Cave Time

November 12, 2021

Winter blues

I know that winter isn’t a favourite season for many people. Some love this time of year, and others don’t!

Years ago, I used to struggle with winter. I viewed it as a long period of darkness. I formed this opinion when I was eleven years old as I left for school at 7:30 am in the morning and did not return until 5:30 pm. From mid-November through to mid-February, I wouldn’t see daylight at home for five days each week.

This pattern continued when I started work. I would sit at my desk looking out at darkness at each end of the day for several months. I struggled with the short days on the weekend, trying to fit in the things I wanted to do in the daylight. I also found winter challenging because of the social expectations at this time of year and the deadlines imposed at work.

I remember speaking with a colleague and friend in the pub one evening in the run up to Christmas. He reflected how hard it was because this time of year meant burning the candle at both ends.  There were work deadlines: ‘having to get this done by Christmas’ on the one hand, which meant long hours at work and burn-out. And there were all the Christmas gatherings and parties leading to reduced hours asleep.

The result was that invariably, every Christmas holiday I would start the break with a cold. Sometimes this would linger for the whole of the holiday season. Finally, come January, I was wiped out and needed a rest. Yet, it was time to start work again and ramp up the pace to meet new year deadlines.

One year I had a particularly tough January, where I struggled with a cold for the whole month. It was that year that I said enough. I am not doing this anymore. 

Winter changes

Around this time, I had picked up a book in a bookshop about following the Earth's natural cycles and celebrating each turn of ‘the Wheel of the Year’. I found it fascinating.

There are eight festivals in the Celtic Wheel of the Year, lying six or seven weeks apart. Each acknowledges the turn in the Wheel. We have just passed one, Samhain, which is celebrated between the 31st October and 2nd November. Samhain is Gaelic for ‘summer's end'. It marks the end of one cycle and the beginning of a new one. So, it was our Celtic ancestors New Year's eve and New Year's day.

Before I came across the Wheel of the Year, I felt that November marked the start of winter, and it would be cold, dark and difficult until early March. Working with the Wheel changed this for me.

Now I see these six weeks between Samhain and the Winter Solstice as a time to gently prepare for winter. It's the tail end of Autumn when the days are still quite warm, and the colours in nature are spectacular. It's a period when I spend as much time as I can out in the woods and moorlands, soaking it all up.

Then, as I approach the Winter Solstice, I begin my retreat. First and foremost, I say no to Christmas gatherings. This ensures that I can manage my energy levels. I plan how I will spend the long winter evenings, which Jason and I call ‘double evenings’. We light the wood burner as soon as it gets dark and use this time for rest, reading, games and crafting. I follow a line of study, which I choose at the start of winter and I plan and undertake creative crafting projects.

I slow down to a pace that I do not achieve in the summer when daylight lingers on late into the day. I slow down, just as nature slows down.

At the Winter Solstice, I still myself. Instead of a time of partying, I see this as a time to retreat inwards. When I step outside in the mornings following the Solstice, I listen for the change in birdsong. The Great tit is usually the first bird that I hear who changes his tune. And I cast my attention to the next festival, which is Imbolc at the end of January. By Imbolc, the light has begun to return and with it the cold. There are hard frosts and often snow. But there are signs of stirrings. The first spring bulbs flower: the snowdrops, and a few weeks later, the first trees blossom, beginning with the Blackthorn. It is still winter, but I see the return of the light and the promise of spring.

And before I know it, it is the Spring Equinox. Plans are hatching along with the first chicks. Many birds are busy building their nests, and the dawn chorus is ramping up. We might still get snow for another six weeks and more hard frosts, but the evenings are light again, and the days are getting warmer.

Winter preparations

Having sight of the subtle changes in winter is important to me. I organise my life around these changes.

Right now, I am preparing for winter, just as the rest of nature is. The trees are drawing down the nourishment from their leaves, which they are shedding. As nature has been preparing, so am I. I have chosen my study focus for this winter. I have journeyed to my spirit guides and asked them what my work and personal focus should be. Jason and I have planned out what we are looking forward to through the winter months. I am preparing for cave time.

At Samhain, Jason and I each pulled a card from our new animal spirit card deck, a prototype we have created in anticipation of publishing it next year. I asked the question: ‘What should be my focus this winter?' I pulled Bear. The synchronicity was not lost on me, given that in just a week from now, we are holding our new online retreat ‘Bear Necessities’.

Bears teach us about the importance of cave time. Bears that live in temperate climates do not like the winter. So, as the temperature drops and food becomes scarce, they take themselves off into a cave, hollow tree or den built out of branches and leaves. It looks like hibernation, but in fact, the bear falls into a deep sleep called torpor. During torpor, their heart rate and breathing rate decrease, body temperature reduces slightly. The bears do not eat, drink or release bodily waste. Bears can stay in this state for more than 100 days.

What would it be like for you to slow down in winter? You might have some resistance when I even suggest this. On the other hand, you might be totally up for it but can’t see how it is possible.

I don’t have the solutions. I just know when I led a hectic life all those years ago, when I decided to slow down in winter, things changed for me. I made different choices around what I did through the winter. To do so, I had to learn my ‘no’. As a result, I became healthier, and I actually enjoyed winter. I look forward to it now, just as I look forward to the other seasons. It is an important part of my yearly cycle, as it means I don’t need to put the same amount of energy into things all year round.

Bear is helping me prepare for my version of torpor right now. He is helping me consider what slowing down will look like this winter. He is reminding me to retreat into my cave time, ready to emerge refreshed when the light and warmth return.

The five steps to prepare

Are you now thinking about how you can prepare for winter? If so here are my top five steps that you might find helpful:

  1. Pause for a moment to mark the transition: The first step might seem a little obvious, but it can be hard to find time to do this. Schedule some time out in your diary to pause and prepare for winter. Just as the rest of nature is preparing for winter, it would be good if you could too.
  2. Reflect on the year just passed: Look back at what you have achieved this year. What can you close off? Is there anything that you have not managed to compete that is important to you? Is there anything that you need to drop to make room for something else?
  3. Choose what to take forward into winter: From this point, you can decide what it is that you would like to take into winter. This includes personal projects and ideas to gestate in the dark ready to hatch in the spring. And what might your study focus be? We asked this very question in our Mystery School Shamanic Journey Circle in October so we could each find our study focus for the coming winter.
  4. Visualise what your winter will look like: What might slowing down for winter look like for you? How might you go about achieving this? You don’t need to think too much about this because this will follow after you complete step five.
  5. Set your intentions: In this final step, you need to set out what your intentions are. What do you want your winter to look like? What are you taking through into winter? And if you can do this in a ceremony, all the better. For those of you reading this who are members of our Mystery School, you can learn about holding a ceremony in our Creating Ceremonies mini-course.

We will be following these steps together during our Bear Necessities retreat, which will be on Saturday, 20th November. If you haven’t booked on yet and are intrigued to find out more, then read on.

Retreating online

The idea to run online retreats came to us during lockdown last year. At the start of the pandemic, we cancelled our micro-festival Space to Emerge, which we run each spring at Lake Windemere. There was so much disappointment that we couldn’t get together in the woods that we came up with the idea to get together online.

We had already been running online events through our Mystery School, so we had the means. We just didn’t know whether a more extended experience would work. But we gave it a go anyway, and were blown away by the results. Over two hundred people came along or watched the replay. Perhaps you were there with us? We had creativity time, journeying time, nature time and sharing. The human mind is an amazing thing, isn’t it? It felt like we were all together even though we were many miles apart. The results were incredible as participants dropped deeper into their creativity and further along their spiritual path. Later that spring, we followed Space to Emerge Online with Tribe Online, marking another turn in the Wheel, this time at the Summer Solstice.

Our online retreats are an opportunity to pause and take some precious ‘you time’. Despite being online, this isn’t a whole day looking at the screen. We have activities through the retreat, which include an extended time out in nature, whether that is your backyard or garden, or further afield in a park or countryside close to your home or a park. We have Jason’s incredible nature connection videos. And there are opportunities to connect with the other participants through our private facebook group and the chat facility in Zoom. If you aren't able to join us live, the replay will be ready within the following week for you to take part that way instead.

We have had quite a long break from our online retreats as we have been running our free Wheel of the Year celebrations for a full turn of the Wheel. But we are back now, having completed that process and raring to go!

Inspiration in nature

The concept for Bear Necessities came to us when we were standing under the boughs of one of the most magnificent trees in Britain. The Majesty Oak in Kent is one of the largest maiden oak trees in the UK. It is located on private land, and a few years ago Jason and I were lucky to visit it, along with my parents. We love our tree pilgrimages.

This tree is thought to be over 1,000 years old, and is truly magnificent. We stretched our arms around it and calculated it would take 12 people to reach around the entire trunk. It is reported to be one of the tallest trees in Britain. It was actually my dad who came up with the name as we were explaining how we wanted to run a retreat working with Bear energy.

Ideas come to us when we pause and take time out in nature.

What ideas might come to you to help you plan your time for winter? How might you drop into the dark part of the year and allow things to incubate? What might emerge through you on the other side when the light returns, as you are restored, with new skills, ideas, energy for the months ahead?

We would love to share this Bear Necessities adventure, whether you can join us live on the day or via the replay.

And if you aren't drawn to coming along, consider reflecting on the messages I have shared here in this blog. How might you make this winter a different kind of experience? How might you relish in the quiet still part of the year? How might you slow down, and what could emerge in you if you did? These are all questions to ponder as we approach the long nights as nature stills herself again.

About the Author


Nicola Smalley is an edge-dweller, shamanic practitioner and writer living in the Arnside and Silverdale Area of Natural Beauty in north Lancashire, England.

Following a career in corporate sustainability, she now runs The Way of the Buzzard with her husband Jason. Her passion is anything connected to nature and the mysteries of the Earth.

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  1. I love reading your blogs Nicola, this one was so timely for me. Thank you.
    From the full moon at Samhain I decided to really focus on the Wheel of the Year, as I feel totally ready for this immersion, totally and wholeheartedly. The five steps are really good way for me to focus on my plans and what changes I intend to make throughout this Year, and have started to keep a journal to record my journey. Each of the five steps I will write in my journal. For me personally is learning to say "no" and I know I am not on my own with this. Stating and setting an intention and giving myself a project throughout winter I am looking forward too. Thank you once again, love and best wishes to you both. xxx

    1. This is really good to see your note here Bethan. I am so delighted you enjoyed this blog, and my other blogs. Thank you! I have loved reading your Samhain focus here and what is emerging.

  2. Sounds really trees and all things naturel, nourishing and with honest intentions. Looks like it will be another lonely christmas and am weary on so many levels. So yeo, am interested

    1. I am touched by your words Val, and your challenges you face through the winter. I hope that you can find some support in nature to help ease you through the dark times.

  3. Thank you for sharing your inspiring story Nicola. It makes a lot of sense. I feel I need to stay pretty boundaried in order not to get too overwhelmed with Christmas. Really feeling into the slowness of the autumn which is helping enormously and that draw of moon energy with the longer evenings. Looking forward to the bear necessities retreat. Xx

  4. I love this Nicola. In my tai chi class I teach a movement called the Four seasons. This is exactly what I teach for the winter.
    Love it x

  5. Fascinating article Nicola. I came to similar conclusions some years ago, having reached the stage of almost hating Christmas. By the time the day arrived I was so exhausted I felt I was just doing it all for the family and struggled to stay cheerful . I summoned the kids and suggested that with increasing numbers of grandchildren appearing it was time to go our separate ways and shift the family knees up to school summer holidays. Long evenings, kids in tents enjoying being together outside. It made a huge difference to my health over the winter months, and I now welcome the quiet time of fires and reading and crafting and don't get ill. And in August I have plenty of energy to enjoy it all.

    1. I love that you moved the celebration to a warmer time of year – still getting together but at a time that worked better for you. Inspiring to read this Pam, thank you.

  6. Love the winter nights when I was a child in Scotland with the frost on the ground and the starry night sky with the Goddess Moon.

  7. Thank you for showing me a new way of looking at the long dark days of winter ! I shall look to be more patient , and not yearn for Spring and the lengthening days as much as I have done in the past ! Trying to be in the moment more !

  8. Thank you Nicola for sharing your thoughts. A timely reminder for me as I eke out space to reflect on the past year, sense what is present and look forward to what is to come. I have been working with the energies of the season this year more than any, and realise I can connect even more so with them. In particular the concept of 'bare necessities' resonates, I have been clearing and cleansing and am reminded by your words that there is a period of transition required for restoration and regeneration before re – emerging anew in the Spring. I love the way you plan for the coming weeks, setting clear intentions to focus on. With so many things that pique my interest my energy can scatter to the four winds and beyond, so being the thought of being clearer about where I am putting it brings a feeling of peace. I am unable to join you live for the retreat but will create space for myself with the recording. Many blessings to you and Jason

    1. How lovely to read your note here Rhona, thank you. I love the phrase you use ‘scatter to the four winds’ 🙂 and that is great that you can join us for the Bear Necessities replay.

  9. I love the winter, but like many I feel like hibernating. However we live in a modern world and often life speeds up, when probably our natural state would be to slow down, rest, regenerate, to pull ideas together and get a lot of inner work done. That tree looks well worth visiting.

    Becoming older is a good thing as a lifetime of experience lets us know that the winter is a time to go within, to heal, to dream and make those dreams reality.

    I like Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Friedrich Nietzsche, Plato and many modern day individuals who examine mythology, energetic archetypes rights of passage, and the cave (our mind) I have been looking into the ideas and experiences of these people for many years, and I am grateful for what they have shared.

    I like the idea of consciously preparing for the winter and the cave. To realise this is a time of transformation, reflection, formation of ideas to become manifest, to connect with the natural ways of being, to be inspired and to create, whilst healing the mind, from the rush af all we have been through.

  10. Thankyou Nicola for todays meaningful message, I live in a valley surrounded by beautiful trees so it is really like a cave ,we lose the sun as it dips behind the trees for a few weeks but we know its there & in this quiet ,darker time the glow of candles are very comforting .

  11. That was so lovely to read and made a great deal of sense! It puts a far balanced perspective on things, Each season is as important as the other when our world sleeps, as does the bear! Preparing itself for the awakening and renewal. I too dread the longer evenings but by reading your post I am looking at it in a far better light, excuse the pun! But that is what it is. It gives us a different way of the looking at the light within ourselves We too will then be ready for the renewal.Your lovely Celtic ways make this so much easier. Thankyou.

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