December 15, 2017

Adam McHugh: A resolution to listen to the seasons

Gethsemani path

A resolution to listen to the seasons
Adapted from The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction, by Adam McHugh

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In Southern California seasons are largely a state of mind. Annual weather patterns here follow the retail calendar: we have summer, and we have Christmas. If you close your eyes and point to any day of any month, odds are it will be sunny, blue and warm. I have been trying to land a gig as a weather forecaster in Los Angeles for years.

Our weather patterns are marked by uniformity, and as a result, our lifestyles often are as well. Rob Bell observes that “when the weather is the same year-round, you tend to live at the same pace year-round.” When the weather neglects to take its cues from seasonal shifts, so do we. Unfortunately, when you continuously move at the same speed and engage in the same activities, you often find yourself exhausted, restless and bored.

What if, instead of trying to transcend the rhythms of the calendar, we took guidance from them? I’m not necessarily suggesting that you strip down and howl at the next full moon. But the drama that plays out in the skies above us so often parallels and even affects the drama that acts in us. Perhaps the seasons are a lesson book for the soul, instructing us when to move fast and when to slow down, when to act and when to rest, when to focus on the world outside and when to hibernate and go down deep.

I love that the word deciduous has the word decide embedded in it. I like to think that certain trees “decide” to shed their leaves annually, like they’re tired of giving so much energy to their leaves and need a change. Even though I live in an ever-green climate, I have resolved to lead a deciduous life. I am determined to listen to the seasons and to receive their instruction, even if where I live they are subtle teachers.

I once lived an hour and a half inland in Southern California, which made for slightly cooler winters and summers that would make Dante blush. If you cracked an egg on the sidewalk at high noon in August, it turned into a chicken. But what I appreciate about living in a climate with minimal variation is that it forces me to pay attention to the nuances of the seasonal shifts. Summer does change into fall, but you have to carefully investigate the shift. I have slowly trained myself to notice the low cloud cover that flirts with the mountains in September. The air warms up just a little slower in the morning and cools down a little faster in the afternoon. The arc of the sun starts to resemble more of an inverted smirk than a broad smile. The light falls differently and casts longer shadows; the loud pink rays of the summer sunset are brushed aside by the soft amber and burnt orange hues of fall’s curtain.

I am also learning to notice the equally subtle emotional changes that accompany the seasonal transitions. I think Leighton Ford is on the mark when he asks, “Isn’t it true that we usually think of the seasons less in terms of dates that begin and end than in terms of their effect on us: the cold of winter, the awakening of spring, the glow of summer, the pathos of autumn leaves?” For me fall is a season of exhilarating sadness, a time when we marvel at radiant colors and celebrate harvest yet mourn the inevitable retreat of the world back into the ground. Winter is a contemplative season, a time for gratefully reflecting on what has come before and quietly hoping for what is coming. Spring blossoms with renewal and romance and resurrection. Summer is a time of openness, abundance and relaxation, when the living is easy.

In noticing the patterns of fluctuation around us, we are given permission to embrace the changes and varied responses in our souls and bodies. We don’t need to fight them. The seasons relieve us from the pressure to put on the same face and act the same way all year round. It’s not always summer, and we don’t need to live and feel like it is. Just as our wardrobes change for the seasons, so do our emotional and spiritual lives. We can cycle through our own seasons of dormancy and new life, activity and quietness, celebration and sadness, blossom and harvest, openness and being closed, austerity and abundance.

When I consider all the rhythms in creation resonating to the glory of God, I am most entranced by the waxing and waning of the tides. Few spiritual practices are as meaningful to me as sitting on the beach, praying with the movement of the waves. I learned recently that this is part of a tradition called “praying with the elements,” in which we let the basic components of creation—earth, wind, water and fire—draw us into prayer. Like me, my friend Lara is drawn to water, and she finds that surfing is an act of worship for her. As she puts it, “When you are in the ocean you quickly realize that you cannot conquer it. It’s too powerful. If you fight it, you will lose. But if you are skilled enough, what you can do is move in rhythm with it. It’s just like God. You will never overpower God, no matter how hard you fight, but you can learn how to move in harmony with him.”

I have an irrationally intense fear of jellyfish, so I prefer to stay on the beach rather than surf. I sit in the sand at dusk, and I pray according to what Ignatius of Loyola called the consolations and desolations of God. As the waves crash I inhale the salt air and receive the Lord’s consolations: his mercy, goodness and presence. As the waves flee I exhale, and I release the desolations, the places of my life where God does not seem present and the parts of my interior life that I do not want.

Comments

  1. Ah, jelly fish; the burning feeling of a thousand bites – experienced a few time during my carefree SoCal beach boy days.

    That too was a different season; now just a good memory

  2. This post really resonated with me. Living in the mountains of western North Carolina, my family and I certainly witness and are affected by the changing of seasons. Here, we have four distinct seasons; there is no subtlety to watch for, a glimpse from the window tells you all you need to know. In particular, I am very prone to be affected by the seasonal changes. During fall and winter, I tend to turn inward and brood more. In spring and summer, I experience a resurgence of life and hope.

    I have noticed with the seasons, too, shifts in my attitude toward prayer and the way I understand God. In my life, the seasons tend to be pretty indicative of where I am in the journey of faith. My wife works in a field where mental health issues are commonplace occurences. I know about Seasonal Affective Disorder and would agree it is an accurate descriptor of my attitudes during the changing seasons. What I wrestle with here is the fine line between listening and looking for God in the different seasons and the helplessness I sometimes feel as my emotions shift from season to season. I was wondering if anyone felt the same or had insight there?

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

  3. Christiane says:

    “. . . the waxing and waning of the tides . . .”
    “. . . draw us into prayer . . . ”

    reading that passage and coming up to those phrases does recall a story about the great Christian monk Aidan, who founded a monastery on Holy Island at Lindisfarne (the same monastery that was much later attacked by Vikings).

    Holy Island is, twice a day, attached to the mainland, which Aidan would cross in order to minister to the people on the mainland. But at the turning of the tide, the monastery became once again isolated and cut off by the tidal waters. It is with this in mind, that we can understand the great longing in this prayer of Aidan, written long ago in northern Britain, circa 635 A.D.:

    “Leave me alone with God as much as may be.
    As the tide draws the waters close in upon the shore,
    Make me an island, set apart, alone with You, God, holy to You.
    Then, with the turning of the tide
    prepare me to carry Your Presence to the busy world beyond,
    the world that rushes in on me till the waters come again
    and fold me back to you.”

  4. Adam, I too live in So Cal, and in just the last 2 years started fly fishing our local mountains (yes, even during the drought). The act of flyfishing is different from sitting down and waiting for a bobber to move. It connects you deeply with your surroundings and you will find it is very much like your prayer and meditation times by the surf.
    Also, the habitat at mountain elevations is much more seasonal, and streamside alders and vines are indeed deciduous.
    Give it a try!

  5. I live in Northern Canada were our days are very short (6 hours of day light on a sunny day) in the winter. This week I began to notice the lengthening of the days and the return of the light. I am reminded that light will always over come darkness, that spring will return after this cold and frozen season. I love our change of seasons as it does indeed remind me that life has rythems, that faith is not constant and that the hand of the creator holds it all.

  6. I’m odd. I always get Seasonal Affective Disorder in the summer, the opposite of everyone else. Summer to me means high heat, high stress, fevers, extreme temperatures, insomnia, trouble sleeping, etc. Growing up, I was absolutely miserable during the summers. But I’ve noticed that’s been switching, maybe as I workout more, lose weight, grow older. Summers aren’t as bad now. Still get bad insomnia, but it’s manageable. I no longer have fever like symptoms as my body struggles to adjust to changing temps. And as I’ve started self-medicating with vitamin D, I notice my moods tend to be more even now. Now I’m at the point where I can’t stand the utter cold up here, and desperately want to move states to somewhere more mild and sunny year round.

    Funny how things change.

    • Off Topic, but related to the above…how do I manage my life now that I don’t feel such incredible highs and crushing lows? As I’m removing sources of depression from my life, I feel the cloud is lifting…but now I’m incredibly bored and don’t know what to do or feel. I’m not turning out of habit to the things that caused/helped my depression anymore, and that leaves me feeling…empty. My mind is free but now has nothing.

      What do I do?

      • My 2 cents: Maybe go see a counselor? I’m going to see one tonight.

        • Been looking into it. Unfortunately can’t really afford it that much at the moment, and insurance not good enough for it. But I’ve been reading the materials for months now.

          • Gotcha… Try to find interns. The one I’m seeing tonight is $14 for an hour. Read their background and try to get an idea if they have some experience outside the Christian “bubble”, while also being a believer.

          • Also look for someone who will give you TOOLS that will help you as you move through your life experiences, rather than one who just listens. My counselor also gave me homework that helped me examine parts of my psyche in a healthy way.

          • Community mental health services? Try and see.

          • Some forms of meditation are helpful in dealing with the doldrums that occur when unhealthy highs and lows come to an end. According to Buddhist teaching, the emptiness you describe experiencing now is the place where real spiritual growth occurs, provided you turn to it and mindfully accept it rather than trying to fill it up again. The best advice I can offer is to internet research and find techniques (yes, techniques) that are helpful for you. It will require some trial and error. That too is part of the spiritual growth: persevering through the stuff that doesn’t work on the way to the stuff that does.

      • StuartB, I’m going to be so bold as to suggest an exercise. You may take or leave it, as you choose, of course.

        For five or ten minutes a day, simply sit with your emptiness, not trying to change it, not trying to make it do anything, and most of all not trying to fill it. Just sit with the emptiness, the boredom, and be aware of it, be present to it. Sometimes the mind will drift and unwind from the center of awareness; when that happens, gently call your mind back to awareness of the emptiness. This awareness is a kind of gaze into what you are calling emptiness and boredom.

        For some, when the mind begins to drift, a centering word is helpful in bringing it back into focus. The word might be “Emptiness” or “Bored”, whatever word helps you to return to being present to the emptiness you are experiencing. Other people are able to refocus their attention by a simple inner turning back toward the work at hand.

        If you decide to do this, think of it as you would weight-lifting. It’s a practice that must be undertaken every day to bear fruit, if it is to bear fruit. It may not for you, but it may well be worth two or three months regular effort to find out.

        • It’s a good practice. I’ve tried meditation but am slow getting into it. I want to pursue it more.

          I guess I should be a little bit more clear with what I mean with all this. When you’ve been depressed too long, there is a tendency to be addicted to those feelings, to seek them, because they are the normal. As I get away from that, things are better, but like…the long form habits of seeking those things are kinda…gone? Still there but not? So, for example, when I’d start feeling bad or whatever, I would seek theology websites, or play video games a lot, or whatever. But I don’t need those things, want them, so I’m not seeking them, because overall doing much better and happier, stable, etc. (Prayer is another example, it always just led me deeper and deeper dwelling on my problems and begging, pleading, for solutions that never came. Quit praying as often, guess what? Less darkness.)

          So yes, sitting with it would be good. Shouldn’t have mentioned the summer SAD thing, it’s related but not really what I was talking about. Emptiness seems a good word for it, I guess. But maybe it’s just…adjusting to true normal? Which leaves me feeling…bored, I guess, lol; because I’m not seeking those dark things.

          • I knew exactly what you were talking about, StuartB. There is an open space that’s left after we stop doing destructive, addictive things; now that they we are no longer filling that space with the habits, what do we do with the space? The discomfort that this spaciousness causes often drives people back to their old habits, or to new, substitute ones that may seem less dysfunctional, but still help us evade the open space, and so themselves become habits that distract us from our inner work. The practice of staying with the emptiness/spaciousness is the road less taken, but the one that leads to real liberty and real growth. I strongly suggest that you find and read psychologist Gerald May’s book Addiction and Grace (https://books.google.com/books/about/Addiction_and_Grace.html?id=-ZM1JMX), which has includes an extensive discussion and exploration of this subject of spaciousness with regard to its place in recovery from addiction.

          • My link didn’t work, but you should easily be able to find the book by Googling. May was a real treasure; all his work is worth checking out, but especially this book.

    • Summer SAD is a very real thing, although it’s mostly been researched in the southern hemisphere, not here. But ikwym. I have to use my light box all year round, just for varying times, depending on the season.

      I would consult a professional. They might even be able to give you a trial period with a light box – many practices keep them on hand for rental or sale, depending. Usually, it’s the smaller wedg-shaped ligh found on Sunbox.com (The company owned and run by the guy ho created the 1st SAD light boxes for the NIH.) I’m not shilling for them – a lot of the other companies that claim to be selling SAD therapy lights are selling cheap junk that won’t help. Be careful. I made a big mistake with a purchase before going to Sunbox.