Vermonter irradiates winter blues with inner light

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DUMMERSTON — Cheryl Wilfong knows that many of the estimated 10 percent of Vermonters struggling with seasonal affective disorder find relief though sunshine or full-spectrum bulbs. But that's not stopping the writer and teacher from plugging people into another solution.

"In these days of darkness — external or internal," she says, "notice your inner light."

Wilfong, author of the blog and book "The Meditative Gardener," is marking Thursday's solstice by capping her annual seasonal Vermont Insight Meditation Center course, "Surviving and Thriving in Winter," and coming out with a new book, "Garden Wisdom: 365 Days."

"'Be a lamp unto yourself,' the Buddha said," she writes in the Heart Path Press paperback. "How might we eschew self-judgment ('I'm so bad') and ego-tripping ('Look at me — aren't I great") and instead practice the middle way?"

It's a question many who face winter sadness or sluggishness are asking based on reading such current headlines as Newsweek's "Sad! Trump Could Make Your Cold Weather Depression Worse This Year."

The Green Mountain State may have the answer. The University of Vermont recently completed a $2 million study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health that found trading negative thoughts for a more positive mindset not only is as effective as light therapy but also helped people cope better in successive seasons, according to results in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

The UVM study has made national news, most recently through this month's Reader's Digest story "This Is One of the Best Ways to Treat Seasonal Affective Disorder (Bonus: It's Free!)"

But Wilfong didn't need to read that to relate. Her interest in the topic began nearly a half-century ago at age 25.

"I fell into a black pit," she recalls. "I didn't know to call it depression."

Finding "level ground" through meditation, Wilfong went on to earn a master's degree in counseling psychology from Antioch University New England and complete an internship with scientist Jon Kabat-Zinn's Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program.

Wilfong advises people suffering from depression to seek professional help. But for those feeling "winter blues" — a temporary state of sadness or changes in sleep, eating or energy believed linked to a lack of sunlight and its effect on the part of the brain that controls mood and motivation — she encourages self-awareness and self-compassion.

Consider her loving-kindness meditation: "May I feel safe. May I feel happy. May I feel healthy. May I feel peaceful."

As Wilfong teaches from Christopher Germer's book "The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions," repeating such thoughts can help relax the body. And as she continues from Dr. Rick Hanson's "Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence," they also can change a practitioner's neural networks for the better.

As for working with winter? Wilfong suggests thinking positively.

One might wonder how a gardener could glean anything good in such a frozen season.

"I get a break — it's vacation," Wilfong responds. "And I've got houseplants."

The teacher practices what she preaches.

Kevin O'Connor is a Reformer and VTDigger.org correspondent who can be contacted at kevinoconnorvt@gmail.com.

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