Dying Back

as herbalists, we are closely tied to the plants, and to the cycles of the year. it’s appropriate to take time to contemplate those cycles sometimes! herbalism is also an exercise in self-mastery: not the bludgeon of discipline (though discipline is often good), but the more compassionate acknowledgement of who we are as individuals, of learning to know ourselves, and then choosing to pursue a path of growth. Samhain is a time when that work feels especially appropriate.

autumn nettlesThere are lots of names for this time of the year – Halloween, Day of the Dead, All Souls Day, the Festival of Lanterns: each culture has a way of marking this time. I like the name “Samhain” – it emphasizes a more solemn empahsis, though that’s not the same as sad! At this time of the year, the plants have done their work and have died back, or are doing so. They are retreating into their roots, they are sleeping in their seeds. Their energy has coiled itself – what bits remain after the summer of growing – into the smallest dark places, where it will rest, and regrow. And although it won’t be until spring that we see it, it’s not right to say that nothing is happening now: it is happening now. It will be happening all through the fall when the trees are naked and there’s no snow to cover the ground and everything is bare and brown: still it will be happening, still in the smallest place, it is all alive and regrowing right now. The death and the rebirth are one.

Taking time for introspective work

As humans, we do this too. Our culture no longer makes space for it, but as the world dies back around us, we also retreat in. This is a time to ask ourselves: What do I need for the next season? What will be left behind? What have I been carrying with me that maybe served me in its time, but is no longer needed, it doesn’t need to be a part of me now. How am I not what I was before, and how can I let go of the strings and the ropes and the nets that hold me from falling firmly into that which I am now? How can I let go of the things that I cling to because they are familiar, even though I know they are not who I am, now?

The letting go of these things – it’s not like New Year’s Resolutions: those are silly (but I usually make them anyway!). “As of This Day, I Shall Renounce All Sugar!” – it never really works that way. The letting go of the these things, the death of these things in ourselves and our willingness to let them die, it’s a process. It starts to happen before Samhain, of course. It starts to happen as the fall comes on us, it starts to happen in us as it does in the plants, as the animals make their changes too – scurrying now to prepare, leaving for warmer places or staying and making warmer homes. Maybe it happens sooner; things are dying off, all through the year. The early spring plants loose their flowers in the summer: it is a continuous process. It happens slowly at first, and it is subtle, but it comes faster and faster – it builds on itself like a snowball.

It’s a process

autumn pondSamhain comes, and we say, this is the day on which I acknowledge the things that are dying. I acknowledge their death, I acknowledge myself without them, I acknowledge that I will let them go: just like a funeral. It’s an apt analogy: she was dead before we gathered here, but we stand together anyway, so that we can look and say, she is dead now, we will go on without her.
And then we eat together, and we tell stories, and we cry, and then we go home, and for some it will be easier, for they never really knew her that well anyway. And for others it will be hard: she was a mother, she was a daughter. We begin to learn to live without her then, over the next months, we learn what it is to have life without that part. It’s a process.

In this case, we are the death as we surrender parts of ourselves we have grown past. We are also the funeral, we are all the attendees. For some parts of ourselves, the giving up, the giving over, it’s not so hard. Some parts of ourselves are ready to go. Others cling, they don’t want to be without, they don’t know what it will look like to go on without. Other parts might admit: it was never any good for me to hold on to that. If I met that thing today, I would not make it part of my life. Or whathaveyou. Still, we need the time to do the work of becoming who we are without those parts. Of filling the gaps or not – smoothing their edges and learning to live with them as they are.

Settle in

Samhain is tied to Solstice, there is a kind of tension between them: the dead of the year carries with it the anticipation of the renewing. This is the time when the snow hasn’t come yet, but the food is all in. Here we are! We’re waiting for winter! We expect it, it is coming. Maybe we chop some wood, maybe we mend or study. Mostly we busy ourselves with the work of anticipating that winter is coming. Even in our commercial, out-of-touch society, we do it: we look to Christmas, we plan gifts and parties, we think about what it’s going to be like, the fun it will be. We’re projecting in those moments, forward into the selves that have solidified the changes that are taking place now. Sometimes you have the lesson and all there is left to do is to let it settle into its place. The dark is time for that, between Samhain and Solstice (the returing of the sun).

burdock seedsI like the paradox, that Samhain itself is the death and rebirth, in one. Because in some sense, these thing are instantaneous like that: the acknowledgement that I cast off this insecurity, that I refute the need of that crutch – in that moment, it is done. In that moment, the thing is gone from us. It is only our own habit that pulls us back to it, that causes us to cling. It is the habit that must be remade, the heartwork is done the moment it is started, but it’s a hard concept to explain. Maybe it’s something like the Matrix: once you know that you’re in the matrix, you can’t ever go back to pretending it’s the real world. You know that it’s not. Once you have acknowledged: “I can live without this thing. oh, I can be not this thing. or I can BE this thing. oh, there’s another way I could do this…” Once the acknowledgement is made, you can’t go back from that. The work is already done. But we are humans, we don’t change overnight. So I’m grateful for the process, for the deadtime we have.

It’s not “and tomorrow I will diet and I will lose twenty pounds and I’ll never cheat again and I’ll always be perfect!”, which is good, cause that never works.

It’s “and now I have some months, and I will learn to live without this part of me that was serving me, even if poorly, and I will learn how to stand up on my own, and sometimes it will be hard.”

this kind of work is difficult, and often kind of unpleasant. the plants are here to help! i love St. John’s Wort at this time of year: it is physiologically helping me clear things out that i don’t need anymore but improving liver function. i also like Mugwort, as a very helpful way to do the introspective work. and it’s a great time for Linden, just for the gentle support it gives during this hard work!

We have a video about Samhain, Mugwort, and St. John’s Wort on our YouTube channel! Check it out, and be sure to subscribe!

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