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Counseling Connoisseur: Autumn lessons in turning inward and letting go

“At first we do not know what deeds or misdeeds, what destiny, what good or evil we contain, and only the autumn can show what the spring has engendered; only in the evening will it be seen what the morning began.” —  C.G. Jung

The leaves rustle in the trees as the wind grazes the tops, now bleeding color from the stems. Golden, russet and brown shades color the tips of the horizon as the seasons move from summer to fall. The earth begins to bring its energy toward its center as it prepares for the cooler months.

I begin my rituals of nesting. I cover the herbs and berry plants with straw and fill the feeders—assuring my feathered friends will have seeds and full bellies. Salads and light fair are replaced with soups and stews. The house is filled with the alchemy of savory and sweet spices.

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I don shawls and pashminas and shuffle around in fleece-lined footwear. The shift toward autumnal consciousness brings quiet and an inward focus that is forgiving of extra pounds hidden under tunics and capes. I welcome the harvesting and gathering by all creatures as we prepare for the often-dreaded winter months that lie ahead.

Nature’s seasons offer guidance and are witness to the phases of change in our human experience. The first half of our lives—the spring and summer of our youth and young adulthood fade into the beginning of the second half—an autumnal middle adulthood that can offer peace and solace as we learn to turn inward. Just as the last of the leaves gently fall to the ground, we learn to let go of that which we no longer need. We let go of judgment and self-loathing, external validation and the defenses of the ego of youth.

The arrival of autumn

Our early years are characterized by quick growth and the establishment of our own separate identity. We build our sense of self from numerous factors: I am female. I am tall. I am a writer. I am a helper. I am a hard worker.

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Once we have established our place in the world—one that centers on our individuality—a shift in perspective occurs. Autumn has arrived and we begin to look for greater meaning.

In “Falling Upward: A Spirituality for Two Halves of Life,” Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation, says that the shift [to the second half of life] “… feels like a return to simplicity after having learned from all the complexity.” According to Rohr, life’s second half offers the understanding that peace and tolerance far outweigh an air of judgment and righteousness. Knee jerk reactions are replaced with contemplation and discernment. We begin to welcome the wisdom gained from many years of experience and coaching from others. We have started to cultivate our own sense of internal guidance and others may look to us for mentorship. We may recognize a sense of power — a force acting from within that we know is not our ego, and we begin to trust it.

A time of change

As we enter our middle to later adulthood, we may find judging people more difficult and that accepting people as they are is more in keeping with our heart’s desire. We no longer have to prove that our ethnicity, religion or socioeconomic group is superior to another. We have a greater understanding of our narrative and the mistakes we’ve made and are more able to view the errors of others in the context of humanity. According to Rohr, “Creating drama has become boring!”

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During this time, we may begin to see love as something to be offered unconditionally, rather than given only for what we receive in return. Erik Erikson theorized that in middle adulthood — by his definition a span encompassing the ages of 40 to 65 years old — people begin to develop concern for others that extends beyond self and family. He called this need to nurture others—particularly the next generation—generativity. Erikson believed that this desire to give back to the world is so strong that if we are unable to contribute to the greater good, we feel a sense of failure and “stagnation.” Alfred Adler wrote extensively on the value of Gemeinschaftsgefuhl, or social interest — extending beyond oneself to creating a useful lifestyle. As counselors, we can help clients identify their gifts and find ways to make offerings to the world.

A different compass

According to Rohr, the first half of life is constructed through “impulse controls; traditions; group symbols; family loyalties; basic respect for authority; civil and church laws…”

However, in the second half of life, rules as a basis for action give way to authenticity and power directed from an internal moral compass. With age comes the understanding that there can be a difference between what is legal and what is moral. For example, there was a time in the not-so-distant past when it was illegal for black Americans to eat in the same restaurants as white Americans. While this was the law, it certainly challenges my moral compass. Throughout history, many activists—such as Martin Luther King, Jr.; Mother Teresa; Mahatma Gandhi; and Jesus Christ—have broken the laws of their time to move society toward higher moral ground.

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The test of time has provided us with the experience of knowing to pick our battles. No longer feeling the need for competition and keeping up with the Joneses, we are able to enjoy just being in the general dance. We feel at peace more often with what is, and we appreciate things the way they are in the moment. We look to simplify our lives—making space for relationships and pleasure. Much needed playtime re-enters our calendars that have suffered years of overcommitment. We turn inward and welcome the peace.

As we work with clients who are transitioning from the summer of their youth to the autumn passage of middle adulthood, we can remind them of their strengths and the gifts they have cultivated throughout their lives. We can promote their generous offering of time and talents in service to their communities. We can help them identify their beliefs and values, and challenge the dissonance between their internal moral compass and the life they live. We can encourage their inner dialogue and the wisdom that they possess. As counselors, we can promote these changes by offering affirmation of their strengths and the beauty of coming into one’s own self in a way that is authentic, liberating and powerful.

Perhaps this is what the poet Jenny Joseph intended to capture in “Warning,” written in 1961 when she 29.

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick the flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit.

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You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.

But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.

But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.

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Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is director and assistant professor for Alliant International University California School of Professional Psychology’s online MA in Clinical Counseling.  Her research interests include examining sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer; nature-informed therapy; and geek therapy. She may be contacted at cyfisherphd@gmail.com.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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