Body Sense

Restorative embodied self-awareness as a pathway to well-being.

From darkness to light

Our body sense of the holiday season

Christmas and Hanukah have at least one common theme: The Christmas star and the Hanukah candles symbolize the emergence of an eternal light, a reassurance that all will be well even in times of loss and deprivation. We can relate to these holidays in part because of how the body responds to the natural cycles of the earth. The winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, the point when the sun ceases to move southward on the horizon and begins once again to ascend in the sky, occurs in late December.

The solstice is not a symbol or a metaphor: it is a concrete astronomical event that has significant consequences for life on earth. The solstice takes on psychological meaning for us because it affects our mind and body as beings living on a restless planet.

How a person is affected by the waning and returning of the light depends on where they live. The more one is exposed to artificial lights at night, and the closer to the equator that one lives, the less one is likely to be impacted by the impending darkness leading up to the solstice.

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The experience of darkness is necessary in order to feel the emerging light as celebratory but many people want to avoid the darkness. There is something fearful about the absence of physical light because it evokes the dark side of the psyche: our fears and depressed moods, our envies and secret longings. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) - depressive moods that occur in late Fall and early Winter -- is an example of how the planet's effect on our bodies can impact the mind.
But all forms of life were adapted over millions of years to adjust to seasonal changes in light and temperature. Our human psychological experience is a part of this evolutionary shaping. A longer day and a warmer sun, even in mid-winter, can lift the spirits, settle our nerves, and give us a sense of renewal. We don't question the intrinsic value of this phase of the psyche-planet synergy. Could it be that the phase of lost light with a darkening of mood and the sense of slowing down is also an adaptive and perfectly natural phenomenon?

I've always thought it odd that in the late Fall -- when my body just wants to withdraw into cozy, warm rest in response to the longer nights and cooler temperatures - urban culture becomes more active, more complex, and more demanding. The trees are shutting down all but the most basic functions and mammals are retreating to their dens and burrows for some form of hibernation. I want to go with them but I can't because school is in session, there are performances and shows and social events, business deals are being made, and then the winter holidays come with all their pulls and obligations.

All this social pressure coming at a time when our bodies want to slow down is a perfect storm of stress and anxiety. Could it be that SAD and other seasonal dismays are not the result of darkness at all but rather a psychological splitting as we are torn between social demands for increased activity and the planet pulling our body sense in the opposite direction? Perhaps it is not our dark moods that are problematic so much as our sense of their cultural unacceptability? We see these feelings as obstacles to to the obligations of getting up on dark cold mornings, getting the kids off to school and going to work.

Let's imagine that we could just accept and embrace our body sense as it follows the lows and highs of seasonal cycles. The earth, after all, is a huge powerful engine of energetic change and we are just little specks on its surface. Let's imagine letting ourselves feel tired, I mean really feel like we are going to collapse if we don't crawl under a blanket. Probably, you could find that feeling inside right now if you let yourself. Let's imagine that we could give in completely to our sadness, that tears might come because we really let our feeling fill up the present moment; we become sadness and there is nothing else in the world but sadness. What would happen if we could do that?

Body sense is the lived present moment feeling experience of our sensations, movements, and emotions. Body sense is not a theoretical or conceptual awareness. It is not, "Yeah, I know that my body slows down in the Fall." That's conceptual awareness, an awareness about the body. When we analyze, question, judge, suppress or deny the existence of the body sense, we are no longer in our body sense. We are thinking about the body rather than living in the body. Denying the evidence of our senses actually takes a lot of effort, both mental and physical, which contributes to the fatigue and sense of despair that accompanies seasonal mood swings. The dysfunctional aspect of affect often comes from the active denial and suppression of our moods and not from the moods themselves.

So, what does happen if we totally let ourselves go into the dark side of the psyche? Surprisingly, what happens is almost instant relief! When we experience the true depth and darkness of a feeling of despair, and tears well up spontaneously, it can have a soothing effect. It changes our physiology from sympathetic nervous system defense and denial patterns into parasympathetic relaxation states. It improves our outlook on the world and fellow feelings, especially if this disclosure is shared with a trusted companion. When we give into the exhaustion, we often fall into a restful and healing sleep, a sleep that could last a few minutes or hours. We wake up renewed.
Maybe there is hidden rage at current or past injustice, or an unexpressed desire for fulfillment. Contacting our body sense of these feelings is not about acting on them but simply about feeling them. When we do that, what we've hidden from ourselves in darkness can now be revealed in the light of awareness. We can become more completely ourselves, more confident, more fully alive.

I understand why you might not want to go into those dark places. But in December and January, you are in darkness whether you let yourself feel it or not. I'm reminded of a passage from Thoreau, "If, then, we would indeed restore mankind . . . let us first be as simple and well as Nature ourselves, dispel the clouds which hang over our brows, and take up a little life into our pores." Sometimes the "life" we need to take in feels like a retreat and a loss. But nature herself waxes and wanes, grows and recedes, lives and dies. In the midst of this shifting and change is one certainty: The inner eternal light will naturally follow the dark time of the soul; it's the way of the earth and of all her creatures.

Alan Fogel, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

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