soul work

Lessons of Severe Weather

On the East Coast, a blizzard this weekend caused record levels of snow and shut down all transportation. It’s provided a good opportunity to reflect—to avoid the temptation to distract ourselves with radio or television – and simply relax, enjoy the silence and stillness, and simply do nothing. We cannot choose either the effects or the timing of severe weather, and so a snowstorm gives us a chance to clear away distractions from our lives and to help us focus on what’s important. Harsh weather often has important lessons to teach us, if we’re willing to listen. As long as we don’t need to be anywhere, we can forego shoveling snow and scraping off the windshield and instead turn within, cultivating a practice of stillness and quiet reflection.

Snow-007What insights can come to us when harsh weather has sealed the exits, reduced available distractions, and encouraged us to go deep? The first and most obvious is a reminder of our vulnerability. In a time when lights are always on, food is readily available, and travel is so easy, it helps to remember and be grateful for that complex web of infrastructure on which our lives in the 21st century depend. A mere 20″ of snow can shut down a major metropolitan area for 24 hours. What other conditions beyond our control have such a dramatic effect on our lives?

During a power failure, when we no longer have access to such an easy, plentiful supply of light, we need to sit in darkness, or else use candles or other alternative sources of electricity. What thoughts and feelings occur to us while sitting in darkness? What stories do we tell ourselves and each other, what music gives us comfort or ignites our imaginations? The incandescent lightbulb as we know it has only existed for 130 years or so. Before that, for many thousands of years, the pace of life naturally slowed after dark; human beings relied less on their eyes and more on their other senses. This was traditionally a time of music, of storytelling, and sometimes dance. Reading and other activities involving intense use of the eyes was no longer possible except at great expense. The intuition was engaged much more actively. The rhythm of the seasons was much more closely felt as well; the shortening of the day, culminating in the Winter Solstice, meant that an even greater reliance on listening and intuition were required. In contrast to the Holidays as we experience them today, the holiday season was a time of solemnity and silence – for serious reflection, assessment of the old year, and plans for the New Year.

The slowdowns in transportation, whether through an automobile or public transit, are an invitation to stay close to home and become re-acquainted with our personal living space, our neighborhood, or our neighbors. During severe weather, people rely on each other in ways that they usually don’t. The closure of roads and bridges creates an opportunity to develop a sense of place, which everyone had in the days before rapid transit; however, it’s usually not evident except in a few places in the U.S., or else in times of harsh weather.  Who are your neighbors, the people you would need to rely on in an emergency? What wildlife lives near you? Even the most densely-populated urban areas have wild creatures who adjust their behavior to the onset of harsh weather. In many cases, these creatures were aware of the coming storm much sooner than human beings. What are their survival strategies? How do they live? Get curious.

If you’re snowed in, there’s still a lot to do. The best ideas come only after quiet contemplation and reflection; however, here are some suggestions:

  1. Sleep late. If you don’t need to be anywhere or do anything, there’s no reason not to break with your regular routine. It’s OK to sleep in if the weather has made you unable to fulfill responsibilities. Sooner or later, if you spend time in bed with no electronics or other distractions, your body will want to move. Get out of bed only when your body demands it.
  2. Try some yoga poses at home. Not everyone can do this – you need enough space for it, and family who will cooperate in not disturbing you. But most people who would like to exercise at home can do so, and with a relatively small amount of space and equipment. Even people who say they don’t have time to exercise suddenly have time for it once they’re unable to get to work or school. Start small—fifteen minutes is plenty to start. You can find yoga routines on YouTube or other places on the Internet.
  3. Meditate. One of the aftereffects of a storm – particularly a snowstorm – is a comforting silence. Few automobiles are on the road, and even birds are quiet. The silence can provide a delicious freedom from distraction and make it a perfect time to begin a meditation or sitting practice.
  4. Read. Those books on your shelf that you’ve been meaning to read are still there, and quiet time is the perfect time. In keeping with the season’s traditional focus on the imagination, I personally prefer material that tells a story; that contains a strong narrative voice; that speaks to a sense of place; or that uses metaphor or puts another’s personal experience into sharp focus. Some of my favorite winter reading includes:

Robert Bly: The Light Around the Body. Bly was a poet long before he was a teacher and facilitator. This book of poems, one of his earlier ones, won the 1967 National Book Award.

Henry Beston: The Outermost House. Published in 1928, it chronicles the author’s year spent living close to the elements in a house on Cape Cod.

James Ogilvy:  Living Without a Goal. Reflections on purpose and passion.

Saul Bellow: The Adventures of Augie March. A beautiful coming-of-age story published in 1953.

David Deida: Blue Truth. A series of brief, intense reflections on life, sex, and death.

Natalie Goldberg:  Writing Down the Bones. A book that compares writing with spiritual practice. A must for anyone interested in learning how to write on a regular basis.

Ram Dass: How Can I Help? A beautiful collection of stories and meditations about people who have helped others.