Autumn, Persephone, and Embracing Darkness
Ryan Maher, MA, LCPC, CYT
Autumn always seems to arrive with a bittersweet embrace. The drying leaves, the fading cricket songs, and the occasional smell of wood fire, all usher in an unmistakable sense of nostalgia. As we turn our collective gaze downward to brace for the deepening chill, we try our best to navigate a range of mixed emotions. Sometimes these emotions consist of depressive features such as loneliness, sadness, and a lack of energy. So it is often with reluctance, and even trepidation, that we bid farewell to summer’s warmth and green. Meanwhile autumn, with winter at its heels, invites us to slow down and acknowledge the full range of our emotional experience as the world around us undergoes a considerable shift. Looking up, we witness the leaves let go of their hold and descend to the earth. And yet we know this is not the end of their journey, only a new manifestation. As they decompose on the forest floor, or are piled in yards and turned to compost or mulch, they become nutrient-rich matter and their energy is converted. Likewise, with autumn’s arrival, we have a similar opportunity to descend inward to the darker and less familiar corridors of our own being. And in doing so, we can work with the heavy emotions that frequently accompany autumn and winter to connect with our deeper selves and ultimately grow and transform.
The goddess Persephone’s descent into the underworld symbolizes our own journey into darkness as autumn takes hold. One day, in the land of eternal spring, Persephone is out in the sun gathering flowers when she is abducted by Hades and taken to the underworld. In the darkness of his subterranean realm, Persephone falls into a deep depression, longing for the green earth and blue sky. Meanwhile, Persephone’s mother Demeter, the goddess of grain, plants, and harvest, is so overcome with grief that the crops, trees, and plants of earth wither and die. By the time Persephone is found by the messenger Hermes, she has embraced her role as Queen of the Underworld and appears radiant and fearful. Eventually, Persephone returns to the earth realm and her reunion with Demeter brings life back to the plants and crops. The time comes, however, when Persephone goes back to the Underworld to resume her position alongside her husband Hades. Demeter mourns following her departure and the plants and crops again wither and die. Thus, with each journey to and from the underworld, Persephone summons the seasonal cycles of earth.
Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.
Tao Te Ching, S. Mitchell translation
As autumn deepens we are quested with a journey into our own underworld. And while the nights grow longer many of us can expect to feel sad, alone, or withdrawn, just as Persephone did upon her initial arrival in the underworld. However these, and other unpleasant feelings that we confront, can act as a catalyst for deeper engagement with our inner Self. By approaching autumn and winter as a time for deeper nourishment we can utilize difficult emotions for our benefit, rather than feel powerless over them. Below are some ways to connect with the deeper dimensions of our experience:
- Therapy (see below)
- Meditate (see below)
- Practice mindfulness (see below)
- Keep a journal
- Read your favorite poem everyday, notice what emotions emerge in your mind/body
- Pay attention to and write down your dreams – these are gateways into your subconscious
- Read books that feed your imagination
- Take advantage of free days at Chicago’s museums and find exhibits that inspire you
- See live music
- Make time for hobbies
- Explore a new hobby
- Attend a yoga class
- Engage in art (paint, play music, write, dance)
- Attend a spiritual/religious ceremony
- Attend a spiritual/religious ceremony you’re completely unfamiliar with
- Bundle up and walk through a park
Therapy is valuable way to explore the deeper areas of your being and experience. This is particularly helpful if you encounter any emotions or depressive features that feel overwhelming. Working with a therapist can both improve depressive symptoms often experienced during the colder months and also facilitate a process that opens up deeper self-awareness and insight.
One possible meditation is to find a comfortable seated position or supine position (lying down). Close your eyes or keep your gaze downward. Visualize your body as a tree and any heavy emotions or sensations as colorful leaves falling from this tree. Allow your breath to be relaxed and deep and continue to visualize any heavy emotions or sensations leaving your body in the form of bright yellow and orange autumn leaves. Through this visualization you can practice both non-attachment to these emotions and also appreciate how, in the act of letting them go, they can provide nourishment just as leaves do after they’ve fallen and decompose. If meditation is challenging for you, guided meditations/visualizations are available online and can be very helpful.
Even something as simple as allowing yourself to drink your morning coffee or tea without any distractions can become an insightful and healing mindfulness practice. Simply focus all your senses on the experience of drinking the warm liquid and observe how this warms your body. Take note of any emotions or thoughts that arise, allow those emotions/thoughts to be there, and equally allow them to pass. Just continue to refocus your attention on your warm drink and the sensation of taking this drink in.
If we are able to embrace the darker months as opportunities for insight and growth, the emotional challenges inherent during autumn/winter become less powerful. Equip yourself with resources to navigate the darkness so that it becomes a gateway to deeper understanding. And keep in mind that despite Persephone’s initial sorrow being in the underworld, she ultimately embraces her position as Queen with powerful radiance.
Mythic Arts. (http://www.mythicarts.com/writing/Persephone.html)
Tzu, Lao. Tao Te Ching. (Stephen Mitchell, Trans.) Harper Perennial Modern Classics.