Winter to Spring: The Turning Point

February 24, 2014 | Posted in: Psychology

Snowdrop, Temple of Flora, Robert John Thorton, 1807.

Snowdrop, Temple of Flora, Robert John Thorton, 1807.

“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.”
John Steinbeck


Here in Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina we’re in that magical time of year when winter is just beginning to give way to spring: trees are budding, but frigid weather still holds the sun’s increasing warmth at bay, and the first brave spring blooms of snowdrops and crocuses get buried under sudden snowstorms. The world remains dominated by stark tree limbs and brown landscapes, but birds and squirrels are appearing to re-enliven the landscape. It isn’t spring, but it isn’t fully winter anymore either. It’s the turning point.

These periods of the year, when one season bleeds its life into another, are exceptional at re-engaging our senses, which often have become dormant throughout a long stretch of a season. Yes, it’s been a long winter and our senses are likely less acute to the beauty of snow, bare branch, smell of wood burning, warmth of the tea cup. But the sudden sprouting of green or the first flash of a robin’s red breast, ah! That’s a sight to see, which may just stop us in our tracks to praise the turning of the seasons.

To delve more deeply into this winter to spring transition, the Taoist system of Five Elements offers valuable psychological insight:

Over four thousand years ago, Taoist sages developed the Five Elements system, which was later adopted as a core aspect of traditional Chinese medicine. The Five Elements, a symbolically rich and holistic method for mapping the human psyche, recognizes that the same patterns and energies that we see in the cycles of the natural world are also within each human being. Similar to the chakra system of Vedic India, each element is seen as both a separate expression of energy and integrally interconnected with each of the other elements. Each of the five elements is also associated with physical aspects of the human body, as well as emotions, mannerisms, phases of development, colors, sounds, and most relevant to our blog today, seasons.

Evening Snow on Mount Hira, Utagawa Hiroshige, c. 1834.

Evening Snow on Mount Hira, Utagawa Hiroshige, c. 1834.

In the Five Spirits system, winter is not associated with death. The time of decay is the role of autumn, when cold descends as the sun weakens and plants die back. The process of death and decomposition is complete by the time winter blankets our world, leaving it frozen, seemingly devoid of life. Winter is the period of gestation, when life is hibernating beneath the earth, awaiting the renewal of growth with the sun’s increasing energy in the spring. Psychologically, this is the time when outwardly our life feels barren or deathly quiet, no creative fire or vibrant feeling disrupting the lull. But deep within the darkest parts of our psyche, in the realm of the subconscious, a seed is being carefully incubated for the moment when life is ready to begin anew.

“I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says “Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again.” Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass

In our society’s current paradigm, an individual is expected to be an endless geyser of spring and summer energy, perhaps only halting from the endless process of doing (whether working, creating, shopping, driving, showering, eating, partying, typing, talking, exercising) to take a moment to enjoy the harvest of one’s efforts. But then it’s back to the plow, no time to stop, reflect, dream, or worse yet, do nothing. It’s as if, now that the western belief in an endless frontier to be settled has been replaced with an understanding of an interconnected biosphere of finite resources, we’ve switched to a psychological frontier of endless growth, wherein there is no necessity for times of decay, death, and incubation.

But winter is as real within our psyches as it is in the ecological world (and all ecosystems follow the same five phases of sprouting, growth, harvest, death, and incubation, whether they be tropical, temperate, or arctic). Both seasonally and psychically, winter can be seen as the time where the cyclical process has come full circle: life springing up, growing abundant, bearing fruits, decaying, and then the stillness before rebirth. Here at the end we discover the beginning: that the roots still live, that the seeds break open, and life surges up once more.

In the Winter's Twilight Glow, John Atkinson Grimshaw, c. 1892.

In the Winter’s Twilight Glow, John Atkinson Grimshaw, 1892.

“Transformation happens in places hidden from the light, deep in the belly, under the sea or in labyrinthine caves far below the surface of the earth. It is only in matter, in the body, in the soil or beneath dark waters, where things die and come to life, that the mystery of transformation can occur.” Lorie Dechar, Five Spirits

This pause between death and life is energetically necessary, and offers a time where nothing needs to be done. Honoring this space for quiet and reflection, for a slowing down and drawing in, allows us to more gracefully pass through these periods of cold stillness. In our hearts we know that a greater mystery than we can dissect and define will ripple through the earth and cause growth to spring forth once more, both in our own inner world and in the world without.

As winter gives way to the uprising of spring, I am thankful for these past months of incubating darkness and cold silence, and eager to see what new life bursts forth under the strengthening gaze of the sun.


Just one person out of 7 billion + on a journey to live a life that is vibrant, soul-fulfilling, useful to others, and consciously engaged with the ecological community that sustains all life, including mine and yours.