Some people dread winter with its cold weather, long dark nights, and the downcast mood these elements often induce.
But my guest would say it’s possible to befriend winter, and truly enjoy the rhythms and opportunities that are unique to this season.
Micah Mortali is the founder of the Kripalu School of Mindful Outdoor Leadership and an instructor and retreat leader who uses the teaching of ancestral skills to help people develop greater mindfulness and connection with nature. Today on the show, Micah explains why we should consider winter “the night of the year” and how befriending the season involves aligning yourself with its call toward rest and reflection. We first discuss exploring the outdoor world during winter and how learning survival skills like shelter building and animal tracking can help you spend more time in nature, restore your sense of well-being, and simply feel more alive. In the second half of our conversation, we talk about how to improve your interior life during winter, both in the literal sense of making your house more cozy and in the metaphorical sense of turning inward. Micah explains why you should spend one night a week pretending you live off the grid, embrace the power of firelight, and may want to wait until March to make your New Year’s resolutions. We end our conversation with why you might want to read The Road this winter.
Resources Related to the Episode
- Micah’s previous appearance on the AoM podcast: Episode #739: Rewild Your Life
- Rewilding: Meditations, Practices, and Skills for Awakening in Nature by Micah Mortali
- AoM Podcast #157: Primitive Pursuits & Winter Survival
- AoM Article: How to Make Pine Needle Tea
- AoM Article: How to Track Animals — A Primer on Identifying Footprints
- Tracking and the Art of Seeing by Paul Rezendes
- Tom Brown’s Science and Art of Tracking by Tom Brown Jr.
- AoM Podcast #566: How to Have a Hyggely Christmas and a More Memorable New Year
- AoM Article: 8 Things That Can Help You Get More Hygge This Winter
- “The Forgotten Medieval Habit of ‘Two Sleeps'”
- “Can’t Get to Sleep? A Wilderness Weekend Can Help” (Write-up on CU sleep study)
- WoodWick Candles that crackle when lit
- AoM Article: Carry the Fire
- The Road by Cormac McCarthy
- AoM Podcast #760: Cormac McCarthy, The Road, and Carrying the Fire
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Some people dread winter with its cold weather, long dark nights, and the downcast mood these elements often induce. But my guess would say it’s possible to befriend winter and truly enjoy the rhythms and opportunities that are unique to this season. Micah Mortali is the founder of the Kripalu School of Mindful Outdoor Leadership and an instructor and retreat leader who uses the teaching of ancestral skills to help people develop greater mindfulness and connection with nature. Today on the show, Micah explains why we should consider winter the night of the year and how befriending the season involves aligning yourself with its call toward rest and reflection. We first discuss exploring the outdoor world during winter and how learning survival skills like shelter building and animal tracking can help you spend more time in nature, restore your sense of well-being, and simply feel more alive. In the second half of our conversation, we talk about how to improve your interior life during winter, both in the literal sense of making your house more cozy and in the metaphorical sense of turning inward. Micah explains why you should spend one night a week pretending you live off the grid, embrace the power of firelight, and may want to wait until March to make your New Year’s resolutions.
We end our conversation with why you might want to read The Road this winter. After the show is over, check out our show notes at aom.is/winter.
All right, Micah Mortali, welcome back to the show.
Micah Mortali: Thanks for having me, Brett. It’s great to be here.
Brett McKay: So we had you on a few years ago to talk about your book, Rewilding: Meditations, Practices, and Skills for Awakening in Nature. And in this book, you take readers through meditative practices that you do at the Kripalu School of Mindful Outdoor Leadership. And what you do is you get people out in nature, take them through meditative practices that uses ancestral skills like fire building and shelter building and building bows and arrows and tracking animals. And you got an online course that you offer called Befriending Winter. I thought it would be appropriate to bring you on to talk about this because winter is coming. But let’s talk about like what happens, like why do most people dread winter? Like what happens to us physically, mentally, spiritually during those winter months where we’re just like, ah, Jesus, this is not fun.
Micah Mortali: Yeah. Oh, it’s a great question. There’s so much to it. So I always like to think about the history of winter for our species. And that always brings me back to thinking about all of the ice ages that happened on our planet. And there’ve been a lot of them. And human beings, we’ve been around for about 200,000 years. And so our ancestors lived through winters like Game of Thrones, winters that lasted like thousands of years. So there’s a deep ancestral, I think, memory associated with winter. And winter, if you live in the Northern Hemisphere or in the Southern Hemisphere away from the equator, winter is that time of year when there’s less light. And that extra darkness and the coldness that comes with it, you know, that’s a time when things die, that’s when plants no longer are photosynthesizing. Winters were a time where if you didn’t have enough food or stores put aside, then you were going to have a really long, hard winter. So people struggle with it because vitamin D levels drop, and that’s associated with depression. It’s cold. And also, there’s not as much going on, I think, socially. And so it can be a time when also you have to draw into your home. And so for a lot of different reasons, I think there’s a sense of foreboding, there’s a sense of a fear associated with the darkness and with the cold, which is very understandable.
I can remember I saw a few years ago a Tommy Lee Jones movie where he’s out on the frontier in the 1800s, and there’s a bunch of little cabins on the frontier. And he goes around after the winter to all the little cabins, and people just, they lost their minds out there. Winter was, you know, maybe you had a Bible and a lamp and some oats, and now we’ve got Netflix and central heating and all these things. But even still, I think winter can be a time that is understandably a little harrowing for folks.
Brett McKay: So you advocate different ways to befriend winter. But is there an overarching theme and philosophy behind coming to see winter in a new way?
Micah Mortali: Yeah, I think the overarching vision or philosophy has to do with understanding the way that all life has to follow the waxing and waning of our sun’s light. So there are natural cycles that take place. And I often think of a quote I heard from Joseph Campbell, where he said, the purpose of life is to make your heartbeat match the heartbeat of the universe. And I think because of many of the wonderful inventions of modern life, like electricity and really great houses that are warm, many of us, most of us probably have allowed ourselves to disconnect from these waxing and waning cycles, because we have the ability to kind of not go into the darkness. Winter is a time when bears go down into their dens and groundhogs hibernate and nature draws inward during winter. It’s a time when fields go fallow and animals sleep and rest. And there was a time when hunter gatherer or more agricultural human societies would slow down in the wintertime. You wouldn’t do as much, you’d sleep more, you’d read more, you do crafts, you would learn how to take care of yourself through that time when there’s less light, and you would rest more.
And so part of my approach in helping people befriend winter is acknowledging that this actually is a very important time of rest, just like in a daily cycle, you wouldn’t want to stay up all night, right? You’d want to go to bed. And winter is like the night of the year. And so it’s important that people embrace that it’s actually a time when you can rest, you can dream, you can recover.
Brett McKay: I like that idea. Winter’s the night of the year, it’s time to just to recoup.
Micah Mortali: Yeah. Yeah, it is. It really is, and we need that. And I think, people got a taste of a slowing down during the pandemic, but it’s not natural for us to be going full steam, 12 months a year, right? It’s not in sync with the earth. And so a lot of my work is helping people to, through mindfulness, through just being curious and being present, just begin to remember, in your own organic ways, the cycles and the rhythms of the natural world. I really feel that through that practice of kind of mindful rewilding, we can heal our relationship with the earth and I think probably heal a lot of other things along the way.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I know for me, that idea of cycles resonates because I love that feeling of when you’re getting out of winter and it’s like, you’re getting that first day of spring where it’s not like super warm but it’s kind of, it’s warmish but still a little chilly. You appreciate that a little bit more after you’ve been through just ground covered with ice and snow, it’s been dark. You appreciate the spring and summer days more because of winter.
Micah Mortali: Oh yeah, absolutely. I think that’s it and for folks growing up in New England or anybody who’s grown up in a place where you have four seasons, that really gets in your bones. I don’t think I could live in Florida. It’s like, I kind of need that, you know?
Brett McKay: Okay. So you recommend different ways to befriend winter. And one of the things you do is recommend learning about winter survival and preparedness. So how do we learn these types of skills, like survival skills? I don’t know, most people wouldn’t think, oh, if I want to like get comfortable with winter, I need to learn how to start a fire in the snow. That’s going to help me. How does learning these ancestral skills help us befriend the season?
Micah Mortali: Yeah. Well, part of what I advocate a lot through rewilding is getting outside and allowing our bodies, our mammalian bodies to come into intimate contact with the earth in every season. And because, again, we evolved having those experiences, we evolved feeling the cold, we evolved getting wet, we evolved being hot and being in the humidity. So I think that that is a part of being a fully alive human. And one of the terms that I wrote about in rewilding is something I call life force deficit. It’s when we’re inside in these temperature controlled environments all the time, we’re living in a very narrow sensory experience, right? Like we’re just kind of existing between 72 degrees and 78 degrees. And winter is like a bracing awakening, it’s like in the morning, if you splash your face with cold water, it’s like you wake up. And winter also has that offering that if we can get outside, there’s that crisp cold, refreshing awakening experience that we can have. That’s so important because part of having a fulfilled life and having a meaningful life is that experience of feeling alive.
So winter has so much to help awaken our senses. So the survival skills or the ancestral skills for me are just points of connection. If you know how to build a shelter, if you know how to make a fire, if you know about animal track, and you know how to boil water, all of these things, number one, can help you to feel more confident and more comfortable in the winter season. So I think if you diminish the fear through increasing preparedness and confidence, then you’re going to feel less fearful and more optimistic, maybe, and excited about winter. So I think that’s important. And getting out there and making a fire in the snow or following animal tracks through the forest, these are fun things to do. I mean, who doesn’t have fond memories of sitting around a fire while you’re camping? These are things we evolved doing. And it’s important, I think, that we remember these skills. And then also, just from being an adult living in the world kind of a perspective, knowing what to keep in your car and knowing how to provide for your basic needs in the wintertime is something that I think everybody should know.
Brett McKay: All right. So one of the things you recommend people do to befriend winter is build a winter shelter in the outdoors. So can you walk us through like how to build a relatively accessible winter shelter? Yeah. Like what do you recommend?
Micah Mortali: Sure. So it really depends on the situation, on the terrain, and whether there’s snow or not. So first thing is, we really want to stay dry. This is so incredibly important. Staying dry if you’re stuck out overnight in cold conditions is going to be key. So this is where the shelter comes in because we want to get into something or under something that’s going to keep us dry, keep us dry and out of the wind. So one method, if there’s no snow is you can build what’s called a debris shelter. So if you’re out in the wintertime, you’re in a wooded area and there’s, whether it’s pine needles or leaves, what you can do is, you want to make like a little lean to. So you’re going to have two poles, you’re going to grab two sticks and you’re going to tie them together, so they create a little A-frame just about three feet high, all right? So just a little A-frame tied at the top. And then you’re going to get a lodge pole, like a longer pole that’s a little bit longer than your body and you’re just going to rest it in that A-frame so that it’s going down at an angle. And then you’re just going to line that with sticks so that you’ve created like a little tunnel that you can crawl inside of, all right? And you don’t want to be able to sit up in it, you want it just to be for lying down in. And then you’re going to cover that structure, that skeleton structure with as much debris from the forest as you can possibly gather.
You want to have three, four, five feet of debris piled up on top of that little structure. And that’s going to be insulation. And then once you do that, you want to fill the little structure that you’re going to lie down in. You’re going to want to put down on the ground as much pine bough as you can gather. So whether it’s a hemlock or balsam or pine needles to create a little insulating layer between your body and the ground, and then you’re going to stuff leaves inside of it. And you’re going to crawl in and crawl out until you compress all those leaves down and you’ve made yourself a little cocoon. This is called the debris shelter. And I’ve built dozens of these and they shed water incredibly. So I’ve built debris shelters that have been up for two years and they’ve been through two winters and summer downpours and they’re bone dry inside. So knowing how to build a debris shelter is a really important skill. And if you want to really see it be done, just go on YouTube, there’s lots of great videos on there. You can watch how to actually build yourself a debris shelter. So that’s one. The other would be a Quincy. And a Quincy is a snow shelter. And essentially what you want to do is either find a really deep drift pile of snow or you want to make yourself a really large pile of snow.
And if you’re going to make a large pile of snow, then you want to let it settle for about 45 minutes to an hour. And it should be about as tall as you and about that big around. So a pretty large mound. Then what you want to do is you want to take sticks and you want to push sticks into the whole external area of the shelter, about a foot deep, okay? So it’s going to look like a porcupine with maybe like 25 sticks sticking out of it. And that’s so once you start to hollow out the hole, once you hit those sticks from the inside that tells you to stop so that your walls will all be about a foot thick so that they won’t collapse on you. You know, you’re going to make the entrance to your Quincy facing east so that that first light of the sun shines in because you’re going to want that sun. You’re going to hollow it out inside and you’re going to create a place in there where you can lie down and you can sleep. Quincy’s are amazing. They’ll keep you out of the wind. They’re not warm inside. They’re pretty cold. It’s like sleeping in a refrigerator in there for sure. But it will keep you dry and it’ll keep you sheltered. And I do recommend to folks to try sleeping in a Quincy. They are silent as a tomb inside. There is something absolutely gorgeous about the light that comes out of a Quincy in the wintertime when you have a little candle in there.
I mean, it glows. I’ve had some of the most unforgettable, let’s say spiritual experiences sleeping in a Quincy. I’ll usually put a thermo rest in there like a camping mattress and I’ll bring my sleeping bag in and a beeswax candle. And usually around the winter solstice or early January, I’ll do a night or two in a Quincy and there’s just something very, very special and unique about sleeping in a snow shelter like that. So if you’ve never done it before, highly recommended.
Brett McKay: So another practice you recommend is winter foraging. We typically don’t think of being able to forge much during the winter. Like squirrels, they try to forge before winter comes. So what can people find during the winter season?
Micah Mortali: Well, there’s a few things that I like to gather in the wintertime. Just simple things like winter berry leaves. You can gather winter berry leaves and make a delicious tea. If you’ve ever had wintergreen gum, that wintergreen oil, when you drop the leaves into hot water, it releases those oils and it’s a delicious tea. You can do the same thing with white pine needles or hemlock needles. So those are some things that I like to forge in the wintertime and when I go on a hike with my kids, I bring my little stove and we’ll make a tea like that. Sometimes I’ll also gather birch and make a little birch tea just with birch twigs that I drop into the water and release that sweet birch oil. You know, there’s one thing that I grow in my backyard that I harvest in the wintertime, which is a Jerusalem artichoke, which are these like seven, eight foot tall, beautiful yellow flowers that grow and bloom in September. But then in the wintertime, under the ground are hundreds and hundreds of these delicious big fat tubers. And so in the wintertime, I’ll dig those up and chop them up and cook them.
So that’s not so much of a forage, but it’s something that I harvest in the wintertime. The fall and the late winter is also a time that human beings have always hunted. So along with the foraging, is the hunting practice. And so, that is an ancestral skill that many people to this day practice, and those traditions of going out and walking in the forest and endeavoring to harvest food for the winter is something that, I think, can be done very reverently and with great respect and great care and can be a very powerful way to connect with the season as well.
Brett McKay: Well, yeah, so another related to the hunting aspect is you recommend people do winter tracking. Like, what’s a good way to get started with that?
Micah Mortali: So tracking, if we think about it, all of us, our ancestors were amazing trackers, and tracking is much harder to do in the spring, summer, and fall. When the snow is on the ground, the tracks are so much easier to see. And so I recommend that folks go outside into their yards or whatever’s close where there’s snow, and just go out and mindfully pay attention to what tracks are there. There’s a lot of different resources on tracking that you can get. I really enjoy Paul Rosende’s writings on tracking. Also Tom Brown has great books on tracking. And there’s so many different ways to approach that practice. But I sometimes think that tracks in the snow were almost like the first alphabet, they were like the first written language was really the impressions of feet and paws on the earth. And tracking is more than anything, a practice of awareness. And the more aware that we are of our surroundings, the more connected we feel. Most of the animals that we live near, they’re nocturnal. So aside from the squirrels and the crows and animals like that, that we see during the day, the bobcats and the coyotes and the bears and the deer, many of these animals, they move at night.
So we can learn about them and we can connect with these animals by studying their tracks. And I’ve just found it to be one of the most fun and meaningful skills that I’ve developed in my adult life, is learning about tracks and feeling connected to the animals that I share my land with.
Brett McKay: And so like you said earlier, what all these practices do is just their contact points to nature that can be a doorway into a meditative practice. Like you want to do these things mindfully while you’re doing them, correct?
Micah Mortali: Yeah, absolutely. You know what? Brett, the thing I’ve come to over the years is, I’ve spent more and more time really thinking about mindfulness and thinking about the natural world. I kind of believe that mindfulness is more of our default state than it is a practice. I believe that if we’re in our natural habitat, like if we think about ourselves as mammals that evolved on earth, when we think about our natural habitat, it really is the outdoors. And one thing we know from research now is that when people are gazing out at nature, they’re healthier, their immune system functions better, they’re more optimistic, they’re happier, they’re more relaxed. I think that we are mindful beings, but since we’ve been disconnected from our natural habitat, we’ve become anxious and stressed and worrisome and unhealthy. So I think when we just get out into our natural habitat and we allow ourselves to just sit and observe and we have that intention to connect, that mindfulness just sort of flows in.
Brett McKay: Well, a practice you talked about in the last conversation we had was the sit spot. For those who may have not heard that episode, can you remind us what a sit spot is and then how does that practice change during the winter?
Micah Mortali: Sure. So a sit spot is a nature connection practice that’s really universally embraced by so many different lineages and schools at this point. And essentially what it is, is you find a place on the earth near where you live that you can get to very easily and very regularly. And the idea is you go out to this place and you sit and you become very still and you keep your awareness very open and you’re simply noticing everything that’s happening around you. And what happens is, day after day, month after month, year after year, you become bonded to this place because when we’re still and we kind of melt into the landscape, whatever disturbances we create when we’re tromping through nature as human beings, well, when we become still and we’re paying attention, those disturbances begin to dissipate and then the creatures that are there, they’re not disturbed and so then they’ll begin to show themselves. So when you sit in nature in a sit spot, you get a window into the world that most human beings never see. And it’s a powerful way to connect with place. So in the wintertime, you do have to adjust it a little bit if it’s bitter cold where you live.
So in the winter, I recommend that folks adjust their sit spot so that they can be, if possible, in a sunny place. So if you can adjust so that you’re getting that southern exposure, middle of the day, that can make a big difference. Or if it’s simply too bitter cold for you, I recommend doing a sit spot by a window and perhaps a window that has a view of a bird feeder. If you’re in an urban area, you might even put a little bird feeder right on your window on your fire escape. And that can be a really beautiful way to get to know all those individual birds that are going to regularly come to your bird feeder. So those are some ways I recommend folks adjust a sit spot for wintertime.
Brett McKay: We’re going to take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. Okay, so we’ve talked about ways you can explore the outdoor landscape during winter and befriend winter that way. But you also talk about exploring and enhancing one’s interior landscape in winter. And you talk about that in two different ways. You can do it in the sense of your inner life. Winter can be a great time for reflection, meditation, for writing, for just thinking about things. And then also in your literal indoor landscape, the physical surroundings of your house. So why is winter a good time to lean into inwardness? And what are some good ways people can do that?
Micah Mortali: Well, we just have to look to nature to see that that’s what the earth is doing in the wintertime as it’s drawing inwards. So again, if we look at trees and they drop their leaves and they pull their sap into their roots and the groundhogs go down and everything draws inward in wintertime. The earth sort of does draw inward. And so that’s the energy of the wintertime. Things become still. The water freezes and becomes like iron and solid. And there’s this kind of stillness. The life force kind of locks up and things sort of shut down. Of course, there’s still a lot going on, but there’s less going on. And so I think if we allow ourselves time to observe that energy and that change and allow ourselves to be influenced by that, we can align with that energy just like everything else is. And so some ways to do that that I recommend to folks are, number one, in the Nordic countries, they have this tradition called Hygge. And Hygge is this practice, it’s like the root of hug, it’s this feeling of being cozy in the wintertime. So part of the winter practice is to allow yourself to enjoy being indoors and to try to make the space that you’re living in for the winter like a cozy nest.
So you want to think about your favorite chair, your couch, your reading area, wherever you go at the end of the day. And you might want to say, I’m going to make this space really cozy for myself. What are my favorite blankets? Do I have a little fire? How can I create a winter nest that I can look forward to coming back to and getting cozy in? This is so important. And so with that, I encourage folks to, one night a week, just one night a week, pretend that you live off the grid. So what I mean by this is, when you get home from work or you’re logging off from online work, rather than turning all the lights on in your house as the sun goes down, keep all the lights dim or down. And maybe you’ve got like a one nice beeswax candle or a little lamp and just light that one candle or that lamp, make your dinner early, and then get into your cozy nest with a good book or a journal and read by candlelight. Read by candlelight until you start yawning. This is key. Most of the time, you’re going to start yawning around 6:30 or 7:00. This is your body’s signal that it’s time to go to sleep. Rather than keeping serotonin levels unnaturally high with electric light, let that melatonin onset come in and go to bed at 7:30 or 8 o’clock. Just do that one night a week and notice the effects.
This is such a simple but powerful way to explore allowing your own physiology and your own mind and body to align with the natural light dark cycles that are present in the wintertime.
Brett McKay: So what time do you wake up when you go to bed at 7:30 or 8 at night?
Micah Mortali: Oh yeah. Well, there used to be this thing called the second sleep. I don’t know if you’ve heard about it. I think you’ve probably heard about this.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I’ve heard about this.
Micah Mortali: You’ve heard about this. Yeah. So it used to be back in the day before electric light, folks would stoke the fire. It would get dark. They’d start yawning at 6:30 or 7:00. Maybe read a little bit from the good book and call it a day. And you’d sleep for six hours and wake up at midnight or 1:00 AM. I think this happens to me every time I go camping. You wake up at 1:00 in the morning and folks would have gotten up and they stoke the fire and then maybe they would go have a midnight snack and then they’d go back to bed. Then they’d wake up around 5:00 in the morning. Again, I think anybody who’s ever gone camping in the fall or the spring can relate to this. It’s kind of what we all naturally do right away as we go to bed really early, wake up once in the middle of the night and then wake up around sunrise. And there’s actually been a really cool study, the Colorado Sleep Study, where they found that when folks go camping, that melatonin onset happens right around sunset and it peaks two hours before sunrise. And then folks wake up right at sunrise because melatonin has been dropping off for about two hours before the sun comes up. Contrast that with folks who are using screens and plugged into normal life, melatonin onset doesn’t happen until two hours after sunset and it doesn’t peak until two hours after sunrise.
So, when we’re looking at our screens and we’re keeping our serotonin levels unnaturally high after the sun goes down, well, when the sun comes up in the morning, your melatonin is still not even yet peaked. So around maybe 8 o’clock, your melatonin starts to drop off. That’s why you need those three or four cups of coffee to kind of feel like you’re getting yourself going. And I’ve certainly, probably like you, kind of experienced the way that camping just resets that and gets us more on the natural light cycle. We can work with that even when we’re in our houses just by experimenting with low light levels one night a week.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I experienced that, we went backpacking with our kids in Colorado a few weeks ago. Yeah, it was like 7 o’clock, 7:30, we’d eaten and I was like, well, nothing else to do, go to bed, 8:00. And then, yeah, I woke up at 1 o’clock, that’s the time I woke up and I remember waking up and I was like, oh my gosh, I’ve got five more hours. [chuckle] But I went outside, went to the bathroom, came back and I kind of just slept not great and was sort of restless, but I didn’t feel terrible the next day. I was fine.
Micah Mortali: Yeah, that’s pretty common. And I think part of it too, I know for me, I did the same thing. I took my daughter on a two-night backpacking trip on the AT, and I think it definitely takes some time for me to get used to sleeping outside as well, you can kind of sleep with one ear open. So you hear something, you wake up and then you go back to sleep. [laughter]
Brett McKay: All right, so get cozy with your interior with hygge. So blankets, candles are things you can do. Books, puzzles are other things you can do that kind of make things cozy in there. You just want to build a nest inside. Besides that, you also advocate for a concept called the practice of council, which is building a winter community. What does that look like and why is that important?
Micah Mortali: So council is a practice that I work with and have been working with for the last 17 years. With every retreat I lead, every training I lead, I always use council practice. So council is something that you can lean into a little bit more in the wintertime since you’re inside more and you’re gathered more. Basically what council is, is you’ve got a talking piece and it could be anything. I often use a stone or a stick. When I’m home with my wife and my kids, I’ll use whatever’s lying around. Sometimes it’s just the television remote, whatever’s handy or lighter. And one person speaks at a time in council. So you pass the talking piece around. And the invitation is to be a really great listener, to listen from the heart. So in council, we’re not trying to offer advice. We don’t offer advice. We don’t try to fix each other’s problems. We just try to listen deeply and understand the other person’s perspective. So we listen from the heart. We speak from the heart. We practice being spontaneous and we practice being of lean expression. And council, it’s a practice that we don’t have to do just in wintertime, but winter can be an important time to gather community together.
If people have more time, there’s less going on. You might find perhaps you want to start a men’s group. I just led a men’s retreat at Kripalu last week and so many men are so isolated. And one of the themes that came out of it was that so many of us carry so much shame for our imperfections or the things we’re working on with ourselves or the things that we’re struggling with, and many men feel like they’re doing this all by themselves alone, that no one else has these same problems. So winter could be a good time maybe to gather together in person or on Zoom. And the council practice can be a very good structure to lean into because oftentimes when we try to connect and share, we get into advice giving or, oh, the same thing happened to me. And that can kind of take away from the power of the share experience. So I recommend folks learn about council, practice council. It’s an amazing way to create a safe container for deeper connection.
Brett McKay: Yeah. And again, because there’s not, like you said, I like the idea because there’s not much going on. People will probably just take you up on the offer if you say, hey, let’s come over to my place, and doesn’t have to be even like formal council, it could be, but just get together and just hang out and talk, maybe work on a puzzle, play some games. People love that stuff during the wintertime.
Micah Mortali: Absolutely. Or just sit by the fire. I always say like fire is the ultimate convener. Like no other thing in nature is as good at gathering humans into a circle than fire, right? Anytime you build a fire, you’re building community.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about fire, fire building. You know, people are always drawn to fire, but in the winter it holds a particularly magnetic attraction. What are some ways we can work with fire in the winter and use it as a doorway to meditation?
Micah Mortali: Yeah. Well, one is, I really recommend folks consider exploring like marking the winter solstice. You know, part of my work with nature connection is not just helping people connect with place, but helping people connect with the cycles of time. And so part of embracing winter is embracing this cycle of waxing and waning darkness. The winter solstice, December 21st is a very important moment in our journey on this earth each year. It’s a day that has been marked by human cultures around the world forever, right? Like the Stonehenge marks the winter solstice. So many of these ancient monolithic monuments mark the winter or the summer solstice. So having a big fire or just a nice small fire can be a really simple way to honor the longest night of the year. So that’s one day in particular where you can create a little bit of ritual around that. And one thing I would encourage is for folks to look at their own ancestry, look at where do your ancestors come from? Where were they living at that point where they were indigenous to that place? And what were those practices?
So for me, knowing some of my ancestors were Celts, I kind of look back at the Celtic wheel of the year and fire was such an important part as it was also in the Nordic countries during Yule, which marks the winter solstice. And there was the burning of the Yule log on the winter solstice. But of course, you have Hanukkah, you have the Christmas lights, you have Kwanzaa, like so many different traditions are traditions of light at this time of year, because this was the time when people would really pray and sing that the sun would return, that this wasn’t the end, let’s hope that the days start to get longer again. So that could be a campfire in your backyard. It might be, like I said, I’m a big proponent of a nice beeswax candle. But if you can’t get any of those things, your last resort, and it’s not a bad option, is Netflix fireplace for your home, which we use at our house sometimes and actually does really create that ambience of a fire. And I don’t think that’s cheating, I think that is a good trick and sometimes works well.
Brett McKay: Something we’ve done in our family at New Year’s is, we had a creative fire in the fireplace, and then we threw in regrets from the previous year, which was another way to sort of ritualize a fire and make it mean more.
Micah Mortali: That’s a beautiful tradition, Brett. Wow. Yeah, yeah, that’s powerful. So that’s really, I’m going to think about that one. Sometimes people will put into the fire their intentions or their wishes for the New Year as well. And that kind of brings me to one other point, which I wanted to make, which is that, even we do mark the New Year on January 1st, but in some earth-based traditions, like the New Year didn’t actually begin until March 22nd when the light was actually starting to get longer than the dark. And so one invitation that I’ll offer to everybody is to, if you don’t feel like you know what your intentions are for the New Year on January 1st, it might be because everything in nature is in deep hibernation at that moment. And so open to the possibility that January and February can be a time for dreaming and remaining open to what your soul wants to unfold in the New Year, more of a reflective time. And maybe you get clear on what you want to create in birth closer to the spring equinox. So just something for folks to think on.
Brett McKay: I like that idea because I think sometimes there’s that pressure to have some New Year’s resolutions on January 1st, but I found like I’m usually not ready, like I’m not ready in that time yet. And so I think just embrace that fallow season and just be like, you know what? I don’t have to have any intentions right now, I’m just going to be. And then while you’re resting, while your brain’s resting, there’s actually stuff going on, like your brain’s actually hard at work, maybe at the subconscious or unconscious level, helping you come with those intentions that you can start making a concrete in closer towards the spring.
Micah Mortali: Absolutely. The winter is a really great time to keep a dream journal. You kind of on that point, since we’re sleeping more, we’re sleeping deeper, writing, jotting down those dreams and being curious about what’s there can be a nice winter practice too.
Brett McKay: And then as you mentioned, if you don’t have a fireplace or a place outdoor to do a fire, you can use a candle to get your fire fix. And I’ve done that before when we live in an apartment, that’s something that I do regularly, just light a candle, stare at it. And there’s just something about the flame just dancing around that instantly focuses you and just like relaxes your mind. And you know, I had some really good meditation sessions, just staring at a candle flame.
Micah Mortali: Absolutely. And one little trick that I’ve been sharing with people that I discovered in the last couple of years was, if you want to make a little lamp, you can make an oil lamp and it’s so incredibly cheap. Beeswax candles can get pricey these days. [chuckle] So here’s a little trick for folks out there. If you have like a little shell from the beach or the ocean, you can fill a little shell with just olive oil or ghee that you buy for cooking. You get a little piece of cotton string, like an inch or two long, and just rest the string in the oil and let a little bit of the string hang off the edge of the seashell and just light the tip of that string. And you have yourself a gorgeous, natural, low-cost oil lamp that you can sit with in the morning or at night and meditate with, and it costs just about nothing.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Okay. Oil lamps. We’ve got a few old school glass oil lamps just for that purpose. We don’t need them, but they look pretty and you want to enjoy it.
Micah Mortali: They look pretty. Yeah. And that’s what people used for light for thousands of years. It’s really cool. They’re so simple.
Brett McKay: And I’m going to recommend a candle. If you’re looking for a little bit of a extra effect on the candle, check out the WoodWick candles. You’ve heard of these things?
Micah Mortali: No.
Brett McKay: It uses instead of like a traditional wax string wick, it uses a piece of wood. So it actually makes a crackling noise when you light it. So it’s like a little fireplace fire candle.
Micah Mortali: I’m definitely going to check that out. And it’s such this idea of carrying the fire that we’ve talked about from the Road, in the wintertime I really feel that, like how important it is to keep our fires burning. I mean, carry that light of hope and the things we’re going to get through the winter, it’s a beautiful theme and the fire can really symbolize so much when things get dark.
Brett McKay: Well, actually, that’s one thing I do during the winter, is that’s when I read or reread The Road. And it’s bizarre ’cause it’s the saddest book in the world and you’re already feeling sad ’cause it’s cold and dark, [laughter] but when I’m done with it, I feel awful, but at the same time I feel hopeful, I feel great. It’s weird.
Micah Mortali: Yeah. Yeah. I just re-listened to it last week and every time I read it or I listened to it, I get so many different things out of it, and so I resonate with that. It’s powerful. It’s powerful.
Brett McKay: All right. So there’s another recommendation. Read The Road this winter next to an oil lamp or even in your Quincy you made for yourself if you’d done that.
Micah Mortali: Absolutely. [laughter]
Brett McKay: Well, Micah, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about your work?
Micah Mortali: Yeah. So you can go to www.micahmortali.com. That’s my website. You can also follow me at Micah Rewilding on Instagram. And you can also check me out on the Kripalu website. So that’s kripalu.org and just type my name in and I’ve got a faculty page there with all of the trainings and the retreats and the programs that I lead at Kripalu Center and the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts.
Brett McKay: And Micah Mortali, thanks for this time. It’s been a pleasure.
Micah Mortali: Brett, thanks for having me on. I always love talking to you.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Micah Mortali. He’s the author of the book, Rewilding: Meditations, Practices and Skills for Awakening in Nature. It’s available on amazon.com. You can find more information about his work at his website, micahmortali.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/winter. You can find links to resources where we delve deeper into this topic. Well, that wraps up another edition of the AoM podcast. Make sure to check out our website at artofmanliness.com where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles written over the years about pretty much anything you think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AoM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code “manliness” at checkout for a free month trial. Once you have signed up, download the stitcher app for Android, iOS and start enjoying add-free episodes at the AoM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, it’d appreciate it if you’d take one minute to give us a review on our podcast for Spotify. It helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to listen to the AoM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.