Finding Light in Seasonal Depression

Tis the season to be… To be what? To be cheerful and grateful…or to be genuine to who and what we are truly feeling? Sometimes we’re just not feeling the holiday cheer, and for many, the darkening months of the Northern hemisphere are dauntingly depressing. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a recognizable syndrome that affects people with an experience of melancholy and even depression; usually, the symptoms occur in the wintertime. 

I’ve struggled with SAD myself living abroad in Germany and in Slovenia. I  lived in Slovenia through three long winters, shortly after the country was liberated from Yugoslavia. I discovered other seasonal struggles because, at that time in the mid-’90s, Slovenia didn’t celebrate the holiday seasons with lights or all the usual commercial holiday trappings that I was accustomed to as an American. I found out I’m deeply attached to the Holidays cheerful tenor and specially attached to the display of holiday lights. The need for exposure to light became very real to me during those dark winter months living in Europe. (read more)

We don’t need to diagnose ourselves with SAD to notice our human tendency to feel less engaged and even contracted during the winter months when there is less light in which to play. And yet, we all possess a capacity to attune to the rhythmic nature of the seasons as an intention of synchronizing with the natural rhythms of life.  

Attuning to the rhythmic nature of winter invites an exploration of constricted feelings and the dormancy aspect of our personalities. This dormant aspect of ourselves naturally arises when the light of the day grows shorter. The sun’s lightness and darkness impact our mood; it’s an observable phenomenon. 

Contemplative methods, like meditation, encourage us to open to the darkness within us and the darkness outside of us with stability and curiosity.

To embrace the dark time of year is to understand how human psychology operates. We all have seasons in which we feel an alliance; for some, that’s the wintertime, when it’s more acceptable to contract, stay home, and pull our energies inward. Maybe for you, the holidays bring a special comfort, and then the post-holiday doldrums set in in early January. This rhythmic cycle is individual and a product of our mental conditioning. 

In Contemplative Psychology, we’re encouraged to be observant of our seasonal rhythms and responsible for our minds. I like to refer to this practice as a process of embracing the cyclic rhythms and attuning to the invisible forces within us. The invisible forces include the underground unconscious rhythms of our bodies, speech, and minds and adjusting to life’s dark and unknown aspects.  

As we learn to encounter and understand our mood swings, we begin to make friends with the darkness within us and the darkness we experience in the world. 

Looking under the hood is an expression used to notate looking into one’s unconscious nature. The unconscious aspect of our minds includes conditioned biases, dreams, neurotic habits, and in general, all the unknown reasons we do the things we do. In Buddhism, these are sometimes called “primitive beliefs about reality.” Which includes any time we are projecting a conceptual overlay of reason onto our experience. For example, beliefs like, “I feel terrible every winter because I hate the cold.” That kind of belief will condition our experience of winter, naturally. 

As we enter the winter season in the Northern Hemisphere, we could approach our experience more openly with curiosity.

 We could consider the darkness and cold outside a chance to reflect on the unknown aspects within us. 

To intentionally pursue more access to these unknown entities in ourselves and in the world. This inquiry into the unknown aspects of ourselves can take the form of reading more books, journaling, and or simply sitting in silent meditation. 

To take it further, getting to know the unknown aspects of ourselves can be achieved by entering a process like Karuna Training, where we dedicate our time to looking under the hood for the hidden jewels within us. 

Karuna Training is built on inquiry and walking through the Buddhist understanding of the moment-to-moment development of the ego.  

Meditation practices, specifically solo meditation retreats, are genuine portals to the dark and unknown aspects within ourselves. Even if we carve out just half a day to sit with ourselves, either in a meditation room indoors, or maybe alone in nature when and where that works. It all depends on your access, capacities, and desires. 

For many years I’ve been connected to a Buddhist Community that encouraged the discipline of doing annual solo retreats.  As a result, I’ve been embarking on annual solitary mediation retreats for now 35 years, and though I missed a few years, I’ve been consistent.  To be honest, I’ve had to face many internal demons in these solitary retreats. I know solo retreats are not for everyone. I found that holding to a schedule with lots of fluidity; allowed me to embrace the dark parts of myself more, often in the dark time of year. Now living back in the States, I relish my holiday time, as a time of retreat and a time for holiday lights and celebration.  

Learning to face and embrace the darkness within us, leads to finding the light within us. 

We can generate our own light by igniting a heart of loving-kindness and compassion. To find this light within us, we first have to open to the confusion and darkness within us. Often we have projected the darkness onto others to keep it separate and external from ourselves. Facing and embracing the darkness is the contemplative method of finding the light within us. In doing so, we are developing equanimity and curiosity in the face of discomfort.

I’m not advocating a method to remove seasonal depression, I’m suggesting a practice of befriending our energy as it is arising within us. 

Ultimately the highs and lows we experience are important information for us to pay attention to, and there is no need to fix it. In fact, the quest to fix ourselves when we are feeling low is often a way to step over our innate wisdom. We are so busy looking for cures and avoiding our discomfort, that we miss what is already available. 

However, to glean the wisdom of our emotions, we need a means to embrace the dark emotions; loneliness, fear, and depression.  In Contemplative Psychology, we learn how to stay with our emotions, and how to hold the darkness we may find, as a path of inquiry.  There is a step-by-step recipe to making friends with the unseen forces within us. It begins by sitting down and being quiet. Either formally in a meditation posture or outside in the woods where we are comfortable and can remain still. 

First, we need to experience the mere sensations within ourselves; which may be arising as fear, depression, or energetic sensations. Then as we relax with these sensations, we can begin to attune to our breath and relax into our bodies more. As this occurs, we begin to be able to take in the qualities of the space we are inhabiting more openly. The nuanced stages of relaxing with ourselves as we are, facing, and feeling our experience as it is, instead of how we want it to be, is the path of Contemplative Psychology. 

Pretty soon, before we know it, the light will return. The dark night of the soul begins to dawn, and the darkness within us lifts. The winter will give birth to spring and so forth. The light always returns, and we can learn to trust the cyclic nature of the seasons. We can discover our own light through the practice of inquiry. We do so by staying with the darkness as it is with open curiosity.

Article written by Melissa Moore

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