Winter treasures

Winter gives us respite to turn inward and reflect

With snow in Kyoto today, thoughts turn to the beneficial role of winter in the annual round. Rainer Maria Rilke was a prolific letter writer, whose insights into life have been much treasured, and the extract below comes from a 1922 letter to a young woman named Heise reflecting on what winter teaches us about life’s riches (tr. by William Needham). For Shinto, living in the here and now, enjoying the paradise on earth is something to be grateful for in the depths of winter, just as on the sunniest of spring days…

Tending my inner garden went splendidly this winter. Suddenly to be healed again and aware that the very ground of my being — my mind and spirit — was given time and space in which to go on growing; and there came from my heart a radiance I had not felt so strongly for a long time… You tell me how you are able to feel fully alive every moment of the day and that your inner life is brimming over; you write in the knowledge that what you have, if one looks at it squarely, outweighs and cancels all possible privations and losses that may later come along. It is precisely this that was borne in upon me more conclusively than ever before as I worked away during the long Winter months: that the stages by which life has become impoverished correspond with those earlier times when excesses of wealth were the accustomed measure. What, then, is there to fear? Only forgetting! But you and I, around us and in us, we have so much in store to help us remember!

Snow man at Shimogamo Jinja 2015

Lining up to pray for ‘good connections’ at a Shimogamo Jinja subshrine

Another person to explore the benefits of winter was Henry Thoreau, as a recent edition of Brainpickings makes clear. The writer considered winter’s rewards in a meandering meditation entitled “A Winter Walk” (in his Excursions). It captures something of the sense of awe that underscores the nature worship of Shinto.

Writing in the winter of 1843, the twenty-five-year-old Thoreau awakens to a snow-covered wonderland and marvels at the earthly paradise:

The wind has gently murmured through the blinds, or puffed with feathery softness against the windows, and occasionally sighed like a summer zephyr lifting the leaves along, the livelong night. The meadow-mouse has slept in his snug gallery in the sod, the owl has sat in a hollow tree in the depth of the swamp, the rabbit, the squirrel, and the fox have all been housed. The watch-dog has lain quiet on the hearth, and the cattle have stood silent in their stalls. The earth itself has slept, as it were its first, not its last sleep, save when some street-sign or wood-house door has faintly creaked upon its hinge, cheering forlorn nature at her midnight work, — the only sound awake twixt Venus and Mars, — advertising us of a remote inward warmth, a divine cheer and fellowship, where gods are met together, but where it is very bleak for men to stand. But while the earth has slumbered, all the air has been alive with feathery flakes descending, as if some northern Ceres reigned, showering her silvery grain over all the fields.

This quieting of the outside world, this kindling of the inner hearth, is winter’s great reward for Thoreau. A century before Albert Camus captured the essence of winter’s treasures — “In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”

Thoreau writes:

There is a slumbering subterranean fire in nature which never goes out, and which no cold can chill…. What fire could ever equal the sunshine of a winter’s day, when the meadow mice come out by the wallsides, and the chicadee lisps in the defiles of the wood? The warmth comes directly from the sun, and is not radiated from the earth, as in summer; and when we feel his beams on our backs as we are treading some snowy dell, we are grateful as for a special kindness, and bless the sun which has followed us into that by-place.

This subterranean fire has its altar in each man’s breast, for in the coldest day, and on the bleakest hill, the traveller cherishes a warmer fire within the folds of his cloak than is kindled on any hearth. A healthy man, indeed, is the complement of the seasons, and in winter, summer is in his heart. There is the south. Thither have all birds and insects migrated, and around the warm springs in his breast are gathered the robin and the lark.

Thoreau believed that “every walk is a sort of crusade.” As he walks through the meadows blanketed in white, up the hills draped with snow-bowed branches, through a world enveloped in delicious quietude and covered in a “pure elastic heaven,” he returns to the invaluable inward focus which winter alone invites — a quiet conquest of one’s interior world. A century before Rilke painted winter as the season for tending to one’s inner garden, Thoreau wrote:

In this lonely glen, with its brook draining the slopes, its creased ice and crystals of all hues, where the spruces and hemlocks stand up on either side, and the rush and sere wild oats in the rivulet itself, our lives are more serene and worthy to contemplate.

In winter we lead a more inward life. Our hearts are warm and cheery, like cottages under drifts, whose windows and doors are half concealed, but from whose chimneys the smoke cheerfully ascends.

On Christmas Day of 1856, he issues an exhortation central to his philosophy and his daily practice:

Take long walks in stormy weather or through deep snows in the fields and woods, if you would keep your spirits up. Deal with brute nature. Be cold and hungry and weary.

Four days later, Thoreau amplifies his point:

We must go out and re-ally ourselves to Nature every day. We must make root, send out some little fibre at least, even every winter day. I am sensible that I am imbibing health when I open my mouth to the wind. Staying in the house breeds a sort of insanity always. Every house is in this sense a hospital. A night and a forenoon is as much confinement to those wards as I can stand. I am aware that I recover some sanity which I had lost almost the instant that I come [outdoors].

There is nothing so sanative, so poetic, as a walk in the woods and fields even now, when I meet none abroad for pleasure. In the street and in society I am almost invariably cheap and dissipated, my life is unspeakably mean. No amount of gold or respectability would in the least redeem it, — dining with the Governor or a member of Congress!! But alone in distant woods or fields, I come to myself, I once more feel myself grandly related, and that cold and solitude are friends of mine. I suppose that this value, in my case, is equivalent to what others get by churchgoing and prayer. I thus dispose of the superfluous and see things as they are, grand and beautiful.

In the embrace of winter, we see from Thoreau’s words, is not simply a health-restoring remedy, but deep spiritual insight into the wonder and grandeur of the universe. It’s this sense that Shinto does so much to celebrate and treasure.

Snowman at Shimogamo Jinja, celebrating the joys of midwinter

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