Winter and the Water Element Part 2



I started with a brief introduction to Winter and the Water Element. Since it is such an important Element in acupuncture, and hence to our health, I am happy to expand further on it, and also recommend you check back to that post as well, if interested. (see: ‘Blog’)

“The mysterious powers of Winter create extreme cold in Heaven and they create water upon the earth.”  Nei Jing*

We may be grateful that we are not so far, experiencing  great cold, but many have been suffering the effects of deluges of water in the form of heavy and frequent rainfall, and great storm surges from the sea, with its effect on our rivers, severely flooding great areas.

The energy of Winter is about waiting, not about action…a time of gathering force.

Winter tests our will to survive – to live through the cold, wet and storms and make it to Springtime. Hence it is a time of waiting – waiting to be born or waiting to die. Water symbolises both life and death, being the ‘womb’ from which all life emerges and the abyss to which it returns. As the universal oneness that exists beyond and within all individuals, water is similar to the Tao (the Way) itself. Though separate lives coalesce out of its unity, they are like drops of water temporarily distinct from the sea; it is only a matter of time before they rejoin the whole.

Water’s qualities guide us as to its power:

“Under heaven nothing is more soft and yielding than water. Yet for attacking the solid and strong, nothing is better; it has no equal. The weak can overcome the strong; the supple can overcome the stiff.”    Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching – Chapter 78 (1)

On one level this is stating the well-known fact that water can wear away stone. On a human level, it is talking about applying this principle in our own lives. It suggests that a soft and yielding approach can actually prevail over a strong or ‘stiff’ one. This concept of yielding is exemplified in the soft martial arts, such as T’ai Chi, but it may be applied to any aspect of life. It does not imply rolling over and being a walk-over, but approaching a problem or confrontation with someone in a conciliatory manner, so as to win over an opponent and achieve a beneficial result without harming anyone. Try and put this into practice and see the results – our cultural conditioning makes it difficult to accept such an approach perhaps, but your life and health will benefit from it!

Winter: a time of waiting – a time of being

According to the Book of Rites, Yue Ling (an ancient Chinese classic), the core of Winter is the moment when tigers mate, and also the necessary period to store seeds in darkness for germination. It is the time for the mysterious gathering of water inside the earth, ready to receive the impulses of Heaven. So, although all of Nature appears to be dead or dormant, seeds of new growth are germinating, representing the potential inherent in this season.

Winter is a Season offering us the opportunity to access our sense of being, as opposed to constant action required by our commitments. It will help our health no end if we pay attention to that need during this season and incorporate special times in our day and week when we, as it were, return to the womb to rest, be still, speak as little as possible and have silence in our homes. In other words try doing nothing, and at the same time feel the many small inner transformations that are happening in preparation for the next stage, in this most yin (internal, reflective, receptive) time of year. It can lead to a feeling of being in a timeless, spaceless interlude where outer concerns no longer have such a hold on us, and our body- mind-spirit can regenerate, just as plants, trees and animals are doing in Nature as they lie dormant or hibernate.

“The mysterious powers of Winter create extreme cold in Heaven…”  Nei Jing*

Although, as mentioned above, extreme cold has not hit this part of the Northern Hemisphere so far this Winter, we are still experiencing pretty average temperatures for the time of year, and thankfully not what North America has had to go through.

‘Cold’ in this quote is associated with the ideas of contraction, immobility, frozenness, shrinking in, consolidation and hardening. The ideogram for cold, han, depicts the time of Winter when people huddle together inside, under the straw, to make sure they don’t freeze, and points to the correct conduct in this type of climate. As the Nei Jing* says: “People should try to escape the cold and they should seek warmth”.

“Extreme cold is created in the North…”  Nei Jing*

The character for North, bei, (as in Beijing – Northern Capital) tells us something about the Chinese understanding of this direction. Two halves face away from each other, back to back, with no communication. This shows the separation of Yin and Yang in Winter; the movement is one of separation and exile – the place where people were exiled to. The Great Wall was built to guard against the North.

The ancient Chinese also believed that the North was the region where the ten thousand things (simile for all things/beings) withdrew and hid during the Winter. However, this was because the North was actually their origin. So the North is also the direction of the underlying and original unity of all things. This idea of being simultaneously the beginning and the ending of something is carried through in other aspects of Water; for example, in the association of birth and death mentioned above.

During Winter, our bodies reflect the contracted, immobile state of ‘cold’. Sometimes cold penetrates so deeply that certain parts of our bodies remain contracted, even after the Winter is over – we can experience a ‘frozen’ shoulder, or stiff, contracted muscles, arthritis or aching joints. Mentally, we can become static and contracted, afraid to make a move. Emotionally, we can experience inner coldness and contraction, difficulty in ‘warming up’ to people or in coming out of our shells.

Winter: a time for closing, storing and laying by…

“The three months of Winter are called the period of closing and storing…”, “The Kidneys are the natural organ for storing away…”, “The north is the region of storing and laying by.”   Nei Jing*

Extreme cold during long Winters in Northern China meant that there was a need to store up as much food as possible to last until Spring; hence the association of the direction of the North with the concepts of storing and gathering.

As we see now, water is being stored up in the earth; animals and people gather food to last the Winter; and our body stores energy, by craving solid, hearty warm foods, to be called upon to fuel new growth in Spring. Our bodies want to make a natural shift into storing mode for the Winter/Water season, and we should cooperate with Nature’s plan rather than resisting it, not going on stringent diets. Such New Year’s resolutions are hard to put into practice, because we are in a time of gathering and waiting!

This period of storing is vital, as it allows the organism to rest and repair from its long seasons of activity. Humans, animals, plants have the opportunity to commune with their deepest potential during Winter’s dormancy: no ‘dead of winter’ – no ‘life to spring’. It is often through dreams that these visions of our source and potential can come.

More thoughts on a time of being – a haven for the imagination…

Water is the source of creativity, governing the formlessness out of which new ideas cohere. It is a space without boundaries, and artists of all kinds draw their sustenance from Water’s freedom and may even feel more at home there than in ordinary reality. Such people are often called eccentric, because they spend so much time in worlds of their own – and Water’s – making. Creativity dwells in Watery realms because that is where anything can happen.

Dreaming is a Watery phenomenon, linked with sleep, invoking Water’s merging of all boundaries as well as its infinite imagination. Dreams take us out of the world as we know it, into a strange and formless universe, where time and space have no hold. We connect to the universal mind and get glimpses of the universal whole, which can serve as powerful guides throughout our lives.

Like dreaming, reverie is a Water activity that takes us out of the regular world and into a deeper realm – a waking dream, an inward sea without time or space boundaries, where we float, connecting to experiences that give us meaning. It reminds us that we are larger than the reality to which we are bound, evoking the world-beyond-the-edges where Water resides.

The ‘Officials’ of the Water Element: Kidneys and Bladder

“… the kidneys are like the officials who do energetic work, and they excel through their ability and cleverness.”  Nei Jing*

The organs associated with the Water Element are the Kidneys and their sister organ the Bladder. The Kidneys are seen as a kind of powerhouse, a dynamo that drives all the activity of the body-mind-spirit, as well as being a storehouse of energy, called by Professor Worsley (see: Influential Teachers) “The Storehouse of the Vital Essence.”

The power of the Kidneys, which is like the foundation of life, and which has all the wisdom necessary to hold the valuable aspects of life very firmly, gives us our length of life, as inherited from our ancestors, and from our own ability to lead a life that respects its needs through an understanding of its potential to be that ‘Powerhouse’ throughout our lives.

Our Life Force, our Essence, our Roots, our Fluidity…

The Kidneys store our life force, especially that aspect that has to do with the energy we receive from our ancestors, or our roots. They are associated with our very beginnings and house the essence of who we are. When depleted, our Storehouse runs low, and we can experience fatigue, lethargy and a lack of vitality.

Our kidneys also house our Essence – the special, pre-natal energy that is the well or source governing birth, growth, reproduction, and development. This Essence determines our basic constitution, strength and vitality, and is the basis of sexual life, including the formation of sperm in men and ova in women. When this energy is depleted, more than rest is required to replenish it. We need a good diet, herbs and special energy-building exercises such as t’ai chi and qi gong are necessary to create and store Essence.

Nowadays, many of us are cut off from our own deepest essence, trapped by busyness and a modern lifestyle centred around acquisition and consumption. This never allows us to dip below the surface to experience our own essential selves. When we know and live out our true essence, then our purpose becomes clear. When we know ourselves, the path that resonates becomes clear, and our life and Kidney energy benefits.

The Kidneys also regulate all of the fluid metabolism of our bodies. Each cell is bathed in fluid, and this fluid flows throughout the body, carrying nutrients and messages, lubricating joints, and carrying away waste materials to be collected and excreted as urine. When the Kidney Official goes out of balance, wastes or too much fluid begin to pile up in the body, collecting in joints and creating blockages called arthritis, or swelling in tissues called oedema, or blocking up the Kidneys themselves, which can result in hypertension.

“…The groins and the bladder are like the magistrate of a region or a district; they store the overflow and the fluid secretions…”  Nei Jing*

The Bladder is the other organ associated with the Water Element. As an organ that eliminates fluid, it serves an excretory function, and prevents the body-mind-spirit from being poisoned. A key characteristic of the Bladder Official is its ability to be flexible and adaptable (think of Water’s qualities), to expand or contract with different amounts of fluid, and to know when to eliminate them. The Bladder itself is a receptacle, a sac-like, flexible but muscular bag, that must stretch to store the urine, ideally holding up to a pint without serious discomfort.

This adaptability is significant on every level. Someone with an imbalance in the Bladder Official might be totally unable to adapt to change or new situations, being fearful, depressed or unable to cope. Equally, someone who cannot store or hold energy, may just ‘piss it away’. Sexual intercourse requires flexibility, so problems such as frigidity and impotence could indicate a problem in being expansive. On the mental level, narrow-mindedness may indicate a blocked Bladder meridian.

Here are some more guidelines/exercises for these Winter months.

Time of waiting, time of being – Stay at home for one day and be still. Speak as little as possible. Disconnect your television, radio, telephone, computer, etc., allow your house to be silent. Write your reflections when you try to do nothing. Can you feel any inner transformations?                                       

If you have to wait for something today, imagine the ‘idle break’ is a gift of time for storing up energy for when you have need for it.

Going with the flow, is difficult with our need to plan, control and keep things predictable or our eagerness to “get on with it”, to be efficient and busy. Today, take the path of least resistance, like water, and flow with what life brings you. Write down your feelings.

Meditating – when you are feeling stuck, when ideas won’t ‘flow’, try quieting your mind in meditation. Sit in a comfortable position with your back straight and your eyes lightly closed. Focus your attention on your breathing and follow the cycle through inhalation and exhalation, being aware of the ‘space’ between breathing in and out. Put down your thoughts.

For those who don’t find meditation easy, add some lavender essential oil or other favourite scent to your bath water. Close your eyes and sink into the warm watery space to relax and refresh your senses.

” Many of us spend time and energy trying to be something that we are not. But this is a move against soul, because individuality rises out of the soul as water rises out of the depths of the earth.”   Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul

Can you articulate what your life’s purpose is? Think deeply and come up with one word that defines your essence.

Being true to our essential nature – In our lives we often have to adapt to changing circumstances, conditions, and yet we wish to keep our individual integrity. Remaining true to ourselves we can ‘flow through’ any difficulties presented in our path, just like Water. Imagine that you are stranded on a desert island. Put down three things you absolutely need to have with you. What comes to mind?

Movement – If your job requires standing for long periods, try varying your posture and positions as much as possible. Prolonged standing can drain the energy from the Kidney and Bladder meridians. Make sure to sit down, walk or lie down during breaks to create more balance. You may like to try yoga or pilates exercises that stretch the spine and therefore also stretch the Bladder meridian. Notice how you feel.

Nutritious foods – Generally, both the salty and bitter foods are appropriate for Winter, since they promote a sinking, centering quality which heightens the capacity for storage. Such foods also cool the exterior of the body and bring body heat deeper and lower; with a cooler surface, one notices the cold less.

Most common bitter foods are not wholly bitter but combinations of bitter and other flavours. These include lettuce, watercress, turnip, celery, alfalfa, rye, oats, quinoa and amaranth. Salty foods include soy sauce, barley, seaweeds plus any food made salty by the addition of salt. Do use salt with care. Salt is overused in the typical diet, while the bitter flavour is under-represented. Small, regular amounts of bitter foods in the Winter nurture deep inner experiences and preserve joy in the heart.

Warm hearty soups, whole grains and roasted nuts are good on cold days. Also small dark beans and steamed winter greens fortify the kidneys in the Winter. It may be necessary to drink more fluids to counteract the drying tendency caused by indoor heating. Avoid having too much of foods that could promote the drying up of bodily fluids, such as coffee and wine. Try drinking as much water as you feel appropriate.

This completes my posts covering the cycle of the Seasons and the Five Elements in this detailed way. It has been my hope that it would help increase your awareness of the importance of Nature’s changes and how they reflect the changes in us humans from an acupuncture perspective. I also tried to give you some ideas of how to support yourself  through the cycle of the seasons, based on this same understanding.

The seasonal posts will continue, in a briefer way this time, perhaps one or two topics of relevance as I see fit.


Note: These blogs are relevant to each yearly seasonal cycle and are available to remind one, should he/she wishes to, despite their original date of publication.


* Nei Jing: The short form of Huang Ti Nei Jing Su Wen or The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine.

(1) Tao Teh Ching (The Way and Its Virtue) by Lao Tzu, is the source book on Nature and Man from a Taoist understanding.

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