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.