It seemed to take longer for winter to start but we’re finally in it, and I’d like to share some Eastern philosophy about this season. Much of my career as well as my personal spiritual practice has focused on the lessons of the natural world. Every season has things to teach us, but the winter lessons seem to be among the hardest for modern humans to accept. What winter represents is so vital and yet so absent from most Americans’ lives.
In Chinese Five Element theory, winter corresponds to the Water element. In wintry places, we can often look out at the landscape and see little but water (albeit frozen as snow). Water represents resources, reserves, and potential – like a well or a spring. Simply looking at where civilizations have developed shows us just how directly water dictates the potential for life to develop.
In the same way, winter is a time of potential energy, when the outward activity of plants and animals is minimal. Compared to the other seasons, it’s relatively dark and still. Winter is the time of year when stored reserves are most important, because fewer resources are available outdoors. Historically, this has been a time to sleep more, when we rely on our stores of food and fuel to get us through the season.
Likewise, Ayurvedic philosophy considers winter the season of kapha (“kahp – ha”), one of three fundamental components of the human mind and body, which is also associated with water. As kapha pertains to our ability to accumulate, store, and bulk up, it fits well with the Chinese concepts above. Our kapha is what gives the mind and body water’s qualities of suppleness and flow. It’s integral in the lubrication of our joints and other tissues (especially important in the dryness of winter). The kapha time of year is best used to save up energy.
Daoist philosophy sees each season as representing one of the critical steps in any cycle or project. The seasons mimic the life of an organism, a creative endeavor, or a business venture. These seasonal dynamics can be seen clearly in the life of a plant: In winter, plants are mostly dormant. Their energy is stored in their roots or seeds, resting in the cold ground. Spring awakens this potential energy. Shoots pop up everywhere and plants have direction and drive. Summer brings the pinnacle of growth, expansion, and flowering. The cool nights of late summer ripen grains and fruits, ushering in the harvest period. In fall, leaves are shed, withering and decay occur, and the remnants of the past year’s growth return to the earth to fortify the soil. Finally, in winter again, plants become still.
Each idea begins in its “winter” as potential energy, a seed. In its spring, the idea grows into a plan; structure and direction are established. Summer brings greater fire, excitement, momentum, and connection with others. In late summer, the idea achieves maturation and it yields a return – the harvest – and an experience of abundance. In its fall, the material expression of this cycle gives way to a recognition of the deeper richness of the experience itself. We reflect on the essence that existed before and throughout this cycle – the formlessness beneath the form that has fallen away. Back in winter again, it’s necessary to be still, turn inward, and reflect before the cycle starts over.
When we’re out of balance, we tend to skip over seasons or to chronically get stuck in one seasonal phase. Our modern lifestyle deprives many of us of any real winter. We love new projects and planning (spring) and fervent growth and expansion (summer). We even like to dwell on how good the past was (fall), but we often hate to stop completely (winter).
In humans, the “resources” water represents are encompassed in the Chinese concept of jing and the Ayurvedic concept of ojas or “essence” – the unreplenishable allotment of lifeforce that we’re all born with. Our lifestyle strongly influences how long our jing/ojas will last. As our jing/ojas runs out, we start to age and eventually we die.
If we allow life to flow (like water) in its own natural way – not attempting to manipulate it, not fighting it, not pushing it – it flows (and our jing/ojas lasts) a very long time. But when we’re always running (mentally or physically), when we live life without regard for how much energy we actually have, how much sleep we get, or how well we eat, we burn our jing/ojas up faster. When we habitually use stimulants like coffee and sugar, we’re deny the necessity of winter, and in so doing, we convert our deep reserves into short-term energy we can use right now.
Sometimes water is a rushing river. Other times it’s a placid lake. Each form has its time and place. When fear comes up (the emotion of the water element), we tend to run – like a river. It’s often some form of fear that makes us feel we can’t stop. We can’t let death catch up to us, must always prepare for the future. Fear makes us feel that there’s always an endless to-do list. Our ultimate fear is of running out of resources, running out of the things that make life good, and running out of life itself.
Ironically, when we’re always running around to survive, we miss out on enjoying the things that make like sweet. One reason we get sick more in the winter is that we’re violating a natural dynamic. The world around us has turned inward and reduced its ambitions, but we refuse to go along with this flow.
The best thing we can do for ourselves is to incorporate “winter” into every day, making space for stillness throughout our lives. Meditation, restorative yoga, qi gong, breathing, and tai chi are ideal practices. Watching TV and movies, reading, socializing, and being on the computer don’t count. While sleep is incredibly important, it doesn’t give us all the benefits of cultivating stillness (especially mental stillness) in waking life – which teaches us the vital skill of maintaining a peaceful foundation in the midst of drama and uncertainty.
In the winter season, I recommend making a special practice of (1) noticing how you relate to winter and (2) meeting with the spirit of winter and being open to what it has to teach you.
What arises in you when you think of winter?
If winter for you is a time of lots of activity, how does it feel to consider slowing down?
If you tend to live in the future in your mind and have a hard time being present in the current moment, what is it that being still uncomfortable? What do you think will happen if you stop?
What part of you insists that you always need to be preparing for the future? Can you have a dialog with that facet of yourself? What does it need in order to be at peace?
If you resist winter, what is it about the winter that you dislike?
Can you meet with the spirit of winter – without any of your own preconceptions? What is it like?
Is winter actually “depressing” or is the gloom a response to your inability to stop, listen, feel, look inward, and accept?
What are your negative stories (if any) about winter?
If you suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, to what degree have you adopted others’ stories about the energy of winter, and is this consistent with your own felt experience?
What is winter asking you to do in order to come into sync with nature?
If you have a difficult time with winter, I hope this winter is different. I hope this is the year you make peace with it. And if you have a hard time incorporating the “winter phase” into your life, my wish for you is that you learn to bask in that stillness, to feel it recharging you, to be fully okay with stopping.