This is the third in a series of articles exploring the relationship between the seasons, the Five Elements in Chinese Medicine and the ever-changing state of your health.
In September, I began this series with Earth: Our Source for Daily Health where I discussed how the strength of our digestive system helps create daily stability amidst change and transition—the transition between seasons as well as the transitions of our lives.
In October, I wrote Your Immune System, the Fall, and the Element Metal, which explored how, as daylight gets shorter, it is the time of year to begin to store up our harvest for winter, how it is time to begin to slow down and quiet down to strengthen our immune systems as cold and flu season approaches.
Today on December 21, Winter Solstice, I look outside my window and bask in another day of rain cleansing our city. This is peak winter; it is the shortest day and longest night. It’s hibernation time! While we may not be able to stop our busy daily lives to crawl into a cave and sleep off the winter till spring, it is essential to pay attention to Mother Nature’s cues to find balance and harmony in our health and with our environment.
We here in sunny and temperate Southern California, can live unencumbered by extreme weather. And we do. Without snow blizzards to slow us down in December, what is to stop us from living as if it is noon summer all year round? Such a climate teases us into believing that we have no seasons, that nothing can slow us down, that “we can rest when we are dead!” There is no obvious larger force like Mother Nature challenging the size of our own egos and the 5th gear pace we maintain; nothing forces us to slow down and keeps us in check.
Yet, in my medical practice, I see the consequences of this lifestyle all the time. People are going through their lives in a profound state of depletion, pushing themselves at all cost, struggling to get quality sleep, eating poorly, self-medicating, and, in the end, living with poor health and aging prematurely. My job is to help people slow down, regroup, rest and restore.
The Water element corresponds to the Kidney and Urinary Bladder systems in our bodies. It is in our Kidneys that we store our constitutional strength and reserve. It is our non-liquid bank account that should never be withdrawn from at risk of severe penalty. Yet, when we deplete the energies of our other organ systems, our body has to get funds from somewhere. So it looks to our Kidneys for a withdrawal. And once we make a withdrawal, we can never fully replenish those reserves. What we can do, is to support our organs through a healthy and balanced lifestyle so as to minimize any depletion of our Kidneys. Eventually, of course, through healthy aging, our reserves do run out and we leave this body. But why do so before it is our time?
The Wisdom of Water: Softness Overcomes Hardness
Water is the softest substance on the planet and yet it can move mountains and reshape rock. No matter the form, water is always water yet molds itself to its surroundings. Water guarantees that life can exist.
Our American culture is very driven; we see obstacles and are conditioned to push right through them. As we will see in my Spring article, we have a very Wood culture. Yet, the health of a tree greatly depends on its ability to draw water from the earth to nourish it and keep it supple and flexible. It is this Water that gives us patience, an awareness of the big picture, and the wisdom to trust in the process of getting there.
The spirit of the Kidney is called Zhi, or Will Power, and it represents that indomitable spirit that resides deep within us that allows us to focus on a goal and enables us to pursue it with single-minded purpose. Wood may see a goal and push to get there, but Water knows where it is going too—downhill, with gravity, to the sea. It just takes its time as it weaves in and out of the rocks. It may not know what direction the next obstacle may take it, but it has the wisdom to embrace that unknown without losing sight of its ultimate goal.
There is peace of mind in this awareness that can calm our fears, ground our spirit, and enable us to embrace obstacles as opportunities for growth without fear of what might be.
The Clinical Picture
Imbalances in Water and the Kidney-Urinary Bladder system show up as chronic low back or spine pain, urinary symptoms, low libido and other sexual dysfunction, premature aging, asthma, growth and development problems in children, fear -- or even a lack thereof--, and either not enough drive and will power or too much.
The most common presentation I see is the burnt-out professional that survives on stimulants for energy and sedatives for sleep: coffee in the morning to wake up, an energy drink during the afternoon slump, and Ambien to sleep at night. Stimulants force us to use resources we don’t have and sedatives artificially induce sleep without allowing us to find our own restful restorative slumber. Unplugging this vicious cycle can be a challenge, but most people are at least aware that this is an unhealthy and unsustainable lifestyle and they need to make a change. Wonderfully enough, it is this type of patient, the one that can’t sit still, that, during a Water cultivating acupuncture treatment, most easily drops into a deep restful sleep. They come out of it feeling rested, replenished, and restored. They have been reminded that within them lies a deep wisdom that can be accessed and listened to, that will guide them to a healthier more balanced way of living. And it is through better food choices, a little lifestyle counseling, and acupuncture and herbs that we begin to slow that freight train down to a sustainable speed. In time, they find that in listening to their own seasonal and daily rhythms and living accordingly, they will in fact get to where they need to go, and they will arrive filled with greater health and vitality. After all, it is the turtle that won the race, not the hare!
Water will seek its own level.
It is the nature of water to do so.
Unrestricted by the opinions of rocks in the stream,
it goes where it will and is patient to do so.
-- Lao Tzu