Responding to the September blues - with kindness and insight
Updated: Sep 2, 2022
At this time of year, I am regularly beset by a vague and nagging sense of melancholy. A sense of good things coming to an end and trials ahead. This autumnal malaise is a recurrent motif for me and something I have written about before in my 2019 Blog September Solace.
Intellectually it is easy enough to understand. I have a temperament which favours summer. I love the long, light days, spending time outside without having to dress in multiple layers, the warmth of the sun. I relax into the holiday atmosphere which seems to pervade life in general, the easing of routines and obligations leading to opportunity for spontaneity and fun outings and activities. Or, conversely, the opportunity to pootle with no real agenda, being with the kids, spending time with the horses, walking the dog or reading in the garden. These are things I view and experience as pleasant.
On the other hand, and apologies to the Autumn and winter lovers out there, the colder, darker seasons create conditions that I find harder to deal with: shortening days, colder temperatures, less sunlight, the need to dress up in numerous awkward and bulky layers of clothing just to venture outside. And caring for my horses becomes more difficult. Constant rain (maybe much needed right now!) can lead to deep mud which both me and the horses hate. Dropping temperatures lead to frozen fingers which are awkward and painful while I am trying to fill water buckets and hay mangers. Jobs just seem to take longer and be more difficult to accomplish. Just writing this I can feel a sinking feeling in my chest. For me, these are conditions I find unpleasant.
Buddhist psychology talks about feeling tone or Vedana. Feeling tone is the inherent tone of things and our instinctive reaction to them. The shades of feeling tone can be described as pleasant, unpleasant and neutral. It is not something we need to think about too deeply, it naturally arises. For instance, to most of us, the smell of freshly mown grass is pleasant whereas the smell of diesel fumes are unpleasant. Sniffing the air right now, as I type, it is neutral: neither pleasant nor unpleasant - in fact so neutral it is easy not to notice.
Becoming aware of the feeling tone of things, and our instinctive reactions to them, can be immensely powerful. Research shows that our instinctive response to feeling tone is what drives our mood, influencing the flavour of our day-to-day life. Mindful awareness, when coupled with self-compassion, wisdom and a little space, gives rise to choice. It creates a shift from our habitual ways of reacting to situations and instead offers the opportunity for a considered response. In the words of Tara Brach, “Mindfulness is a pause – the space between stimulus and response: that’s where choice lies.”
As I review my summer and autumn/ winter lists, is easy for me to appreciate why I love summer and struggle with winter. Yet, waving goodbye to the seasons is inevitable. You could argue mourning the end of summer is both crazy and futile. Still, it is something I recognise I do each year. The Buddha described this as unnecessarily shooting a second arrow at ourselves. The first arrow is the actual thing or event that causes us suffering in the first place, for example, feeling sad summer is ending. The second - and subsequent - arrows are all the layers of suffering we add: beating ourselves up, wishing things were different, getting angry or frustrated at the situation or those around us.
In past years, as the September blues hit, I would start the internal dialogue of berating myself: “I am being stupid - I should know Autumn follows Summer by now and just bloomin’ deal with it!”; “What’s wrong with me? I have a good life so why am I feeling so sad right now?” A gloomy Eeyore-like doomsaying, predicting a terrible, unending winter and untold difficulties getting through it. This would set the tone for my experience and inevitably the season would feel like a long, hard slog. I would often catch myself wishing away months of my life until the return of Spring!
Over the years my mindfulness practice has helped me respond to myself more kindly and wisely when I notice this happening. I have found the work and guidance of Tara Brach incredibly nourishing in this regard and the practice of RAIN can be a way to respond to my sadness with awareness, kindness and insight without shooting a whole volley of subsequent arrows at myself.
RAIN invites us to: Recognise, Allow, Investigate and Nurture. Starting, in this instance by simply recognising, “Ah, sadness is here.” Or “The end of summer blues are visiting again.” The key is to recognise without judgement or berating ourselves, bringing kindness, a touch of lightness to our internal voice, even a dash of empathy and understanding. This is where the allow comes in. We simply allow whatever is here to be here. We don't try to push it away, ignore it or make it disappear. Tara Brach has a lovely phrase: “This belongs.” It’s not good or bad, it is simply here. Likewise, we are not good or bad for having this response. This is just how it is right now.
When we have recognised what is present and allowed it to be here, we are ready to investigate its flavour and qualities with curiosity and interest. When I turn my attention to the autumn blues, asking myself where I notice it in my body, I can sense slight downturn in my mouth, a slumping of my shoulders, more intensely a heaviness of heart. Tuning into our felt awareness of our experience can be a powerful act of self-kindness. Our body is an anchor, inviting us back to the present moment. Exploring how things are in our body, right now, in this moment, calls us back from worrying about the future or ruminating about the past.
Our body also holds its own innate and instinctive wisdom. Research has shown we have centres of intelligence in our heart and gut as well as our brain with each of these areas communicating through a complex neural network. Spending time listening to our body can reconnect us with our own intuitive wisdom. Finally, for me personally, I often find that investigating, with kind curiosity, how discomfort is showing up for me (be it physical discomfort, an emotion or a nagging thought) I find that what I have been thinking of as something dense, constant and insurmountable is actually much more ephemeral, changing, ebbing and flowing.
The final stage can actually be the most challenging for many of us. here we bring an attitude of nurture to our experience, asking with kindness, "What do I need right now?" Here we may need to proceed gently. Many of us are out of touch with our own wants and needs. It can even be difficult for some of us to believe we deserve self-compassion. So, sometimes when we introduce self-compassion it can feel challenging and we can meet resistance, what Chris Germer, co-creator of the Mindful Self-Compassion programme calls back-draft
When I first began practicing mindful self-compassion, I remember being shocked and sad at how challenging it was for me to do one particular practice. So, as best we can, being kind to ourselves if that comes up. With gentleness, kindness and slow steady practice I have found that my self-compassion muscle has developed and this way of being feels easier and more natural.
So, to come back to the theme of the piece, as I recognise the September blues arising, I am able to let them be there with less resistance and more kindness. I can investigate and explore the different nuances and transitory nature of my blues and be more in the moment, allowing myself time for mourning and time for enjoyment: the feel of the first rain on my skin after many months of drought and taking pleasure in the horses’ appreciation of this too. And I am able to be kind to myself, recognising the importance of building things that nurture me into my busy September schedule: making time for friends, forest walks and reading.
Those who have worked with me will know that I value the power of poetry to communicate a depth of message so I will end with a poem and an invitation to be kind to yourself, whatever feelings the coming of the Autumn may awaken for you.
Winds of Autumn, by Saigyo
Even in a person
most times indifferent
to things around him
they waken feelings
the first winds of autumn.