Hot and Cold, Finding Balance in Summer Extremes

Midwestern thunderstorm

Growing up in the Midwest, I learned to love the summertime thunderstorms that are particular to that region of the country. There is something so wonderfully exhilarating about watching a huge storm roll in across a field, visibly churning up the atmosphere. The feel and smell of the air changes, the sky darkens, and suddenly a normal day with normal activities turns into an excuse to stop whatever you are doing and wait. I used to love standing outside on the back porch as long as possible, the wind whipping around me, waiting until that peak moment when it started raining or a flash of lightning came just too close to be safe out of doors.

Of course, I don’t miss the actual damage that severe storms and tornadoes can do. Having watched a tornado cross a field about a mile away from where I stood, I know that’s about as close as I’d ever want to get to one. I think what I miss is that dual nature of storms to provide both thrill and release. There’s nothing like the quiet that occurs once a storm has passed. Sure, we get big storms in NYC, too, (we’re experiencing one as I write this right now), but Midwestern afternoon storms have a particular sense of both expectancy and release that I don’t often feel in the city. Perhaps here I just can’t notice huge atmospheric changes amidst all the buildings.

As we move into full summer, I’ve been thinking and teaching a lot about the possibilities that the summer season can bring. It can be a season of lots of activity: traveling, festivals, outdoor events, loud music, bright colors, extreme weather, riding waves in the ocean, summer flings, humidity-induced frizzy hair disasters, etc. However, in summer we also crave the quiet and cooling ease of reading in the shade, cold drinks, swimming in pools, time off, country retreats, quiet lakes, and afternoons spent in dark, air conditioned movie theaters…

Perhaps it’s my laid-back, Midwestern roots revealing themselves again, but I find New Yorkers in July and August to be extremely edgy. Tensions run high, no amount of deodorant will save you, and hot subway platforms suddenly have the potential to induce mental breakdowns. More than once I have just wished for good ol’ fashioned Indiana thunderstorm to roll in and cool everyone’s jets.

In this city we’ve got the exhilarating energy of summer down. I can’t even keep up with all the things I want to see and do. Some people are great at shutting down, retreating, using summer to recharge and rest. For others, the expectation and pressure to “have a good summer” drive people to book their schedules with non-stop events and travel plans. Realistic expectations for what summer is actually like can be hard to manage. As one of those latter types myself, I feel that I could harness a bit more of the “after-the-storm” energy: the release, the silence, the stillness. Post-thunderstorm power outages were commonplace at my childhood home in the country, so when I sensed that a storm was brewing, I knew in the back of my mind that a few hours in the dark, reading by candlelight, talking and laughing with my family might also lay ahead. There was something almost comforting about going to bed with no power running in the house, knowing that at about 3am I would wake up to the sound of my ceiling fan switching on above me to indicate the power had been fixed.

I’ve been rereading some of Pema Chodron’s discussion of samsara and nirvana, of occurance and stillness. Most of us have a preference for one or the other, choosing to fill our lives either with movement and activity or with non-activity and liberating quiet. Chodron challenges us to hold both in our hearts at the same time:

“…if you can be willing to feel fully and acknowledge continually your own sadness and the sadness of life, but at the same time not be drowned in it, because you also remember the vision and power of the Great Eastern Sun, you experience balance and completeness, joining heaven and earth, joining vision and practicality.” pg 103, The Wisdom of No Escape

Can we create a summer for ourselves that is exhilarating, energizing, maybe tumultuous even, and also freeing, calming, and still? For those people on the occurrence side of the spectrum, I don’t think there’s any need to temper the energy and possibility of summer months. We want our lives to be full. Fullness leads to the complete range of possibilities that life can offer, including both happiness and disappointment. Perhaps the key lies in not looking for a storm, but perhaps in acknowledging when life’s activities have overwhelmed us to the point of breaking and learning when to back off.

For those folks on the still side of the spectrum, those who are caught up in the liberation that peace and quiet can offer, perhaps it is important to remember that the silence after the storm is only so sweet because the storm happened. Release is difficult to find without anticipation first.

Chodron’s advice is that ritual (making a cup of tea, writing every night before bed, practicing yoga, smoking a cigarette, whatever) is what allows us to hold both qualities at the same time. Ritual allows us to appreciate the fullness of every gesture we make, the samsara and nirvana that can be present at once. We do these things repeatedly and regularly so that our visions and dreams become a practical reality in our day-to-day life. We don’t have to choose between the thrill and tumult of a storm and the quiet that it brings once it’s done. We can experience both.

So as we progress into the heat of summer and experience its potential to create energy and stillness within us, my advice to myself and others is to find a summer time ritual. Find something, on or off the mat, which will help you find balance between extremes. There’s a sweet spot in between the thunder and waiting in the dark without power. Live there.

– Katherine Moore

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