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Dr. Aimée Derbes, LAC

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All of creation comes from the darkness of winter: The energetics of winter + the water element, five-element theory-style

Not a totally boring blog about acupuncture, breathwork, energy medicine, and self-healing

At my office in Manhattan (Flatiron / Union Square / Chelsea), I see patients who are dealing with chronic pain (back pain, neck and shoulder pain, knee pain, hip pain, and ankle pain), headaches + migraines, digestive issues (IBS, colitis), infertility, stress, insomnia, PMS, women's health, and autoimmune conditions (Lyme, Hashimoto's, thyroid conditions, and many more).

All of creation comes from the darkness of winter: The energetics of winter + the water element, five-element theory-style

Aimée Derbes

With the shortest day of the year upon us, we are entering winter, which, in Chinese medicine, is the season of the water element. An old, integral contribution to the whole of Chinese medical theory, five-element theory describes the dynamic processes observable in the natural world (and in each of us) through the relationships between the five elements -- wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Each element governs a particular time of year -- well, even the cycle of a single day can be described by the progression of the ruling elements. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we are affected by and grapple with the dominant energies and issues brought up by each season. The following ideas about winter and the water element are offered as guidance and food for thought about the season ahead.

How did we get here? Or, autumn leads to the contraction of winter.

For the past few months of fall, ruled by the metal element, we have been using our metaphorical sharp metal blades to carefully prune our lives, giving away anything we no longer need, that isn’t so precious that we must take it with us into winter’s hibernation. In the autumn metal phase, the world slows down, cools, dries out, and contracts, and anything not necessary to survival is no longer needed and falls away. This shows up in the earth, no longer offering anything to harvest, in the cool dry windy weather, in the falling leaves, and in our creative lives -- we finish up and perfect our projects before the holidays, and prepare for our creativity to lie fallow for a while. This is the natural order, as every growth and expansion then leads to a completion and contraction.

The world becomes cold, and we go inside.

Winter is the ultimate contraction, a phase that is to be welcomed and accepted, as it gives us the opportunity to go within and allow the process of rejuvenation. Winter saves those of us who would otherwise never stop going, never stop moving, to the point where we would burn out completely -- the water element of winter puts out the fires that would manically rage out of control. Many of us welcome the pause and naturally take more time alone at home in the winter; others among us, on the other hand, have a hard time accepting the break that is called for by the season. These people, also known as most New Yorkers, refuse to slow down, opposing the energy of winter with all we have, and ultimately give up, exhausted, sometime late in winter.

Cold grows during the natural transition to winter, causing all movement and processes to slow down dramatically -- think of how water freezes in cold weather, or our metabolism slows when our lower body temperature is lower. In the cold, it may even appear that the natural world is no longer alive, but don’t be fooled -- all the nutrient rich, densely intelligent seeds are still there, buried deep, waiting calmly for the ground to thaw. In the same way, we carry the seeds of our next endeavors within us through winter, as while we rest, they gather momentum so slowly and subtly that it appears nothing is happening at all. While it is cold outside, we are calm and quiet inside, focusing on restoration, as our bodies relax deeply and have the time to repair themselves from the activity of the year before.

Water in nature, emotions, and our bodies.

Water is the most ineffable of the elements, as it can both create and destroy -- for example, rain is necessary for the harvest, but rain can also cause dramatic flooding in an instant. Ultimately, nothing on earth can hold up to water, as it will wear away any stone and forge its way forward, slowly, patiently.

Emotionally, the water element is about knowing and finding strength in the resources we carry deep within us, but, on the other side of the coin, water out of balance is related to the emotion of fear. When we are not rooted in our true strengths, our will, our reserves, we can become afraid of the uncertainty of the future. Disturbance to the emotional aspects of the water element can quickly show up in our bodies, as water quickly leaves its usual pathways when we become afraid. We feel cool, contracted, even “frozen in fear.” Perhaps we break out in a cold sweat, our mouths dry up, and we may lose control of the downward movement of water, urinating without meaning to!

Spiritual energetics of the water element.

The Water element is described as being like the void, or the unconscious, or the moon, or all of these at the same time. In the darkness of winter, ruled by the water element, we become still and enter the dream life, where we encounter myths, inspirations, ideas. Water is also talked about as being like the tao itself -- the only thing that can be added to or divided yet still remain whole, take any shape, and elude grasp.

As a symbol of the unknown, water is associated with death, which is a natural part of the lifecycle of all living things and processes. New beginnings naturally lead to completions and endings, which then create space for more new beginnings, and so on. Expansion leads to contraction, which leads to expansion, which leads to contraction...get the picture? There is always a cycle from one phase to the next. Culturally, we struggle with contraction, thinking of it as a let down or a setback after a brilliant period of expansion. We get attached to the energy and momentum of expansion, forgetting that part of creating is letting go of our creations, allowing them to move on and grow without us, while we take some time to rest and enter the water element, the phase of not knowing. It is in this time of rest, this time without an agenda, that the faint trails to new, previously unimagined creative possibilities start to materialize in front of us.


Taking care of your water element during the winter

  • Foods: It’s cold out! Your body is already working hard enough to keep you warm without the added burden of cold foods and beverages. If you live in a cold climate or tend to feel cold, this is simply not the time of year for salads, raw foods, cold smoothies, ice cream, etc. Instead, try these:

    • Warm soups and stews, whole grains, beans, winter leafy greens, nuts

    • Bitter foods: turnip, celery, asparagus, rye, oats, quinoa, amaranth, citrus peels, burdock root, chicory root

    • Salty foods: miso, tamari, seaweeds, millet, barley

    • Warming spices: cinnamon, ginger, cloves, fenugreek seeds, fennel seeds, anise seeds, black peppercorn

  • Activities:

    • Daily meditation: this is the epitome of the water element

    • Lucid dreaming: same

    • Visualization exercises: again, same

    • Exercise: resting does not equal stagnation. Moving the water in our bodies is especially important in winter, as we need the circulation to flush out the old and support our rejuvenation processes.

    • Writing exercises: ever meant to do the Artist’s Way? Now is the time. Access the free flow of ideas, and by spring, you’ll be in the flow to hit upon something big.

    • Meditation retreat: this doesn’t have to be a 10-day silent retreat, if that doesn’t sound fun to you; it can be as simple as going to a quiet place for the weekend, cooking a pot of soup, and diving into your pile of winter reading.

  • Supplements: for most of us, the available locally grown foods are pretty slim in winter, limiting the variety and quantity of vitamins and minerals we take in through our diets. Winter tends to go hand in hand with lower levels of the following, so consider supplements (after talking with your primary care provider, of course!):

    • Vitamin D is important for bone health, mental health, cancer prevention, and about 100 other things. Though vitamin D levels decline in all of us in the winter (due to less direct sunlight exposure), vitamin D can be especially low in vegetarians and vegans. Visit your primary care provider to understand your current vitamin D level and how to make sure you’re at the levels for optimal health (between 40-70 ng/ml)

    • Vitamin C is associated with an enhanced immune response, aka, fighting off the common cold. When supplements are taken long-term (or your diet has a ton of vitamin C in it) at a dosage of 500-1000mg/day, the benefits start to show up.

    • Omega 3 fatty acids are associated with mental health. If you’re not eating a lot of fish, flax seeds, and nuts, you may want to add in a supplement.