As part of an assignment in elementary school, I remember mapping my life on a timeline. First, I laid out two horizontal pieces of paper and taped them together. Then, I pulled out a plastic ruler and drew a straight line across the combined pages.
The idea of a timeline made sense to my pre-teen brain: You start at point X and continue until you reach point Y. In my case, point X was my birth in a small Pennsylvania town, and point Y was college, which, my parents assured me, was the only possible future. Beyond college, the line extended until it ended in a little arrow, indicating that even the unknown years would be on that same straight path. According to the timeline principle, my life would be a linear progression: I would always be exploring new territory and stretching into the next thing. It didn't occur to me then that there might be another way to think about time, and about life.
I was in my early thirties when I realized that the timeline principle reinforced an idea I had already outgrown: the idea that you get one trajectory, one chance to get it right. My twenties—rife with multiple jobs and failed relationships—had been a series of experiments and do-overs. I worked for a record label, took photos for an architecture firm, and studied art therapy.
Eventually, I found myself teaching elementary school, which I gave up to traipse off to Ireland to study with an herbalist. My meandering path was more like a series of upward-climbing spirals than a straight line. I would start something, hit a dead end, circle around, and start again, each time with a little more perspective.
It's easy to see this cyclical model in action when we look at nature: The Earth orbits the sun, creating seasons. The moon goes through its cycles, making months. The Earth rotates, creating day and night. None of these events happen just once: They repeat, over and over. Our lives also have cycles and seasons, times of growth, and times when we feel fallow. And not only is that okay, it's also necessary for our wellbeing and mental health.
Over the years, as I've embraced my own seasons, I have discovered that cyclical living offers a multitude of unexpected gifts.
A Chance to Try Again
Except for the rare genius, most of us learn through repetition. I witnessed this during the years that I worked as an elementary school teacher. Most children need to approach the same lesson from a few different angles before they truly understand the material. Adults are no different: Very few of us master conversational Spanish in one lesson or find the correct form for downward-facing dog on the first try.
When you think of life as linear, the repetition required for mastery can feel like treading water. However, when you are living cyclically, it's an expected—and joyous—part of the process. With cyclical living, there is permission to repeat, and repeat, and repeat, not because you've got it wrong, but because repetition is doing it right.
Built-in Time for Rest and Rejuvenation
Over tea in the teacher’s break room, we would often laugh about how the kids seemed to return from school breaks smarter than when they left. The time to rest and digest is built right into the academic schedule. Vacations seem to seal in the layered learning created by repetition, and kids often returned to school seeming more capable and confident.
Downtime is a concept sorely missing from most timelines. It would be laughable to think of my 11-year-old self including on the timeline that opened her book report on Clara Barton, “…and then Clara rested for two years, exhausted from the work of founding the Red Cross.” Because that wasn’t the type of detail we were taught to include, it appeared that Clara marched from achievement to achievement, never pausing, taking a break, or having a seemingly unproductive moment.
But the natural world takes a break every year. The trees leaf out in spring, produce flowers in summer and fruit in the fall, and then they take the winter off before doing it all again. Cyclical living reminds us to be like the trees, to pause. Rest and rejuvenation are a built-in part of the cycle.
Swapping "Failures" for "Fresh Starts"
When I lived on a timeline, every setback—from a failed relationship to a botched recipe—felt like a slap in the face. First, there was the sting of disappointment, the sense that I'd let myself down, that I wasn't doing life right. Then there was a splotchy, blushing embarrassment; I was sure everyone was watching me and snickering behind their hands, “She’s not very good at adulting, is she?” Finally, there was the dreaded sense that I'd wasted time.
I would respond to these feelings by scurrying to catch back up, to get to where I thought I was supposed to be, whether that was being able to do a headstand in yoga class or having my master’s degree by 26 years old.
Cyclical living erases the pressure to constantly be moving forward. Your first relationship will teach you something you'll carry into the second; the first cake you bake won't rise, so you'll do a little research and tweak the recipe. Then, just like the moon, you'll begin again, not because you're a failure, but because cyclicality means that fresh starts are baked right in.
Acceptance of Change
Once you acknowledge that your life will have seasons, it’s easier to allow them to flow. Change becomes expected and even welcomed. Without resistance, transitions become intentional and graceful.
I learned this lesson when I was 33, still teaching, and sharing an old Victorian house with a few friends. Over a few short months, a series of unexpected events left me with no housemates and no job. My first impulse was to try to recreate the life I'd had, the one I was obviously losing.
But, in the previous years, I’d been paying closer attention to the concept of cyclicality. This awareness made me pause and think, "What if this season of my life is over … and that's okay? What would it look like to embrace the coming change instead of resisting it?" With that mindset switch, instead of that moment becoming a stumbling block, it became a portal into the rest of my life.
Feeling a Part of Something Larger
Perhaps the greatest gift of cyclical living is the growing sense that you are part of a greater pattern. When you find yourself living in sync with the cycles, when your rhythm matches that of the apple tree and the black bear, you feel connected to a larger community and ecosystem.
In a time when many of us find our own way instead of following the tenets of organized religion, sinking into this sense of connection is its own spiritual practice. Using the day and night cycle to reinforce a gratitude practice, following the moon's phases to encourage rest and self-care, and using the turning seasons as an opportunity to celebrate our growth and change are practices that offer us both a sense of expansion and rhythm that is grounding.
Cyclical living offers you the opportunity to step off the line and learn in a spiral; to expect and embrace a restart, finding renewal in each new cycle, in each fresh breath.
Explore how our brains change with the seasons.