Winter Solstice: a Time for Reflection, Self-Acceptance, and Growth

wintry forest landscapeThe winter solstice is nigh upon us, and marks the shortest, darkest day of the year. The term solstice is derived from the Latin words for “sun” and “to stand.” On December 21, the sun’s high point in its daily path will be at the southernmost point for the year. The next day, it will begin its journey northward, each day becoming a little bit lighter. But for a few days before and after this period, the changes will be so slight that the sun’s high point will appear to stand still, even though powerful change is taking place.

The solstice also officially marks the beginning of winter. Seeds planted in the spring have yielded their harvest, and although we now commence celebration and feasting, the solstice serves as a celestial reminder that soon we must allow for stillness, reflecting on the past year before beginning anew in the next.

At times, the urge to resist going within can be strong. We may try to distract ourselves; parties and libations and presents serve this purpose quite effectively. Setting aside time for reflection enables us to make meaning of our year, however. And once we understand what has transpired, we can better decide what it is we hope to create in the coming year. If we allow it, this can be a time of grieving those we have lost, as well as celebrating their gifts and memories that remain. Similarly, it can be a time of gratitude for our accomplishments or the opportunities we have been given, as well as a time for identifying what we would like to do differently going forward.

Ideally, if we are brave enough, as we take stock of our lives we can create space to allow ourselves to fully experience the feelings we have, without fighting or judging them. We can breathe through them. It is this process that can help us to then release these feelings sufficiently to move forward—the equivalent of surveying what one’s plantings have yielded, appreciating the harvest for whatever it was, and deciding whether we hope to harvest the same or something different the next time around.

A reflective period need not—and should not—be a time to be unduly harsh with ourselves, but rather to be lovingly honest. Firm yet forgiving. After all, endless rumination and self-recrimination keeps us trapped in a past we cannot change, and no one benefits from this. An attitude of self-forgiveness can liberate us from old patterns or ways of being that we likely adopted for a reason, but that do not serve us nor adequately reflect who we are and who we’d like to be.

What an incredible gift to give ourselves.

Activities that facilitate going within include meditation, setting aside time for silence, being in nature, and engaging in a creative activity, among others. If you find it difficult to quiet your mind at first, move your awareness to your breath, observing it as if you were observing the waves of the ocean, leaves blowing off into the distance, or clouds drifting across the sky. As you do so, you may wish to ask yourself the following questions. Allow your answers to be honest.

  1. What do I really want each aspect of my life (e.g., family, work, romance, creativity, spirituality, health) to be like in the coming year?
  2. How much effort am I wiling to put into making positive change?
  3. What tool or support will I draw upon to help me when things feel difficult (e.g., conscious breathing, meditation, psychotherapy, friends/family, religious community)?
  4. How will I accept the things that I may be unable to change—my best efforts notwithstanding?
  5. How will I know when I have achieved positive change (what will this look like specifically)?
  6. Can I commit to loving myself as I am now—the only way I will ever be in the present moment—even as I plan for and work toward change?

Write down what you discover. Periodically, take your list out and fine-tune as needed. Decide when you will begin making concrete steps toward your goals. These are the seeds you will sow. Visualize yourself continuing to grow and learn, and do the things that matter to you and give your life meaning. This is how you will till the soil, plant your seeds, and care for them. Every day, celebrate your life—this is what you will harvest.

A happy holiday season, and a peaceful, healthy New Year to all!

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  • Blaine

    December 19th, 2013 at 2:12 PM

    I love the general connection that this makes between nature, the natural ebb and flow of the seasons with our own lives and the ways that we can use this time as one for change and reflection as well. I think that specifically at this time of year we all take a break from caring for ourselves and look more at what we can do for others. While I think that this is great it can also cause trouble when we neglect our own good and well being. Why not strive instead to find more of a balance in our lives so that we don’t neglect ourselves too?

  • fran w

    December 20th, 2013 at 3:37 AM

    So often I find that this time of year brings me a little more sad ness than what it should, I have lost so much in life but perhaps I should begin looking at it more from the perspective of what I still have left

  • Traci Stein

    December 20th, 2013 at 8:31 AM

    Hi Blaine and Fran,
    Thanks for reading and for your comments. Fran, I think many people feel more sadness at this time of year, for a variety of reasons. Perhaps one is because it highlights the end of the previous year, and endings can feel difficult for some people. Another thought is that the reduced light has an effect on mood. Holiday gatherings can also highlight the current state of our relationships with others, and this can generate quite a bit of thought and feeling about what we want versus what we believe we have.

    I think your idea of focusing on what you do have is a very good one. You may have heard of Dr. Viktor Frankl, a neurologist and psychiatrist who was imprisoned in several concentration camps during WWII. Perhaps his most notable finding was that finding meaning in one’s life and circumstances – as they are at any given moment – enabled people to survive the unthinkable. The smalls things in life – a smile from a friend, a helpful gesture by a stranger, the miracle of a flower blooming even as the leaves are falling from the trees – can be among the most powerful if we can allow ourselves to appreciate them.

    Best wishes for a peaceful and meaningful holiday season that extends throughout the year.

  • sierra

    December 23rd, 2013 at 3:46 AM

    I know that this is a time of renewal, but I have a very hard time with learning how to reflect and just be honest instead of getting overly critical with myself. That’s what I struggle with. I know what my faults are, believe me when I say that I know them well! But being honest about them and being lovingly honest about them are two very different things and I very much struggle with being loving and forgiving of myself. I don’t think that I have this problem with others in my life, but I am pretty harsh on myself and sometimes I think that that holds me back from being able to move forward and become better. I let all of the negativity hold me back in many ways.

  • Traci Stein

    December 23rd, 2013 at 10:31 AM

    Hi Sierra, thank you for your honest input about this topic. Many people struggle with self-criticism. Sometimes a part of us believes that we will “get away with” something if we don’t beat ourselves up over it. Other times we have internalized the hypercritcal voice of a caregiver and mistake it for our own true wisdom. Working with a competent, compassionate therapist can help during this process, as can listening to imagery or hypnosis geared toward healthy self-esteem. I have programs like this (available on iTunes) but so do many others. Listening can help your unconscious to realize that one can be accountable and still self-loving.

    Be well!

  • Jayson

    December 26th, 2013 at 4:13 AM

    I tend to think of the advent of winter as very depressing, and the spring as more of a time of hope and remewal. I suppose that if I could just change my way of thinking about the season then there is something positive that can be learned from it too.

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