By Hazel Appaqaq | 25 minute read
In all the familiar ways that it has done through the Earth’s unknown ages, a new Summer solstice blooms over the island. The sun hurdles the horizon, the original Olympic athlete, and everything that consumes light, or has a way of getting it from something else, turns in rapt attention to its slow soar across the sky. Down below, in the dense thicket of the Cortesian wilderness, the indigenous creatures and critters going about their Summer routines, seem oblivious to the disrupted sense of normalcy of the humans. Whereas for the hominoids, the season could be characterized as being presided over equally by the Water element, as by Fire, in that a lingering influence of the Winter is reaching into the internal Summer of our lives.
Our senses are receiving the signals of the warming and brightening climate, but the faltering level of community and interaction which our organisms also expect – seeing each others’ faces, sharing meals and being in touch – is creating a very different experience in the habitat of our cells. To the evolutionary expectations of our systems, the restrictions designed to protect our health and save lives had the side effect of stalling the “soft animal of our bodies” in a perpetual hibernation-like hush. Outwardly mandated to resist the invitation of Mary Oliver’s poem, Wild Geese, we could not let our social being love what it loves, or at most, only from a starkly dissatisfying separateness.
The emptiness that continues to be felt, from not flocking together in stride with the other earthlings possessing a pulse, can be regarded as an echo of the Winter interlude of our ancestors. Consequently, the fact that we’re spending more time in seclusion, and may still be carrying a few extra warm layers, presents an opportunity to become more attuned with our requirement to pendulate: to sway freely with a tidal rhythm that connects us to season, place, and our personal wilderness. And, as many of us contend with financial concerns, or uncertainty in our personal wherewithal to cope, and also with having the alarm bells of our fear response tolling more frequently, these shared experiences place us firmly in the domain of the Kidneys. The organ process associated with Winter, the Kidneys preside over themes of external and internal resources, and the emotion fear. This nexus of commonly felt threads is an excellent excuse to once again, peer through the kaleidoscopic oculus that is TCM, and, this time, reflect on the interdependent relationships of the Five Phases.
In the sine wave of the seasonal flux, Winter’s dominion is at the bottom of the trough, where the activity of life is at its lowest, and Yin ascends to a crest of its power. The cold and darkness induce concentration in matter and energy, and the goal of the land becomes the conservation of the precious nourishment that was eaten or piled up in the Fall. By all outward appearances, life’s movement and growth has ceased, as creatures lie hidden in grottos or contained in cocoons. In the vegetative world, a stint of chilled stasis is required for seeds to germinate in the Spring, but the suppression of Fire is not complete. The animals, insects, and plants have burrowed not only into physical roots and dens, they are also tunneling into themselves, seeking a warmth at the core of their being. During this lull in outward movement, progress is happening beyond what the eye can see.
Water’s character among the elements is the most Yin, thus its influence is strongest in the Winter. Like Metal’s traits, the attributes that describe its presence in people come from the various forms that it takes in nature. The ocean in its vastness relates to the unconscious, in its fertile environment to the source of our creative potential and vitality, and in its inscrutable depths to the kind of fear that we feel in the form of existential dread. A churning river conveys the wants and wishes that propel us forward in life, as we strive to actualize our passions and attain our desires. The temporary and solitary conditions of our mortal coil are captured by a single droplet and a passing wave. Furthermore, Water’s states serve to describe its state in us. It’s inherent power is to flow, which a person might display as the skill of acceding to obstacles in a way that finds the “yes” in every “no,” and a redeeming quality in any experience of adversity. Conversely, the solidity of ice on a frozen lake can be seen in one who has become immobilized, fixated or stuck. Its potential to either form a mirror like surface, or to be crystal clear implies the mind’s gift of reflecting on a subject, and to gaze into our own depths. The quivering ripples in a puddle can appeal to both a free floating, habitual anxiety that attaches to any circumstance, or to our bodies’ innate strategy to shake us out of trauma. The moment when someone surpasses a personal limitation or when we display the capacity to transcend the boundaries of our physical form, or the self-fixated survival instincts, it is akin to Water’s transformative journey as it passes its threshold on the way to becoming a cloud of steam. And a quenching rain finds human form in our ability to soothe and soften our injuries with our tears.
The organs that shine with their own internal sunlight in the Winter are the Kidneys. The Kidneys embody the same Wintertime theme of storage, as they are known to be the reservoir of a creative and catalytic substance that is synonymous with the Jing. In the previous articles of this series, Jing was briefly stated as the soma, or the physical basis of our existence. But of course, as with most concepts of TCM, Jing in its fullness is multilayered, as it has an array of nuances that are relevant to different contexts. In a clinical context, it can be understood as a quintessential substance that the Kidneys house and dispense for growth, reproduction, and regeneration. A fluid that serves as a substratum for all other tissues of the body, it closely resembles the template of DNA. Through its initial production of marrow, it backs the formation of the brain and spinal cord, teeth, bones, blood and hair. As we grow into adulthood, the Jing sponsors the full gamut of our physical development and sexual maturation, including our mental acuity and cleverness. Its abundance is evidenced by all the usual associations with youth; lustrous hair, intact teeth, clarity and sharpness of mind, robust stamina, resilience to disease and the ability to adapt to change. Likewise, our conceptions of old age are apt descriptions for its waning reserve; the fading and drying of the body, dwindling mental capacity, the reduction of the senses and decline of sexual function. This generative and transformative serum is a limited allocation of the germ of life that is endowed to every individual at conception from their parents. Its expenditure governs the lifespan. The life force we harvest from the food we eat and the air we breathe supplements and extends the supply, but once its principal sum is used up, our life comes to a natural end. Since it’s reserve must last a lifetime, we cannot have too much of it.
Most Cortesians are familiar with the realities of living from a finite water supply in the Summer, and in the Winter, the necessity of keeping a fire alive in the wood stove. In the arid months of July and August, when the water table runs low, we must prioritize our water needs and use the least amount possible, ideally in short, limited bursts. Drawing deeply from a well all at once causes a longer recovery time, whereas abbreviated, intermittent consumption moderates the level of depletion. We also know from our firekeeping skills that the concentrated form of heat, concealed in the glowing nuggets of wood char, provides an enduring warmth to a household, and saves us the time and resources of restarting the fire during a downpoury day. Similarly, all the organs consist of a Yin aspect and a Yang aspect. The principle of taking care of the Yin aspect of the Kidneys is similar to protecting our well water supply, in that the key to preserving the essence of the soma is to draw from its resources the minimum required to accomplish any task, and then to practice wise stewardship in a way that allows the supply to recover. The secret to nurturing the Yang aspect of the Kidneys is to cultivate its initiating spark, a pursuit that parallels the skill of maintaining a bed of embers in the wood stove. Kidney Yang is the germ of life that is the body’s source of continuity for all processes, or in other words, the link in the chain of existence. As long as the seed of Yang persists in our being, no matter how distorted it has become from the vicissitudes of life, our access to the Jing’s animating influence remains smoldering within us, harbouring the potential to ignite new growth, healing, and evolution. It is our responsibility to carefully nurture and preserve these two sides of Kidney Jing, as though we were cradling a vessel of water, or stoking a few smoking coals, in our every action over the course of a day.
The Chinese functional concept of the Kidneys encompasses the allopathic definition of the adrenals, the glands that sit on top of the anatomical kidneys and can be described as the roots of our energy. The complementary methods of stewardship and cultivation that support both Kidney Jing and adrenal health have a basis in diet, lifestyle, and introspection.
Holistic medicine acknowledges that 21st century sapiens suffer from adrenal fatigue on a mass scale. The signs of its presence include: feeling constantly drained or without motivation, especially after meals, feeling groggy and underslept upon waking in the morning, having permanent bags under the eyes, low back soreness, brain fog, mood instability including persistent anxiety or depression, weakened immune function, weight gain and an inability to lose weight, and various sleep related issues. The typical causes of this disease are toxic overload, overwork, and the pervasive technologies and habits that prevent us from reaching deep rest. It’s also important to note that adrenal fatigue tends to manifest in concert with two other conditions: anemia, and hypothyroidism. If this is the case, it is important to work on improving all three conditions at once, otherwise any of them that remains untreated will continue to exacerbate and pull the others down with it. By the conventions of the 40 hour work week, and our favourite foods and distractions, the vast majority of us exist in a constant state of stimulation. In face of the ubiquitous circumstances that keep us perpetually plugged in, the act of inhabiting stillness and letting ourselves relax is no small feat. At night, as in the Winter, since many of us lead equally busy, social, and cerebrally active lives as the rest of the year, the Kidneys’ natural periods for regeneration are impeded. Even if tension or anxiety persists at a low level, the cumulative effects undermine their function and recovery. In the hot months of the year, and in Summertime of our lives, we feel the wealth of our Jing as a carefree, invincible attitude, and we want nothing else than to work or party on its seemingly boundless supply. Little do we know that in the Wintertime, the expense comes back, to be balanced against next year’s reserves, and if we don’t allow ourselves an equally profound period of rest, the adrenals and the Kidneys foot the bill.
To further illustrate this very human tendency, an analogy can be made with the fantasy story, The Dark Crystal. Our ignorant habit of guzzling Kidney Jing and adrenal vitality is similar to the Skexies’ way of suctioning life force from the Gelflings. Thus, the extractive and consumptive paradigm of our society’s way of residing on the planet is reflected in our organs, in their struggle to maintain the familial relationships that are written into their very essence. The separation-based nature of addiction, and the prevalent inability to engage with the deep, dark aspects of our experience, also known as the shadow, make us unwitting participants in the same destructive systems that we are horrified to hear about on the news. By the insidious process of our being involved in, and made accessories to, the crimes of our age, a feeling of helplessness contaminates our worldview, all the more perpetuated by the shared guilt and grief that the majority of us can neither escape, nor seem to process. Miraculously, the Chinese view contains tomes of priceless wisdom, capable of illuminating and undermining the old patterns. The same wars that are currently being fought in resistance to our society’s downward spiral, are being enacted on the battleground of our very tissues. To prevent our wellsprings of vigor, the Kidney-adrenals, from being overdrawn, we need to listen and respond to the whispered supplications they grant us every day. The choice to live a simple life and let it be enough, to allow ourselves this chance to be held by a flourishing landscape, and to let ourselves truly rest in between periods of action, is not, as some might conceive of it, an avoidance of the world’s plights, but in fact, an equally needed contribution. In addition to being an elixir of health in itself, embodying the art of inaction (wuwei) can be lived and applied as a potent tool for the revolutions of our times.
A fundamental way that we inadvertently sap the life force from our innocent adrenals is through eating habits that cause spikes and dips in blood sugar. In the developed world, our pantry shelves are replete with foods that have this destabilizing effect on our energy. Naturally, the worst culprits are the First World favourites, to be found in the vast amount of food products in the grocery store: caffeine, white flour, and refined sugars. When we ingest these addictive replicas of real food, the raw energy that we acquire from them is so concentrated that our bodies are forced to dump huge amounts of insulin into our cells’ environment to deal with the excess sugar. Every time this happens, the adrenals must give out a burst of hormones, which places a hefty demand on their energy. In fact, anything that has a dominantly sweet taste has this effect on blood sugar, including all whole fruit, natural sweeteners (agave syrup, maple syrup, coconut crystals, date sugar…), and alternative sweeteners (xylitol, stevia, monk fruit…). It should go without saying that the chemical equivalents (aspartame, sucralose…) are many times worse. Regardless of the manufacturers’ emphasis that they have less calories, or lower glycemic impact, or were harvested from a rainbow straddling the Himalayas, a sugar rush is a sugar rush is a sugar rush (say that five times fast). Furthermore, refined grains, such as white rice or pearl barley, have been stripped of the natural constituents that accompany the starchy part, which our bodies have been accustomed over millennia to digesting all together. When we eat products that contain refined foods, it actually requires those nutrients to be taken from our bones and tissues in order to digest the pure starches by themselves. In other words, when we eat refined foods, at the same time as jolting our bodies with a sugar load, we’re also mining them of essential nutrients. Interestingly, the body’s way of indicating its need for micronutrients is to ramp up the craving for salt. So, if you’ve ever been inside the Bluejay Lake Farm barn, and found yourself salivating in front of the communal salt lick, it may well have been your adrenals’ way, albeit obliquely, of getting your attention. A short list of other modern day products to avoid are: alcohol, tobacco, ganja, food preservatives, antibiotics, and unnecessary pharmaceuticals. Lamentably, chocolate is also on the adrenals’ list of hostile inhibitors, because it contains caffeine, and usually comes mixed with sweeteners to boot. When it comes to our personal strategy for incorporating these reductions, some people will find that cold turkey works best for their character, and others may achieve more lasting success with a gradual or sequential weaning. In the latter case, two squares of chocolate or a similar, small amount of a less potent sweet item could be permitted per day, until they feel brave enough to seek a greater independence. But, despite the above mentioned reality about sweets, even committing 80% of your eating habits to this diet will yield results in the long run. Of course, the greater the commitment, the greater the harvest of health that is likely to be reaped, but – someone who is aspiring to progress beyond old habits, yet who is shaky in their execution, should not let perfectionism override their wish to grow and heal. Dietary healing is one of the most poignant areas of life that requires our profound acceptance of being exactly where we are at, in order for a transformation to be made possible. The active skill of seeking a goal finds its complementary mirror image in the receptive way of letting go of results. So, the first way in which we can take better care of our adrenals is to stop repeating those habits that keep us in a cyclical loop between cravings, stimulants, slumps, and back to cravings. A way to look at this initially intimidating step is to see it as so much room for improvement, which is both straightforward, and immediately doable. At least you know what you need to do, and you can formulate a sense of what lies between you, and feeling better.
The second step, which goes hand-in-hand with the first, is eating to balance blood sugar. A good rule of thumb is to acquire most of the starchy component of each meal in the form of vegetables. The full amount of dietary carbohydrate should ideally be around 80 percent, and of that 80 percent, roughly one quarter can be in the form of whole grains. Potatoes are an exclusion to this guideline, because they also contain an inadequate nutrient-to-starch ratio to be beneficial to tired adrenals. And we’re also not talking about parsnip chips, cauliflower puffs, “vegetable” pasta, heritage grain cereals, etc. Processed carbohydrates also contain a high glycemic load, which means that breads and other products made from milled grains, even if they were whole before milling, are out. Think: whole foods, simply cooked, from their naturally occurring forms. Out of the most popular grains, it is better to stick with those that contain a higher protein content, such as wild rice, quinoa, millet, amaranth, oats and buckwheat. Another excellent way to soften the sugar punch is to engage in some kind of gentle exercise shortly after each meal. The easiest way is to go for a twenty minute walk, fifteen minutes after eating. The activity helps to drive some of the sugars into the muscles, thus reducing the amount in the bloodstream, and it also improves qi through breathing, which is a critical piece for nourishing Kidney-adrenal vitality.
Regulating blood sugar levels also means not waiting until you’re ravenous before you start thinking about cooking or going out to grab something from the store. As much as we want to avoid shocking our system with too much energy, we also want to protect it from running low, since that is just as much of a form of stress that wreaks havoc on the adrenals. This means that although someone might feel inspired to do an extreme cleanse or intermittent fasting, these might not be the best options for their situation. A rumbling stomach, jittery, nervous energy, sensitive or ringing ears, headache, nausea and trembling, are the adrenals’ ways of signaling their distress due to a precipitous dip in blood sugar. By this time, you’re not likely to make good meal decisions anyway, and when you finally get some food in front of you, you’re more likely to overeat. Eating on behalf of the Kidney-adrenals generally requires a learning curve around cooking more for yourself, and planning ahead. This could include cooking in batches, preparing meals a day ahead of time, or having meal ingredients ready to go, like soaked almonds, sprouted lentils, cooked beans, or bone broth simmering in the slow cooker.
Regular intakes of quality protein and fats are also important for ailing adrenals, both because of their nutritional necessity and because they slow digestion. As well as providing critical building blocks for amino acids, they smoothe the glycemic impact of meals, thus extending the period before hunger sets in. Therefore, the third dietary goal would be to include small amounts of these at every meal, in the proportions of the largest amount at breakfast, a medium amount at lunch, and a small amount at supper. This distribution avails the fortification for when it’s needed most: during the activity of the day. Of course, this last means that breakfast should be a thing. Every day. Just have a breakfast, end of story. Nuts and seeds containing higher amounts of protein and fat include: hemp seeds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, almonds, chia, pistachios, cashews, walnuts, and brazil nuts. Having a store of any of these is a great way to stave off low blood sugar, and avoid caving in to cravings for comfort foods.
By the way, what we also want to muster as a goal is the transformation of our bodily and emotional definition of what it means to be comforted. In my own journey with various digestive issues, I’ve come to the understanding that my perennial bid to replace one comfort food with another was still somehow missing the mark. Eventually, it dawned on me that my comfort eating was fueled by the desire to numb out to the feelings and mind spaces that I was tired of inhabiting. In that context, “comfort” meant: to cut off from, to squash, quell, or even be momentarily distracted from those states. The power of sweets, carbs, and especially chocolate, to lift the mood and make you feel happy, can be so hard to surrender. In the end, I suspect that there’s no single method, trick, or mechanism that can be reliably employed to overcome the psychological and emotional attachments to our favourite foods. Somehow, we need to formulate an embodied understanding that the rewards of our culinary addictions are temporary, and that they tend to carry very expensive costs to our entire lives. And if that disincentive is not enough to inspire lasting change, listen to the words of someone who has lived with adrenal fatigue for well over a decade: life is better with healthy adrenals. Finally, even if, in our efforts to outgrow our habits, we find that we keep falling off the pony of our intentions, it’s very important to just climb right back into the saddle. Some things we can only learn through experience, even if it means attempting something a thousand times, and finally having it “click” the thousand and fifty second time! So instead of having “comfort” unconsciously mean the salty, highly starchy, sweet, and trashy food items which most of us have been conditioned to wolfing in times of frazzled nerves, exhaustion and heartache, the point is to let our experience of food be associated with that which brings us back to center, composure, and calm. An excellent book that explores the nature of eating (as opposed to what should or should not be eaten), is Nourishing Wisdom, by Marc David.
TCM’s parallel recommendation to eat protein in small amounts – roughly 10-15 percent of the total diet, reflects the traditional assertion that although it is important, too much protein becomes a burden to the Kidneys. In Healing With Whole Foods, Paul Pitchford lists excessive protein consumption as one of the most common ways that modern people damage the Kidneys. Fortunately for people with a “meat tooth”, curbing excess is more easily done than strengthening deficiency, as would be the remedy for reversing malnourishment. Excess is typically treated by cutting out the offending behaviours and introducing a period of cleansing into the diet and lifestyle. Deficient conditions, on the other hand, usually require a slow and steady reinforcement, which necessitates consistent efforts and ample rest. Rebuilding the adrenals from deficiency is no exception, because depending on the state of depletion, and the degree to which someone immerses themselves in a restorative way of life, the process can easily take years. Typically, a minimum of seven years of sincere efforts yields significant adrenal recovery. Therefore, it is far preferable to take steps immediately towards reversing a pattern of overexertion, than it would be to pull oneself out of the quagmires of fatigue. This is even more important for women to heed, because during the reproductive phase of a woman’s life, the ovaries are responsible for maintaining a number of hormonal roles that are vital to her overall health. At menopause, when the ovaries shut down, these roles are shifted to… you guessed it, the adrenals. So if a woman’s adrenals are already in a state of exhaustion from having their life force squandered, it’s more likely that the transition to menopause will be a difficult one. It’s never too soon to start investing in adrenal vitality.
Recall from Spleen season that large amounts of carbs, sugar, protein, or fat in the evening meal means that the digestive system is working on that during the night, instead of letting the body complete the critical, restorative tasks that it needs to undertake during sleep. This is as much of an imperative for the Kidney-adrenals as it is for the Spleen, because if the body is in major metabolizing mode while we sleep, the Kidneys aren’t accessing deep rest either. The Chinese theory of the organs’ diurnal rhythms identifies the time of the Kidneys’ peak performance as occurring from 5pm-7pm. Feeling extremely droopy or ready to collapse on a regular basis at this time betrays their deficient state. Holistic medicine teaches that the time when the adrenals naturally enter their regenerative phase is 11:00 pm, and in order that they do so, the whole body must be in deep, delta wave sleep. Right around that time of night, if we stay up, we will get a resurgence of energy that can be interpreted as a “second wind.” If we push past the initial 10:00 o’clock drowsiness, it feels good to ride the wave of mental freshness that follows. But this is now the adrenals’ deep reserves that’s being accessed. To spend this newly unlocked potential is to subtract it from the regenerative process, which means a withdrawal from the next day’s potency. The person with adrenal health on their mind should go to bed by 10pm at the latest, but 9:30 is even better. Rebuilding this function requires a minimum of eight hours of sleep per night. So the two forms of health wisdom are compatible on this level as well, since eating a light supper between 5:00 and 7:00pm allows for a period of initial digestion and unwinding, before hitting the hay.
From the outside, modern day parenting in the nuclear family sounds like one of the most efficient ways to drive the adrenals up the wall, and the Kidneys into the ground. But parents of young children know the importance of maintaining a regular sleep cycle, so why is it that as adults, we tend to skimp on our own sleep hygiene? In addition to throwing our own bedtime out the window, quality sleep is undermined by the habit of collapsing into bed without a period of conscious relaxation. When we feel run down by stress, or we are run ragged by a work schedule or family life that demands our every waking minute, it truly is a blessing to be able to fall asleep at the drop of a hat, or take any number of extra winks during the day. But what the body truly needs to renew and regain its composure, is a slow descent into unconsciousness, and to surrender the level of mind that is in charge of making things happen, and shift into the mode that is capable of being in the fully present, receiving end of life. Even if we live alone, it can feel like our inner child is in full resistance to being torn away from our screens, or our favourite nighttime diversions. But being entertained or mentally fascinated by something, and especially being entranced by the blue light of a screen, keeps our brains in the beta range frequencies, which have a stimulating effect, and prevent us from relaxing. Living by the adrenal health program eventually makes plain the paradoxical truth of how our bodies are both highly strong and resilient, and highly sensitive and delicate, at the same time. They have very specific needs and preferences, yet have evolved to weather such drastically different circumstances, and will do so for a lifetime, if required. But the path to Kidney-adrenal recovery might feel less like an extensive set of restrictions, and more like a practice of empowerment if a person realizes that it is actually a way of making decisions from an adult standpoint, that also takes into account the needs of their inner child. Learning how to unwind at the end of the day is one way of taking care of the whole being, not just the side that is functional and productive, and responsible for looking after others. Instead of routinely going from one hundred miles an hour by day to a screeching halt at night, some reliable unwinding activities are: trading massage, or doing self-massage or therapeutic touch, especially on the feet, practicing a gentle style of yoga, such as restorative or yin, reading a book that’s not too riveting or mentally involved, listening to some mellow music, or perhaps making your own kind of music, journaling, and last but not least, worshiping the fertility gods.
Coming back to the Kidneys, the Lung article introduced the alternate connotation of the Jing as the container of an individual’s ideal life path, or their extent of creative potential. Additionally, the Kidneys are also the keepers of the will. Our uniquely human ability to act from the force of our individual volition comes from the Kidney’s storehouse. The degree to which we manifest the unique purpose that Heaven mandates for us rests upon how skillfully we apply our will, exteriorly in life circumstances, and interiorly in self-reflection. The vast majority of us use this power to figure out how to get what we want, then “make our lives happen,” by moving ourselves from one situation to the next. Following a child’s development of self-consciousness on the road to becoming an individual, this learned approach to the creation of our lives is virtually unavoidable, and in the terms of Chinese cosmology, is synonymous with the child fracturing off from the primordial Dao, and losing “original nature”. The ensuing trend involves a conditioning over the lifespan towards serving one’s instinctual desires, personal wishes, and the preferences of the senses and the mind, until one has progressed to a deep state of entrenchment within the constitutional framework. In short, we tend to get bogged down in mundane consciousness, becoming totally identified with the personality. From this perspective, there’s no other way of being and acting, than to forcibly maneuver and manipulate the events of our lives to either change or stay the same. But the eventual result of wielding the will in this way is to tax it to exhaustion, because this way of being in the world requires its exorbitant expenditure. Conversely, the nature of Yin can be variously defined as the intermittent silence in between the beats of a rhythm, the negative space in between bodies and surrounding matter, and the resting periods that follow and precede periods of action. The Daoist practice of wuwei, or inaction, exemplifies the value of aligning with the Yin principle in all pursuits. This way of embodying a balanced form of action closely resembles the necessary passage into the hidden rooms of one’s being, which is reflected by the landscape’s Wintertime reversion to interiority.
This passage is well documented in countless mythologies of the world, not least in the famous works of children’s stories. Stories continue to be among the most accessible ways that we learn and gain new understanding of life events. In the growing field of Grief Work, the paucity of eldership in modern society is acknowledged, and the option is taught of engaging with “stories as elders.”
In the Narnian series of C.S. Lewis, The Lion the Witch and Wardrobe paints a picture of a parallel world made desolate by a sorceress, by whose powers the progression of the seasons has been halted. Her magic has imposed a permanent Wintertime over the realm, and she instills compliance in her subjects by employing spies, and turning anyone who resists her to stone. By her devices of maintaining control, she appears to have staved off the transformative effects of Christmas. But her undoing comes about in the prophesied return of her sovereign equal, a lion with the magical ability to overcome her. His return is heralded by the arrival of four human children, who discover a doorway to the magical world. Like a solar icon, his mere presence causes her hold on the land to recede the closer he approaches. In the events leading up to the story’s denouement, the witch fails to grasp that his willingness to be killed by her own hand, in exchange for the life of one of the children, is what eventually enables his resurrection, and the renewal of his strengths into their full potential. Though this allegory of the Christ story was written to inspire a new understanding of Christianity in modern day youth, it also contains threads that relate to the Chinese Phases, in particular the complementary poles of Winter and Summer, Water and Fire, and the Kidneys and the Heart.
The same threads are present in Tolkien’s famous epic, The Hobbit. A company of dwarves wish to reclaim the stolen home of their kin, an enormous kingdom built under a mountain by their ancestors, containing their vast treasures. To do so means wresting it back from the talons of a cruel and cunning, fire-breathing dragon. The hobbit, a simple fellow from the most humble of origins, agrees to assist them, despite his love for the comforts of his own home and pastoral existence. As the contracted burglar of the mission, he aids the dwarves throughout a succession of smaller adventures, battles and feats of heroism, that happen along the way to their primary quest. When they finally reach the mountain, the time comes when the stout-hearted simpleton must surreptitiously infiltrate the reptile’s den. He must creep down a secret tunnel to where the usurper lies sleeping on his hoard. Midway down the corridor, far from his companions waiting behind, and terrified of the unknown state of the monster ahead, a paralyzing panic assails him in the darkness, silence and stale air of the passage. He freezes for a timeless moment. Later on, he reaches the lizard’s lair and glimpses a spot on it’s armour where a single scale is missing, and, in the end, his report of the weakness allows the beast to be killed. But the true turning point of the tale could be identified as in the middle of the tunnel. There he is faced with his own mortality, and is somehow able to discover the source of his agency. Accepting his own vulnerability, he frees himself of the icy grip of fear and is able to act from his sense of compassion for his companions.
Stories such as The Dark Crystal, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, and The Hobbit, are variations on the archetypal Hero’s journey. Archetypes are universal models of characters, roles or personalities that identify recurrent themes across the human experience. Literally meaning “original pattern,” Jung theorized that they are inherited forms of knowledge that unite humanity via their unconscious prototypes. In the versions of the above mentioned literary works, a person must leave the safety of the home or village and strike out on a solitary mission into the underworld, for the survival of the clan, or to test the mettle of their will, and uncover the nature of their character. Compared to TCM’s elemental structure, this universal tale tells of the embryonic reversion that Fire’s flame must endure, in order for its potency to be replenished. Any mother can attest to this journey of descent that manifests through the process of childbirth, and that the testing is more trying than one expects, and more profound than the mind can imagine. A lesser version of this journey happens to women by the influence of the moon cycle and the menses. It is for this reason that many indigenous peoples invented ceremonies, such as the sweat lodge, that were designed to provide men with a similar experience. Because, as the stories tell us, the deeper the journey, the deeper the renewal; the more arduous the trials, the more life-changing the healing, confidence, and wisdom that come from having survived them.
Parallelling our persistent need to co-regulate with another human being, the health of the organs must be approached by strengthening their bonds with the others in the circle. The bond between the Heart and the Kidneys is the most important of these relationships, known as the Heart-Kidney axis.
The Kidneys, via the Jing, are the organs that receive an allotment of life force, as well as a unique purpose, or a life path, designated by Heaven, which each person must discover for themself. Self-discovery is the means by which someone comes into possession of the core of their personhood, which in turn informs their cosmologically endowed duty. This duty is an agreement made with Heaven, whereby Heaven has entrusted us with the seed of its purpose, and we are responsible for cultivating and preserving it. But we are forgetful creatures. Easily distracted and confused by beliefs and interpretations of life experiences, the tendency to fall into ruts of conditioning assails us in innumerable ways. In order to be capable of enacting our Heavenly mandate, we must first access the imprint of the Dao, concealed in our depths. The Dao De Jing, a seminal text of TCM, likens this return to authentic self with life’s Wintry return to the root. This reversion is accomplished via the Jing’s counterpart, the Shen. In the previous article that focused on the Heart, the Heart was discussed as being home to the Shen, or the unifying and organizing force behind life. Since the Kidney Jing contains the truth of who we are at our most authentic, interior nature, before even being acquainted with the world, the Shen is that aspect of awareness that allows knowledge of the self, the experience of “me-ness,” which develops in early childhood. Zhuangzi, a Chinese philosopher of the 4th century B.C., expanded on the nature of the Dao, writing, “The Dao blows on the ten thousand things in a different way.” This describes how the expression of the Shen is what grants us individuation, and furthermore, uniqueness. Stored in our depths is a quality of being that we bring to the world that is ours and ours alone. The Jing provides the substrate of who we are in our heart of hearts, and the Shen applies an activating influence on the innate substrate. The Shen’s animating impulse needs the Jing to act upon, and the vessel of the Jing needs the Shen to bestow it with sentience. The relationship between the Heart and the Kidneys is an axis that can allow us to, first, experience ourselves as freely acting individuals, and second, to discover the intent that Heaven placed deep inside us at conception. The way that the adept nurtures and protects Heaven’s decree is by focusing the Shen on the Jing, through a measured application of the will. This interaction of the poles of our human design leads the mental faculties to be willfully directed inward. When done with an ambition that is balanced, inward concentration of the mind yields insight and intuition. When applied in a way that is neither too aggressive, nor too passive, the will can empower the capacities of perception to dip into the well of the Jing. Used in a fashion that conjures Water’s greatest strength, the will can be a force that flows unceasingly toward that which it seeks, transforming around any obstacles in its path. The realms of the Jing cannot be forced open, yet with just enough effort, the will allows for nourishing measures of the unconscious to be pulled up to the level of conscious knowing. And beyond what the spotlight of the Shen illuminates, the act of focusing on the Jing makes possible a form of unconscious knowing – a knowing without knowing.
Though they appear to occupy their separate corners in the above diagram, the Five Phases exist in tandem with each other, fully integrated. In the same way that we cannot consider ourselves separate and dislocated from our loved ones, our community, and our geography, the Phases must also be conceived of as the diversified aspects of a whole. After a basic understanding of their characters is grasped, this image of their abstracted nature should be discarded, as their expression should no longer be seen as divorced from the group. The elements in their subtlest nature fuse into a unified being, just as each of our beings contains all of them to various degrees. The seasons gradually blend one into the next, creating one season in our trip around the sun. Humans are not clever animals walking about the face of the Earth, but miniscule bits of the Earth moving over itself. Two organ systems in an individual may exhibit a relationship of opposition, but beneath that outward expression, it is known that the seed of each lies dormant in the heart of the other. In this nonlinear paradigm, cause and effect have little to no meaning, as the Daoist concept of mutually generative polarities bears a different way of interpreting the world. It can be described in simpler terms, shared by Cortes’ own Claudia Raan. In the teachings of Breema, any kind of opposition is likened to the two ends of a stick, and the position with which someone identifies is the point where they grab on to it. Some of us catch closer to one end, and some of us closer to the other, but, no matter where you grab, it’s still the same stick.
In many ways, the heart of modern, industrial society is like an engine of deleterious cycles, rife with craving, replete with sorry substitutes, and a breeding ground of untethered extremes. But no matter what level of development we’ve chosen to occupy, a commonly occurring challenge continues to face us all. Now that the biosphere is in a quickening gallop towards the expansive end of the seasonal spectrum, how do we maintain our health preserving boundaries, while staying in tune with the time for being more animated and expressive?
It is my experience that this island has the best response, spoken in the same language as traditional Chinese medicine. Of the means by which this place’s year-rounders and migratory birds are reeled in by the “Cortes vortex,” nature’s salving effect, and her maternal way of pendulating us in relation to our lives, are undoubtedly the most powerful. As John Preston once said to me, Cortes is where ambition comes to die. The trueness of his statement was increased by the fact that to my ears, this is a pro. Because, even if our experience of living on this rock is tinged by the restless, violent overtones of the mechanistic mindset, the island is constantly overflowing with a graceful undercurrent that can aptly be called gestational. Perhaps, in addition to co-existing in an era of crisis and uncertainty, many of us who have found a home here, have done so with the shared purpose of being inoculated with an appreciation for the slow ripening discovery of our inborn, authentic identities.
If that is as Heaven wills it, here’s to embodying a Summer solstice worthy of recall, in the untold expanses of this land’s enduring memory.