The Wisdom of Autumn

Jay Michaelson
September 18, 2018
Yellow fall leaves against a blue sky

I have a funny relationship with fall.

On the one hand, autumn -- which officially starts this week -- is my favorite season. I live in the Northeast, and I love to watch the leaves slowly turn from green, to yellow, to red... to gone. The weather gets less stuffy, I get to pull my plaids and corduroys out from the drawer, and the air takes on that delightful smell that only happens at this time of year.

On the other hand, autumn is depressing AF. Because after fall comes winter, and my body is not a fan of winter. For years, I suffered from seasonal affective disorder, not quite understanding why I’d get depressed every January. (Nowadays I take steps to mitigate it – more on that in a future issue.) I exercise less, eat worse. And if the autumn leaves are riotously beautiful, the bare branches of February are bleak and dour.

So, as the air gets cooler and the leaves start to turn, I often find myself… ambivalent.

Now, you may have noticed something about my autumnal ambivalence: all the bad stuff is in the future. It’s not fall that I have problems with – on the contrary, I love it. The “problem” is only the knowledge that fall will soon pass and be replaced by winter.

In other words, the change of the seasons is yet another opportunity to notice how much the mind is neurotically “leaning forward” into the future, rather than sitting less neurotically in the present. 

Does this sound familiar? Most of us do this every day. Some of us do it every minute: worrying about the future hat hasn’t arrived yet, and which may or may not be as bad as we think it will be. One quotation beloved of many meditation teachers’ is attributed – erroneously – to Mark Twain, who didn’t actually say, “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.” Despite Twain not being the quotation’s source (in fact, an anonymous man in his 80s said it to a newspaper reporter), there’s a lot of truth to it. As unavoidable as pain, suffering, and loss are in human life, most of us compound those realities with many layers of fantasy by worrying about them ahead of time.

It could be something as relatively small as a difficult work meeting, or a tricky conversation with our kids or our parents. Or it could be really big stuff, like surgery or divorce. From the sublime to the ridiculous, it seems as though human beings are evolutionarily designed to worry. Indeed, we probably are: the caveman who flinches when it isn’t a tiger probably gets eaten by fewer tigers than the caveman who never flinches at all. And yet, most of the stuff we worry about isn’t a deadly tiger. Mostly, it’s stuff that we handle when we get to it. And even if we can’t handle it, well, the worrying rarely helps anyway, right?

Let’s not confuse worrying with planning. In my example above, it’s good planning to buy a full-spectrum light fixture, plan a warm-weather vacation, and commit to an exercise routine before the winter months set in. What’s less helpful is fretting, obsessing, and bemoaning the disappearance of light before it even happens.

Here, then, are a few ways in which living a saner life, with meditation and mindfulness as key tools in the toolkit, intersects with this change of the seasons.

1.    One day at a time

First, enjoy the moment! Plan for the future, but live one day at a time. If worry about the future comes up, notice it, and settle back into the present moment (sorry to use that cliché, but you can see why it’s helpful sometimes). Right now, it’s like this. Which, in the case of a fall pumpkin spice latte (sorry, haters), might actually be nice.

2.    Don’t worry about worry

Second, make friends with your worry. Contrary to some self-help books, you don’t have to banish all negative thinking from your mind, and it’s probably unhealthy to try. The “voice inside your head” that’s worrying about the future is, after all, trying to help. It’s trying to protect you – even though, of course, it can’t actually get you out of that meeting, let alone all of winter. So, when you notice worry in your meditation, or as you’re going about your life, you don’t have to judge it. Just notice it – some people actually say something like “oh, hello, worry” to themselves – and don’t go down the rabbit hole.

3.    This, too, shall pass

Finally, see if you can go with the flow. Change happens. Everything is impermanent. And so, sooner or later, it all goes: the summer, your current physical health, the traffic jam you’re stuck in, the leaves on your favorite maple tree. This, too, shall pass.
Once again, it’s human nature to fight against impermanence – but it’s not really what leads to happiness. So as the seasons change, for “better” or “worse,” see if you can surf the ocean, rather than try to iron out all the waves. Whether you’re an autumn-lover or -loather, you can grow wiser with each falling leaf.

How to incorporate the wisdom of impermanence into your meditation? Try this guided meditation by Joseph Goldstein:

Try 'Everything Changes' (in the app)

Dr. Jay Michaelson has been teaching meditation for fifteen years in secular, Buddhist, and Jewish communities. Jay is a journalist on CNN Tonight and at Rolling Stone, having been a weekly columnist for the Daily Beast for eight years. Jay was also an editor and podcast host for Ten Percent Happier for four years. He's an affiliated professor at Chicago Theological Seminary. Jay’s eight books include "The Gate of Tears: Sadness and the Spiritual Path" and the brand new "Enlightenment by Trial and Error".

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