The Gifts of Hibernation

Monday, December 29, 2014 - 6:14am

The Gifts of Hibernation

My head on my arm I fall asleep easily.
On my eyes a mother’s breath,
from her mouth to my heart:
sleep, child, and dream now the sun is gone.

—Edith Sodergran

The sun goes to sleep early, and so do I. I have a few weeks between ending one life-cycle and beginning the next. So I burrow into the present moment, until I touch the bright well of timelessness.

Beyond sleeping, I walk, I read, and I write. I watch rain clouds scud overhead. I eat foods that are simple and wholesome. Beneath the rough surface of the thinking brain, I glimpse realities that are as rich and unexpected as geodes.

I do use the computer, and watch movies. I have a distant relationship with technology these days. I feel an inner resistance whenever I have to respond to an email, or even use the phone. I’m not an antisocial person; I need and love my community. But in these weeks of intense solitude, when the world has granted me a natural pause and is itself preparing for winter, I feel that I too want to still myself, restore myself. Be.

The image I have of myself during these weeks is twofold. First, I see a sodden rag being wrung and wrung and wrung. All the tiredness, all the energy I gave and absorbed over the years is being released.

The second image is of a bell — a bell being rung and rung and rung. Its sound is one of welcome. It is a signal to the worlds that the silence of my heart is transforming into a call to prayer.

We each live and work according to a philosophy we both inherit and invent. The inherited part is easier to articulate. We can dive into Einstein or the Bible or the Bhagavad Gita, and find the lineage of our world-view, already manifest.

Our invented philosophy — the self-made scaffold our lives and visions cling to — is harder to speak out loud. It’s hard to even write it down. And yet, we must try! For we hang our very beings on these invisible bones.

I am learning to see hibernation as a time to retreat from the world, yes. It is also a time for my own unspoken philosophy to come into clearer focus. In this way, hibernation is a time of approach. I am approaching the truth in me, a movement that requires both patience and trust.

One way of facilitating this process is to have some of the conversations I wish I could, with some of the great minds I wish I’d met. It’s possible, for example, to have an honest-to-God, heart-to-heart with Blake, or Lao Tzu, or Tagore. In the workaday world, these are called flights of fancy. But in the world of hibernation, as in the cave, these are not fantasies. They are friendships inscribed so deep in the "now" that, like a child’s hole dug to China, they emerge us into a new reality.

I’m so often amazed when I pick up a book, and the exact thought that had been floating through my mind a moment before is staring up at me from the page. Since I have the house to myself, nothing stops me from raising my hands over my head and saying "Thank you!" out loud.

To what or whom I am giving thanks is a mystery. The universe has created a conscious soul capable of making a random act like opening a book meaningful. Isn’t that marvelous? For that alone, I give thanks.

One of my rituals during these weeks is to drive into the mountains, to visit a chapel on a university campus. The chapel is built from the stone of the mountain. Standing inside, I cradle my fatigue within the deep energy of rock, water, and plant life. I say a few prayers, or read a poem. Then I drive back down the mountain, and go to sleep.

I’ve never been good at resting, taking time out, or giving in to exhaustion. For years, I bought into the mantra that doing is better than being, that productivity is the measure of self-worth. An active life is a good and laudable thing. Action has its seasons too — one of which is inaction.

When this time between times was gifted to me, initially, I fought and fought. I sank into depression. There were days when standing or taking a walk was nearly impossible. The earth was hungry for me. I sank deep. Then, I realized that instead of seeing this sinking as a bad or frightening thing, it was actually a needed counterpoint. I’ve lived so long in the upper registers of my body — in my head, throat, and heart — that to connect to the parts of me rooted to the ground is not only necessary, it is imperative.

Of course it’s been uncomfortable. Many new experiences are, especially those that require total honesty and a willingness to change. But as soon as I stopped the guilt-trips and submerged myself in the rich humus of not-doing, a late-fall flowering occurred.

Perhaps you could call it alignment or integration. It is the experience — fleeting, but profound — of the possibility of moving toward wholeness. Let me tell you, even the hope of wholeness is as fearsome as being unmoored in deep space. It is so immense until, from that dizzying height, you orient yourself to Earth and see your true self — through cloud and rain and dust — doing the work that brings you to life.

The vision may last only an instant. But it stays with you, and guides you, when you wake.

So hibernation is a threefold time. It is a time for retreat and replenishment. It is a time for our wordless philosophy to finally be born. And it is a time for our hidden destiny to whisper in our heart, You’re not forgotten. I’m still here. We’re in this together.

One night, I drove out to a nearby dam. I parked my car on a deserted road and shut off my headlights. I rolled down the window and stared up at the sliver of moon and all those stars. I’d never experienced darkness quite like this before. The pine forest around me held sleeping birds of prey that I could sense, vividly.

I finally understood why children have an innate fear of the dark. It is not the darkness of the bedroom that scares them. It is their knowledge of the ancient dark, of a time we barely had fire to carve a space for ourselves in its dense secrecy.

I stayed only a few minutes by the dam. Then I flipped on my brights, and sped home.

Moments like that — of coming closer to the rhythms and mysteries of life beneath our thin shield of technology and distractions — is one of the many gifts of hibernation. Returning to that hope of wholeness is always an approach, never an arrival. Times of deep sleep and silence make even this radical hope possible. It is radical — from the root — especially in a world that tears us apart, then shames us when we take time for healing.

Hibernation, which is another word for healing, restores our nourishing, grounding source. In so doing, it frees us to become a force of reason, reflection, and kindness. In simple terms, we’ve been given to. So we have something to give. And not just any something. After a deep replenishing, what we give is veined with truth.

So light a fire, and pull on a sweater.
Let the snow curl by the door.
Listen to the hush of trees or traffic.
Welcome the darkness.
Sleep well.


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Andréana E. Lefton

is a writer, traveler, researcher, and educator. She has an BA in International Relations and Education from American University in Washington DC, and an MSc in Philosophy & Public Policy from the London School of Economics. She is also interested in finding connections between education, social justice, and creativity. Andréana has lived and traveled throughout the United States, UK, Europe and the Middle East. She has worked with Ashoka, the Institute for Educational Leadership, Eastside Educational Trust, the European Press Prize, and The Guardian. She has also worked on documentaries for broadcast on National Public Radio and the BBC. She recently designed and taught course at Central European University on “Voice and World” exploring the intersection of self-expression and social justice.

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This was simply beautiful. Thank you.

Wow, what a well written, and even important "soulful" article. Thank you for voicing sentiments deeply hurried and unacknowledged inside of me. December does have the tendency to slow us down. It makes me stop answering my emails instantly and think of the values of life! As the momentum in the wheels of my busy car life decreases, I am and bad to see the scenery out of the windows. I can roll down the windows, breathe the fresh crisp air and yell "freedom" at the top of my lungs. And I can let go of shame and guilt in not being "productive". I can remember the metaphors of how wonderful aged wine (or cheese) taste, how it takes several centuries to make diamond our of carbon or that any thing worth doing is worth doing badly and slowly.
And I can take the time to give a prayer of thanks! For all things graceful and beautiful and not perfect.
Thank you

Many thanks for this beautiful affirmation of some of things I was trying to say with this piece. I especially love that last sentence "...for all things graceful and beautiful and not perfect..." Oh yes.

I like the idea of hibernation as a renewal. As an educator, I am fortunate to have two weeks off around Christmas and New Year's Day. I spend hours curled on my couch reading, crocheting, watching movies with my family. Yet, how amazing it is to consider that a person could leave behind all their responsibilities for weeks at a time to hibernate, reflect, and renew. With children and family alone, I might be able to take a day to myself. Even an hour at a time through the week sometimes seems impossible. But I can delve into those reflections as I do laundry, walk the dog, drive around town. And in the delicious quiet, after everyone is in bed, I can pull those thoughts together, considering what I need to let go of as I approach the new year, and gathering the goodness of what I have accomplished around me like a graduation robe. I am ready to commence the new year, refreshed, renewed, and revitalized.
We all find strategies to bring balance into our lives. Being able to spend weeks in hibernation is quite a privilege and not reality for most people I know.

I was thinking the same thing, how rare the gift of time, to be able to slow down, much less hibernate, has been for so much of my adult life. Once having entered the working world, then becoming a spouse, parent, homeowner, with all the attendant responsibilities, it was decades before I felt I could take the time, during the winter especially, to rest, reflect, and experience the gift of time uncommitted to mundane demands -- not until I was in my mid-60's, and no longer tied to a full-time job. I wish that more people could afford to take time to feed their souls in their adult lives, but it seems very difficult for most workers and parents. We might have a much healthier culture if we could find a way to make this happen.

I completely agree about this 'time out of time' being a privilege, and rarity in anyone's life, my own included. And it does depend on where you are in life too. However, I find that stretches of solitude or stillness (long or short) are so helpful in order to do meaningful work and be fully attentive to others. Your reflections hold many wisdoms too - we can regroup and find peace in seemingly ordinary moments, whether doing laundry or taking a walk. And we do, as a culture, need to at least acknowledge the necessity of times to lay fallow and root. To emerge with hopefully more to give. Thank you for taking the time to read and share.

I welcome the reading of this... It is making sense of my life, where I am right now.

i needed this. When I go into hibernation I always carry guilt with me. This helped lift that. The rest and reflection piece of life is lost too often during this season. Thank you.

Amen aerials and all above reflections ! Gratitude and for ON BEING

How I need to learn the art of graceful solitude, of nurturing hibernation, so badly needed in this hypernation. I closed my office door to raise my hands over my head and say "Thank you, ANDRÉANA!" out loud...

It's so much about both balance and integration isn't it - which are so difficult to learn! But even if we have the intention to be a little more aware, a little more quiet inside, I think that does wonders, even with all the crazy-busyness of our lives. Thank you for reading!

i took a walk, and saw a tree,so i climbed, looked down...and there stood me...!?! i True enjoyed this peace ...

Hands in the air, saying "thank you."

This truly made me smile. Thank you Kay!

This is a beautifully written piece. Thank you for the reminder that a life well lived can also be lived in solitude or hibernation. Your words will be my mantra during the darkness of winter. Where can I read more of your work? Blessings

My deep thanks, Kate, for such a generous response! I've got a few more pieces of writing up on my website: . I very much appreciate your words...

oh, how lovely this is. absolutely so.

I have found that my mind and spirit discover or resolve deeper questions about life more often in periods of solitude. It makes me realize how shallow much of my concerns have been.

This article is worded so beautifully. I truly appreciate your efforts to bring meaningful information to us Krista Tippet.

Dear Camelia, I could not agree more. While so many beautiful and meaningful insights occur in community, there is a mystery and wisdom in solitude that brings depth to our lives. And my true thanks to Ms. Tippet too!

As I age I find myself cherishing this sacred time of hibernation. I wish I had started earlier in life. I hope many young people will read this and let it sink in. I'love share this with my busy grown children. Thank you!

Dear Susanne, I'm grateful you see the value of young people having time for 'hibernation' - or at least periods of reflection, solitude, and renewal. With the world turning ever more swiftly, I think we need individuals of all ages and backgrounds who are able to realign themselves and 'go deep.' Thank you for sharing.

I'm "raising my hands over my head and saying 'Thank you!' out loud." Brilliant reflection. I'm amazed by how many people, ideas, books, and dreams accompany us all on the journey.

Why, thank you Brittany! I'm grateful for your words, and grateful too for the accompaniment you speak of. Those books, ideas & souls truly are life-giving companions.

This episode is perfect for how I approach winter...

Beautifully stated. I could feel a release in my heart and my shoulders slipped back down away from my ears a bit as I felt the peace that hibernating can bring. Thank you. I'll be doing this more.

Andreana, this is so rich and lovely on so many general I need good, big dollops of solitary quiet time, and winter is the perfect hibernation season, the bears got it right. This winter more than many, however I have been craving the opportunity to set the world aside for a bit and draw in around the hearth of my own heart. I am now blessed with the ability to not work full time nor away from home; the holidays are behind us and I have just completed a series of intense writing workshops. I am about to embark on a month of cleansing and the re-nourishing my physical body as well as that of my emotions and spiritual self. I am going to try to relish and revel in the small details of my days, hopefully come to a sense of balance and cooperation between my inner and outer worlds.
So, finding this post of yours is the perfect springboard - thank you!

Dear Peggy, that sense of 'balance and cooperation between inner and outer worlds' is a perfect encapsulation of what so many of us are striving for. I wish you all goodness and support as you continue this adventure

What a thought-filled way to put it "Gifts of Hibernation" for this time of winter with the shorter day light hours, the end of Thanksgiving and Christmas, the slowing down of activity to reach deep inside and reflect and replenish and restore. And on top of that, the gift of not feeling shamed for saying "no" to lesser good so that we can say "yes" to that which is better and more healing. thank you for provoking new thoughts.

wow, I am feeling this resistance to slowing down, this fear of sinking into darkness and depression, if I stop, but am also slowly glad to be less on my plate, to have breathing time, even if an illness allowed it.
thanks for reframing hibernation for me,

A wonderful article. It says everything that I have been trying to say for many years. Eventhough it is summer here in Melbourne Australia I have three weeks annual leave over the Christmas, New Year period and it is a time to read, eat good food, walks, enjoy the sunshine, and indulge in hobbies and to be quiet, think and ponder.

I loved the story about hiberation

this is SO rich, andreana. you make me want to bar the door, kindle the logs, and curl under a winter's worth of blankets and books. i especially loved this line: "In this way, hibernation is a time of approach. I am approaching the truth in me, a movement that requires both patience and trust."
thank you.....

Thank you, Andreana, for this beautiful essay. Gratitude was my second response; amazement after reading the opening paragraphs was my first. Since I first read it two days ago, I've been mind-writing a comment, struggling to make it complete, true and not too long. And last night, I dreamt I was reading more of your writing. I could even see the words on the page! So perhaps this says it all and best. A response from my unconscious. As well as another thank you, from the deepest part of my heart.

Dear Elaine, as the snow flurries down, I read your words, and see these beautiful nested images you write of: you, reading my words, dreaming of new words - and me, reading your words, pondering an adequate response...Thank you for sharing the promptings of your unconscious. I'm so happy this piece spoke to your heart

"The Gifts of Hibernation" is a gift in itself. The article was posted in December 29th, my birthday, the day I woke up with a stomach flu that I am still, six days later, fighting off. I only discovered Lefton’s piece last night, but the timing was perfect.

Lefton writes about the challenge of giving the Self permission to STOP. “I’ve never been good at resting, taking time out, or giving in to exhaustion. For years, I bought into the mantra that doing is better than being, that productivity is the measure of self-worth.”

While in my case I wasn’t given the opportunity of time off from work, but it was forced on me when my body shut down with a classic winter bug, I was still so resistant to let myself not be productive. I tried to keep plans and prior commitments. I waited to call out of work, hoping I would bounce back. When I finally did give myself permission to call out of work and stay in bed, my brain tortured me with lists of things I should be getting done while in bed–catching up on emails, working on my novel, and of course–writing more blog posts!

Lefton writes about letting herself sink into the opportunity of what I like to call time-spaciousness. “The image I have of myself during these weeks is twofold. First, I see a sodden rag being wrung and wrung and wrung. All the tiredness, all the energy I gave and absorbed over the years is being released. The second image is of a bell — a bell being rung and rung and rung. Its sound is one of welcome. It is a signal to the worlds that the silence of my heart is transforming into a call to prayer.”

What a set of images! I feel like a rag being wrung. I also feel like a bell. I feel there is a potential, dormant inside me. A set of gifts and skills and they want to emerge but I am not healed enough yet; my body is not strong enough yet. I must rebuild my health before I can be of service to the world.

Yesterday I told my dear companion how this week I have been eager to visit sacred places. To visit a mosque and a church and Hindu and Jewish and Buddhist temples and just sit in them. My companion asked me why and I said I felt like being in a holy space. That was the only answer I could offer. An interfaith pilgrimage to heal body and soul.

Then I read Lefton’s piece and she writes, “One of my rituals during these weeks is to drive into the mountains, to visit a chapel on a university campus. The chapel is built from the stone of the mountain. Standing inside, I cradle my fatigue within the deep energy of rock, water, and plant life. I say a few prayers, or read a poem. Then I drive back down the mountain, and go to sleep.”

So I am not the only one who craves being enclosed in a place of prayer.

And at the same time, I long for my strength back, in order to walk in the woods and listen to the birds, and be in that church, the church of the natural world.

There is something powerful in stopping. As Lefton says, we live “in a world that tears us apart, then shames us when we take time for healing.”

And now I have been torn apart. I have been stopped to heal so many times in the past year and a half. I have determined myself ready to start again, only to have another ailment force rest upon me.

What would it mean to declare myself in a state of rest until my body craves otherwise–instead of allowing my mind to declare when I should be ready to overcome PTSD, a spinal injury, grief, and a weakened immune system, among other things. I don’t even think “overcome” is the right word. I don’t know what the right word is. I know my body and mind are asking for hibernation. “Hibernation, which is another word for healing, restores our nourishing, grounding source. In so doing, it frees us to become a force of reason, reflection, and kindness.”

Andréana E. Lefton, thank you for supporting my rest. Thank you for supporting the rest of your readers, by sharing the story of your own rest. How powerful a thing, to share our stories and in doing so offer others permission to do the same.

Dear Lena,

I can only respond by quoting your last, beautiful lines: “How powerful a thing, to share our stories and in doing so offer others permission to do the same.” We give each other gifts, and your honest, open-hearted response to my piece was an honor to receive and read.

Having experienced so many times my own body & mind hitting a rock wall – and demanding me to stop – your story has deep resonance for me too. Part of the reason I decided to write and share this piece was to try and confirm myself in the validity, necessity, and virtue of self-compassion and the deep – and so often ignored! – wisdom of the body. You are absolutely right: “I must rebuild my health before I can be of service to the world.” YES. Thankfully, for all the struggle, there is much grace too.

I have no doubt that any steps you take toward healing – which may mean curling up and taking no literal steps at all for a while – will fortify the sacred, embodied space that shelters and upholds: you, yourself. Thank you for sharing your story, Lena, which doubtless is already encouraging others, as it encouraged me.

Wow! The words spoke directly and deeply to me. Thanks.

This is the article I was talking about. Will you please forward to Ginny?

Love to you and Ned!


Just what I needed to read. I love winter, the pure white, pristine, snow covered cold winter. But it does feel just like you described, I wonder that I am not more motivated.
Winter is really a fantastic time for introspection and calmness.
Thank you for this inspiration! Hibernation ho!

I really appreciate this article. I appreciate all the different points that you brought to the table- the truth that's found in solitude, the necessity of healing the mind and body, the abolishing of shame-filled rest, the private conversations of the reading mind, the imposition of technology and absolutely the lines about "hope for wholeness."

Quiet and stillness is something I've managed to work into my regular life. Call if selfish or reclusive or odd, all of these have been used by my friends and co-workers (Lone Wolf one girl calls me), but I choose to call it by its name- Necessary.

At different times and or different reasons the same idea often comes to my mind, or perhaps it is a question. How can we know what we need until we have met it? Or in another form, that we cannot know what things we don't know... because we don't know them. And for this! This reason I love the quiet and the solitude, because it allows us the time to discover so much that goes unnoticed and unheard in the hustle and bustle of company and busy-ness. I agree with you, it is comparable to the dark. And hibernating takes some getting used to, like coming inside from a sunny day or stepping into a movie theatre- sometimes you have to stop and stand still, to completely pause until your eyes adjust and you can see where in the hell you're at and where in the hell to go. But our eyes do adjust.

This topic comes up from time to time, as my partner grew up in a suburb of Chicago in a large family made up of his entire neighborhood of friends and extra parents. His days are quite filled up with sports competitions and social gatherings that sometimes befuddle me. I grew up in the middle of nowhere, Blount County (he is always confused about how we use county names down here) in East Tennessee with one older brother and two parents who insisted my imagination was my best friend. So I had my toys, I had the dogs, the woods and the lake. Incredibly, at 30 years I still fill up most of my days now with reading and writing, the dog, the woods and the creek. "I have about two of those days a month", Steve says. And we reflect on the lives we live and how we have built them to accommodate our ideas about life- our "scaffolding" if you will.

But even I find an occasional discomfort when I see that it's 4pm and the sun is going down. Something in the pit of me asks,"But what now?" Spring, summer and fall in this area are filled with everything in the world except a reason to go inside. And feeling relegated to doing so can be somewhat disconcerting. There is often a sense of fearfulness, a sense of alone-ness in the dark, a sentiment that has stayed with me since childhood. But you are right, if we listen and the dark whispers comforts to us.

This morning as I woke, only to turn the light on for my other half to start his day I realized it was still dark out because of rain. The kind of rain you know will last all day. And my heart smiled so hard because I knew my morning would look just like this. In a blanket, with a warm cup of coffee, sharing conversations without a peep in the house.

Dear Courtney, thank you for your meaningful and illuminating sharing. I especially love the metaphor of coming in from the light and letting our eyes adjust to the darkness. Life requires constant adjustment and re-alignment, doesn't it? And I do believe it's our still, solitary, and reflective moments - even in the midst of daily demands - that enables us to face both dark and light honestly and lovingly.

AMEN sister. Thank you for putting it so poignantly and bringing to light the value of retreat. I too spent many years valuing the doing over the being, and it's not until recently that I realized the error of my ways. Thanks for being that reflection to my change of mind. Here's to a peaceful winter. Cheers. ~K

A friend shared this article with me after a brief opportunity we had at work to ask each other how we doing. Our thoughts on season, work and our personal feelings led her to share this wonderful article that has truly validated my inner thoughts and feelings. It allowed me to know that I was "ok"; what I was feeling was "ok"; and that I should not feel ashamed or outcasted because sometimes people cannot understand or relate to feelings of embracing the darkness for the soulful beauty and comfort that can be found.