Forest in snow

Lessons from the Natural World

A Dream of Trees and Mindfulness Practices for the Meeting of the Winter Solstice and Holiday Stress

There is a thing in me that dreamed of trees,
A quiet house, some green and modest acres
A little way from every troubling town,
A little way from factories, schools, laments.
I would have time, I thought, and time to spare,
With only streams and birds for company,
To build out of my life a few wild stanzas.
And then it came to me, that so was death,
A little way away from everywhere.

There is a thing in me still dreams of trees.
But let it go. Homesick for moderation,
Half the world’s artists shrink or fall away.
If any find solution, let him tell it.

Meanwhile I bend my heart toward lamentation
Where, as the times implore our true involvement,
The blades of every crisis point the way.

I would it were not so, but so it is.
Who ever made music of a mild day?

~Mary Oliver

Last night, I had a striking dream of trees.

A black panther appears before me on a path I am walking in the woods. She pauses to gaze at me with piercing yellow eyes, a beacon of aliveness, and then crosses the trail and ventures off into the darkness of the deep forest. My small dog, Ollie, takes off after the powerful cat, and I continue calmly on my path, assuming he is lost to natural predation. A few moments later, he joins me again, tail happily swinging back and forth, unphased. Then I wake up.

In the morning, I dig out The Book of Symbols, and begin to excavate the dream, investigating this animal spirit in all its power, mysticism, and vitality. The black panther is the most nocturnal of animals, disappearing into the dark with ease and agility. This animal is an elusive arboreal hunter, associated with the shape-shifting of shamans, capable of dragging prey heavier than itself into the tree-tops, this place that is considered to be the numinous opening to the land of the spirits. 

Recently, I have been very aware of trees and they have beckoned me with a magnetic pull that I have not been able to resist. I leave work early to wander into the forest, laying down on the earth and resting beneath blue spruces, Junipers, and Douglass firs. I study their branches, needles, pinecones, bark, the soft soil where the roots disappear into the dirt. Laying on the ground in the forest, I often fall asleep, the invitation to rest is so strong. 

In the past weeks I have been very tired, working through some digestive challenges and accompanying fatigue. I am unable to sleep soundly at night in my bed, regardless of sleep hygiene or meditation, haunted by spiraling thoughts and organs that aren’t functioning as they once did. I spend the days in a bleary fog, sinking deep into myself, craving rest, unwilling and unable to participate in the holiday chaos and business that is so contrary to our human nature and this darkest time of turning inwards and contemplation. I have meditated with the solidity of a tree trunk, found refuge in the support of the wooden floor beneath me, and invited my yoga students to find balance and strength in their torsos, rooting down into their feet and spreading their arms like branches into the sky. I wear earrings with the Tree of Life image, and long sweaters of earthy green, invoking the spirit of the forest inwardly and outwardly, and I walk among the trees each day, leaving my cell and any notion of time or tasks in the world of metal and man behind in the car, disappearing as much as I can—if only for an hour or two—into the wild.

My spirit is weary, having lived many lifetimes in this one. If reincarnation is real, and my old soul has life left in it, I believe that I am done walking the world in human form. When I am reborn into new life, perhaps I will take the form of a tree. That, to me, feels like true rest. 

And so, the black panther lingers in the darkness, staying hidden, yet filled with strength and power. She sleeps during the day, safely tucked into secret places where she will not be seen by other animals or man, and she prowls deep into the night, visiting me in the dreamworld, letting me know that it truly is okay to rest, even when everyone else is bustling about, racing through these shortest of days, filling them to the brim with excess and spending, busy-ness and stress. 

In these darkest times, the longevity of night and the bristle of cold remind us of our true nature, to turn inward, to go slow, to rest and tuck in beside those we love. It is okay to work less and feel more. It is our instinct to cozy up next to our sweethearts and children and stay inside. We will soon be turning back towards the sun and the days will lengthen quickly enough. For now, invite yourself to disappear as you need to, finding your inner nature in the darkness and in the vast wilderness of the night. 

Mindfulness Practices for the Winter Solstice:

  1. Take your time upon waking: Before you get out of bed, bring your attention to your body touching the sheets, feel the effect of gravity and the weight of yourself pressing into the mattress. Let yourself take a few complete breaths all the way in and out. Listen to the sounds in the room, and even outside. 
  2. Eat slowly: Pay careful attention to the nourishment you are putting into your body. Can you see the sunlight, the rain, the earth, the farmer, the trucker in your food? Pay attention as you eat, consciously consuming this food for your physical health. Bring awareness to seeing your food, smelling your food, tasting your food, chewing your food, and swallowing your food. Include nourishing foods and winter vegetables and see if you can resist the temptation to saturate the system with sugars, fats, and alcohol. Spiced teas, and herbs such as fennel, anise, and St. John’s Wort are warming and support immune system function and digestion. 
  3. Move with intention: Invite care and kindness into your posture and movement. Practice yin yoga or mindful walking, and bring compassion, kindness, and equanimity to your body, not allowing the blood-flow to stagnate and avoiding over-exertion. If you can, try to forget about holiday weight gain and just see if you can find balance, keeping the body moving and also allowing for softening and rest. 
  4. Mind the chaos: Use sound as an anchor to the present moment when the world becomes dizzying around you. Whenever you hear a phone ringing, birdsong, a train passing by, laughter, a car horn, the wind, the sound of a door closing, you can use any sound as a bell of mindfulness. See if you can just receive the sound without judgment or attachment, or wanting it to be different, as an opportunity to accept the world as it is. This allows you to choose how you respond, instead of getting caught up in automatic reactivity. 
  5. Bring attention to your breath throughout the day: Spend some time each morning, during transitions, or before bed simply breathing. Focusing on the physical sensations of the breath for a few minutes at a time often has a calming effect on your nervous system and can be an opportunity to rest attention, even amidst all the tasks and movement and doing that is also happening.
  6. Notice your body while you walk or stand: Take a moment to notice your posture. Pay attention to the contact of the ground under your feet. Feel the air on your face, arms, and legs as you walk. Are you rushing? Whenever you wait in a line, use this time to notice standing and breathing. Notice how your body feels. Bring attention to the rise and fall of your abdomen. Are you feeling impatient? 
  7. Practice body awareness: Be aware of any points of tightness in your body throughout the day. See if you can breathe into them and, as you exhale, let go of excess tension. Is there tension stored anywhere in your body? For example, your neck, shoulders, stomach, jaw, or lower back? If possible, stretch or do yoga once a day. 
  8. Meditate: Spend time in stillness, quiet, and contemplation. Allow for whatever arises to be present, letting yourself have the experience you are already having. Make space for emotions, inhaling into them with the breath and softening around them. Welcome whatever comes, just as you would offer your arms to a tired child. Invite the mind to rest by bringing attention to thoughts and allowing yourself to simply observe them flowing by. There is no “doing it wrong” when it comes to meditation. Whatever you notice is what you notice. You may not be able to stop your thoughts or find inner peace, though making space for yourself to simply be can offer the nervous system and the mind an opportunity to slow down and to reside in a state of non-reactive awareness.

While these practices won’t necessarily make you less tired or more energized, they do create space for accepting things as they already are. Turning our attention towards our inner world, aligning with the cycles of nature, and giving ourselves permission to do less, is the gift of loving ourselves and embracing our own experience with kindness. Giving yourself this gift now lays the foundation for also gifting your attention and care to others, when it is needed. 

Happy holidays, and may you rest in present-moment awareness, live with ease, and nurture your essential human-ness during this deep, rich, and contemplative time of year.

MFA, RP, Executive Director of the Rocky Mountain Mindfulness Center