Winter is here and with the cold weather come all the deep blessings of the darker months. Cultivating inner warmth, more silence, and a turning within are all gifts winter brings. Hard to feel it, I know, when we're all out running around crazy to check things off our lists in time for this party and that trip and this meal. But the spirit and energy of winter can be felt even in the midst of the bustle, and this is particularly true for the Water element in Chinese Medicine.
In case you haven't heard my Chinese Medicine Five Element 'spiel,' the five elements are Fire, Earth, Metal, Water, and Wood. Each element has specific characteristics and corresponds to different aspects of the body, including different organs and their functions, different smells, tastes, colors, seasons, and emotions. As practitioners of Chinese medicine, we typically determine what element a person is based on specific diagnostic criteria, including these different characteristics. The season associated with Water is winter, and by talking about it here, I hope you can use its strengths to help you create balance and health for yourself this year.
Water is associated with the Bladder and Kidney organs. Now remember we are talking about your literal bladder and kidney, but also your "Chinese" Bladder and Kidney. This means there are several functions we connect with Bladder and Kidney, including but not limited to the functions of filtration and urination. Let's talk about the two organs as a whole, and then individually. As you read, see what parts of the Water element you associate with most!
Together, the Bladder and Kidney have to do with the wise use of our resources. We can think of this literally in terms of urination--knowing when to filter, hold, and excrete urine, but also in terms of our own day to day energy. A key issue for Water people is knowing how much energy they have, and how they decide to spend that currency. Typically, water people have an enormous amount of energy, but because of that, they spend it liberally, never knowing they are exhausting themselves until it is too late. A key sign of a Water person is someone who invests themselves in several challenging projects, staying up late and going from place to place without really slowing down. Then, at the end of the week, the Water person is surprised to find they have dark circles under their eyes, their body feels weak, and they must go to bed early for several days to catch up. Often, these projects Water people find themselves in are situations that other people would not have the courage to do. Investing in huge financial projects, taking great physical risks, putting themselves far outside their comfort zone to accomplish something, these are all notions that the Water person walks into without much hesitation. Or, if they do hesitate, their fear becomes the motivation for them to go ahead and do it anyway. Thus, we associate Water with the emotions of fear and the other side of that coin, courage. We also speak about Water in terms of how strong is the person's will. A water person overcomes fear, obstacles, and even things like addiction by the sheer force of their will: a Water person in balance will not eat that piece of cake if they've told themselves not to. The colors associated with Water are blue and black, the part of the body it governs are the bones (think deep and dark), and the climate it prefers (or dislikes) is cold.
The yang organ associated with Water is the Bladder. Often times we see Bladder energy as simple, unwanted fear. A Bladder person will be afraid that they left the toaster on, afraid that they made a horrible mistake that they're not even aware of, even afraid that they're going to be afraid. This can cause anything from general anxiety to panic in a Bladder person.
Bladder people are notorious for putting themselves in situations that require great courage, provoke fear, and require more energy than one person may feel capable of expending. And they'll do it over and over again! They often don't know how courageous they are, and may be full of fear the entire time, thinking they are weak, fearful, and foolish. The truth is, they are quite fearless, but the necessary energy required to perform these tasks will wear them out to the point of exhaustion, making them feel afraid, shaky, and unsure of themselves. What a conundrum!
The difference between a Bladder person and the yin organ of water, the Kidney, is the depth of their fear and courage. While a Bladder person will be afraid of leaving the garage door open, the Kidney person will be afraid that the world will soon come to an end. Kidney fear tends to have meaning behind it. Kidney people ponder the meaning of the universe and fear can arise out of that about their own existence, about their purpose, and about how in the world they'll manage to have the energy to withstand it all. While both organ types will have the courage to go ice climbing by themselves, the Kidney person will associate a deeper connotation with that adventure; it will not just be about facing fears, it will be about facing something larger than themselves.
Symptoms of the Water element are things like difficult urination, water retention and edema, achy bones, and exhaustion. The Kidney organ governs the ears in Chinese medicine, so symptoms like tinnitus or hearing loss can be associated with Water as well. With regards to our energy, Kidneys in particular are like the fire under the pot. If the fire is weak, then the person will feel tired throughout the day; and they'll have trouble with digestion and absorption and they may feel excessively cold.
When in balance, the Water person is willing to face their fears, all the while keeping track of how they invest themselves in that endeavor. They know when to rest, when to conserve their energy so that they have more to spend. A balanced Water person will also know when to slow down. Despite their amazing courage, they know when they are being brave and when they are being foolish.
We can all take a few gems from learning about the Water element this winter. We can tune in and listen to ourselves and our bodies, and give ourselves permission to rest when we are tired. The word we use in Chinese medicine is 'consolidation.' It means that one takes the time to gather their energy back to themselves. And we do this by doing nothing. Consolidation is about sitting and being still, quiet, and calling your energy back. By centering and collecting ourselves in this way we conserve, preserve, and regenerate our energy. This is particularly important in the winter, when we are prone to get sick, to overextend ourselves, to eat and drink outside the box, and to engage with family and friends in ways we otherwise don't all year long. Consider this Watery practice by having a brief period of doing nothing each day. Rather than sit and look at your phone, or read a book, or play Sudoku (as relaxing as those things may be), consolidating means you take time to sit still, look out the window, and imagine your energy coming back to you from all the various people and places you've seen. Even if you do this for just three minutes each day, you'll realize how crucial it is to your well being, and to your ability to maintain and sustain your energy. With Water energy, you can move mountains.