Winter’s Darkness – A Five Element Perspective

Winter envelops us in darkness, much like a fetus is enveloped in its mother’s womb. It is a time of stillness, of waiting.  The Water Element corresponds to the season of winter.  

During this time of descending temperatures, shorter days and long nights, our friends in both the animal and plant kingdoms slow down to stillness. Snow covers the earth, replenishing her resources. Winter is a time of hibernation, when we gather our resources and prepare for the transitions of death and birth. 

In previous articles, we have explored each of the five elements. The Wood Element corresponds to spring, when many animals give birth. Wood symbolizes the explosive growth that occurs in childhood. The Fire Element corresponds to summer, the season when humans enter adolescence and reach sexual maturity. The Earth Element corresponds to late summer when crops ripen and our energies are focused upon nurturing our families and developing our communities. The Metal Element corresponds to the autumn when the leaves first dazzle us with color before turning brown, falling to the ground and decaying. Metal symbolizes the challenge we face as we age – to let go of what is no longer needed and celebrate life’s mysteries and treasures.

 In Chinese medicine, the Water Element is the final element in the cycle of change. Fear is the emotion that corresponds to winter and the Water Element. Western culture views fear as having no purpose or value. Fear is considered a negative emotion that exists only to be overcome. 

We have a choice: We can run from our fears or we can face them. With courage, fear can be transformational, helping us to let go of what is no longer needed and prepare for the next stage in our lives.

 What is it that you fear most in life? Often we are afraid of losing family members, friends or possessions. Sometimes we fear the loss of our physical or mental health. Many of us are afraid of death. 

Humans often resist change. We want things to stay just as they are, although they never do. With each passing decade, we inevitably experience loss and concurrent change. It’s just part of life’s curriculum. 

Stillness, like fear, is not embraced by modern western culture. We tend to ignore winter’s natural rhythms while staying busy and keeping our minds occupied. 

We are tuned to our work and school schedules, rising early in the AM to arrive at an artificially set time. Our days are spent focused on accomplishing goals and performing  tasks. When the darkness of evening falls, we turn on our electric lights, smart phones, computers and televisions. 

The stillness of winter is inherently a time of reflection. By not “doing,” we have an opportunity to restore, recoup and return to our essence. 

Stillness is often associated with fear, loss and death. Why do we fear death? And why is fear considered to be a negative emotion? Perhaps we fear moving into the unknown. Perhaps we resist uncertainty and change.

Winter is a wonderful opportunity to explore both stillness and fear. Consider tuning into the natural rhythm of the sun, rising later and going to bed earlier on the weekends. Spend time pursuing quiet inside your home. Witness the the inner quiet and stillness in nature. 

Explore your fear. Is there something you are holding onto that isn’t really serving you? See if you can let it go. The stillness of winter and the Water Element turns us inward. Introspection has the potential to bring us closer to our soul.

In Chinese medicine, Water element is responsible for storage and management of our vital resources. Adequate reserves of water provides us with the fluidity to explore our thoughts, survey the possibilities and gives us the resources necessary to make change. The Water Element is also responsible for separating out our impurities and riding the body of these wastes.

The meridians that correspond with the Water Element are the kidney and urinary bladder. On the physical level, this element is responsible for maintaining fluid balance throughout the body. Too much fluid and we develop edema or congestive heart failure. Too little water and we become dehydrated or develop toxins and subsequent infectious diseases. 

Our relationship to fear is often either of excess or insufficiency.  When we have too much fear we become paralyzed. We become unable to move, to act, to do the right thing. When we have too little fear we become reckless. We leap before we look, taking unnecessary risks, flirting with danger. 

In Chinese medicine, the kidneys are the home of the ancestral chi or in western terms, our genetic inheritance. Qi forms the energetic underpinnings of all life and is stored in the kidneys. While it is easy to “overspend” our energetic resources by doing more than we should, it is much more difficult to restore our Qi.

While the urinary bladder stores fluids and rids the body of waste, the kidneys manage the fluids, keeping them pure and distributing them throughout the system. Acupuncture is uniquely suited to treat water imbalances.  Elevated or low blood pressure, low back problems, chronic stress, hyperactivity, paralysis (physical or psychological) and extreme risk-taking are water imbalances.

Additionally, we can cultivate Water element energy each day of our lives by getting adequate exercise, nutrition and rest. The practices of Tai Chi, Chigong and acupuncture are also powerful tools for cultivating our kidney chi and the Water Element.