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The Love and Dread of Autumn
It's both hard and good to be alive.
Hey there - As this piece was queued up to send, I learned of Senator Dianne Feinstein’s death and wrote an assessment of her life and work, which you can read at The Forward. Sometimes the cycles of life and death appear in multiple ways at once… Anyway, thanks for reading. - Jay
I love autumn, and I dread autumn.
On the one hand, the fall is my favorite season. I live in the Northeastern United States, and I love the weather, the looks, the smells, even the dreaded pumpkin spice. I love not sweating so much, I love the leaves, I love the vests and the sweaters, and I love the autumn holidays (even, first as a gay man and now as a parent, Halloween).
On the other hand, autumn means that winter is soon to arrive, and I don’t do well in winter. For years, I’ve suffered from seasonal affective disorder: my baseline mood decreases, and my body wants to move less and eat more, which causes my mood to decrease even more. I have plenty of skills to mitigate this phenomenon, but it still arises, every single year.
Even if the autumn leaves are riotously beautiful, I know that soon they’ll give way to the bare branches of December. Or worse, February.
I know what the toxic positivity influencers want me to do: Change my attitude! Be in the moment! Create my own reality! I know this stuff works for some people, but I’ve also seen it devolve into an incredibly harmful, selfish ball of self-justification and delusion. As for myself, I just find it repellant. Like, literally nauseating.
Of course, I do teach meditation, so I know about being in the moment. And it does work. I can notice, with mindfulness, how my mind is neurotically “leaning forward” into the future. I can relax out of that and, indeed, appreciate the beautiful sights, smells, and tastes of the season. Sure, it works.
But it doesn’t make the dread go away. That, in my experience, is wishful thinking - and, if you think about it, its own form of projecting into the future. I am feeling good now, goes the thought, therefore I will feel good all winter long.
No, for me, the actual wisdom of autumn, and the wise way to be in it, is a lot more subtle. It involves a kind of both-and: both accepting my mental state and also acting in ways that might help it to pass. Too much of the former, and I sink into melancholy. Too much of the latter, and it’s just exhausting.
First, acceptance. Yeah, I’m leaning forward into the future, just like we all do before a hard conversation, a difficult meeting, or a difficult passage in life. Human beings are evolutionarily designed to worry, because it’s advantageous to over-worry in a world filled with predators. The worry is actually here to help, even if it’s long outlived its usefulness.
And then second, right alongside the acceptance, a little nudge.
I might start with some self-compassion — dread hurts, after all, as does my S.A.D., as does folks’ anxiety about climate disaster, or white supremacy. Screw toxic positivity; these feelings are real, they are justified, and they can be met with compassion rather than denial.
I might also try what some Tibetan Buddhist teachers call “small moments, many times.” Meaning, small moments of relaxing out of anticipation into what is actually happening right now - repeated many times a day. Meditation master Sharon Salzberg calls these moments “leaning back,” as in leaning back from anticipation of the future into awareness of the present. I can often experience it literally, somatically. When I notice I’m dreading the depression of January, I might exhale, relax the tension that has accreted in my muscles, and snap out of the anxiety. For a moment. Many time.
And with that somewhat calmer state of mind as a basis, I might explore another both-and: acknowledging that both the painful aspects of autumn and the beautiful ones contain wisdom. Change happens, impermanence is real, and everything passes away, from summer to youthful beauty to the people who we love. The change in the weather is a doorway to a much deeper truth, one that we humans struggle with for most of our lives. This letting-go is a training ground for the great letting-goes of life and death itself.
And then, you know: joy! Fall leaves, fall flavors, Halloween, Thanksgiving, gratitude, love, connection, vests, plaid, melancholy jazz, my favorite leather jacket. It’s both hard and good to be alive.
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