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Discerning a Deciduous Mind

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30 October 2008 No Comment

For the last several weeks I’ve been trying to figure out what it is, exactly, that has me so disquieted. Unless I’m sleeping, I feel agitated and restless, unfocused and withdrawn. It’s almost like the furor of autumn marched right into my heart and mind and decided to take up permanent residence. The worst part about it is the way it obliterates my concentration, which has withered to the same brittleness of the dry, rusty leaves I have been watching the wind tear from the trees and disperse; …I feel my mind scatter widely with each curled leaf…

And like those fall trees I so love to contemplate, all of my energy is compelled to withdraw from the outward trappings of my life, retreating from limbs and flowing down or in, like sap gathering to feed the inner core of my body. I’ve been watching my own leaves, those showy figures of self-containment, identity, and expression, drop off like so much detritus (to be consumed, I suppose, by my roots). So much shedding! Outside and inside—shedding so vigorous I can’t think what will be left once this agitated wind dies off—

I notice that as this happens, as my concentration grows increasingly frail, so too does my sense of self, which is beginning to bust open, blow away—becoming less definable, less reliable, more volatile. It feels like all the sudden, I can’t quite put my finger on what, exactly, I mean, or grasp who or what I’m for; or, in what way, precisely, it is that I should relate to or participate in the daily goings-on of life… I feel remarkably silent and internally absent from friends and family; I have a hard time listening patiently to those around me speak. I’m frequently filled with ambivalence. I’d rather be left alone to think and sit quietly as my interior sifts and sorts and slowly works to re-shape my sense of self, and so I find myself getting resentful about one thing after another that daily demands for me to concentrate on it, rather than on myself. What I want most is simply the permission to wrap myself up in the chaos of my mind as if in a warm cocoon of blanket—to be free, like Proteus, to permutate and transmutate until I can settle on a satisfying shape. I’d like permission to give over to whatever process it is that has overtaken me. I’d like the right to shed my “togetherness”—let everything fall away if it must—and not be made to feel sorry for it.

But the other temptation is of course to try to diagnose these feelings and label them as “problems”—using my logic and my discerning ability to root out the offending “weeds”, “distractions,” or thing that is (poisoning? choking?) obstructing my peace of mind and my ability to meaningfully interact with the world. I begin to wonder if I should be feeling guilty for feeling withdrawn—am I being selfish? How hard should I try to fight these compulsions? Is there some big problem in my life I need to discern? I begin judging my interior needs, and start to worry if these impulses I feel are symptoms or signs of my failings, my weaknesses, of things broken or harmed in my life. It’s tempting to write off my mood as “depressive” and “self-absorbed”—a passing thing that comes and goes. Or to tell myself it’s from sleep deprivation and stress (though there’s some very compelling evidence this is part of it)—yet, I think the mood and feelings are about something else a little more fundamental, too.

Rather than confront my interior situation and it’s “problematic” external manifestations (i.e. the fact that I need (would like) to be left alone for a handful of hours a day; and that I have shortened patience and a weak attention span when I’m in public) with the harsh and unrelenting spotlight of pure reason, or clinical psychology, or medical scrutiny, or diagnostic judgment of any kind, my heart requests instead that I examine it with the dappled sunlight that flickers through leaves in late autumn afternoon. In this way, under this golden kind of light and accepting observation, my heart and mind promise to help me understand what it is I am feeling.

I’ve spent weeks meditating on my irresistible attraction to and commiseration with fall and its shedding deciduous trees. I’ve come to see this shedding as a part of what Walt Whitman calls the “exfoliation” of life. In a short prose entry in Specimen Days entitled, “The Great Unrest of Which We are Part,” Whitman writes that there are “two impulses of man and the universe”: unrest and exfoliation. Both of these terms make good sense to me, particularly at this time of year. One need only observe what’s happening outside to see this truth figured in the vegetation—everything is dying away, sinking down, sloughing-off— The wind picks up and howls in the autumn and the world feels Nature’s unrest—its agitation before dying, its struggle with loss, or its restless desire to retreat and nurse the invisible buds of new life that must lie in darkness until Nature is once more ripe for them.

But less often do we consider, I think, this exfoliation and restlessness as a fundamental truth of human interiority in anything more than a proverbial sort of way—as if it were merely an anecdotal option for understanding things about ourselves that are really much more complicated. But the more I consider it, the more I feel it’s true: I am the autumn, as I am the winter, spring, and summer. Such a mundane thought, and yet if we really heeded the simple wisdom of our feelings, I think we’d change some things about the way we understand our psychology and our needs.

For example, why is it that we can all appreciate the way the wind whips the leaves from the trees in the fall? Why do we take pleasure in the turns of deciduous color—when we know it means the leaves and plants are dying? Why do we romanticize the melancholy of the fall season and call it beautiful when what it means is that we will have to stare at stark, barren tree branches for another four months—until the spring can redress so much nakedness? We know that a barren landscape weighs down our spirits. Yet we willingly accept this process, we decide (because we have no choice, really) to be patient with the immense process of nature’s chaotic and wanton self-abandon, her melancholy, her disarray, her unrelenting insistence for retreat. She pulls back from us, from the world, so to speak, to hide or sleep or restore her creativity. And we accept this. We know we must, because it is ultimately for the world’s benefit–this renewal and re-creation.

And I wonder why we see ourselves so differently? Am I not a kind of tree? I am made of the same molecules and star-stuff; I am every bit an organism who is part of the great eco-system of this planet—if I am uprooted from my earthly habitat, I too will die; the seasons and climate similarly affect me; and like all species I experience the same cyclical processes of exfoliation, decay, and renewal that every organism undergoes—even though I may not see the physical manifestations of this continual process. For instance, my organs are forever changing themselves…cells are dying away and being replaced constantly; in a few years, my organs will look the same, but they will be new, composed of different atoms entirely. In the matter of months or years I will have new skin, new eyes, a new heart, and perhaps without my realizing, a renewed mind. Change is reality and stability is partly a complicated illusion. Reality is always moving at the speed of light, even though we don’t perceive it. But we sense, we feel this constant movement and change—we know we must move and change with it, exfoliating, dying and re-manifesting: For “what is Nature,” Whitman wonders, “but change, in all its visible, and still more its invisible processes? Or what is humanity in its faith, love, heroism, poetry, even morals, but emotion? […] The processes of growth, of existence, of decay, whether in worlds, or in the minutest organisms, are but motion.”

In observing more closely the exfoliating tree and the restless movements of autumn, in listening to the way this season speaks to my heart and mind, I begin to understand that I am sharing in and performing Nature’s unrest—so much so that I can easily identify my sympathetic shedding of self-focus and present identity with the deciduous trees’ own struggle to understand themselves bereft of their identifying, self-expressive leaves (an anthropocentric identification, but no less useful, at least to me). The point is that I am continuous with what is happening outside—it flows into me and I into it. My mind strays and scatters uncontrollably with the wind. And I too want to retreat with the trees and plants— Yet, what I can’t understand is why, as a human being, I am held to such a radically altered sense of what is “natural”?

Clearly, by way of my humanness, I am expected to “overcome” my “seasonal affective disorder” (again, if I have any “disorder” it must be this one [SAD]) and be “in show” all year long, full-leafed and brightly colored—my leaves engaged with and tasting the world, nurturing and shading. But the truth is that no one can sustain a summer mind all the time, though our culture expects us to perform as if this was so. We ignore so much about our biology; we pretend as if we are not organic creatures. This is the real cause of illness.

But, for me at least, there is no real choice but to continue to struggle with this tension between my natural biology and organic needs and the cultural expectations I must also meet. I choose for “therapists,” however, my trees. They understand: Je suis l’automne! Je suis aussi beau!

Photo: “Fin d’autonmne!” by Denise Collette from Flickr (Used under Creative Commons license)

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