This week's Aries full moon is the closest occurring full moon to the recently passed autumnal equinox and is consequently dubbed the Harvest Moon. Both physically and metaphorically, it's a good time to harvest the seeds we sowed in spring, hoping the gathered fruit will see us through the darker months of winter in the northern hemisphere.
Many cultures across the northern territories celebrate the completion of harvest with a harvest festival that dates back to pre-Christian influence. The word "harvest" itself derives from the Anglo-Saxon "haerfest," meaning "autumn." Traditionally, most of these festivals were observed under the full moon nearest the autumn equinox and often involved joyous singing, ribald revelry, and communal feasting on the seasonal fruits of labour in the fields. One pagan English incarnation became known as "Harvest Home" and is still practiced today in villages and towns across the UK, ironically often organized by church communities that historically affiliated pagan practice into their own to avoid alienating the locals they sought to influence.
We plow the fields and scatter the good seed on the land, but it is fed and watered by God's almighty hand.
(Matthias Claudius, 1782).
Further evidence hints toward ancient origins in an animistic belief in the corn spirit/mother that needed to be chased out from the last sheaf (the cailleac) of grain harvested. In sensitive fashion, early farmers would leave the last sheaf standing, then symbolically beat it to the ground while shouting aggressively at the spirit to return next year. I'm sure the grain mama (later represented by the corn dolly) felt great about the whole thing and couldn't wait to repeat the experience. It could even be suggested that her plight was an influential progenitor of the still regularly expressed Anglo-Saxon love of a misogynistic piss-up and brawl.
Modern living and urbanization have divorced many people from the intrinsic dependence we have on the natural world. We weave so many layers of protective comfort between ourselves and the visceral realities of elemental nature that it almost comes as a shock when those realities challenge the tame, homogenized, picturesque image of the natural world we have idealized. There aren't too many upmarket chocolate boxes with images of tornadoes, wildfires, floods, heatwaves, drought, mudslides, volcanoes, or earthquakes on their lids.
Most of us these days rely on supermarkets for the harvest fruits we might cook up and share in our own autumnal feasts. As a small but considered expression of consumer awareness, we could resolve to buy fresh produce grown solely in the country where we live. Might the extra effort it takes to read a label for the country of origin be a contemporaneous means of honouring the 'spirit' of place, a means of reconnecting with the land that gave rise to our own birth and growth? A bit of a long shot, perhaps. Even in this season of local harvest abundance, the dominance of global food supply in supermarket aisles may make such well-intentioned action tricky to achieve.
A Harvest Moon in Aries is traditionally interpreted as the last great energetic shove of the calendar year before we start curtailing our external efforts in preparation for the more introverted focus of winter. This is therefore a great weekend to get outside, regardless of the weather, to throw ourselves about with gay abandon and remember how wonderful it is to be a physical being in a very beautiful, very real, physical world.
Often, this last, focused burst of energy can give rise to the spontaneous, adventurous, and passionate engagement typical of Aries, which is good. It can also lead to a degree of manic and impulsive indiscipline that, mixed with an Aries stubborn streak, can drop us into some pretty compromising situations from which it may be difficult to extricate ourselves - not so good. An Aries Harvest Moon illuminates our creativity. We are likely to be full of bright ideas and creative enthusiasm begging to be expressed. The Aries flip side demonstrates a propensity for willful intolerance, so be mindful of quick-tempered, angry reactions born of frustration at others' inability to share your creative excitement.
The northern hemisphere autumn equinox represents the turning of the year from the long, light-bathed days of summer to shorter, darker days in winter. Rapid, verdant growth is steadily shifting toward entropy and dormant inertia. We are entering the season of sleep, folks. It's winter's natural order where we take stock, store the valuable kernels of inspiration yielded by our summer activity, rest, and dream. Those midwinter dreams become the immaculate conception of next year's rebirth.
...to sleep, perchance to dream.
('Hamlet' Act III, sc. I, William Shakespeare).
And so to dream. I was interested to read a recent scientific report published in Sleep Health Journal that suggested daytime napping may help to preserve brain health by slowing the rate at which our brains shrink as we age. The study, led by researchers at University College London, found an association between genetic predisposition to habitual daytime napping and larger brain volume, equivalent to 2.6 to 6.5 fewer years of aging. In short, those of us with the natural ability to nap on demand look like we're helping to preserve our brains from the onset of Alzheimer's and dementia, as well as improving certain aspects of our day-to-day functioning.
Previous research has suggested sleep is central to brain health, but more specifically, that napping clears the brain's short-term memory and makes space for new facts to be remembered, which is critical to improved learning. Napping redresses the balance between our active (sympathetic) and recovery (parasympathetic) nervous systems. Sleep boosts the recovery system, which, in turn, provides fuel for future activity - parallels to be drawn there with winter hibernation nourishing the dynamic growth of the following spring and summer.
Our 24/7 culture has spawned a plethora of sleep therapists and specialists intent on teaching us how to do what should come naturally but has become increasingly hard to achieve without chemical intervention. Most of them agree that the restorative effect of a snooze depends on the quality of sleep or the type of nap employed. These can be categorized:
- The power nap: 20 minutes max achieves a near sleep state but allows you to wake refreshed and mentally sharper.
- The recovery nap: up to 40 minutes and induces light sleep. NASA ran a study on astronauts that showed it improved pilot alertness by 100%.
- Full-cycle sleep: 90 minutes minimum equates to one full sleep cycle, which includes slow-wave and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and enhances creativity.
- The prophylactic nap: no time limit, simply taking to your bed until you feel better and want to get up.
Other celebrated nap options are:
- The twilight/disco nap: half an hour for the clubbers amongst us in anticipation of a long night.
- The pre-mileage snooze: 30 minutes before a major distance at the wheel.
- The caffeinated catnap: chug a coffee just before a quarter-hour kip to wake with an energized buzz.
The received wisdom is that if naps are administered sparingly (once a day max) at appropriate times - between 1 pm and 3 pm seems to be the optimum napping window - the effects should not be detrimental to our night-time sleeping patterns, which operate on different cycles. Other tips suggest we should avoid climbing under the duvet or we're likely to enter a deeper sleep state which can result in post-nap grogginess. Finally, set an alarm: select your appropriate length of nap and stick to it.
Justifying naps as part of our well-being regime flies in the face of an unrelenting, often toxic work culture in which we exhaust ourselves in search of health, wealth, and happiness. By default, we are embracing sleep deprivation as a norm - losing cellular recovery time that, in his best-selling book, Why We Sleep, neuroscientist Matthew Walker argues is almost impossible to regain.
Napping is not a sign of laziness; it is a natural and effective way to boost our physical and mental well-being. Incorporating short, strategic naps into one's daily routine can enhance cognitive function, increase alertness, reduce stress, improve physical performance, and contribute to better overall health. Nick Littlehales, an elite sports sleep coach who has worked with Real Madrid, Manchester United, and the British Olympic cycling squad, maintains, “All our natural recovery breaks have been ripped apart by technology and 24/7 globalization. This is putting nocturnal sleep, trying to sleep for eight hours in one block at night, under real pressure." He speaks about naps as proactive, flexible, and productive tools to ensure we remain in peak shape. He says we need to think about them from "a performance aspect: daytime sleep is a controlled recovery period."
It's a compelling argument, and one that I champion most days in my own quasi-religious napping practice.
Sleep is the best meditation.
Under this Aries Harvest Moon, can we align the benefits accrued in our naps with our desire to reconnect with the passage of the seasons and our place and purpose on the planet? As the human embodiment of the consciousness present in all things - the essence of life itself - we would be foolish to consider ourselves separate from the natural world upon which we depend. Nature evolves in cycles; its language is cyclical: solar cycles; lunar cycles; fertility cycles; climatic cycles; water cycles, to name but a few. Our physiology reflects these cycles, regardless of the layers of cultural dressing we overlay between that reality and the demands of modern living.
Another compelling argument resides in our self imposed psychological divorce from the natural world: that our enduring aggressive, violent Anglo-Saxon attitude toward the Spirit that animates everything in existence has unleashed havoc within our planetary biosphere. The lengthening list of annual climate catastrophes, the lives and species lost, the ecosystems decimated and destroyed, are well catalogued, and yet the human desire to shape nature to its consumer driven bidding rather than respectfully engage with it as a caring co-creator shows no sign of waning.
To choose sleep need not be a head-in-the-sand act of denial at a time when many of us despair at the mess we have collectively authored. At its best, sleep is the natural domain of reconnection with our unified essence, and in reconnection or atonement with All That Is, great healing may be found. Before we sleep, we can choose to set a clear intention - a healing prayer for the benefit of All. Sleep becomes a well directed use of time and energy. Asleep, our intentions play out in subconscious dreamscape as they prepare to populate our future, consciously manifested landscapes.
Under this Aries Harvest Moon, let's nap and dream creatively and collectively, playing our part in germinating the seeds of change so urgently needed for planetary healing.
Now I see the secret of making the best person: it is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.