide you, faithfully and reassuringly, through the seasons of your life.

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Clients’ quotes used with grateful permission.

22 comments to December: Turn Inward Against the Tide

  • Ryan

    Hi Sheryl!

    I have noticed December and January do tend to be the more difficult months for everyone, even if they won’t admit it. People burn out by Christmas and then wonder why they are so miserable when the new year comes around. I used to fall into this trap, and have pulled out of it in more recent years. January turns out to be one of my favorite months now.

    The last two years I have cut alcohol out for the month of January. It’s not only a physically healthy cleanse, but also a break from much of my social life. I tell everyone I’m not going out for happy hour or late night drinks and it seems to free up many hours for free time, or nothing time, that’s not clouded by a few drinks. It can be difficult and feel lonely at times but it gives me peace and clarity to start the new year.

    I am in the most intimate and best relationship I could ever imagine this year, and found your site recently due to some intense anxiety surrounding it. I love your writings so much. They’ve brought me peace, truth, and supplied me with tools to do the work necessary to engage with my fears. I’ve put to practice what I’ve learned here and it has helped more than words can say. Thanks so much Sheryl!

    Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you!

  • ColoradoGirl

    I’ve always had such a difficult time with the Winter season… The long, cold, dark days. I have you to thank for switching my mindset on this season and to take stock of the gifts that it affords! Thank you! Can you speak a little more to the ‘witching hour’ that you referenced? I’ve noticed myself waking up A LOT at 3-4am… This morn being no different. One day I wondered if it was an invitation from my body to get up earlier, that it was telling me I didn’t need as much sleep, so up I got.. Then absolutely crashed later in the day. It left me confused.

    • 3-4 am seems to be the time when our psyches are most permeable, meaning we’re most open to connecting to spiritual guidance, creativity, and, on the flip side, anxiety. It’s the most common hour for people to die, which indicates that it’s when the veil between the worlds is thinner. There has been some current research that shows that we’re not meant to sleep through the night, but that humans have typically gone to bed much earlier (before electricity) and then woken up at 3am to work, and then gone back to sleep for an hour or so. I’m not very familiar with this research but it’s worth looking up. If you do choose to wake up fully at that hour I would suggest going back to sleep and letting yourself sleep until full morning so that you’re not exhausted for the entire day!

  • Marybeth

    Beautiful and true!
    Personally (as you and I have talked about before), I love fall and winter-
    I actually feel happier in those two seasons than any other (oddly enough!).
    I am certain it is the inward reflection, the stillness, the embracing, in the winter especially, that works better with my own inner nature and chemistry.
    A beautiful pause that the rest of the seasons don’t afford for me for some reason!

    • Clara

      I am with you, Marybeth. Autumn and Winter have always been my favourite seasons. It’s summer that I struggle with. Living in Australia, Christmas and New Year mark the beginning of the long, hot, still, dusty, wilted months ahead. Strangely Sheryl’s words ring as true for me facing a summery Christmas as they seem to for you all entering the depths of winter. I wonder why that is… perhaps it’s because we have the same hype and mania around Christmas, and the same cultural emphasis on New Year as an important transision, that the light and the heat aren’t enough to alter the energy of this time of year. Or possibly, there is more of a natural, wholesome sense of celebration for us antipodeans that I am not conscious of, never having had the other to compare it to. Regardless, I do think that in order for Christmas to be meaningful, rather than simply and ordeal, the slowing down that Sheryl speaks of is so important.

      • I was very curious how you – and others in the Southern hemisphere – would respond to this post. As you’ve shared, I think the common through-line isn’t so much about darkness and cold as it is about how we approach the holiday season: avoiding it with glitter and noise or slowing down to spiral into the heart of what these rituals are really about.

  • Chrissy

    I’m confused what you mean by turning inward. If I sit in silence or makes me anxious because my mind begins to play tricks on me. Do you mean being mindful? Paying attention to where you are and the beauty that sorrounds you instead of your thoughts? If it means paying attention to your thoughts how do I prevent it from causing more anxiety?

    • By turning inward, yes, I mean being mindful and connecting to beauty, awareness, nature, self. If you’re in deep anxiety you may not be able to sit with your thoughts quite yet. I would suggest starting with a more body-based mindfulness practice – like yoga or walking or dancing – and then when you’ve brought down the anxiety level to learn to observe your thoughts.

  • Diana

    I can’t even begin to tell you how much this post and everything you write speaks to my tired and scared little soul. Your words have taught me to nurture, to love and to embrace every moment- bad or good. For all of this, I thank you, more than any word could ever truly describe.

  • sarah

    thanks, cheryl, for a beautiful article! so gentle, so insightful, so comforting, and so very perfectly timed.

    many many thanks!!
    wishing you and your family a beautiful season!!

  • Angela

    It’s so true we live in a world that dosent stop. Even if we do sit down or lay down our minds keep
    Going. Today I feel a bit anxious I’m just sitting with it. My ego does like to tease me but I refuse to listen. I feel like I wanna fly like a bird in the sky. Freedom is what I seek right now.

  • Sharan

    I’ve been feeling the need to withdraw and hibernate…generally but also especially from my partner. By this I mean, staying at home more, not wanting to go out and spend time together, sleeping more often and just being cosy! I wasn’t sure if I was avoiding him or whether this was mirroring (as this always happens with our partners!) my internal needs. I’m not depressed or low in mood or anything – it’s just how I feel? Still not sure what this means… But I 100% agree with doing nothing.

  • Nikki

    Sheryl- Thank you for these seasonal posts every year that continue to remind us of the spiritual touchstones of each season. I have been learning about this (through you and others) for a couple years but the cultural norm is so pervading that it’s so easy to forget! And then I read your words and remember all over again and understand why my heart tugs the way it does, why I feel anxious yet, when I stop, feel God’s peace. Thank you.

  • Kathleen

    Sheryl, your words are always so timely and wise. I love your posts; I came across your site a few years ago when I was an “older” bride, getting married for the first time at 52 years old. Your words and book, The Conscious Bride were a godsend.

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom. All the best to you and your family during this ‘holiday’ season.

  • Ashley

    Sheryl,
    I found what you said about “the witching hour” very interesting. I wake up multiple times a night, pretty much nightly (except on the weekends when I don’t have to worry about getting up for work!), usually around this time (3-4ish). The night before you posted this was particularly interesting; I had multiple dreams, which isn’t uncommon for me, but the one that stood out the most was one in which a ghost was bothering me. I lay in bed and she yanked me out, then she started pulling me towards the ceiling. I had no control of my body; I was trying to scream and get away but I couldn’t, and I woke myself up by whimpering. It was around 3:30 am. Whenever I wake up like this I want to get back to sleep as fast as I can because I don’t want to be so tired that I sleep through my alarms and am late for work. Sometimes I think I’m scared that I’m awake. A lot of the time when I wake up in the middle of the night I am anxious. I have a hard time determining what the reason for my poor sleep is: anxiety, medication, or the dogs (haha). It’s probably a little of all these, but I think anxiety is the main culprit. I’ve always been anxious about the nighttime. When I was a teenager I would stay up very late. My desk was placed so that when I sat at it my back was to my bedroom door. I was always paranoid that somebody or something was going to be standing in my doorway and I had to constantly turn around and check to make sure I was really alone. Come to think of it, I’ve always had trouble with sleep. I’m going to try what you suggest and instead of trying to get back to sleep immediately, I’ll try turning inward (is that what you mean when you talk about not resisting the psyche’s awakening?). Regarding my dream, I can’t help but wonder if she could be a representation of my anxiety or maybe even my Wounded Self. I couldn’t get away from her in the dream; I was powerless, and sometimes my anxiety makes me feel the way the ghost in my dream made me feel.

  • Clinton

    Sheryl,

    I just recently started reading many of your articles. I really wish I had stumbled upon these a few months earlier. It’s the holiday season which can be a joyous time but at the same time, a time of depression. I’m currently going through a breakup with my partner of nearly 10 years. We’ve had a distance relationship for most of that time. The relationship had its ups and downs, but overall has been a very loving relationship by both accounts. When we started dating, they were 24 and I was 33 years old. Even though they were younger, they had much more relationship experience and five years prior was part of a very heart breaking break-up which occurred during the time they also prematurely lost their mother. They have admitted having issues with abandonment given the nature of the relationship with the mother and first partner. This year we took the next step and moved together. Things started okay, but I soon begin to feel detached and loss of emotional connection. Their desire for me sexually had greatly diminished. Fast forward to today – they expressed they love me deeply but they are no longer “in love” with me. They no longer have those feelings they once had – no longer have the intimate desires they once had. However, they do say how loving, attractive, successful and an all around great partner I am and don’t really understand themselves why the feelings just don’t exist anymore. And I do believe them to be sincere because they cried intensely, but felt they needed to move on and stated that staying would only prolong the inevitable. The feeling is they have grown apart. They are not leaving for someone else – which I believe as well. We are both extremely emotional right now – for them it’s because they don’t understand why they no longer have the feelings for me and acknowledges me to be a great partner and admits they would never find anyone that would love them the way I do. I’m emotional because I still have all those feelings and feel at a loss because it’s heartbreaking to hear they no longer are in love with me. Not sure what I can do at this point.