Galen Pearl

Galen Pearl

Galen Pearl

The Season of Stillness

Winter is when the earth is pregnant. ~Dave

Fall was the season of courage, a time of gathering and preparing. Now winter draws us into the dark mystery of life. Outward activity slows as we burrow into our cozy nests and settle down for our “long winter’s nap.”

Winter is the season of stillness, allowing us to sink deep inside ourselves, to listen…and wait. The Chinese medicine and qigong associations with this season reflect this quiet energy.


Kidneys are associated with winter. Physically, kidneys are a filtering system, purifying the blood by removing waste. Energetically, kidneys are the powerhouse of the body, storing qi like a reservoir. (One of the points on the kidney meridian is called the “spirit storehouse.”) When our kidney energy is depleted, our health is weakened. Even our bones derive their integrity from the kidneys.

In martial arts, kidneys take their place front and center as the source of strength and stamina. We learn how to drive our movements from the kidneys, and how to replenish their energy by “kidney breathing.” (See below for a description of kidney breathing.)


The element associated with kidneys is, not surprisingly, water. Water is the element most closely associated with Tao. As we saw before, many characters used in the Tao Te Ching to describe Tao have water radicals. Water is power. Not the power of force, but the power of its very being. Its depths hold mystery, the mystery of all life.

In the Pacific Northwest, the conjunction of winter with water (it rains a lot here in the winter!) invites us to enter into this period of inward reflection, to listen in the cold silence. Indeed, hearing is the sense associated with the kidneys and winter.

If you have done any qigong or taiji or acupressure, you might be aware of the central point of balance and energy located in the center of the sole of your foot just behind the ball. This point is the first point on the kidney meridian and is called the “bubbling well” or the “gushing spring.” Here we feel the energy of water welling up from the earth, entering our bodies through the kidney pathway, which opens in the middle of our feet. Pretty cool. For a quick picker upper, sit down, cross your ankle over your knee, and give that spot a little massage.


As stated before, the emotional associations are often categorized as positive or negative, but don’t think of this as good or bad, but more like a polarity, or a balance. The negative emotion associated with the kidneys is fear. The positive one is stillness. These polarities are sometimes surprising. For example, in the fall, the corresponding emotions were sadness and courage. Here, we might think that courage would be the counterbalance to fear, but it isn’t. Stillness is.

But think about it. When we are afraid, what are we most compelled to do? Fight or flight, right? One way or another, we want to get relief from the fear. We want to move, to act.

One of my favorite stories is about the young warrior who had to battle Fear. When she respectfully bowed and asked Fear how to defeat him, he replied that his strategy was getting up in someone’s face to make them react. The way to defeat him was simple, he explained. “Just don’t do what I tell you to do.”

At this time of heightened anxiety and uncertainty in the world, the kidneys offer us wise counsel. If our reaction to fear is to move, either in fight or flight, then how do we defeat fear? By remaining still, like deep water, drawing on the strength of our spirit storehouse, listening to the wisdom of winter.

In quietness and in trust shall be your strength. ~Isaiah 30:15

Note on kidney breathing: You might already be familiar with belly breathing, relaxing as you breathe deeply into your abdomen, allowing your belly to expand. Now take your hands and place them in the opposite position on your back, just over your kidneys. As you breathe in, draw your breath fully into the lower torso, so that not only your belly expands in front, but your back also expands, pushing against your hands over your kidneys. This energizes your kidneys, removing any stagnation or blocks. It also makes full use of your lung capacity. This deep, relaxed breathing pumps oxygen into all our organs, and tells our brains that we are safe and all is well. Thus, it is the perfect practice when feeling anxious or afraid.

18 thoughts on “The Season of Stillness”

  1. Ha! Loved your comment. Each season has its gift, doesn't it? When I lived in the tropics I was disoriented by the absence of the seasonal rhythm I was accustomed to. There were seasons there, too, but different, with their own rhythm.

  2. A sage friend says – snow means slow. It has become a time to hunker down and breathe deep or pant and wait like a wolf from Clarissa Pinkola Estes' Women Who Run With the Wolves. A wise colleague from years ago once said – When you don't know what to do, stop and do nothing.

  3. Snow means slow–great winter mantra. Also like the image of waiting like a wolf–patient and alert. The concept of doing nothing when unsure is so contrary to our usual pattern of "Don't just sit there. Do something!" Now it's "Don't just do something. Sit there!" Ha! Thanks for commenting, Mona.

  4. I love the kidney breathing when feeling anxious or afraid! I miss the seasons. They really do keep you in touch with nature. And your true inside clock. I hope this season finds you healthy and happy Galen!We love you and miss you! Hope you have a blessed Christmas. Have fun with the kiddos!

  5. Love the wisdom you have shared here, Galen. I will definitely try the kidney breathing exercise, and to remember to remain still when fear would have me do otherwise. (Really needed these words today, my friend!)

  6. Thanks, Betty. We had a big family gathering with my family and my nephew's family and some visiting cousins last night. I hope you and Bob have fun with your big family this Christmas too.

    About the seasons, and our inside clock, I wonder if people who grow up with different seasonal rhythms, like in the tropics or in the southern hemisphere, have their inside clocks set accordingly. I imagine they do.

  7. Martha, glad the words were timely. Let me know what you think about the kidney breathing after you've given it a try. And Merry Christmas to you and your family–loved the photo of you and your husband on your blog.

  8. Dear Galen, Just thought I would write a note and tell you how much I enjoy following your blog. You have written about some very interesting, informative and unusual things. I have learned a lot and pondered a lot on your thoughts.
    May you have a wonderful Christmas Celebration with friends and family. May you feel the love and peace of the Savior in your heart and home this Christmas Season.
    With much love,

  9. LeAnn, what a very sweet comment. You must be my Christmas blog present! I'm so pleased that you enjoy the blog. You and I have such different perspectives, but we have always managed somehow to see past the differences to reach out and listen to and appreciate each other. What a wonderful model you are in the world for people who are afraid of folks who do not fit into their own mold. You are truly a practice what you preach person. I so admire you for that. Merry Christmas to you and your family. Love you back, Galen

  10. I love this seasonal advice from the Chinese system of care. I knew the kidneys are connected with fear, but I had no idea that "stillness" is considered the antidote. I'm reading a lot about trauma now, and learning how the freeze or immobility response – the 3 aspect of the fight or flight triad – can be very traumatizing. That is not conscious stillness, it's imposed paralysis. So I wonder how this all interconnects. It can be very difficult for trauma victims to be still. Thanks as always for such a support and informative article.

  11. Sandra, thanks for pointing out this third aspect of fear response. So true that freezing in fear is not the same as open, centered stillness. And speaking of courage, as you did in your post, I think it takes real courage to seek healing for trauma rather than continuing to stay stuck in victim mode. You are an Amazon warrior! And by the way, courage is connected to lungs, so breathing into your kidneys links courage and stillness!

  12. Perfect time for stillness. Four days of being snow and fallen tree limb in driveway bound. Friends asking about cabin fever. Not me. Big ol' teapot for Christmas, great new book by Alexandra David-Neel (read twice). But had to bring out: Fear's advice is like on Star Trek ("Everything I say is a lie"). Don't do what I tell you to. Including that? Including doing the not doing? Love it!

  13. Yes, snow gently blankets everything and in its stillness quiets our own activity!

    You raise an interesting point. Was Fear giving false advice? I get the sense from the story that Fear responded to the respect and open curiosity shown by the young warrior, and responded honestly. But who knows? Perhaps the lesson is to not try to psyche Fear out, but to listen to our inner wisdom.

  14. I'm watching Kung Fu Panda, and it says there is no secret ingredient. Like maybe there is no always-applicable answer to defeat fear? I mean, surely we should sometimes do what fear says? Like when your hand's burning at least? I don't know, I wonder if it's not some tricky Zen thing. I've been wondering about non-action ("good") v. complacency (laziness, not achieving what you want, "bad"). Tangentially relevant here; I'd be interested to get your take. This, "But then you'll never do anything" is an objection I run into from non-Buddhists, and I don't feel I have a satisfactory response. I figure it will take more reflection on the uncarved block for me.

  15. A tricky zen thing–ha! Yep, our minds experience much of this as a trick because it is beyond our mind's understanding.

    About this fear good/bad idea. I think it comes down to what we think fear is. Is it fear that tells us to take our hand out of the fire? If we have a physical survival reaction, is that fear?

    Maybe fear is more about the stories we tell ourselves. For example, when I fell off the roof at the cabin, it all happened so quickly I didn't have time for my mind to process what was happening. It was only after the fall was over that I started thinking about all the things that could have happened and started to be afraid.

    So when I think of not doing what fear tells me to do, I'm not thinking of appropriate survival responses as much as I'm thinking of the thing going on in my mind that creates an urge to escape by fight or flight.

    It's a bit of semantics, isn't it? If we want to call our survival instinct fear based, that's fine. What we are really talking about, I think, is whether we are acting/responding appropriately to actual current circumstances, or whether we are acting in response to what is going on in our heads.

    About non-action, your question highlights a common misperception. Non-action doesn't mean doing nothing. It means not acting from our ego orientation. If we live in harmony with Tao, sometimes action happens and sometimes it doesn't, but "we" are not acting. Everything happens in the natural course. Thus the Tao Te Ching says the sage does nothing yet nothing is left undone.

    You might look up wu wei or non-action online–you will find much better explanations than the one I've given!

    Same for the uncarved block of wood. We make decisions and plans that "carve" shapes in our lives. But our minds can continue to be open and curious, full of potential. Think about the difference between someone more mystically oriented (in any religious context, even Christian), someone who feels open to guidance from inner wisdom (or the Holy Spirit), and on the other hand, someone who is locked into a set of rigid beliefs, with a mind closed to anything that doesn't agree.

    Does any of that help? We might have to have some tea and cookies and discuss further!!! Yes????

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