The Integrationist

Complementary/alternative and conventional approaches to mind-body healing

"Winter Rage," Mindfulness, and the Gift of the Present

It's cold, snowy, and you are probably pissed. But beneath it all lies a gift.

There is a hilarious post on NPR about the “stages of winter rage” (you can view it here). It is enjoying a happy jaunt around Facebook via shares punctuated by commiseration. Recently, I commented, “I shake my fist at you, Old Man Winter!” I believed, for a moment, in a mythological sadist plaguing the Northeast with snow. In New York City, where I practice, we have achieved the dubious distinction of making the top ten in terms of accumulation for a given season. This has generated fantasies of donating my parka and, as my grandparents did before me, fleeing to Florida. I've been cold, tired, damn tired of being cold and tired, and frankly pissed that New York is the new Maine with regard to weather. But recently, something shifted.

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Winter can teach us much about mindfulness. Yes, you heard right—winter can teach us how to be in and sit with the present, whatever it is. Getting angry at winter does not make it spring. It doesn’t melt snow, it doesn’t make flowers bloom. Anger, frustration, and resentment are emotions felt in the moment, and it’s fine and even important to acknowledge them. But clinging to those feelings doesn’t do more than prolong feeling angry, frustrated, resentful. Truly. Which prevents us from noticing much else in the moments we actually have.

After all, the present moment is the sole one we can ever really possess, however fleetingly. It’s the only time in which to actually do or experience something. Everything else is really reminiscing or ruminating about the past, fearing or longing for a future that may never resemble the fantasied one. When the past was occurring, it was the present. When the future arrives, again, it will be our present. And we only experience the present it when we are in it. Fully.

So often, we tell ourselves things like, “If only I could go back to…” (“high school, college, last year, when I was in better shape/health,” etc.). Or we think, “I will finally be happy/fine/okay when I… (“lose weight,” “make more money,” “finish school,” “am in a relationship,” “when it’s summer again,” etc.). Longing for what has passed or making our happiness contingent upon a future, hoped-for outcome is a totally natural experience, and a condition from which a scant few of us will ever fully “cure” ourselves. But there is so much to gain from learning to be where we are, however or whatever that is right now—even if we deem a part of the present moment unpleasant, or challenging, or uncomfortable. 

Wishing the moment (or winter) away, in effect, is wishing our life away. It goes by quickly enough as it is.

Present-moment awareness enables us to experience something far beyond what we typically take in through our everyday lenses. Again, winter can teach us much about the gift of the present. As an example, I went to the beach on Monday, at first, hyperaware of the wind scouring my face, my fingers, like little icicles in my pockets, the bottoms of my pants and coat yet again dusted with salt and dirty snow. There, I shivered and lamented the unexpected snowy burial of crocuses that only a day prior had broken through the cold earth. “I am so sick of freezing my butt off!” I thought. “Where in the heck is spring?”

Despite the wind and the chill, however, I trudged closer to the ocean, observing the gray sky meeting the water in the distance. As I allowed myself to remain fully present, and release my frustration and discomfort temporarily, I noticed a large flock of seagulls contentedly bobbing on the water. Nearby, others gazed out to sea from a rocky outcropping, while a few gracefully dove into the icy water in search of sustenance. I had never given much thought to the life of seagulls, I will admit, but as I watched them, I marveled at their ability to be at peace with what is—whether the blazing summer sun scalding the rocks beneath or the icy spray splashing over them. I found myself transfixed by the play of light across the sand, snow, and sea, the mosaic of shells frozen in the landscape, the exquisite silence of this lovely, desolate space. Unexpectedly, I flashed back to walking along the Hudson River during a previous snowstorm, my body similarly chilled, and the late morning’s quiet broken only by the sound of boots crunching on the frozen walkway. I remembered that in that moment, I had been completely taken by the sailboats moored among the slabs of ice that danced on the water—both against the backdrop of the city.

What a gift to get out of my head and into my world.

In a few months, the beach will again be hot and busy and dotted with people sunning themselves, children chasing each other across the sand. The silence will be broken by cars racing for spots, and the tinkling bells of beach cruisers. The city will be as loud and vibrant and bustling as ever, the Hudson teaming with boats, the promenade populated by joggers, strollers, dog walkers, and people lolling on benches. Someday, I may in fact move to warmer weather. But I would not trade having experienced the beauty of winter.

Like all else, winter, however harsh, is transient, fleeting in the scheme of our lives. It’s important to be aware of and honest about our reactions to winter (and everything, I think). Our thoughts and feelings are whatever they are in the moment. But if we can step out of our heads and into the present, now and then—however and whatever it is—we may be pleasantly surprised by its gifts.

Dr. Traci Stein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist, certified clinical hypnotherapist, and health educator who integrates complementary/alternative and conventional healing approaches.

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