Mid-winter in New England is a time of deepening. The hours of sunlight are growing longer but still the darkness reigns, and the living earth beneath my feet is impenetrable, offering no reminders of its fertile generosity. I sense the deep cold seeping into my bones. The deepening is as frightening as an underground cavern— frigid, motionless dark consuming anything that slips inside. What had been flexible, fluid, flowing around me and within me now feels terribly brittle, delicate…slow. So recently I remember my exuberantly joyful soul, bounding through the wonders of the fall and winter holidays, and now a frozen dessert is expanding within. The earth sleeps as hard as a teenager on a Saturday morning, and my soul feels the dehydration of going too long without its essential waters. Knowing that the natural cycle of the seasons will eventually loosen this harsh grip on my soul does little to ease my fear. Often what I know is less relevant than what I feel, and the only thing I feel is the desperate desire to escape the tight, dry, frozen darkness of my soul.
Since it’s the cold I’m speaking of, why don’t I move to a warm sunny locale? Skip the inner work and do something physical to combat this overwhelming feeling of cold and dark? Well, aside from the obligations and logistics of my life, which provide some significant limitations in that direction, I don’t move because each year I look towards this deepening as a chance to learn about myself and about what it is to be human. This year is already proving far different a teacher than years past, and its exciting to know that in the midst of fear new ideas can appear, so here I shall stay in the snow.
I am lucky. Really, intensely lucky. I have all the safety of a first world reality, heated home, indoor plumbing, and fresh food in the dead of winter. Yet even as my eyes blink open in my warm, safe bed, each morning I sense an avalanche of negative emotions welling up inside me. I scramble desperately about my mind, trying to yank the covers back over my heart, searching for the bright spots in life, trying to hide from the dark coldness which evokes the brittle pain. Yet despite the fear, which sometimes overwhelms, this doesn’t make me yearn for a vacation into the warmth of a new climate. As hard as it has been, I’ve chosen to open to this dry, cold, barren space and allow myself to feel my wholeness in that space.
I could use techniques to move out of the pain. There are a lot of effective ways to do this- positive thinking exercises, intention setting, meditation, artistic expression- really there are too many to list. There are myriad tools and exercises designed to move us up and out of the desolate places in the soul. This year though, I thought to try staying in the dark. I began allowing myself to feel the dry, stark reality and observe what happens without forcing myself onto any particular path. It has turned out that those same techniques used for positive expansion are just as effective for moving into what I call the deepening of winter. The only difference is how I choose to move within these actions. Taking a cue from some of the most revered thinkers both ancient and modern I set my intention to move through, not around, this time of deep emotional strain.
I have cobbled together something which helps move me through instead of around my pain-process. I derived this notion from the Jungian ideas of dream imagery and active imagination, combined with years of reading in depth psychology and practicing every form of artistic expression I could get my hands on. I think of this technique as encouraging my soul to create an collage. Not a literal collage, though that tool can be useful as well, but a collage in my mind and heart, one that I can see and feel as though each image were utterly alive, vibrant and loud. This collage has layers of images as well as layers of feelings, some slippery, others sticky.
The soul-collage first happened spontaneously to me during my childbirth processes. I had tried to prepare for birth by creating visual art and sinking into music, but nothing prepared me for how strongly the collage images would impress themselves upon me once I was giving birth. Many things appeared to me during the early stages of my first labor, but the fire came and stayed.
The image of fire provides me with what Jung would call the tension of opposites; I feel fire as both hideous terror and emboldening power. This tension keeps the image alive, far more than a flat dull picture, fire can sweep up around me—it can consume and it can soften, it can create and it can destroy. I accepted the image of fire in the throes of labor pain because I was aware that walking through the fire of birth would be an unforgettable and painful transition, no matter the outcome. I was lucky enough to have a healthy newborn despite a dangerous delivery period, yet I was forever changed during those 27 hours in active labor. I returned to the transition of childbirth three more times, and The Fire always appeared- deep in my soul and so very REAL- during early stages of labor and did not leave until the baby had arrived. As I studied the opportunities of getting in touch with my unconscious over the ensuing fifteen years I learned that I could make the choice to bring the images into my life, use them for my spiritual and physical wellbeing. The process of finding imagery and allowing it to bridge my conscious and unconscious selves is quite natural, I believe all humans do it. The only difference in my process is that I am naming my image-creating process, claiming it… consciously choosing to use it when I least feel able to cope, when I want to escape my pain and run around instead of through.
An image can be anything- I try not to get caught up in worrying about where the image comes from. Perhaps something mystic-feeling like a dream or meditative state will produce a vivid picture, other times (and this is one of those seasons) I must allow the images to form a collage right out of my waking life. I can’t count on a singular source to come unbidden form the depths of my unconscious to guide me out of this uncomfortable state. Instead I find myself learning to allow the images to surface from within and more tangibly, from the image-rich world we inhabit. This year, the darkness of winter has felt isolating beyond the usual, and I longed to reach for the fire image which sustained me through the most painful moments of childbirth. I could remember the warmth shifting to searing ecstatic chaos during each birth and I longed for that white-hot clarity to envelope me once again. I have bargained and cajoled my soul to hand over the fire this winter, but so far the answer is more grey, icy silence. No crystalline sparkling icicles either she says. This will be a longer stay in the lonely ice castle than usual.
After my failed attempt to lure a fire up out of my frozen heart I tried to relax into hibernation. Almost a week passed before I realized that forcing myself into a walking sleep was still an attempt to move around my pain. A hibernating bear has gathered the necessary elements for sleep to be nourishing- a layer of thick fat and a deep cave at least- and I did not prepare for hibernation this year. Life is full and bustling around me, and this isn’t the time to hide in my cave. So my bear slipped back into her gestating sleep without me.
Just today though, a new image has pasted itself to the collage I’ve been creating. A bulb. I don’t know yet whether this bulb was planted right side up or down. I don’t know if she was planted in the sunny spot which will allow an early green shoot up in March. It might be May before she comes around, I can feel the tense nature of her cells, bundled up together into a tight little knot of a rhizome, not snuggling up with anyone else, not bristling against the cold, just in it. Just in the cold, dry soil. Just letting herself be frozen. Ah, of course. I can feel her trust. Trust in the process and plan that she both is and is a part of. That she can only BE herself, she cannot control the wind, the snow, the temperature, the orientation of her planting, the footsteps of the children and dogs who tramp through the yard. She can’t even be sure she won’t be dug up and moved during a critical moment in her growth. And it doesn’t matter. She can trust only that being in the world is what she can do. What she can do is to be herself. Maybe it will work out, maybe it won’t. She doesn’t have to sleep, nor does she need to kindle a fire. She doesn’t need to change her plan, she can allow herself to unfold. She can just be herself. A bulb in winter. Covered, unappreciated, silent, naked potential. Potential doesn’t guarantee anything. The bulb has no guarantee of beauty, or even of safety. She may find an early spring, nourishing soil and a long, warm rain to quench the long thirst of winter. Or she may find herself pushing up under a rock, still not quite able to find the sun and water she desires. Either way she will have been enough, just by allowing herself to grow. Spending the winter growing thirsty for both water and sun will allow her to find joy in every drop that comes her way.
Trust is not a quality I come by easily, no wonder I did not recognize it immediately. The images which come to me usually hide their truth for a good long time while I puzzle through the obvious cliches searching for the resonance between image and feeling. When I finally stumble onto the image’s message I can feel it under my sternum, a thrumming pluck which tells me I can hold this image in my heart and let it teach me.
Now that I have an image, I don’t need to run away from the dark, cold winter. I can stay here, letting myself grow thirsty and await the natural unfolding of my growth, however it will be. I can sit in my pain, in the deepening, soul-numbing cold and appreciate the space around me, desolate as it may be because I am reminded that I trust that I am moving through something. The bulb image is mine, it is me. She is me. I am moving through this deep dark quietly, not by walking through fire and not by sleeping this time… this time I move through by allowing myself to grow thirsty in the ground.