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Tao of Well Being


The Meaning of the Autumn-Winter Transition
by A.A.Miles, November 2015

 What is the context for the any discussion of human life, in particular the relevance of the seasons, for the ancient Chinese?

In the Yiching it says: 

                                                               "It is the great virtue of Heaven and Earth to bestow life. 
                                                        It is the great treasure of the holy sage to stand in the right place".

     What is "the right place"? And how do we stand in the right place in the autumn and winter seasons?  The right place is what  I call the meeting place.  It is the Dao of the Dao - the agenda-less place where, instead of being this or that, we can be  in relationship to what is. 

In my book, Tao of Well-Being, I say this:

                                                                    "The Meeting Place does not exist until you go there.
                                                                                                      It has no form.
                                                                                         Without form it has no limit.
                                                                              Without limit it has maximum potential.
                                                                                     The Meeting Place is everywhere."

      Modern society does not recognize the Meeting Place and yet everybody alive today has experienced the Meeting Place. Many of us still insist on moving our boat by blowing on the sails rather than going to the meeting place with the wind (the divine force or mystery at the centre of all life) by holding the tiller and the guy rope and letting the wind move our craft. The implication of the Meeting Place is that we are not here to do anything, we are here to join with what is.

      The "right place" also requires an understanding about the relationship of inner and outer within us. Zhuangzi, in ch.17, says:

                                                                                    "Heaven exists inside,
                                                                                       Man exists outside." 

      Zhuangzi is stressing the need to live a life from within.  Without that inner focus, nothing true can be accomplished, especially our own destinies.

      People "have lost that which causes them to be" says the Huainanzi, a 7th Century BCE text. It goes on to say, "All contributions are external and serve only to decorate the facade. (As a result) no longer is anything bathing muscle and skin; no longer does anything penetrate to marrow and bone; nothing is being established any more within the heart and the will; there is no longer anything to come forward in the five major organs.  When the movement of life takes place from outside to inside, the sovereign is no longer residing in the centre and nothing is retained by anything......When the spirit is master, the body follows and a person prospers.  When it is the body as master, the spirit follows and a person is degraded."

      How do we go to the Meeting Place of the autumn-winter transition so that we can "stand in the right place" and reconnect with "that which causes (us) to be"?  The autumn is the season that reminds us of the importance of the inner-directed life, and provides us with the means to be in the "right place" with ourselves.  The autumn is the season where "yin advances, yang recedes". In other words the creative engagement with the exterior loses its vitality, and the energetic flow moves inwards and downwards. The sap retreats and descends to the root.  As a result of the sap's movement inward and downward, the leaf falls,  and falls into formlessness as it disintegrates, becoming nourishment for the earth.

      In the autumn the sap's movement inward and downward causes the sap to be concentrated and contained in the root of the plant, so that the life force can be preserved during the winter. Without the anchoring in the root during the winter, the sap would tend to be harmed, dissipated or weakened during the cold, dark months, and there would be less innate capacity in the plant  to respond to the movement of life in the earth, an invitation supported by the increased light and warmth of the spring.

      The "right place" of a human being in the autumn is the willingness to go  inward with the flow of the season , and the contemplation of the movement from form into formlessness. No matter how wonderful, beautiful and sense-drenching the summer has been, the autumn ends it all. The harsh finality of the autumn is really meant to provoke an awareness in us that nothing lasts in the 'finite' world, and that which endures is the 'infinite'. The Neijing (the most ancient Chinese work of medicine) describes the autumn as a time to "gather the Shen" (the spirits), and to store " the qi.....without letting the vitality be scattered outside". 

      In addition, the movement of the qi into the interior of a human being  creates a more yin state of  vulnerability:  more receptive than creative, more passive than active, quieter than louder. This softer state is necessary for the integration and transformation of all that has happened through the year, and it is a natural force that directs us towards our inner selves.   

      It is our modern way that, when we are faced with a sense of ambiguity and uncertainty, less active in our brains and in our initiatives, we tend to feel self-critical as if there is an existential political correctness to which we are supposed to abide - always clear, always motivated, always "on", always 'taking responsibility for ourselves". 

      Yet the autumn demands something else of us - to move into an inner awareness not dependent on external circumstance; to descend into the formless depths of ourselves: what I call "the pilgrimage to the source";  to find the value of life from within; to shed  external references, just as the tree sheds the leaf; to stand quiet amidst the noise.  In Tao of Well-Being I describe this process as doing "the monastery in the marketplace".

      The autumn reminds us that form emerges out of formlessness - the miracle of life.   The ancient Chinese acknowledged this relationship of form and formlessness, of being and non-being, in the preparation and consumption of a particular soup, a geng, a soup made of liquid usually with dumplings in it, prepared during the autumn and winter months. The liquid represents the formless 'mess' out of which form (dumplings) comes. The soup would have no seasoning in it to remind us of the original formlessness, the field of potential out of which form, expressed as human culture and civilization, would emerge. What a rich culture where the essence of life could also be expressed in autumnal soup!

      The ancient Chinese encouragement to live in the autumn "without letting the vitality be scattered outside" can also be described as containment.  Just as the earth produces a harvest from all that is sown, so we produce a harvest from our experience and activity of the year. Just as the agricultural harvest is then collected and stored, so do we need to collect and store our personal harvest, so that it can add to the development of our lives where we become more of who we are and where we maintain ourselves  through challenging times (the winters of our experience). 

      Through the inner dynamic of the autumn we enter a realm from which comes insight, inspiration, inner knowing about that which has value, that which is precious. The containment of the autumn is the bridge to the winter's process of endurance and the gateway to the wise depths of ourselves. Through the force of the autumn we can gather all our experience, move within, be inspired, feel the connection to the source. But without the powerful holding force of the winter, preserving and protecting in the depths of ourselves, our experience can be easily dissipated, easily lost, falling from our grasp, disappearing into the ether. As a result, we do not benefit from our own harvest: nothing endures, nothing develops or builds, and we are back to the beginning as the spring comes in. This experience is very common in our society, where it can feel as if our lives do not "take hold", where we end up exhausted, like Sisyphus, pushing the rock to the top of the hill, only for it to fall back down to the bottom of the hill, over and over again. 

      The ancient Chinese solution to anchoring our yearly experience into the body, was through resting in the winter. Read what the Yiching says about the winter in Hexagram 24:

                                    "The winter solstice has always been celebrated in China as the resting time of the year

                                    - a custom that survives in the time of rest observed at the new year. In Winter the life

                                    energy, symbolized by thunder, the Arousing, is still underground. Movement is just at

                                    its beginning; therefore it must be strengthened by rest so that it will not be dissipated by

                                    being used prematurely.  This principal, that is, of allowing energy that is renewing itself

                                    to be reinforced by rest, applies to all similar situations. The return of health after illness,

                                    the return of understanding after an estrangement: everything must be treated tenderly and

                                   with care at the beginning, so that the return may lead to a flowering." 

      Through the autumn we take in.  Imagine that everything good, nourishing, inspiring and acknowledging that has occurred through the year is your harvest. The autumn is you reaping and bundling that harvest.  The winter is you storing that harvest so it can be used.  Through the winter we anchor what we take in. The result is an incremental development which strengthens us to better face the challenges before us, including dying, and develops our wisdom and the capacity to live from our centre as opposed to living according to external factors and distractions.

      "In the winter", say the Chinese, "sleep more, work less".  In our modern world it  means accomplishing what we need to do with the minimum of effort in order that a quietness is constantly maintained within ourselves without the noisy distraction of our minds.  We cannot stop doing.  Modern life is not like that.  But we can take more time in quietness with ourselves, where we can turn the volume down. We can ensure that we are not 'leaking' our emotions, but holding them quietly within. We can learn not to overtax our brains, but still do 'enough'.  We can use our breathing to 'drop ourselves' down into our depths and hang out there inside our rich darkness.  We can give up 'trying' and jettison all the 'woulds', shoulds' and 'oughts'. The way to accomplish all of this is by engaging the meeting place, where we simply join with what is.

      The winter is our kidneys. It is our capacity to thrive, to endure, to build our lives. If we are fatigued, it is our kidneys suffering. We have drained our reserves.  If we struggle to make ends meet, it is our kidneys suffering.  We are unable to sustain ourselves in the world. If we feel deep despair and lack of motivation, it is the kidneys.  We are unable to build the connection with what is.  The will or intention, what the Chinese call the zhi , implies the mission of the winter, that is, how to find something that endures, but more importantly how to find something of enduring wisdom.  How we find something of enduring wisdom is through the practice of the meeting place, explored in my book, Tao of Well-Being.  An excellent way of engaging with the meeting place is through the practice of qigong which constructs the meeting place through the "three treasures" - the  body, the breath and the intention/attention.

      The winter is also the time when new life sprouts in the dark depths of ourselves.  This new sprouting, like the seed sprouting in the depths of the earth, needs protection while it develops.  The winter provides this protection for this new life. The richness of this depth comes from the embodying of the inner containment of the autumn. 

      Because the winter is the holding state of our inner selves, it gives us a true measure of the state of our health. In the winter a deciduous tree shows us the essence of itself without ornament, without leaves - just the bare branches, the skeleton of itself. So, too, do we discover how we are without external support or expression. Awareness of this function of the winter is helpful, because we can assess our lives in terms of a healthy body, a healthy mind, and a healthy spirit, especially the latter. In taking us to the depths of ourselves, the winter reveals the health of our spirits - that part of us which is connected to "that which causes (us) to be".    

      Feelings of unease; feeling unconnected to the world around us; feeling depressed, lonely, fatigued, uninspired and without motivation; experiencing problems with lungs and large bowel, with the lower back; experiencing the body 'slumping', just wanting to 'slump' when we get home - all of these conditions and more can be transformed by paying attention to the autumn-winter transition and going to the meeting place with the wise guidance of this seasonal change. 

      I tend to stress the autumn-winter transition because our modern culture with its busyness and timetables, with its permanent 'on', seems to leave less and less time to the cultivation of the inner life. The autumn and the winter seasons give us the opportunity to redress the balance so that we are refreshed and ready when the spring comes calling us into action once again.