The power of winter is the power of emphasis: it emphasizes the essence of life. Without the external ornamentation of leaves, flowers, and fruits of the growing season, the plant is just bare essence: a seed, with its potential deep inside, or a tree stripped to its core of trunk, branches, and roots. For us, winter is a time of self-recollection, when we can go inside to that place where we are unadorned essence. Water, the element that corresponds to winter, points us to that dark, quiet pool within ourselves where our essential self-identity resides. We can use the energy of this season to more deeply discover the essence of our self.
Winter is for us, as it is for all of nature, a time for internal work: meditation, containment, concentration, and the storing of our energy. We use this season for rest and the filling and maintenance of our reserves, gathering strength for the year ahead. We must be less active in this season, conserving our sexual energy, going to bed early, and sleeping late. Like the seed that cannot sprout until it has gathered sufficient strength, our ideas and plans cannot manifest with strength if our energy is dispersed or drained. Have you ever lost interest in a project because you told everyone about it too soon? Ever refused to discuss a project prematurely because you might “jinx” it? This may really have been an intuitive awareness that to “sprout the seed” prematurely would rob it of its momentum—its opportunity to gather the strength to develop and grow. It is no surprise that in many mystical traditions, certain rituals and ceremonies are kept secret in order to contain and concentrate the power of the work.
Winter is a time of stillness and quietude, nature’s energy having turned in during this most inward-looking of all the seasons. We call it the most yin of the seasons: trees in winter look skeletal, the sap has sunk, outward signs of life have disappeared, and the landscape is covered with snow. There is work going on, but inside. The energy of winter is latent and potent: in this state of resting deep within, energy is collected and held in reserve; winter is cold and dark, qualities that preserve and store. It is the concentrated, internal force of winter that enables a seed to burst forth in spring growth.
Abundant reserves within give us courage and strength of will. Lacking these reserves, we manifest the emotion that the Chinese for over 5000 years have associated with the Water element: fear. Fear in appropriate amounts is, of course, essential; due care and caution in recognizing our limitations preserves life: we’d neither run in front of an oncoming bus nor challenge Mike Tyson to a fight! More commonly, the emotion of a distressed Water element is fear of not having enough of what it takes to meet the challenge that lies ahead: fear of being unable to complete what we’ve envisioned, fear of being inadequately prepared for what we might have to face. It’s as if we don’t have enough stored away to survive the winter.
The vocal sound associated with water is groaning, the sound we make when we are simply exhausted, with our energy “on the bottom,” with no hint of “rising up” or yang inflection. Diagnostically, in Chinese medicine, the emotional expression and the sound of the voice are two key indicators of the cause of disease.
The kidney and urinary bladder are the organs that belong to the Water element within us. Appropriately, there are acupuncture points along their meridians (pathways of energy) that can be used to fill the reserves and awaken that place in us where our real strength, courage, and wisdom lie. One such point is Kidney 25, located on the chest in the second rib space, between the mid-line of the body and the nipple. It is called Spirit Storehouse, and, when used at the right time in treatment, can literally turn the course of disease. Imagine the thousands of people who have exhausted nearly all their energy facing the demands of life and have been left empty and disillusioned. Imagine those who’ve been wracked by illness and pain, and so discouraged by all manner of doctors that they feel they just don’t have the will to face another day. To fill the spirit storehouse in such people is to open to them a place they have long forgotten: a place of inner fulfillment, peace, strength, and wisdom, a place from which the process of healing can begin.
Allowing ourselves to simply be still and quiet, containing our energy within ourselves, is to stand in the energy of the Water element. Living in a society of continual striving and exertion, we expect instant results and immediate answers. But nature has another idea: everything to its season. Within nature are already all the answers, we just have to be quiet enough to listen and be empty enough to be filled. T'ai chi master Patrick Watson called this "listening ability" - being so still and empty that we can feel and know directly where balance and imbalance exist and how to respond appropriately. This is the wisdom of water: the effortless response to its environment by taking the exact shape of whatever contains it, filling every hollow, and yielding to every protrusion.
As the days become warmer and brighter with the approach of spring, nature opens her eyes from the slumber of winter and looks to the new growth cycle that lies ahead.
If we have followed nature’s way and taken a winter rest, we emerge into spring “rarin’ to go” with restored energy, clear vision, and a sense of purpose.
Suggestions for living in harmony with the winter season
- Get more rest.
This is nature’s season for rest, repair, and regeneration—a phase important for our next cycle of growth. The Nei Ching, oldest-known document of Chinese medicine, advises: “[In Winter], people should retire early at night and rise late in the morning, and they should wait for the rising of the sun.”
- Schedule more time for your inner life.
Use the energy of the season to discover more about yourself through reflection, reading literature that “restores the spirit,” being more aware of your senses, paying attention to your dreams. The winter season is an especially good time to begin the practice of meditation.
- Choose more “warming” foods.
As the weather cools and the body needs to generate more warmth, include more cooked foods and complex carbohydrates in your meals. Try dishes made with whole grains, squashes, beans, peas, and root vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, and garlic.
- “Gather around the hearth” with people who mean the most to you.
Winter evenings are an especially good time to rejuvenate and deepen relationships with those closest to you. Keep gatherings simple and relaxed.
Copyright 1997 by Neil Gumenick