By Brendan Kelly, L. Ac., M. Ac., Herbalist
Jade Mountain Wellness, Burlington, VT

For millennia, Chinese culture has observed Nature and sought to understand the  changes in the world around us, as well as within us. One of the primary models that was developed to understand these cycles is the Five Elements, with Wood representing Spring, Fire representing Summer, Earth representing late Summer, Metal representing Fall, and Water representing Winter.

It appears that the first well-developed written source  about the Five Elements dates back about 4800 years, and  describes them as phases of movement of energy within us and all of creation. As one of the seminal classical Chinese medicine texts, the Nei Jing or Yellow Emporer’s Classic of Internal Medicine is a detailed description of Chinese cosmology and human health, and comes from cultural and medical understandings that far predates its publication. Some estimates are that our current Five Element model draws on 10,000-12,000 years of continuous development.

From these thousands of years of refinement there are associations that are not only the basis of Five Element acupuncture and herbal medicine, but part of a medical system that offers important lessons on how to live a more balanced life. With the cold temperature and the predominance of darkness, we are now in Winter, which is associated with the Water element. To understand the season and the element itself, think about water as it appears in Nature.

Think of the ocean: deep, dark, and when viewed from the shore, it can seem to continue out onto the horizon forever. Also, think about when the waves are high and pounding the coast. The force with which they hit the beach can literally cause the ground to shake. The Water element is an embodiment of this vastness and tremendous power. My experiences from being thrown by waves while surfing during storms has shown me how small we are physically in relation to the forces of Water. And as with all the elements, we have this same power within us.

For us humans, this power of the Water element is housed in the Kidneys. Seated in our lower back, they provide a foundation on which our physical, emotional and spiritual strength rests. However, rather than being a deep reserve of fluids and power, the Kidneys can become dried out and depleted due to the way we live. Sometimes we even equate the hectic pace of our schedules with living a meaningful life. We sometimes consciously and unconsciously think “I’m busy all the time doing things, therefore my life means something.” Unfortunately, not only does “doing” not necessarily equal “meaning”, there can be an inverse relationship between the two: doing more can create less meaning. This is particularly true when our “doing” wears us down, making us less capable of living fully and appreciating life deeply.

One central aspect of health in Chinese medicine, which is particularly relevant at this time of the year, is rest. We as a culture can get caught up in “doing” to the extent that it can literally become pathological. Our sometimes excessively active lives can compromise the strength of our own internal foundation. When we regularly push beyond our daily allotment of energy, we will eventually begin to dip into our deep reserves, called jing, which are housed in the Kidney. It is traditionally understood that these energetic resources are better used to help us fulfill our unique individual purpose in life or help us in times of potentially life threatening illness

This concentrated jing energy is also our source of deep internal wisdom. It is our ability to see our lives through the perspective of the passage of time and the process of growing older. It is both our ability to sense clearly the unique purpose of our lives, as well as the long-term energy to fulfill that purpose. With the magnitude of its importance, it’s clear why Chinese medicine places such an emphasis on protecting our jing and not squandering it carelessly.

Also  called Ancestral Energy or Ancestral Qi, jing is understood to be passed along to us from our parents at conception. In a general physical sense, it can be seen as a very rough equivalent to our current understanding of DNA. A very important part of appreciating the significance of our jing is that once we have used them up, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to replace. And when it is used up, our life is over. With this traditional understanding in mind, the phrase “working ourselves to death” can take on real meaning.

Often related to being overly busy is our use of stimulants. What stimulants offer in the short term is the perception of having the energy to do things and stay awake. In continuing to work or be active after we are tired, we can dip into our jing to keep going because we don’t have the day-to-day energy to continue with the physical work or mental activity with which we are engaged. Over the long term, this not surprisingly leaves us in an even more depleted state.

Coffee in particular introduces the pathological influence of damp heat into the Kidneys and the lower part of our body in general. The stimulating aspects of coffee is part of the heat, and the oils in the coffee are part of the dampness. To understand damp heat, think about an infection that has reached the oozing, red, festering, inflamed stage. The redness and inflammation are the heat, and the oozing and festering is the dampness. Together, they combine to create an unhealthy, potentially serious condition. What coffee does is introduce (to various degrees) this very same condition to our Kidneys, which again is a foundation of our strength.  By drinking coffee regularly (both with and without caffeine), we introduce this damp heat pathology into our own base of energy.

In looking to the local, wild plants as potential teachers, they have much to offer us in terms of living a balanced life more in harmony with Nature and the seasons. Look outside your window, or think about a natural area you know well. Are the plants there sending up new shoots now?  Are they in a flowering stage, reaching up towards the sunlight? Is there an abundance of fruit or vegetables on their stems or branches, ready for harvest? The answer to all of these questions is, of course, no. The plants are in dormancy, with most of their energy stored underground in their roots. Similarly, Chinese medicine prescribes that we limit our physical and mental work, and general activity, this season so that our own essence can be stored and replenished. As with our plant friends, when we rest and sleep more in Winter, our reserves can build so that when the warmth and sunshine of Spring returns we can shoot forth into the season with the energy for new growth and activity.

Each  season offers us unique opportunities. With Winter, it is the chance to replenish our root strength, just as the plants and trees and animals around us are doing. By slowing down, being still, and observing the world around us, we can learn to go more and more with the flow of Nature. That flow for us now in Vermont is a cold and dark one. It is a flow that moves slowly, that conserves energy by not doing more than what is needed. It is a flow, when listened to, that can help us build deep strength so that with the return of Spring we too can experience the resurrection of that season.

Some signs and symptoms commonly associated with Water imbalances:

  • temperature regulation issues, particularly hot flashes and night sweats
  • back (particularly lower back) and leg issues (in the hips, knees, ankles and feet), including weakness, stiffness, tendency towards injury and pain
  • general fatigue and loss of energy
  • graying and loss of head hair
  • sleep issues, including difficulty falling and staying asleep and not sleeping deeply

Some suggestions on how to live more in balance with Winter:

•  work and do less, and rest more. Sleeping 1-3 hours more nightly now helps build endurance for the remainder of the year.

•  consider eliminating, or at least limiting significantly, stimulants, especially all coffee (including de-caf.)

• eat warm, cooked, nourishing foods, like soups and stews from locally and organically grown  and vegetables, as well as natural and organically raised meat and wild game. Red meat helps build blood and lasting strength, as do root vegetables.  Eating blue and black foods usually strengthens the Kidney, including blueberries, black beans, black sesame seeds etc.

• consider incorporating wild food into your diet. Burdock root, also known as Japanese gobo root, is nutrition packed and helps build strength in the Kidney, and is a common plant throughout Vermont and can easily be incorporated into soups and stews.

• visit natural and wild places, and observe what is happening and not happening, and follow Nature’s lead.


This article was first published in the Winter, 2008 edition of Tributary Magazine, a southeast Montana regional publication. It has been updated and applied to life here in Vermont.

copyright 2012.


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