Each Friday, we share three topical longreads in our Weekend Reader newsletter. This week, LionsRoar.com’s associate editor Lilly Greenblatt looks at the bittersweet lessons of winter. Sign up here to receive the Weekend Reader in your inbox.
This Sunday marks the first day of winter in the Northern Hemisphere — a season I’ve always loved, though not without a bit of hesitation. There are the views of snow-capped tree branches, icicles dangling jewel-like from rooftops, and the cooling scent of pine. It’s all so beautiful… at least when viewed from behind a window, comfortably situated in the warmth of my home.
Venturing outdoors and facing the cold air can make me bitter and angry. The shortness of the days often leaves me feeling dark, down, and unmotivated. It’s easy for sadness to creep in through the winter. Some days it seems as though it may never end — like the sun will never come again. But it always does.
Luckily, the winter weather invites us within, to both the warmth of our homes and ourselves. As we spend more time indoors, away from the abundance of snow, ice, and sharp wind, the natural world compels us to carve out time to nurture our mind and body. With the fresh start of the new year, this season gifts us the perfect opportunity to begin new rituals. We can choose to use this time to start a daily meditation practice, resolve to take part in more embodied mindfulness, or simply intend to take three conscious breaths each day.
The three articles in this Weekend Reader each share insight into the bittersweet lessons of winter and the inspiration it can bring, if we allow ourselves to open to it. As Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein once wrote of these dark days, “Perhaps these days of less sunlight are opportunities for more contemplative time, more looking deeply to see what perhaps can only be seen in the dark.”
—Lilly Greenblatt, associate editor, LionsRoar.com
Yoga practitioner Alison Wearing discovers how to appreciate the moment, even in the great white north.
Inhaling, I reach up, touch the tips of my mittens together. Exhaling, I pull a piece of the sky to my heart. Inhaling, I arch back into an invocation of flexibility, fearlessness, a willingness to bend toward what I cannot see. Exhaling, I bend forward to touch the earth. One boot flies out behind me and I push into postures of agility and strength, the sun warming my teeth as I smile. Snow crunches against my wrists. I lift and lunge, stand and reach, my hands gathering into prayer position and drawing down, slowly, to my heart. “Snowga,” my partner calls this new habit of mine: yoga in the snow.
Often I burst out laughing, especially when images of people doing asanas on tropical beaches come to mind, yet I take this practice seriously. This practice of seeing the rightness in everything rather than zeroing in on what seems wrong. Of thanking the cold for charging me awake rather than wincing at the discomfort of it. Of admiring the beauty of snowflakes and storms. Of appreciating my own wondrous breath.
It can be a long and challenging journey to seeing that nothing is “real” in the way we normally think it is. But, Zen teacher Norman Fischer says, there is joy and freedom in realizing that we and our world are as passing — and beautiful — as falling snowflakes.
From the first time I encountered the word in English, I liked the sound of it: emptiness. Some would find it chillingly abstract, even scary. But I took to it immediately. I chanted the Heart Sutra (“form is emptiness, emptiness form …”) alone and with sangha every day for years before I ever bothered to find out what the great teachers of the past meant by emptiness. It didn’t matter to me what they meant. I knewwhat emptiness was.
Of course I had no clue. But intuitively I knew. I remember once, at the beginning of my practice, wandering in the woods during a blizzard, drifting snow piled two feet high, chanting the Heart Sutra over and over again. In the snow, with trees, bushes, and ground covered in white, white, white, and the sky white with whiteness falling down, the sutra’s meaning was perfectly clear.
Joan Sutherland shares why we must learn to trust the ebbs and flows of awakening — agreeing to all of its seasons and tides.
There are seasons in awakening. The winter of awakening is crystalline in its purity. The snow, which has been called Guanyin’s cloak, covers all distinctions, differences, and defining characteristics in unbroken white, and the gaze relaxes. This is the wisdom of equality; it’s bright, and a little cool.
Then, if we let it, spring comes with its exuberances and profusions, revealing the warm wisdom of differentiation. Now the distinctions between things, and the particular beauty of each thing, are important. If in awakening’s winter we love everything equally, in its spring we love each thing for itself.