Here we are in the last week of January already. Days seem to slip past so quickly that I don’t feel I have actually started the year and it is almost 1/12 over.
A friend commented years ago that I don’t really hit my stride with a new year until Chinese New Year. She calls that ‘my’ new year. I have always assumed that it is the struggle with jet lag after travelling overseas for the holidays coupled with the long nights and cold and flu bugs floating around that makes me feel like I lose the whole month of January to sleep. Now, I’m not so sure.
In many indigenous cultures, time is not linear but circular. We can be at the same point over and over again with different perspectives. Our lives really have cycles – both at a micro and a macro level.
Wearable wrist band monitors for heart, sleep and activity seek to reveal our unique daily rhythms and warn us of the dangers of acting against what is our natural cycle. Eat too late and sleep is disturbed. Exercise too little and our resting heart rate goes up. In keeping with the fact that our selfie and personal blog culture (guilty as charged) makes us the most self absorbed we have ever been, as a species, the obsession with micro movements in our daily rhythms is the automatic place to seek the secret to living well.
But life also has macro cycles. In the Hindu tradition, there are recognized cycles in everyone’s life. First we are a student, then we marry and have our own children and we are householders, and when those responsibilities are gone, we become withdrawn like hermits until finally we renounce this world and move towards the light of what comes next. Some of us never marry and have children but our productive years are spent in other types of “useful” activity. Some of us renounce well ahead of time. But by and large, this philosophy holds that humankind is biologically programmed for this cycle.
The culture of the global North, however, seems mostly to value only the productive years, and the years as a student in preparation for the productive years. Culturally, it seems, we glorify busyness and productivity above all else.
Being still is either a waste of time, or a prelude to death.
I said to a friend recently that I’ve been sleeping too much. My first week back from another time zone, I was fine. But then – as often happens – I got out of sync and my natural rhythm turned around again and I was awake until 4 am and asleep well into the daylight hours.
Since childhood, I have found myself seeking and finding space by altering my sleep patterns with those around me. Staying up late meant that I had the space to freely work or day dream without interruption. Whether it is true that there is more actual space at 4 am or simply perceived space from a world that operates 9-5, it doesn’t really matter. It is good time for the creative mind to focus. So, I ought to be in my element when I am up all night. And, I am. But it is the other side of dawn where discomfort resides.
I feel a sense of guilt in savouring the small hours and resting while the world bustles around me. The world operates on a different cycle and to an outsider (the world is asleep at 4 am), it would appear that I am not being productive. I am not part of the machine. In some ways, I LOVE that. But my conditioning from early childhood has been to believe that I am wasting time and that if I am awake and tending to my spiritual needs in the middle of the night, something is wrong. Although I can look at my time and know I am using it well, I struggle with my conditioning.
In a life so short, there is, in my mind, no crime worse than wasted time.
Now, we know that there isn’t really a conspiracy around 4 in the morning. Or, is there?
If we look at the natural world, there are many species that sleep through the winter. If we did that, we would be over sleeping and quite possibly diagnosed as depressed. But the purpose of the big sleep of hibernation is to conserve energy in times when there is not enough food. I have enough food. So what is it that has me awake and alone at 4 am and sleeping when the rest of the world is awake?
Perhaps there are times when we don’t have enough spiritual, mental or inspirational “food” to keep our body, mind and soul satiated and so, in defence, we conserve energy in withdrawal and the big sleep.
Last evening, I was washing dishes and working on a couple of upcoming interviews for this website. One of my flatmates walked into the kitchen. Immediately, I felt a rising sense of anxiety as she started and continued to speak rapidly and loudly about her day. It is never good news from her. It is the same from my other flatmate. It is never, ever, good news.
An explosion of complaints and frustration sends shards of negativity that tear at my psyche like a thousand tiny paper cuts. She speaks in rapid bits of monologue, shifting from complaint to complaint so it is impossible to dodge the assault. And I ask her to slow down because it is not the size but the velocity of any given piece of shrapnel that makes it lethal.
We have a daily cycle and a cycle of life that coincides with seclusion and renunciation. Somewhere in between these rhythms, in the global North, we have seasons where nature promotes seclusion, for preservation. These are our mezzo rhythms and I would not trade them for the world.
These mezzo rhythms of seclusion and protection against the elements may trigger a call to the unfamiliar Danish concept of hygge. Hygge is difficult to translate in English because it has so many meanings and seems fundamental to a way of life. It is often thought of as a sense of coziness and togetherness and a sense of goodwill, much like we find in our idealised notions of Christmas.
Helen Russell in the Telegraph defines hygge as: “the absence of anything annoying or emotionally overwhelming; taking pleasure from the presence of gentle, soothing things.”
At 4 am, I am in the presence of myself, my God and my soul that lives in both places. I am in the presence of gentle and soothing things.
People are under a black cloud in January and their mood is contagious. In our rush to be productive, to turn over a new leaf, to meet expectations, to pay the bills of an overindulgent holiday season, and in our fight to have ‘our due’ in this dog-eat-dog world that moves from 9-5 and beyond, we are literally tearing each other apart as if the battle against the cold and starvation was real and there must be winners and losers.
Perhaps it is this primal and shared sense of vulnerability in all our cycles which gave birth to the concept of hygge.
For those of us living in cultures where this idea of nurturing prolonged goodwill, camaraderie and gentleness is foreign or too hippy-dippy, the black cloud of January can leave us wounded and with no recourse but retreat. My Russian ancestors understood hygge. And, my childhood in snowed-in Montreal was filled with hygge. But the concept is absent from the metropolis that is London and so a rhythm of stoking the light and warmth of the fire until dawn and of the big sleep is considered aberrant.
I believe that there is something sacred and soulful about it.
And so, if there is a conspiracy of 4 in the morning, it is a conspiracy of retreat and of expansive space, of reflection and inspiration, of withdrawal from the physical in favour of a kind of dream-like connection through the ethers with the collective unconsciousness that binds all of humanity through all times and circumferences of cycles. It is a conspiracy to eliminate the “annoying or emotionally overwhelming; taking pleasure from the presence of gentle, soothing things.”
There is hygge magic at 4 in the morning.
I am grateful to my friend NW- who, years ago, noted my pattern of the “lost January.” The recognition of that rhythm gives me comfort and helps me to accept this time. I am grateful for my friend AK who noted this week that I seem to be fighting myself and that by struggling with my late nights and long sleep, I may be denying myself exactly what I need. I am grateful that for the last few days, while observing myself, I have surrendered to silence and the stillness of the night when I can read, muse and listen to inspiring talks. It was in these late hours that I had the joy of listening to my playlist of inspiring talks and rediscovered the poet Rives and his amusing talks on the mystery of 4 am. Listening, I felt the oneness of companionship with so many unknown souls, awake in the night. And, by accepting and revelling in this time of hygge, my service is to offer an alternative to problematizing the drive to retreat into the dark, to glorify busyness and daytime productivity, and to acknowledge how difficult it is to eschew that conditioning.
I said that I would start to include the concept of living a life of meaning in these posts. I struggle to really know how to practice finding meaning, separately from writing about the practices. What I have reflected upon this week is that the meaning we give to our lives depends on our perspective – if we look only at the micro rhythms and macro cycles of life we may not understand that there are mezzo rhythms that are just as sacred to be honoured. And, likewise, meaning determines our perspective: by honouring our disrupted sleep patterns and the desire to hibernate, we no longer problematize and medicalize a seasonal rhythm but rather understand that time is circular and we have rhythms of vulnerability at the micro, mezzo and macro level. We can honour these dark times of the day, of the year, and of our lives by retreating to the darkness of 4 am and sitting in comfort, by the fire until dawn.