In my last post, I talked about stillness. Doing nothing. The “yin” quality our society tends to run from, hide from, fear.
Fear being, in 5 element theory, the dominant emotional state of winter. The water element we are in.
As I write this from the little roundhouse we’re staying in, surrounded by morning mist as the valley squints and opens its eyes beneath the blanket of cloud, water surrounds us. Hanging suspended in tiny particles, it permeates the air, sinks softly into my nose and mouth at each breath.
The fear is there too, I think, close to the surface. As I anxiously consult the weather forecast, wondering if winter will bring the replenishment the land and the aquifers need. Read the news from the other side of the world, where Sydney has experienced its hottest day in eighty years, and Cape Town is a few months away from running out of water completely.
Winter has with it this holding of breath, this anxiety. Long ago our ancestors might have huddled in frozen caves, hoping that the sun would return. Now, the worry is a more existential one. A depression born of dread, because once the festive season is over we’re confronted again with our own limitations.
We fear stillness, I think, and as living breathing vigorous mammals we probably should. Out on the hillside, stillness in the middle of winter might well equate to death. The literal kind. Our need to move, to run, to leap, to hunt runs deep.
But somewhere along the line that impulse to move and be free got mingled with this outdated Protestant work ethic, the kind that has us running from our base nature and into the fluorescent lit workstations and factories, and instead of feeling we had to do something with out bodies, we felt the urge to race and ramble with our minds. We started to want to be, not fulfilled, but productive.
I find it impossible – don’t you? – to say that I have done nothing with my day. To adopt, as Thoreau did, the idea that time spent doing nothing is how we should best spend our lives. We’re almost two hundred years on from the time when he was writing, comparing the world of man to that of the Walden woods, and still his words feel like blasphemy.
“The really efficient laborer will be found not to crowd his day with work, but will saunter to his task surrounded by a wide halo of ease and leisure. There will be a wide margin for relaxation to his day. He is only earnest to secure the kernels of time, and does not exaggerate the value of the husk. Why should the hen set all day? She can lay but one egg, and besides she will not have picked up materials for a new one. Those who work much do not work hard.”
For so long, I fond myself addicted to my to-do list. Even now, I look back over my diary with its jumble of crossed out tasks and feel a sense of pride and satisfaction, that I have something to show for myself. More than money in the bank or food on the table, if I’m honest, the sense of having Done A Lot is a seductive one. As though some day, someone might take me by my collar and hold me to account. “What have you got to show for yourself, young lady?”
In the stillness, I find a sadness. I go deeper into it, and there is a grief there, too.
What I don’t want to allow myself to touch is a sense of hopelessness. It’s the emotion I fear most, the feeling that we have no control over what is here, in a meaningless, hostile world. It’s a quintessentially winter feeling, I believe, it is Savasana, in yoga, it is the point at which we become a corpse.
And yet as I walk in these winter woods I notice that the stillness, the death of winter, is not in fact death.
All around me, infitismally small processes are taking place to break down that matter which has accumulated.
Tiny hordes of bacteria are at work, there is movement even in stillness, even in death.
Corpses will become something. The whole vast planet thrums with being, and that engine keeps turning even when we rest. Our cells regenerate and multiply, our fingernails creep forward, we age, and grow, and shed our skins.
We can sink into the stillness knowing that it does not mean stasis (there is no such thing in nature), even if it reminds us of death.
This year, I can feel the work deepening within me, and though I’ve said it many times before it feels more urgent not to rush through each state, but to allow it to settle around me, like dawn fog.
Winter is fear, is grief, is stillness and damp.
Can I allow that in? Can I sit with that? Can I let it rest?