If you’re like me, you may react to autumn’s shorter days with a desire to push back and prolong summer. As I notice the shadows starting earlier outside my office window, I realize I won’t get my outside walk at the end of the day. Nor will there be the hot breath of summer’s humidity to slow me into pleasant sluggishness. Since I love sunlight and higher temperatures, I used to think that winter was nothing more than an unwelcome tunnel I had to go through to get back to my favorite season. But recently I have been reconsidering.
Summer is an extraverted time, full of people and activity. On the other hand, winter is by nature more introverted. Of course there are winter sports, but for most of us a warm home is much more appealing than a nose-freezing walk in the wind. We turn inward in winter, whether we want to or not. It’s a kind of enforced meditation.
To adjust well to seasonal changes, we can learn from the Danes, a people who know how to embrace winter. They make an art form out of pleasurable interiority and call it hygge (pronounced HEW-guh.) Hygge is all about coziness and connection with others. It connotes a sense of warmth, comfort, good conversation, hospitality, hot drinks, soft blankets, and fireplaces—all the things that give you a warm glow inside. Experiencing hygge is nourishing and filling, giving you cuddly comfort and a sense of belonging. If you would like to see examples of hygge, you can check it out on Instagram at #hyggemeans.
Winter can also be appreciated through the Chinese concepts of yin and yang, the opposing universal forces of inner and outer, dark and light, female and male. The American culture tends toward the masculine yang, with its external focus, strong activity, and preference for force instead of contemplation. But many Asian cultures are historically much more attuned to the inward-turning, yin side of life. They know that although life is expressed on the outside, it starts on the inside. Respecting yin energy acknowledges that rest and interiority are necessary to balance active extraversion. They might even honor yin over yang: seeing energetic activity as secondary to the benefits of yin introspection.
When the temperature drops and the cold wind blows, it’s time to go inside—both literally and figuratively. Sometimes this takes a bit of adjusting because, like me, many of us prefer the opportunities of warmer weather. But what if we embrace the rewards of winter and welcome this season as a time of rest and introspection? Maybe winter excitement will come from reading and insights, rather than outer activities. We might sample a craft, learn how to draw, or play more music. Maybe we will spend our free time in the interior arts of meditation, dream analysis, journal keeping, and letter writing—with a nice pen on yummy real paper.
Yoga and Tai Chi are great winter exercises, teaching you how to channel the sources of your inner energies. Puzzles of all types also move you inward, bringing your mind into playful interaction with itself in a challenging way. A good movie or TV show gives you permission in cold weather to cease all activity and be drawn along by what happens next. It’s no accident that the Oscars take place in late winter. Television and binge-watching engage your imagination and let your fantasy mind take over. At such times, our TV is a mesmerizing source of light on a long winter’s night, taking us into our interior like the campfire of our story-telling ancestors.
Winter is also a productive time for exploring our psyches and getting to know ourselves better. Winter supports the world of our thoughts, feelings, sensations, and honest reactions. The lengthening darkness of winter could be our cue to let ourselves think our thoughts and feel our feelings, without inhibition or shame. We can thereby practice the work of self-acceptance, which always starts with a kinder attitude toward our real needs and feelings.
Meditation helps us expand self-acceptance. Instead of evaluating or criticizing our inner experience, we just observe it in a quiet and neutral way. A reassuring sense of comfort and connection comes from practicing this interior awareness and acceptance. We discover there really is something inside us after all. This something often goes unnoticed during our summer busyness but rises in our awareness as soon as we become more mindful of the present moment. Winter can be the perfect time for attuning to spirituality and connecting with your core self.
This is what the practice of mindfulness is all about, the recognition that this something inside us—this inner friend and witness—can help guide us through life. This innermost self can be understood psychologically or spiritually, but its fruits are demonstrable. When you contact this inner core, you feel a lightness and calm that fill you up while giving you clarity. This core-self state can infuse you with a strong, calm energy that heals the fatigue and superficiality of frenetic activity. It reminds you there is a whole continent inside you, waiting to be explored.
Summer is fun, but winter can be the deeper adventure. Maybe that tunnel will take us places we will be glad we found.