If Winter means death, then Autumn is the dying.
In our culture, death is often synonymous with dread. Like late blight to tomatoes, it seems devastatingly final and achingly unfair. But the idea that dying is an event to be feared is a very human story, and one we have only recently started telling ourselves. To our ancestors death was an inevitable heartache, and an inevitable liberation as well. For most of our predecessors, death was never considered an ending. Rather, it was a transition into mystery itself.
This Autumn, allow yourself to experience the deep liberation of dying.
Life itself is a cycle— a circle, a wheel, a constellation turning and fading and appearing once more. Anytime we want to remember the truth, all we need to do is look around us. Turn our gaze to the harsh eloquence of the natural world (which is to say, the entire world), and witness how everything in existence both lives and lets go in the same motion of welcoming. Every day that the sun rises and dies beneath the humus of the horizon, the earth will remind us that even dying is an act of life.
Dying can be exquisite, and every bit as freeing as being born. In autumn the earth shows us just how soul-quakingly beautiful the act of letting go can be. As the sun moves lower and lower into the bed of the sky, the life force of the deciduous world buries itself in the roots. Fruit bursts open and feeds the earth. Seeds are carried away on the rapture of wind. Each leaf, having lived their own lifetime of cupping their faces to the light, flames and in a singular burst of ecstasy, dies.
In autumn, the world changes before our eyes. The background blur of green dropping away so that we can no longer sleep walk through the sameness of our days. In hues of sunset and ember, ocher and flame, the earth demands our full attention. The maples set themselves on fire and ask us to find the parts of us that are aching to be alive— and the parts of us that are ready to be thrown on the pyre.
When we let go of everything that is ready to decompose, we make space inside of ourselves for newness to be born. Dying has never been a finale, it is only a brilliant bridge to a new section of life. Like compost turned to rich and seed-ready soil, dying prepares us for a new phase of living itself.
Though our smaller selves might dissolve, dying has never been an ending at all. It is, instead, an ecstatic transformation into a wider self.
A time of harvest and longing, celebrations, endings and melancholy, autumn is a potent mixture of all the exquisite fulfillment and color that accompanies the ritual of dying. It reminds us that dying is, in truth, a time of the deepest abundance and celebratory release. Blush-colored apples and pumpkins left glowing like lanterns in vine-withered fields. Gourds and sunflower seeds, cracked black walnuts and hickory nut milk. Hardy chestnut cakes and food literally falling from the sky. As we lose everything from the crown of the trees down to the weeds, our forest floors fill with nourishment. Our tables are heaped, our pantries plentifully lined, and we are left with nothing but thanksgiving and the luxurious space to wean ourselves off of that which actually robs our sustenance. To let the aspects of our life that aren’t feeding us die.
And this, after all, is the beautiful truth of dying. That if we can see beyond the waning and our own fear of ending we will notice that the burial ground itself is one of abundance. And a feast of great fullness is what awaits us on the other side.
Autumn is often a nostalgic season for many people. A time in which we look back on what was, the moments that have flickered and passed. The different versions of ourselves that were born for an era and then were snuffed out in the winds of time. Nostalgia is a potent draft. It can make your mind spin with just a sip. Sometimes nostalgia can even stretch to include the entire sensation of living itself. As if we are looking back from our elder years to feel that sweet and painful thanksgiving for the very opportunity to be alive. In autumn we experience the nostalgia of a well-seasoned soul in the warm blessings of their death bed. Autumn gives us the permission to simultaneously love it all, and say goodbye.
For if autumn is the dying, then winter is the death. And in autumn we prepare for that space of deep reunion and soul quiet that accompanies the soft banks of winter nights. In autumn we are invited to a unique banquet. A table laid with sassafras tea and pumpkin pie, wild nut butters, acorn pancakes and rich apple tarts. And all we must do to enter such richness is shed our old clothes at the door.
This Autumn, let something die.
A worry, a relationship, a project that has run its course. Let go of anxiety over the future. Let go of guilt.
Let go of other people’s dreams for you. Let go of the fear that happiness or success or love or joyousness somehow isn’t for you.
Let go of feeling unwanted. Go outside, can you feel how deeply your presence is craved here?
Let go of the small and burdensome things. Gifts never opened. Keys without a lock. Broken earrings, old love letters, the ephemera on your fridge.
As David Whyte writes, “Anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.” This Autumn, let go of all the clothes you have outgrown.
Let go of comparison.
Let go of doubt.
Let go of the feeling that you are somehow not good enough.
Because every imperfect apple that lays soft in your hands, and every ray of low Autumn sunlight that warms you through woolens will tell you a different story, a much truer story. The story that you are more, much more, than enough. That you bless this world simply by being alive.
Now is the time. In the knobbed hands of the wind, the antique scent of dried leaves and the warm cinnamon feeling of fire in the trees. Now is the time to let the dying enter you as clean and beautiful as the stone that was forgotten and then exposed in the wheat gold of fading weeds.
Allow in the beautiful melancholia and heart-throbbing abundance of life itself. Let every day end like a cello on its last note. And relish. Relish, relish this season of profundity and release. Because, despite what we have grown to fear, dying is a beautiful thing. For then, we can rest. For then, we can embrace the unbelievable joy of what comes next.
<< Practices for Dying >>
A Death Mound
Autumn is an important season of reflection and ritual for me. It is often a time when I look back and take stock of the year’s harvest. The ways in which I have grown, what has been gathered, and what burdens I am ready to lay down.
A potent ritual for me has been to build a death mound. This time of the year the forest and any wooded areas are filled with a bounty of leaves. They give us the perfect opportunity to create a ritual around enacting a much-needed release.
Take an afternoon this autumn to reflect and write down everything you are ready to let die. Gather this piece of paper and any other earth-friendly items that represent those aspects of your life that you are ready to shed and find a quiet spot with a lot of leaves. Dig a small hole and bury your bundle. Then heap over the spot with the leaves to make a mound. You can get creative with colors or patterns or simply toss them over and let your release be messy and complete. Make this pile as high as you dare. If it is a private space, try burying yourself as well. Close your eyes and imagine all of the heaviness dropping from your body like fruit, eager to be given as good compost to the soil. When you are ready, emerge as if you are truly leaving a layer of yourself behind. Cover over the hole with more leaves and say goodbye.
If you can, take a walk by this place on a later date and when you see that the leaves have scattered in all directions (or been carted away), you will know that what was buried in your mound has been released.
Expose yourself to Wildness
Each season holds its own particular medicine. The best way to imbibe this medicine is simply by getting outside to experience the shift. Go for a walk underneath the changing trees. Jump in your neighbor’s leaf pile (when they aren’t looking, of course). Collect your favorite leaves and hang them temporarily on your wall. Place them back outside when the trees are bare and make a wish with every one.
Eat wild food. Whether its rose hips, or a cracked black walnut, or an apple from a feral tree. Get a bit of autumn’s wildness within you. In the presence of wildness death becomes just another beautiful variant of living itself. Allow the wildness of autumn to teach you how to die.
Ask the season to guide you to new medicine. Autumn is often when I begin to shake up my herbal routines of the summer months. Sometimes dying requires a new medicine, and you will know what you need because you will encounter it and a part of you will spark to flame to say “Yes, I am still alive.” For me, this was a life-altering combination of Ghost Pipe Flower Essence + Carnelian last year. You can read more about their medicine in this story.
Recognize the Otherworld
Honor the memories. Honor the Ancestors. Honor the ghosts. With Samhain drawing so near, that traditional holiday of influence from the otherworld, autumn is an important time for engaging with the beyond and righting your relationships with the unseen world. Visit more of these potent autumn rituals in this Samhain reflection.
Above all, give yourself permission, every day, to both die and find the way beyond death. Let yourself live. Spend an afternoon this fall on your back on the forest floor. Make yourself a nest and watch the sky. Follow one leaf from its first brave leap all the way down to the forest floor. Give it time. And one day you will wake up and feel as deep and complete as a maple flame extinguished in the compost of rich soil. You will feel, innately, how very good it is to just let go.
p.s. If you’d like to hear the soundtrack that created this blog piece, take a listen here