Sacred Winter: Reclaiming the Spirit of the Season

This sermon was offered live (via Zoom) to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Wyoming Valley (Pennsylvania) on Sunday, November 27th.

To be human is to be part of the natural world and also oddly separate from it. We technologized so quickly. Electric light wasn’t common in homes in the United States until the 1920s, roughly 100 years ago. My paternal grandmother saw the advent of the automobile. As a member of Generation X, I’m from the last generation that grew up without the internet. It’s a head-spinning concept when you think about it: from my own grandmother to me, we went from candles, gaslight, and horse-drawn carriages to this moment.

There’s a reason so many of us have mixed feelings about the holiday season. Just a couple generations ago, winter was a quiet time. The lack of light and cooler temperatures drew all of us indoors. Light was precious and candles weren’t cheap, so even illuminated rooms were darker in the evenings than the ones we occupy now. Travel was more challenging and time consuming in good weather, much less snow and ice. So, the pace of life slowed down. We had more moments of quiet and contemplation. Winter was a time for indoor activities and leaving the house at a minimum. The rare social gatherings were exciting and soul-feeding because they were so uncommon.

Deep in our bones, we carry this memory with us.  We still have the template from our grandparents – it wasn’t that long ago. As the natural world around us drifts into its winter pattern of rest, recovery, sleep, and stillness, many of us feel the call to do the same. That reluctance so many of us feel to leave the house after dark right now is rooted in the old winter pattern. I know I’m not the only one who sleeps more during winter. My body, the vessel that carries both me and the very real legacy of my ancestors, is part of the natural world. My body calls me to rest.

The overall culture of the United States flows in direct opposition to the deeper rhythm of this season. The coming of shorter days now coincides with a last-ditch effort on the part of businesses to make a profit for the fiscal year. The advent of electric light and sturdier transportation allows us to largely ignore the conditions that once inspired our less active winters. The combination means that a holiday season that can contain beautiful, nourishing gatherings now also contains a frenetic pace at exactly the moment when our own deep rhythms are calling us to rest.

Unfortunately, most of us are not able to simply step back from that particular seasonal whirligig. Our jobs and families are enmeshed in this new pattern. I don’t know of any employers who would respond well to an employee telling them they’re going to work less during the winter so they can get more sleep, or have more time for sitting and staring at their fireplace.

So how do we do both? How do we answer the call so many of us feel for quiet and calm when at the same time, we’re being hauled out of our homes for an endless parade of obligations?

I do think there’s a middle path here, but the circumstances that once made spiraling inward for winter an easy and natural thing to do are gone. So, in order to honor the pattern of this season, we have to be intentional about how we approach it. One of the most useful things I’ve learned over the years has to do with rest. I used to think rest was just…doing nothing. Or sleeping. But rest is more than just closing our eyes at the end of the night. Rest is a cessation from doing.  It’s a break from stimulation.  In our wired, 24-hour-news-cycle world, we rarely pause to give ourselves a break from the constant stimulation. When we’re feeling called to deep rest during the winter, getting more sleep won’t meet that need alone.

There are different kinds of rest, and in order to really reset, we need to understand and address them.

Our minds take the greatest hit when it comes to the constant barrage of stimulation. Many of the activities we commonly think of as ‘restful’ – watching a movie or TV show, scrolling social media, or playing video games – are, in fact, stimulating. They do not allow the brain to fully take a break. Consider the difference between quietly watching the hearth fire in a home and watching a movie. The movie causes more mental stimulation, although we would classify both those activities as restful in our current culture.

To begin experimenting with mental rest, swapping out a few times where we would normally do something stimulating can be a great place to start. Within Pagan practice, there is a widely used technique for becoming present called Grounding and Centering. Let’s try it together.

Start by becoming more comfortable wherever you happen to be right now. Relax into your seat. Feel your feet on the floor, the way your body is being supported. Notice if there are any places where you’re carrying tension. Take a deep breath in, and on your exhale try to relax those tense spots. You can allow your eyes to come a half-gaze or to close completely if that’s comfortable for you.

Draw your awareness to your feet if they’re on the floor, or to your seat. Now, from that supported point, imagine roots reaching down into the earth. Visualize them spreading out into the darkness beneath you. See them passing through rock and loam, past crystal and cavern, down to the water that lives so far beneath the surface. Feel your connection to the earth beneath you. Imagine your deep roots nourishing you.

Now, draw your awareness to the back of your head, neck, and shoulders. Imagine branches reaching up from your body and out into the sky. Visualize them expanding up into the sunlight far above us. Feel your connection to the sky above you, to the golden sun. Imagine your branches carrying some of that sunlight down into your heart.

Feel the combination: the earth below you and the sky above.

Then, draw your awareness back to your body.  Take a deep breath in, let it out on a sigh. If your eyes are closed, you can flutter them open whenever you’d like to.

Grounding and Centering can be useful to do in place of a stimulating activity like checking Facebook or Instagram. Many times, we turn to media when we need a little break. If that’s the case, swap out Grounding and Centering a couple times instead and see how you feel.

Another technique that can help is mindfulness.  The word ‘mindfulness’ has a lot of buzz around it, but all it really means is becoming fully present. When we’re fully present, we’re not problem-solving or engaging in stimulation from an outside source. My favorite approach to mindfulness is to work through my senses. I start by simply closing my eyes and noticing Touch first – what is my body in contact with?  Then I notice Sound – what do I hear?  I follow with Sight, Smell, Taste, and add one last one: Spirit. I draw my awareness inward and focus on my heart center and notice what my spirit is feeling. Connecting with all of my senses brings me fully present. It also tells me useful things about how I’m feeling and what my body needs.

Breaking the cycle of seeking out constant stimulation takes practice. Start with small breaks for grounding and centering, mindfulness, or taking a walk. These pauses from strong sensory stimulation will give you a chance to recover a bit. Then, expand them. Experiment with longer breaks from stimulation as you become more comfortable with quiet.

The next kind of rest to consider is physical and letting our bodies rest involves more than our sleeping hours.  One trick I learned when I was enlisted in the Marine Corps many years ago was to sit or lie down and close my eyes at any opportunity for a break. My day includes 2 to 10 minute breaks where I simply sit down, set a timer for a few minutes, and close my eyes. The goal in that break is not to fall asleep, although it does sometimes happen. The goal is simply to let my body fully rest. As I close my eyes, I take a few deep breaths and do a quick body scan. I consciously relax any points of tension or discomfort I find.  When my mind starts to wander, or tries to work on a problem, I notice and come back to taking deep breaths and consciously relaxing. When the timer goes off, I resume my day.

Another form of physical rest involves creating more ease in our bodies through activities that help them stretch out and heal. My own background in this area is yoga.  There are a few different kinds of yoga that can be helpful here: Yin Yoga is a slow, low impact form of yoga that involves time spent in poses that benefit the ligaments, joints, and fascia.  It allows for deep stretching and the release of tension from parts of the body that are otherwise difficult to access.  Restorative Yoga is a style of yoga that actively encourages rest and uses yoga props like pillows, blankets, and blocks to help support the body in restful, releasing positions. There’s also an entire world of yoga that falls under the mantle of “Yoga for Relaxation.” The best part? There are hundreds of free videos on sites like YouTube including 10 to 15 minute ‘wind down before bedtime’ practices that you can try in the safety of your own home.  A 10 minute investment in stretching can result in higher quality sleep and greater ease in your body. It’s definitely worthwhile.

Mental and emotional rest are pretty easy to understand, but are not the only kinds of rest. We also need to consider emotional rest. How we manage our media greatly influences our emotional state. When we do engage with stimulating media whether it’s books, magazines, movies, television shows, or video games, we should consider the emotional tone of what we’re consuming. We are already in an emotionally charged culture for many reasons. Adding media that tells a story of a descent into darkness, amps up the adrenaline, or otherwise triggers feelings of danger adds to the emotional load we’re already carrying.

I’m not telling you to stop watching the action adventure movies (or whatever) you love, but I am suggesting that you do a check in before you engage. What do you emotionally need?  If what you need is rest or rejuvenation, choose media that uplifts or informs without ratcheting up tension.

Repeat reading or watching can be a good fit here as well.  The stories we love are comforting to us and when we know what’s going to happen, there’s no anxiety to manage. Consider grabbing one of your well-loved favorites and rereading it, or starting a marathon of beloved movies. Allow the times when you do engage with media to be more restful for your emotions.

There’s a general theme present in most of these different kinds of rest about turning things down or off. Turn off the radio or television for a while. Turn down the lights. Take micro breaks and turn down your need to produce for a few minutes. Choose softness, warmth, and familiarity when it comes to entertainment. If you approach winter rest through the lens of turning things down or off, you can make good headway toward deeper recovery.

Remember how I mentioned the need to be intentional about the winter spiral? One technique I use involves setting boundaries and then keeping them when it comes to my calendar. I call it “Nothing blocking.” Most of us carry and use cell phones that have a calendar function.  To do Nothing blocking, look ahead at the next month or so. If you haven’t already done so, create calendar entries for the holiday activities you know you’ll be part of. For example, my community gatherings include a Legends Lodge, a Yule Ritual, and offering the Pagan contribution for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick’s Christmas Eve services. So, think ahead. What are you definitely planning on doing this year? Create entries for those activities.

Then, look at what’s left. Identify your days off and put a big NOTHING calendar entry for several full days. Go for at least one day of NOTHING for every two weeks. Add more if you can. As activities come up, look at your calendar and weigh them against the days you marked off. Is the activity something that will replenish you? Will it help you rest?  Will it connect you more deeply to the cycles of nature, or to your spirituality?

If not, you have the best excuse in the world since our entire culture tends to be overscheduled during December. “I’m so sorry. My December calendar is completely full at this point. I’d love to join you for….whatever… but I just can’t make it happen this year.”

The last thoughts I’d like to share with you involve setting up your home for a more restful winter season. Humans are sensory creatures. We respond to light levels, colors, textures, sounds, and scents. Whether we realize it or not, the environmental cues around us trigger specific states of mind and accompanying behaviors. Even better, we can utilize sensory cues intentionally.

The single most important shift I make involves light levels. During the dark season, dinner is eaten by candlelight, and candlelight is the dominant lighting for the rest of the evening. We have several lights on dimmer switches that get lowered to about halfway. In some rooms we use dimmable adhesive lighting strip rolls available at most hardware and home project stores. They’re easy to install and include dimmer functions. I like to use large inexpensive jar candles for candlelight. Remember that you can find candles inexpensively at Dollar stores and places like Goodwill. If you want to try this technique, choose a time for the light levels to go down. For us, it’s after dinner. It could easily be a specific time like 7 or 8 PM, though. Set an alarm to go off in your phone for the first few weeks in order to get the habit set.

Think about coziness as well. I generally add a few more pillows and blankets to the living room once the nights get long. Remember the impact of your surroundings on your mental state. If a room is relaxing, it’s more likely your thoughts will be as well.

I wish you a restful winter season. May you find renewal in the quiet moments, and may the inward spiral nourish the places within you that most need it. Thank you so much for your time and attention this morning.


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