Samhain has passed and for those of us on the Pagan path, it is time to spiral inward. Within our Wheel of the Year, this time of longer nights, cooler temperatures, and weather that sends us indoors is associated with a restful, contemplative portion of the year. We’re encouraged to do less, rest more, and choose activities that inspire reflection or deepen our knowledge. Many Pagans choose a Winter Work – an area of study or focus for these long winter nights. The entire focus of the inward spiral is slowing down and rooting deep. We take a lesson from the trees and plants around us and allow our leaves – our outer world – to fall away so that we can focus on our inner world.
Sounds lovely, doesn’t it?
Here’s the problem: the rest of the world – the one we constantly interact with as part of our daily, going-about-our-business lives – isn’t on the same program. While we’re looking into the cool darkness hoping for stillness and healing, the REST of the country is about to kick into high gear for the winter holiday season. For those of us who work in retail life isn’t only about to get busy, it’s about to get ugly as our employers struggle to make the most out of the holiday shopping season.
In the United States, November and December are the opposite of restful. They’re a madhouse of social and familial obligations, and find us cramming in extra activities wherever they’ll fit. We have our own collection of feelings about the holiday season to wrestle along with the Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) that can accompany the reduction in sunlight.
So, how do we do this then? How do Pagans spiral inward while the seasonal Tilt-a-Whirl is at full speed?
As always, I have some suggestions. They’re things I do that help me rest and recover, and connect to this season more fully. And, as ever, shifting a pattern works best with small incremental changes. Please don’t feel like you have to immediately adopt all of these ideas. Choose one or two to try. If they stick, add another one or two, or save them for next year’s inward spiral.
Grab your cell phone and pull up your calendar. I’ll wait.
I’m serious. Do it.
Great. Now, take a look at the months of November and December. If you haven’t already done so, create calendar entries for the holiday activities you know you’ll be part of. For example, my family gatherings include the Wednesday of Thanksgiving week as well as that Thursday. My community gatherings include a November 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.
Now, look at what’s left. Identify your days off (for many of us that’s weekends) 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 so, adding it might be a good idea.
However, if an activity someone’s trying to add to your calendar is yet another holiday obligation that will invite chaos, social anxiety, or other stress, or simply doesn’t serve your own needs for the inward spiral, hold your boundary around your NOTHING days. You already have an incredible excuse that no one will question: “I’m so sorry. My November/December calendar is completely full at this point. I’d love to ______ but I just can’t make it happen this year.”
Set the Space
My students and community members probably get tired of how often I say or write this axiom, but it’s absolutely true: the power of aesthetics cannot be underestimated. 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. Here is how I set my home up for the inward spiral:
- Light levels. This is probably the single most important shift we make. In the evening, reduce your light levels. For us, this means 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. Reducing the light levels triggers relaxation. It might mean you go to bed a little earlier as well (which is totally fine – you probably need more sleep anyway). I like to use large inexpensive jar candles for candlelight. Remember that you can find candles inexpensively at Dollar stores and places like Goodwill. 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.
- Coziness. Soft textures are another good way to trigger relaxation. Look around your living room, or wherever you spend your relaxation hours, and notice whether it looks soft and welcoming. I add a few more pillows and blankets for the dark season.
- Sound. Music is such a potent tool for mood shifting. Create a playlist (I use both Pandora and Spotify) full of music you find relaxing. If you’re pretty easy going about music, the Calm Meditation station on Pandora makes for lovely soothing background music. Then, remember to play the playlist. I generally turn mine on as I start making dinner. It really helps me shift from workday mode into evening rest.
Consider adding an activity that helps you shift from your “get stuff done” mindset to your restful mindset. This can look like lots of different things: changing into soft clothing when you wrap up work, swapping your shoes for slippers if you use footwear indoors, applying a relaxation essential oil or perfume (remember, scent is powerful), or any other activity designed to shift your state of mind to a more restful one. We have two specific activities that help us wind down:
- Relaxation tea. After dinner but before bedtime, we have a little herbal wind-down tea. There are a ton of options on the market here. My favorite is vanilla chamomile tea, but feel free to try lots of different blends. Avoid caffeinated tea, and look for blends that emphasize relaxation, stress reduction, or sleep.
- Foot baths. My spouse and I follow an absurdly active calendar during the warm months of the year. From house projects to festivals to hiking to rituals to performances, we’re on our feet a LOT. We generally build up some pretty impressive callouses as a result. One practice we started several years ago is the use of a foot peel to help our feet reset after all that summer activity. We use a commercially available foot exfoliant peel (our preferred brand is Baby Foot) that functions best in conjunction with daily foot baths while the peel is working. Interestingly, we’ve found the ritual of sitting down after dinner with our feet in a nice warm foot bath is a really lovely way to relax. We use inexpensive plastic cat litter trays for our foot baths and just fill them with hot water from the sink.
We now have stacks of psychology studies linking better mental health to spending time outdoors. The activity doesn’t seem to matter too much, either – if it gets you outside, it helps. This is especially true in winter when we’re spending less time outside in general. Getting outside connects us to the larger pattern, to the cycle of the seasons, to our own place in the interdependent web of creation. So, how do we get outside while also managing colder temperatures, damp weather, and other points of discomfort?
There’s a wonderful Icelandic saying: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes.” I got to experience this in action when I visited Iceland earlier this year and the Icelanders are absolutely right. My spouse and I spent most of our time in Iceland outdoors and simply wore and carried clothing and coverings designed to handle the cold temperatures and rain. You know what? We had a blast. We were warm and dry inside our jackets and were able to enjoy the extraordinary beauty of the land around us regardless of temperature or precipitation.
If you do not have some warm undergarments and a solid, waterproof coat, hit your local used clothing store. Make a small investment in climate-appropriate winter clothing to support more time outdoors this winter. Then, take that clothing for a test drive after you wash it: go for a walk, sit at a local park, feed the ducks…whatever it takes to get you outside. As the dark season progresses, make a point of using some of your NOTHING days for outdoor exploration.
These are my suggestions based on what I do to support my own rest and recovery during the dark season. So, what did I miss? Do you have some ideas and techniques that work for you? Hit me up in the comments. You never know when your practices are exactly what someone else needs to support their own path.
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