Seasons of Change

Dec 08, 2022

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus is credited with saying “Change is the only constant in life,” though we know this is also a basic truth that the Buddha recognized and taught. Change is certainly afoot at the moment: the season and weather, as we experience more cold and needed rain, change in hours of daylight and in the clock itself. And elections bring political change as well.

How do we orient ourselves in moments of change, particularly in moments when there might be darkness and decay? We tend to focus our attention on all that is crumbling, all we are losing. But the cycles of nature - and we, too, are part of nature - is that death and birth go hand in hand. Just as trees die, volcanoes erupt, and fires burn in forests, death and decay also pave the way for new growth. Our friends on and beneath the forest floor including bacteria, mycelium, and mycorrhizae help compost that which is dying to create fertile soil and nutrients for new growth. In nature, birth and death happen simultaneously.

In Taoist philosophy, the underpinnings of traditional Chinese medicine, this constant ebb and flow of change is represented by the Taiji symbol , the dynamic interplay of yin and yang energies. Even when yang is in decline, there is a seed of yin that is growing, and vice versa. It is the interplay of day and night: even when it is the dark of night here, there is daylight somewhere else, and it will come here again. Even when the hours of daylight get fewer and fewer, immediately after the shortest day of the year, the days start getting longer again, just as immediately after the longest day of the year, the days begin shortening. Fall and winter transform into spring and summer. When anyone is born, we know that one day they will die. The tide comes in and the tide goes out - and even as it’s in the process of rising or falling, the waves are constantly coming in and going out, in every moment.

What does this have to do with how we practice, how we live our lives? I think it’s about where we put our attention, our awareness of the whole picture. If our attention dwells in the news, on YouTube and Facebook and Twitter and other social media, we are not getting the full picture of reality. Our reality gets distorted and skewed in one direction only.

I have seen this manifest in extreme levels of fear among people who are constantly tuned in to the news or other forms of media. They stop looking around them and what’s happening in their very immediate surroundings, and believe that the world is an unsafe place, because the news reports on what is wrong and what is bad, all over the world, 24/7. I know people who won’t go walking in nature because they only hear about joggers getting attacked on trails, not about the millions of people whose physical and mental well being are improved by being out in and nourished by nature. Or people who are afraid to go out of their house because they hear reports of increased crime, rather than receive the physical and mental health benefits of community and connection. This doesn’t mean bad things aren’t happening, of course, but if all of our attention goes to the decay - we will decay right along with it.

We can instead direct our attention to that which is growing, the positive changes that are simultaneously happening - in our lives, in our communities, and in the world. It’s not about denying and looking away from what is in decay. But it is about also letting in that which is beautiful and working. And because our minds have evolved with a negativity bias, the tendency to pay most attention to that which is scary, we actually have to work much harder and more diligently to bring our awareness, daily, several times a day, to that which is positive and beautiful around us - the kindness of those around us, our own kindness, all the blessings in our lives, all that supports us, movements for positive change which are afoot, community that is being built. And we can be a part of this positive change as well.

We may not be able to stop the decay, but we can be part of the mycorrhizal and mycelial networks, we can be part of nurturing the new growth we want to bring in. Part of that is simply being peaceful and solid, for ourselves, and for those around us. Thich Nhat Hanh says, from his experience helping Vietnamese refugees trying to get to safety by boat or raft - “When the crowded Vietnamese refugee boats met with storms or pirates, if everyone panicked, all would be lost. But if even one person on the boat remained calm and centered, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone to survive.” So we practice to be that calm and centered person. We practice being a “Lotus in a Sea of Fire,” the name of one of Thay’s earliest books, about the war in Vietnam.

In a more mundane way, we can practice with the annual transitions/ ebb and flow of daylight and seasons. I used to have a hard time with fall and winter, until I learned how to enjoy what these seasons have to offer. Instead of focusing my attention on missing the warm, long days, I learned how to lean into this changing time, bringing coziness into the colder, wetter, shorter days. To light candles or string up lights, to simplify my schedule, change to warmer bedding, to enjoy warm drinks and soups and stews and seasonal offerings.

Instead of resisting the darkness, we can allow ourselves to rest within it, and know that the darkness is necessary for transformation to occur.

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