By Victoria Branson, L.Ac.
Here at Maple Seed Wellness the number one activity I recommend to my patients to further their healing and empower themselves in their own wellbeing is meditation. This is not only because it has been used safely for thousands of years to produce awareness, health, and vitality, but also because, with consistent practice, it has the delightful side-effect of promoting the experiences of peace, joy, and love on a profound level.
Meditation is the beguilingly simple practice of being present in this moment. It is simultaneously both the easiest and most challenging endeavor, easy because it only requires a moment to do and no equipment or expense, and difficult because it challenges you to change the way you have perceived the world for most of your life: As a society, we thrive on time. Meet a person on any given day, and that person is almost guaranteed to be thinking about the future or the past. Thinking is an act of separation by its very nature, and often it is accompanied by the emotions that indicate a disconnect from the present moment: worry, anxiety, fearfulness, irritability, impatience, discontent, frustration, or sadness. When it feels as though our thoughts are thinking us, and our present moment is filled with to-do lists, worries about the future, and concerns about the past, we are not truly alive in this moment. We are disconnected from our bodies and from our deeper selves. It is a huge leap to realize that you even want to meditate. It usually takes a firm desire for inner peace and a deeper understanding of yourself and of life.
People typically notice one thing right away when they start a meditation practice: there is a voice in their head and it won’t shut up. This is completely normal, or at least common; you can call this voice the narrator, the ego, the monkey mind (which is really rather insulting to monkeys), or the judge. It’s a part of our minds on the lower level, a technique adopted by the mind for self-preservation at a very young age to provide protection through distancing yourself from the world. Instead of actually experiencing the aliveness of the world, you separate yourself from it by labeling and judging it. For example, instead of being present, open, and connected when you see a tree, most people, if they notice it at all, think of the name of the tree, describe mentally how it looks, compare it to other trees they have seen or memories involving that type of tree in childhood, etc. This is an abstraction, not the true profound depth, beauty, and spirit of the tree. In this way, the world we experience becomes a kind of shadow world, a world devoid of the vitality and joy that it naturally contains. Once you become aware of the voice in your head, that is the start of huge change in your life. Awareness is what overcomes this tendency to abstraction and separation, and brings vibrant life back again as when you were a child and knew instinctively the fun and pure potential of existence.
To start meditating, pick an amount of time for yourself that doesn’t seem daunting. What is important is not how long you practice but regular practice. Thus, five minutes a day is better than one hour once a week. Then, choose a position that is comfortable, but not too much. You want to be relaxed but preferably not fall asleep, or at least not too fast. For people with insomnia issues, meditating while laying down can be very healing. Then, pick an anchor for yourself. The most common one used is breath. You can also choose an image, a candle flame, a mantra or prayer, or a single word. Whatever you choose will be your port in the storm of your thoughts. Then you sit, or lay down, and allow yourself to be present in this moment. See what happens. Allow your thoughts to come and go, and notice how you feel in the times, which will become more frequent, when thoughts cease to be. Feel the aliveness of your body from the inside, it’s strength and beauty and vitality. Feel how your heart beats, your blood flows, your lungs breath, your organs function, food digests, and you are nourished, all without any effort on your part. Feel on an experiential level the miracle of existence.
When you begin, it’s perfectly normal to feel like you’re mainly getting distracted by your thoughts. Our capacity to be aware in this moment is like a muscle that has atrophied. It simply takes consistent practice to build it back up. Whenever you notice that you have started thinking again, simply bring your awareness back to your breath or whatever your anchor is. One of the pitfalls that people new to meditation often fall into is frustration. Why can’t I be blissful and free of thoughts right now? It’s important to treat yourself as you begin your journey towards your deeper self with as much kindness and patience as though you were teaching a child or a dog. Every time you notice that you have left your anchor and been swept away in thoughts, reward yourself. Yes, reward yourself because you just became present. By doing this you use positive reinforcement to build upon your small success. Allow your inner smile to develop as you catch yourself again and again. In this way you develop not only presence but compassion.
Over time, as you begin to feel the peace, love, and joy that are your birthright through your regular meditation practice, you may start to want to bring your meditation practice out into the world. This is the next phase in your development as an aware being. The outside world provides limitless opportunities to challenge your ability to stay present in the moment which will only serve to deepen your connection to life itself. You can offer blessings to the water as you wash the dishes. You can feel connected to all of life as you drive down the road. You can breathe deeply and feel the unity behind the separation as you work at your job and spend time with your family. Allow every moment you experience to be a gift that deepens your consciousness. Be a student of existence, and know that in every moment you have the choice to awaken and experience the peace, vitality, and beauty that you have been given.
To learn more about meditation:
The books of Eckhart Tolle: The Power of Now, A New Earth, Stillness Speaks
The Untethered Soul, by Michael Singer
The podcast “Headspace”
The weather is turning soggy and cool and with it many people are complaining of feeling run-down and getting sick easily. Fortunately there are remedies that have been used successfully for thousands of years for just these conditions. One of the things we hear sometimes as acupuncturists from patients is that they are sorry but they need to cancel their appointment because they’re sick. Then they are pleased as punch to learn that not only should they not cancel their appointment but that getting acupuncture and herbs when you feel sick or exhausted can either stop the illness or reduce the severity and duration of the disease.
There are dozens of herbal formulas that accompany the many different diagnoses for the common cold and influenza. East Asian medicine developed an extremely advanced understanding of exogenous pathogenic disease thousands of years ago, with two prominent schools of thought being diseases of a Cold pathogenic nature and diseases of a Hot nature. The diseases of a Cold nature were formulated by the most famous Chinese healer of the last several thousands years. So detailed, applicable, and powerful, this approach to diagnosis is used for almost every type of illness imaginable and thus it’s scope extends far beyond the treatment of colds and flu. The Hot school of disease arose to treat complex epidemic diseases that wiped out entire populations of people in the days before vaccines and antibiotics. These treatments, primarily herbal, are so effective that now modern Western medicine is turning back to these herbs that are antimicrobial in nature but can actually work in cases of MRSA, and don’t contribute to antibiotic resistance, which is rapidly becoming a serious concern for future generations.
Link to NY Times Article on Herbal Antibiotics
When you see your acupuncturist for the common cold or flu you will most likely receive cupping or gua sha along with your acupuncture treatment and herbal formula prescription. Cupping involves the use of glass cups that a source of fire is held within to create a vacuum and is then placed on the skin, with or without oil. The suction that is generated by the fire then lifts the fascia, skin, and muscles to release adhesions and stagnation in these layers. Typically the upper back and back of the neck are the areas treated for colds as these are the areas where people first feel stiff and sore, one of the first signs that a cold is coming on. Gua sha has a similar purpose of releasing pathogens as well as stimulating the flow of Qi and Blood, but uses a blunt hand-held tool like a ceramic soup spoon in a scraping fashion. These are techniques that are widespread throughout Asia to this day and are practiced by parents and grandparents on their families for colds and flus as well as for aches and pains.
In traditional East Asian medicine the common cold is considered to be an invasion of Wind, typically with Cold or Heat along with it. Wind in this context indicates a force that carries an external pathogen into the body. Cupping, gua sha, acupuncture, and appropriate herbs all help to expel external pathogens and strengthen immunity. An important consideration in any sickness is the state of the person’s immune system, or Wei Qi. Not only is acupuncture inherently balancing to the immune system, stimulating it for deficient persons or soothing it for autoimmune disease, but there are many herbal formulas specifically designed to improve the Wei Qi and prevent colds and flu. You can also add foods like ginger, mint, and green onions to your meals can also help to expel pathogens. Lastly, please consider adding a meditation practice to your daily routine as a cold and flu preventative. Meditation, like acupuncture, allows your body to heal itself. Getting sick easily is often a sign that you've been overly stressed and need rest. Take the time to take care of yourself and be healthy.
By Victoria Branson, L.Ac.
By Victoria Branson, L.Ac.
Bone broth has officially become its own cultural phenomenon over the last five years and for good reason. The collagen and minerals in bone broth make it a powerhouse of nourishment. I generally recommend broth to any of my patients with deficiencies in Qi and Blood, which are most of the female patients I treat. You can make bone or vegetable broths even more potent by adding medicinal herbs. Medicinal broths are easy and inexpensive to make and store well in the freezer. They can form the flavorful base of any soup or sauce you make, or you can drink them on their own. You can make broth with beef marrow bones, chicken carcasses (bonus if you include feet), or with vegetables and mushrooms for a vegetarian broth.
For those of you who have never made your own, here’s some brief instructions. For increased flavor, first roast your marrow bones for 20 minutes, for chicken use the bones from a whole roasted chicken, and you can roast your veggies for increased depth as well. As always, pasture-raised animals and organic vegetables are not only happier but healthier for us as well. Take your bones and/or veg and place them in a large pot. Simmer marrow bones for 2-3 days, chicken for 1-2, and veggies for 3-24 hours. During the last few hours add apple cider vinegar to the broth to increase the extraction of minerals.
To really take it to the next (healing) level, let's introduce some herbs to the party. Around the same time you add your cider vinegar, you can add herbs like astragalus, reishi, burdock, goji, dang gui, dang shen, ashwagandha, and he shou wu (aka fo ti). You can cook these in the final hours of simmer time for your broth. Start with one or two herbs at a time so you can connect to the plant and see how you feel after consuming your delicious healing broth. Experiment and have fun with it; the herbs have different flavors and are all very safe. For amounts I’m giving the gram dosage, but you’re welcome to put a few tablespoons worth of herbs into your broth as a starting point to evaluate your personal preference in flavor. These broths are a great way to add extra nourishment and healing power into your broth, but are not a substitute for treatment with an acupuncturist/board-certified herbalist for medical conditions. All of these herbs are highly nourishing and should not be used in high doses or for prolonged periods of time unless directed by your health care practitioner. Used primarily for healing deficiencies, these herbs should not be used by people with conditions characterized by excessive Heat, Phlegm, or Dampness.
Here’s some more information about the suggested herbs:
Astragalus: This is one of the most commonly used and powerful herbs in the Chinese herbal tradition. It is highly tonifying (nourishing) to the Qi, especially of the Spleen and Lungs. Astragalus is particularly helpful to those with weak digestion, for recovery from lung conditions, and to build immunity. It has a sweet, earthy flavor and can be used in amounts up to 20 grams.
Ashwagandha: Also know as “Indian Ginseng”, this is potent healing herb from the Ayurvedic tradition. It helps to build Qi and Blood, and is useful for strengthening immunity. It is an adaptogenic herb, meaning it helps the body cope with toxins from the external environment as well as stress and anxiety internally. It has an earthy flavor with a bit of a tang, so smaller amounts can be used for people for whom the smell is a bit strong, up to 20 grams.
Burdock Root: This herb is known for cleansing the liver and purifying the blood in Western herbalism. It is commonly used in East and West for clearing excessive internal heat and helping keep skin healthy. It also happens to be delicious and is a food-grade herb commonly consumed throughout eastern Asia. You can find it fresh at health food stores, or growing as a weed in your backyard! Large amounts are safe since it is commonly eaten as a vegetable.
Dang Gui (Angelica Sinensis): The primary herb in the Chinese herbal medicine canon for the building of Blood. This is the one herb listed here with a strong smell and somewhat stronger taste than the others, reminiscent of celery or anise. Amounts up to 10 grams shouldn’t alter the taste of your broth too much, but be cautious to protect the flavor.
Dang Shen (Codonopsis): This herb is mostly used as an alternative to true Ginseng. It has excellent tonifying properties. It's taste is sweet and earthy. Amounts up to 20 grams.
Goji Berries (Gou Qi Zi): Sweet and delicious, these berries have been used for thousands of years to help build Blood and Yin in the body, nourish Liver and Kidney, and have a particular affinity for supporting the eyes. A food-grade herb, amounts up to 10 grams so as not to have too much of a sweet flavor.
He Shou Wu (Fo-Ti, Polygonum): This herb is famous for nourishing Blood, Yin, and Essence so much so that it is commonly ascribed the power of turning grey hair black again. It is prepared by cooking in black soybean soup, and thus should be avoided by anyone with a sensitivity to soy and potentially gluten. Amounts up to 10 grams.
Reishi Mushroom (Ling Zhi, Ganoderma): Reishi helps to heal the Heart by calming the Spirit, soothing nerves, promoting relaxation, and nourishing Qi and Blood. Amounts up to 20 grams.
My favorite place to order herbs is Mountain Rose Herbs, located in Eugene. They are organic, sustainable, and fair-trade.
For more information about the healing power of broth, see Sally Fallon’s informative books: “Nourishing Traditions”, and “Nourishing Broth”.
One of my favorite things in the world of food is sprouting grains and beans. It is so utterly magical to see dry dusty nuggets from the bulk bins of your favorite food co-op magically transform into living beautiful plants. It’s a way to increase the vitality of our food and connect to the bounty the earth gives us year round.
Sprouting is an amazing biological process that does many things that benefit us nutritionally. Soaking and then sprouting grains and beans helps to neutralize phytic acid, an enzyme found in many plant based foods that interferes with the absorption of some vitamins and minerals. It helps to predigest our food, and thus make the nutrients present more available for assimilation by our digestive tracts. It also makes food less likely to trigger any negative reactions through increasing overall digestibility, and creates beneficial enzymes. Increased nutrition and digestibility is a win-win!
Sprouting your food can make you feel like a mad scientist, a cultivator of life, and an awesome nurturer of yourself and your family when you eat food that’s been so lovingly prepared. Plus, it’s easy, and honestly requires more forgetfulness than remembering.
The most common grains and beans I sprout are black beans, garbanzo beans (chickpeas), orca beans, mung beans, lentils, millet, and buckwheat, though pretty much any grain or bean can be sprouted.
Here’s my easy peasy way to accomplish this delightful task:
Take a cup or two of your grains or beans of choice. Soak overnight or for 8 hours in plenty of water in a roomy bowl, because they’ll expand as they absorb the water. Drain and rinse thoroughly, place in a colander and sit over a bowl. Rinse 2-3 times a day, whenever you have the time or remember to do it, always letting them drain so they don’t sit in water. You’ll see little sprouts start to emerge, and then keep rinsing occasionally until they’ve sprouted more thoroughly, usually for 1-2 days. This happens faster when it’s warm out and slower when it’s cool. Millet makes tiny sprouts, so I don’t let them get that long. Mung beans make big fat sprouts, so I’ll let them get a bit longer. Some of this is personal preference, or if you need them that night to make dinner! Enjoy the process and give blessings for the abundance you receive.
Once you have your awakened living plants, you can do many things with them. One of my favorite foods is kasha, which I make using sprouted buckwheat (which is a member of the rhubarb family containing no wheat/gluten, and only contains the word wheat in it as a mark of how delicious it tastes). Place your sprouted buckwheat on a sheet pan and toast in the oven on its lowest temperature, my oven is from the 1970’s and runs hot so that temp is probably 200 degrees, until toasted, dried, and fragrant. Cover in plenty of water in a pot and then simmer to make porridge. Once you have your delicious buckwheat porridge you can go in a sweet or savory direction. For sweet I often add toasted walnuts, raisins or other fruit, cinnamon, and some yoghurt as a delectable meal any time of day or night. For savory applications, you can add the buckwheat to soups to thicken them and add bulk, or serve with some roasted vegetables, fresh chopped herbs, goat cheese, and a pan-fried egg.
Having an abundance of sprouted and cooked grains and beans ready to go in the fridge makes it easy to create simple home cooked meals with whatever vegetables, fruits, and nuts you have around (and meat if you eat it). Remember to be creative and have fun with your living food!
Spring is in full swing here in Oregon! As the plants find their way from seed through soil to the brilliant light of the world it's a wonderful time to develop your relationship with herbs or deepen your connection to them. An herbal infusion is a great way to extract the nutrients and healing properties from plants and it's very simple to do as it's basically just a strong tea. All of these herbs are available from the wonderful herb shops we have here in Portland, or can be purchased online through Mountain Rose Herbs which only sells sustainable and organic products.
Nettles (Urtica Dioica)
Alfalfa (Medicago Sativa)
Red Clover (Trifolium Pratense)
Oat straw (Avena Sativa)
Put one teaspoon of each herb in a one quart mason jar, cover in boiling water, cap, and let steep for at least one hour and up to eight. Strain, enjoy the nourishment, refrigerate the excess, and use within a few days.
These are all fantastically nutritious and safe herbs. Nettles are famous for having high levels of iron, calcium, trace minerals, protein, vitamin A, vitamin K, and many B vitamins. It is energizing but also helps with sleep. It benefits hair, skin, nails, and blood vessels. Alfalfa is alkalizing and soothes irritability, nervousness, and insomnia. Red clover is an herb that enhances fertility and has anti-cancer effects. It can have estrogenic qualities so use caution in case of hormonal imbalances characterized by excessive estrogen. Oat straw is the herb of longevity in Ayurveda. It helps the nervous system, emotional stability, and sexual health.
This tea is wonderful to drink any time of year, but for spring it’s nice to restore the adrenals and build up our energy stores in preparation for the long days and activity of summer. Nettles grow abundantly in the pacific northwest so spring is the perfect time to get out into the forests and harvest the top most part of the plant in a respectful and sustainable manner for eating, tincturing in alcohol or cider vinegar, or drying for infusions.
For more information on these herbs look at the books and websites of herbalists Susun Weed, Rosemary Gladstar, and Matthew Wood.
By Victoria Branson, L.Ac.
As a society, we are in the midst of a seriously disturbed relationship with food. Have you noticed? Whether obsessing over price to get the cheapest processed food possible headless of its origin, or punishing ourselves with limited diets and purges to cleanse our dirty innards, or constantly seeking new flavors and trends in foodie culture, there is a distinct lack of balance here. Even viewing food as medicine can be damaging if we only see food as only that, and are filled with worry seeking the perfect foods and diet to fix our problems.
On a deeper level, what is food? Eating is quite literally a communion between our precious inner universe and the beguiling outer universe. Second only to our breath, it is our most consistent interaction with the world outside of ourselves. Just as simple awareness of breath can provide immense healing, so too can a conscious approach to food. This does not mean fixation, obsession, analysis, or research. This means joy! Absolute joy and gratitude. You are the luckiest person in the world right now with an abundance of food like the world has never known before. Whether eating a delicious, nutritious home-cooked meal filled with love and intention, or chowing down on burgers, fries, and a milkshake at a restaurant, why would you ever be anything other than immensely happy and thankful for what you’ve been given? If you’ve spent your life seeing food as a chore, an enemy, a tool, or a pacifier then this an be difficult. Years and decades of habit can be challenging to change. Let’s look at a compelling reason why a more positive attitude towards eating can provide true healing.
Our bodies cannot differentiate between our inner thoughts and emotions and the outside world. What does this actually mean for us physiologically? When we experience stress, whether in the form of inner judgmental thoughts and stuck negative emotions, or outside sources such as driving, work, and relationships, these all trigger the same biological response in our bodies as being chased by a lion. We were designed to have this amazing response once in a while to avoid death, not dozens of times a day as is now the norm. When our sympathetic nervous system is triggered by stress, known as fight-or-flight mode, our energy diverts from long-term projects, like immunity, digestion, and sexual health, to our limbs to provide the energy to sprint away from danger, and to our lungs and heart to enable the increased breathing and heart rates necessary for such activities. The sensation of your heart beating quicker, of breathing faster and more shallowly, and a knot in your stomach are very real reactions to stress. If you are regularly triggering this system, and shunting energy away from your parasympathetic nervous system, known as rest-and-digest, how might this impact your digestion, immunity, and sexual function? It’s no wonder so many people have low immunity, poor digestive function, and diminished fertility. Learning how to manage our stress is paramount to our health and wellbeing. In light of this, acupuncture, yoga, gardening, dancing, tai chi, qigong, meditation, or whatever you find relaxing is not just a nice thing to do for yourself, but essential for us all.
How can we manage our stress and difficulties regarding food, eating, and nutrition? It really all has to do with perspective. Would you ever sit down to a meal with a stranger who told you quite emphatically that what you’re eating is toxic, that it’s making you fat, and that you’re a weak or crummy person for indulging in cake or whatever your favorite treat is? Of course not. So why would you allow your thoughts to do so? Our thoughts are powerful. They shape our individual realities, and we help to shape the world. Every time you sit down and open your mouth to eat, allow yourself to be filled with love, gratitude, and joy. This is true nourishment. Go ahead. You can do this. Feel the vast expanse of your open heart. The more you meditate upon the openness of your heart, the more open you become.
Another way to help to heal your relationship with food is to change your attitude towards your belly. People have some pretty serious hang-ups when it comes to body image. Our bellies are miraculous though, and it’s high time they get some love. The incredible process of digestion and absorption of nutrients happens primarily in our bellies. Is it possible to be truly nourished while thinking terrible thoughts about yourself? At the very least it makes a difficult job for your body even more difficult. Allow yourself to think beautiful thoughts about your belly. Whether it’s big, small, hard, soft, bloated, uncomfortable, irritated, or covered in stretch-marks, this is you. You have the power to transform your body by loving it unconditionally. Not when you lose a certain number of pounds, not when you follow a certain diet rigidly enough, or for any other reason. When you are happier, you feel better. You have the choice to be happy with yourself at any moment. Choose happy.
Modern life has led to a proliferation of processed and nutrition-devoid foods that are best avoided when possible. There is a seemingly endless amount of information to learn about the industrialization of food, how to navigate our food culture safely, and what to eat. It can easily get overwhelming. Knowledge can certainly be power, especially when you use it as a tool for personal empowerment in your own healing. However, the truth is that while it’s wonderful to be conscious of what you eat, where it came from, who grew it, the condition of the animals, the distance it traveled, and the means of preparation, there are times when you simply don’t have control over it. You can cook whatever you’d like at home, time and budget permitting, but when you go out to eat at restaurants and the homes of friends and family is the perfect time to practice acceptance, love, and gratitude for what you’ve been given. And of course there will always be times when you simply want to indulge in delicious foods that are in no way in line with your discoveries about nutrition, which is fine. Be kind to yourself.
In Oriental medicine, food and air are viewed as the two ways in our lives that we can produce Qi (pronounced “chee”). Qi is energy, vitality, our life-force. Consequently, ancient practitioners focused on understanding nutrition and how our bodies process food. Acupuncture and herbal medicine often get incredible results in healing digestive disorders. Perhaps this is in part because Oriental medicine can address the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects of the body as it is a truly holistic system, and issues with digestion are rarely only physical. When it comes to nutrition advice, I generally advise people to eat simple whole foods as often as you’re able. Grow what you can and really connect to nature and the abundance it provides. Engage in the dynamic flow of the seasons. There is no one diet right for every person or for every day of the year. We are always changing, just like the seasons. A sensitivity to some food now may transform in a few days or months. Remember that we are always healing.
People have an opportunity for empowerment by developing the capacity to trust themselves when it comes to food. Don’t only listen to the different experts and diets and cleanses out there, trust yourself. The information constantly changes, contradicting and confusing everyone. You are the expert on you. Eat mindfully, and see what feels right. Nobody can understand you as well as you can. Take the time to explore your relationship with food on all levels. Approach it with curiosity and an open mind and heart. You can access your own potential as a healer by utilizing meditation, affirmation, prayer, visualization, and breath to turn your relationship with food around. Food can become fuel for your personal growth. You can tell yourself beautiful ideas, that if a stranger was sitting with you for your meal telling you these things you might fall in love with them. So fall in love with yourself. For example:
This food is nourishing me completely.
With every bite I take I am healing myself.
I am filled with joy and gratitude for this delicious food.
All worries and cares leave my body as I eat and are replaced with an ocean of calm.
You feel better just reading these sorts of statements, let alone saying them with intention and meaning. If you forget to be mindful sometimes when you eat, that’s ok. If you feel silly and like you don’t really mean these positive statements at times, that’s ok. If you slip up and judge yourself harshly sometimes, that’s ok too. Patterns can take a while to change, and there are always ups and downs in life. Set your intention to use food and eating as a tool for furthering love and compassion for yourself and others. The better you love yourself, the more truly you can love others. Allow yourself to be filled with love when you eat, and you will truly be nourished. Take the time to nourish your joy.
By Victoria Branson, L.Ac.
When asking someone what their favorite season is, those who answer winter would definitely be in the minority. Compared to the promise and flowers of spring, the endless days and warmth of summer, or the crisp air and beauty of autumn, winter doesn’t seem to have much going on for it on the outside. As citizens of the most materialistic society on the planet, that is exactly why winter has so much to teach us.
Winter is the time of hibernation. The energy of all plants and animals goes deep within for protection from the elements as well as for rejuvenation. We alone as a species, since the dawn of widespread electricity, utterly defy this natural order of things. What do we stand to gain by reclaiming our connection to winter? Sanity for one. A deeper connection to nature and ourselves, health, vitality, and joy. Winter is the time to dig our roots deep and nourish ourselves, and when we ignore this imperative we suffer illness on all levels, physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual.
What does going within actually mean for us as human beings? We can’t literally retreat into our roots like plants, or suspend our physical functions for hibernation or torpor like some animals. For us, going within is meditation. Meditation is the redirection of our focus and awareness from the external world to the internal. This practice is free. No special clothing or equipment is needed. Classes, books, and cd’s can be helpful, but ultimately nothing is needed but the will to set aside our endless fixation on the material world and dive within our own precious universe we all carry within.
When you first start meditating, you will most likely notice that you are living with a crazy person: Yourself. You’ll become acutely aware of the voice in your head that is constantly narrating, judging, questioning, and generally making life more stressful than it needs to be. There are some wonderful books written about this so I won’t go into detail here, suffice to say that the more you meditate the more you’ll gain control over your mind. This has enormous repercussions for your health and happiness. The ability to stay calm and centered in the chaos of life is your birthright. Winter, when all the energy of life is drawing within, is the perfect time to reclaim it.
What is it about winter that allows for such transformative power? From the Five Element perspective, winter is the season associated with the element water, the emotion fear, and the organ Kidneys. Water flows downward to the depths, effortlessly surmounting any obstacles in the way. Fear is the root of all negative emotions. The Kidneys are the root of human beings, serving as the home of Source Qi, Essence, the Fire of Vitality, and governing the most important aspects and cycles of our lives. Grief, rumination, anger, anxiety, and excitation are all at their heart rooted in fear, our most primal survival instinct. Winter is the ideal time to go within and confront our fears, so we may be free.
You may now be wondering, “So what do I do, just meditate all winter long?”. We all have obligations, work, family, hobbies, passions, and the chores of everyday life. Accomplishment of these tasks can be an invitation to bring the peace of your meditative mind into day to day activities. This is what the ancient Zen Buddhist expression, “Chop wood, carry water”, refers to. Awareness even in the most mundane or trying of tasks. Euripides conveyed this idea beautifully with, “A labor sweet, a toil that is no toil”. The work of everyday life isn’t something to get through so you can then enjoy yourself, it is life itself. If you’re not fully present then you’re missing much of your own life, and only you can take it back.
What are other ways to embrace winter? The easiest way to find the answer is to consider how your ancestors spent their time, whether 100 or 1000 years ago. They weren’t constantly looking at flickering screens at all hours, needing to know what everyone they know or don’t know is doing or not doing at the moment. They also weren’t incredibly over-stimulated, stressed, and constantly seeking excitement. Our ancestors knew the value of warmth and family on a cold winters night, of candle light and music to brighten the spirit, of stories and songs to share our experiences. So this evening, instead of tuning into the computer, TV, or phone, try turning off all the lights, lighting some candles, and reading something soulful. Cook warming and nourishing foods like stews and casseroles. Make an ocean bath by putting seaweed or a combination of sea salt and epsom salts in your bathtub and soaking until your worries and the cold melt away. Try writing or drawing or whatever the quiet voice within thinks best. As Rumi said, “Allow yourself to be silently drawn by the stronger pull of what you truly love”.
This winter, give yourself the space to heal, rest, and recover. Sleep long and deep. Take baths often. Cook delicious food that you truly enjoy. Take the time to learn how to love yourself, as though your heart is a small child needing comfort and unconditional love. Because even as adults, we all do. Nothing from the outside world will ever come close to the power your have over yourself. Embrace winter, embrace yourself. Go within and see what you find there.
Victoria is a licensed acupuncturist, herbalist, and Oriental medicine practitioner in Beaverton, Oregon. She specializes in pain relief, digestive disorders, women's health, insomnia, and stress relief. Victoria loves to empower patients to heal themselves using meditation, tai ji, qi gong, nutrition, visualization, and affirmations. When not learning more about medicine and healing, you can find Victoria on adventures with her husband and dog, playing in nature, cooking, gardening, meditating, and getting suckered into giving her dog more food.