Seasonally, September is month of great transition. It’s the end of summer and the fall equinox, which falls in the third week of the month, marks the point at which darkness exceeds light for another six months. Fall encourages a shift in attention from outer directed activity to a more inward focus.
In the growing cycle, fall is when the harvest is collected,the fruit eaten or preserved, and the seeds extracted, while the lush greenery of summer fades. We may want to cling to the last vestiges of summer yet know we can’t keep the dark and cold at bay for long. Change is forced upon us, ready or not, and many of us catch colds in this season as our bodies struggle to adjust.
Psychologically, even though the spring phase of experience, with its rush of births and new beginnings, creates just as much change and stress in our lives as the fall phase of dying away, we tend to associate “birth” with joyous emotions while “death” evokes feelings of fear, sadness, and loss of control. Birth fills our thoughts with wonderful possibilities but death requires true vision and faith to see that, just as every birth leads to death, every death leads eventually to a new birth.
The inner work of fall invites us to look at our relationship to change, our adaptability, and our comfort with endings and loss of control. The spiritual potential of going willingly into this six-month descent into darkness and the symbolic underworld it evokes, is that when we meet our deepest fears head on, we emerge with the deep knowing that, in truth, there is nothing to fear.
September, which merely hints at the darkness to come, is the perfect time to prepare for the descent into winter by shoring up our physical well-being, as the adjustment from warm to cool adds stress to our bodies. Giving some attention to our physical health now can help us through the winter season of colds, flues, and darkness-related depression. What’s more, physical symptoms can give us tremendous insight into our ability to flow with change if we’re willing to understand them as well as treat them.
Even at times we don’t consider ourselves ill, we may still have a symptom or two: chronic allergies, a tendency toward headaches, a pain or weakness in a particular body part, or a susceptibility to certain kinds of illness. Whether we’re dealing with the experience of serious illness or simply the occasional minor symptom, listening to these physical manifestations of dis-ease can uncover levels of meaning and purpose to them that we may never have realized were there.
Our physical symptoms communicate to us in a language filled with obvious metaphors. If we’re willing to pay attention, they tell us a great deal about our needs, imbalances, and our path of healing. The very metaphors we use in speaking often mirror the physical symptoms our body manifests.
I became especially aware of this when I was Director of a Center for Attitudinal Healing in Baltimore and worked extensively with people dealing with physical illnesses. I noticed how people’s pet expressions had a way of literally describing their illness. A woman with cancerous tumors in her leg frequently used the expression, “I can’t stand it!” Someone with food allergies continually said, “I can’t stomach it!” and a woman with skin cancer spoke of things “getting under her skin.”
A good way to understand the language of your own physical symptoms is to consider the metaphorical meanings of the affected body parts and functions. For example, hands are for handling things. If you have pain in your hands ask yourself: are you holding on too tightly in some way? Are you trying to “handle” everything yourself? Do you have difficulty “reaching out” for love and support? Are you having difficulty “grasping” something? If your neck and shoulders hurt are you “shouldering” more than your share of responsibility? Are you being “stiff-necked,” and overly rigid in how you are seeing things? If you are a woman with tumors or pain in your breasts, have you been suckling the world until there is nothing left for you? Do you feel in need of nurturing yourself? Do you feel in some way inadequate about yourself as a woman? If you have heart problems, have you felt “heartbroken”? Have you closed your heart to warmth and love? Have you lost your joy and passion for life? See which metaphors best fit the way you feel.
Addressing the situation indicated by the metaphor can powerfully support and sometimes even alleviate the need for other treatment. For example, during a time when I felt sorely burdened by the pressures of life (“shouldering” more than I could carry, so to speak) I developed a painful “frozen shoulder” condition for which a medical professional prescribed several months of physical therapy. I “treated” my emotional condition of feeling burdened by clearing many projects from my plate and giving myself a highly uncharacteristic several-month break from work. I played more, worked less and made relaxing a priority. As I felt less stressed, my shoulder improved so quickly that I wound up not needing the physical therapy.
Illness is a wonderful catalyst for change. Rather than being an indication of something we’ve done “wrong” as is sometimes suggested in a new-age distortion of mind-body psychology, illness has a way of helping us meet unaddressed and perhaps unrecognized needs for growth. Just like the fall season, it forces change upon us, ready or not. Whether we resist these changes or meet them willingly, illness often gives us permission to explore positive and much-needed options we wouldn’t have allowed ourselves to consider otherwise, ranging from slowing down a bit to completely and permanently restructure our lives.
We can, of course, choose health and embrace changebefore a physical condition forces it upon us, and this can be the best form of preventive medicine. This month, consider beginning the descent into the dark cold of winter by paying closer attention to your body. Let your symptoms tell you when you need to take a “health day” or reach out for help, or ponder the bigger ways your life may feel out of alignment with your highest good. Choosing health in this way usually requires a stretch out of the “comfort zone” of familiar behavior but the pay-offs are well worth it.