I can’t get my office warm enough, My lips are chapped, the shower isn’t quite hot. My car takes a really long time to warm up and I shiver as I drive down the road. There is ice on the inside of the windows.
Cold brings up issues of survival. In Chinese medicine, winter and the Kidney energy is connected to fear, death, and fear of death. Even though our insulated houses, modern heating systems, and windproof outerwear cushion us from worrying about our basic survival, with temperatures in the single digits, on some level we are still having to face these issues, even if only subconsciously.
How sensitive we are to the cold, to some extent depends on our constitution. It also depends on the state of our Kidney energy which is what regulates the temperature in our bodies. It is the Kidney yang energy, (also called the fire aspect of the Kidney) that keeps us warm. During winter it is important for our health that we nourish that Yang energy. If we pay attention, we instinctively hunker in and hunker down, seek sources of warmth, and curtail our activity. But again, modern life makes it more possible to go about our lives as usual without acknowledging the extra energy that it takes to get through the day when temperatures drop.
Nourishing the Yang is pretty common sense. It’s all about staying warm. But Chinese medicine suggests particular ways of staying warm that can be useful to be aware of. Try one or more of these suggestions and see if it makes a difference to your overall warmth and energy as we go through these cold days.
1. Keep your feet warm. This is particularly important as the Kidney meridian begins on the sole of the foot (in the indentation just below the ball of the foot in the center.) My Chinese teachers used to chastise their patients who walked around Santa Cruz in 40 and 50 degree winter temperatures with no socks. It is depleting to the Kidney energy to let the cold in to the feet, and particularly important especially if you tend to have cold feet or feel cold in general.
2. Keep your low back warm. Not only is the low back the residence of the Kidneys, but there are major acupuncture points that strengthen the Kidney energy in the lumbar area. People who’s Kidney Yang is depleted tend to have cold low backs. Sleeping with a hot water bottle or hot stone near the feet or low back is one way to nourish the Yang. There are also commercially available back warmers available, made of wool or fleece, or you can make your own from an old sweater.
3. Eat warm food. Cold food and drinks are detrimental to the Yang energy, particularly the digestive fire. (Even from a Western medicine point of view, digestive enzymes only function within a certain temperature range. If the stomach is too cold they can’t do their job of breaking down the food.) In Chinese medicine, there are also cooking methods that make the food more Yang. For instance, roasting, baking, or slow-cooking nourish the Yang more than steaming or stir-frying
4. Use warming spices. In Chinese medicine all foods, herbs, and spices have an energetic temperature. Cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, black pepper, cloves, and cardamom are all considered warming.
If cold is particularly problematic for you, you may also consider seeing a Chinese medicine practitioner. There are herbal formulas, acupuncture points, moxa, and cupping techniques that can help expel cold from the body and nourish the Kidney Yang energy.
BEFRIENDING THE DARK 12/17/17
These days, when I ask folks how they are, many people say, ”I’m looking forward to the days getting longer,” or “I hate that it’s getting dark so early.” I can’t help noticing the many ways in we have developed such a strong preference for Yang energy, I think largely because so much of American culture demands it. We crave light, warmth, spring, action, achieving, moving. We plan winter vacations in warm places. We fill our days with activity and avoid stillness. We measure our value by our productivity and achievements. We are uncomfortable with illness, disability and death. We focus on “positive” emotions, and avoid or judge our fears, griefs, depressions, and despair.
This year I am attempting to honor the dark in a few different ways. I’m using less light in the evenings, trying (often unsuccessfully) to stay away from screens, and lighting candles or using just the small colored lights I have hung in my rooms. In this way, I find I am more aware of when I get sleepy and don’t override it as easily as when I am watching Netflix. I’m going to bed an hour earlier than I usually do. And instead falling asleep while playing a podcast (a habit I’ve been in during my menopausal years), I just lie in the dark and the quiet until I fall asleep. At first this brought up a fair amount of anxiety for me. My mind needed to process all the little pieces of the day that i didn’t have space think about at the time. Those things I wish I had said or not said, that phone call I forgot to make, that interaction that made me uncomfortable. Lately there have been deeper discomforts arising—for example guilt about not being able to spend more time with my mother, and underneath that, my grief about the gradual loss her as her dementia increases. And as I continue this practice, some of my most difficult thoughts and feelings arise—for instance, what I call my “What’s-it-all-about-Alfie despair”—all those questions about what I’m doing here, what’s my purpose, am I doing enough to change the world, and is there any point to it all anyway?
Sometimes I give in to the discomfort and go ahead and turn on the podcast, finding relief in some upbeat story. But here’s the thing about those thoughts and feelings that live in the dark—they are there whether we acknowledge them or not. They affect us whether we take time to work with them or not. Part of the opportunity of winter is find a way to be more aware of and accepting of our darker places. And listen gently and spaciously to what we find there. It is through this time spent in the dark that we restore our energy and clear the way for what we want generate in the spring.
—with gratitude to Thea Elijah, whose articulation of these ideas have helped me share them with others
WINTER AND THE WATER ELEMENT 12/10/17
One thing I continue to appreciate about Chinese Medicine after all these years is the idea that what’s going on inside of our bodies is a microcosm of what’s going on outside of us in nature, and that our health is enhanced by living with the seasons. I always have good intentions of writing and posting about Chinese Medicine and the seasons as we go through the year. This winter I’m planning to share a series of posts about winter, the Water element, the Kidney energy, and ways we can live more harmoniously in the cold and dark.
First some basic information: In Chinese Five Element theory, each element correlates with a season, and with various functions in our bodies. Winter is related to the Water element, which includes the Kidneys and Bladder. When discussing the organs in Chinese Medicine it is helpful to think of them as verbs rather than nouns. The organs are more like collections of functions in the body. For example, the Kidneys include our physical kidney organs and our urinary functions, but the Kidney energy also correlates with our hormonal and reproductive functions, our hearing, and the health of the hair, bones, teeth, the low back, and knees.
The Water element is also related to the emotion of Fear and the virtue of Wisdom. In Five Element Theory there is always a connection/transformation between the emotion and the virtue. One way to think about this in the Water element is that Wisdom includes transforming our fear of the unknown and the dark, becoming more accepting and comfortable with the mystery.
The Water element is the most Yin of the elements, and winter is the most Yin of the seasons—cold, dark, and still. Yang energy (light, warmth, activity) is the least abundant at this time. Now that we’ve finally had some freezing weather, the earth appears frozen and dead. Animals hibernate and plants are storing energy in their roots or seeds. Like the animals and plants, this is a good time for us to be in the stillness. Winter is a great time to begin or revive a meditation practice, or journal writing, or record our dreams. It’s a time to pay more attention to our inner lives. Many of us feel frazzled by the busyness of December holidays, and can’t find time to focus within. If this is the case, see if you can find even ten minutes to ignore your devices and close your eyes, light a candle, or look at the night sky.
SINKING INTO THE YIN 12/18/16
My cat is sleeping about eighteen hours a day these days, much more than she does in summer. People I see for acupuncture are falling asleep during their treatments more often than not. They are yawning and dragging and complaining of fatigue, and just not wanting to do much.
This is the week that the Taoists stay in bed as much as possible—the week before winter solstice, the most Yin time of year. We have the least access to Yang energy (think sun, light, warmth, upward, outward, fast, loud, extroverted), and are immersed in the deepest Yin (think cold, dark, downward, inward, slowness, stillness, introverted). One idea most basic to Chinese medicine is that our bodies are microcosms of what is going on in nature, and that living in tune with the seasons is one of the most important ways that we can maintain our health.
Once or twice in the past couple of decades, I have had the opportunity to take this week off of work, and it has felt so right. I could indulge my body’s innate desire to sleep eleven or twelve hours a night, lounge in bed and let my mind wander, and allow myself to give space and attention to things that only arise when I get quiet enough. It’s often not that fun. The anxieties and fears and unresolved "yuck" that appear aren’t easy to navigate. But this is part of winter maintenance—our opportunity to dig into the dark corners and clean out the cobwebs in the basement.
Usually I travel to visit family and celebrate Christmas this time of year, in addition to friends’ latke parties and solstice celebrations, on top of all my usual commitments. I am tired and pushing too hard like everyone else. I struggle with how to pay some nominal homage to the dark time, when I don’t have the luxury of a week off.
One of my teachers suggests going to bed an hour earlier as a basic practice before solstice. Even if you don’t fall asleep, just lie in the dark. When I do this I feel better, and more rest gives me more resilience in the short days. Another practice I have done is to not use electric lights in the evening, at least on the day of solstice, but on the surrounding evenings as well. I light candles, take baths, read by candlelight or just look out the window. I have found it difficult to do even these small things this year. Since many of my evenings habitually and begin and end on some kind of screen, it has felt like a wider chasm to leap in order to find my way into the unadulterated dark and stillness.
This morning I had the incredible luxury of a lazy morning in bed—nowhere to go, nothing I had to do until the afternoon. It has been months since I had this kind of morning. My cat was happy to have the company, as we dozed together.