Since the beginning of time on this planet, life evolved cyclically – based on the cycles of the sun and the moon creating light and day, different degrees of luminance, and the seasons.
Our relationship to the rhythms of nature is ancient. It is so deeply ingrained in us that, most of the time, we are not even aware of it. It is only when we are truly out of alignment with these cyclical rhythms, that we begin to remember their impact: when we can’t sleep at night, have travelled across time zones, or feel the winter blues. Yet nature’s cycles impact us, and our wellbeing, every moment of every day – and they always have. When we take a look at our evolutionary journey, it becomes clear why.
About 4.5 billion years ago our Earth started orbiting the Sun. Not long after, about 4.4 billion years ago, our Moon began orbiting Earth. The solar and lunar cycles in turn gave rise to the annual cycles of the seasons and the tidal movements of our oceans.
About 425 million years ago, when plants and animals began to spread over our planet, they evolved rhythmic functions that provided them with adaptive advantages within our cyclical environment. Some became active during the day, others at night. Many adjusted their reproductive cycles to seasonal changes across the solar year. Some migrated, others grew winter fur. Not just the wellbeing, but the survival of all plants and animals was based on their ability to adapt to the rhythms of nature and to live in alignment with them.
And as human animals, we became really good at it. After our first ancestors appeared approximately 750,000 years ago, we became the only surviving species of homo sapiens. Once we left the lush lake shores of the African Rift Valley to migrate across the globe, understanding these cycles became even more important. This becomes clear when we look at the first lunar calendars, carved in bone and created on cave walls in what is today France and Germany, about 34.000 years ago. It is profound that early humans were able to count and keep track of moon phases and seasonal changes and that they considered these rhythms important enough to do so. These early calendars signify not only a step in the evolutionary development of humans but their close connection to the rhythms of nature.
We evolved not only alongside the rhythms of nature but through them. Our ability to map and chart these cycles gave rise to the concept of time as something that could be measured, which in turn allowed humans to organise themselves in groups. From aligning hunting trips with the seasons to calculating the time it took for a pregnancy to come to full term (ten moons), life revolved around the cycles of the moon and seasons. And for tens of thousands of years, we lived in alignment with them.
Until a couple of hundred years ago, when the industrial revolution quite suddenly removed us from nature’s cycles. The general thinking of that time, and pretty much since then, became one of “dominance over nature” (thanks Descartes). The time of ‘enlightenment’ also brought the advent of artificial lighting and as a result, our light-dark rhythms became increasingly disrupted.
We could now work inside all day and all year. Removed from the cycles of light and seasons, man alone was now in charge of our schedules. When women started to increasingly enter the workforce, it was based on these man-made schedules. At best they were based on a reasonable night-day cycle, often not even that, and certainly not around female, monthly cycles. Yet without entrainment – the process through which our body aligns to these natural rhythms – our inner rhythms became increasingly disrupted. Over the past ten years, these disruptions have increased even more with extended screen time, blue light disruption, escaping winters by flying to warmer places and 24/7 availability.
A few hundred years are only a blink concerning how long we’ve lived in alignment with the rhythms of nature. We were never meant to step out of them. As a result, we see increasing chrono-pathology, which is diseases caused by disrupted rhythms, such as chronic fatigue, sleep issues, fertility issues, and depression to name but a few. And even if we’re not yet sick, most of us feel that we are just not in tune anymore.
As the awareness for these issues grows, we slowly see a movement back to nature – seeing ourselves as part of it, curious to discover how nature and ‘modern life’ can co-exist. For this to be possible, it is time that we begin to remember our cyclical past and reconnect to the rhythms of nature in whatever small way is accessible to us right now. They are, after all, all around us and within us, if only we take a moment to pause, listen, and notice them.