The ground around my home is covered with leaves now, and while there is still a lot of green left on the trees, there is also a fast growing amount of brown, yellow, red, and orange. In summer, the branches grow, green leaves unfurl, and nature expands, reaching out toward the sky. In fall, like now, nature turns inward, reversing the outward expansion of summer and instead contracting and consolidating energy. Without the pulling in months of fall and winter, the reaching out months of spring and summer would not be possible. The converse is also true, of course—the ability of trees to withstand the winter depends on their flourishing in the summer.
It’s similar for us as humans. Most of our lives are lived externally—with family, work, neighbors, friends, and recreation. Aside from sleeping, most of us spend little time turning inward, withdrawing from external pursuits and focusing just on ourselves. Some of us feel we just don’t have time for that. Some of us would like to do that but just don’t know how. And some of us find that boring or feel it would be a waste of time. That’s understandable, because our society doesn’t place much value on introspection, or at least doesn’t teach us how to do it and doesn’t easily make space for it.
When we take some time to stop the action outside of us and work on discovering who we are inside, we refresh and renew so that we can experience our external lives with more peace, more contentment, and more freedom. Time with ourselves turns out not to be time away from our outside lives; it actually “enlivens” our entire lives. And like with trees, the converse is also true—we need our external lives in order to get the most out of our inward-focused, contemplative explorations. Even in monasteries and ashrams, the residents do chores to keep the facility functioning.
Meditation, yoga, and similar practices are very powerful containers for internal work. They guide us in developing and deepening our relationship to who we really are. What we discover about ourselves is fascinating in its own right, but the benefits go far beyond that. Within a fairly short time after beginning a regular practice, we start to see ways in which our lives get easier, less stressed, and more enjoyable. As we see that, our commitment strengthens, which in turn yields even greater benefits, and we find ourselves in a positive, life-affirming cycle of growth and freedom.
It is recognized in many spiritual traditions that the teachings are aligned with the processes of nature in important respects. Perhaps the falling of the leaves can remind us go inside, to contract our energy for a time on a regular basis, so that when it’s time to engage with the outside world, we can do so with the colors, the brightness, the joyous expansion of the trees in summer.