Finding Room for Winter

Finding Room for Winter

Around this time of year, I like to educate my clients on ways to live in harmony with the natural dynamics of winter. What winter represents is so vital and yet so absent from most Americans’ lives.

In Chinese Five Element theory, winter is related to the Water element.  Water symbolizes resources, reserves, and potential – like a well or a spring.  The presence of water means the potential for life to develop.  Winter, in the same way, is a time of potential energy – when the water in many places is frozen, the outward activity of plants and animals is minimal, life is hidden.  Winter is the time of year when stored reserves are most important, because fewer resources are available outdoors.  Historically, this has been a time when humans would sleep more, work less, and rely on our stores of food and fuel to get us through the season.

Ayurvedic medicine (the traditional system of India) considers winter the season of kapha – one of three primal components of the human mind and body.  Kapha (“kahp-ha”) is also associated with water.  As kapha pertains to our ability to accumulate, store, and bulk up, it naturally fits in with the Chinese concepts above.  Our kapha is what gives the mind and body water’s qualities of suppleness and flow.  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 witnessed 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 and flowering.  The cool nights of late summer ripen grains and fruits, ushering in the harvest period.  In fall, leaves are shed, 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.  Momentum picks up in its summer and the idea reaches its greatest expanse.  In late summer, the idea achieves maturation and it yields a return – the harvest.  In its fall, the material developments of this cycle give way to a recognition of the deeper, intangible rewards of the experience itself.  Back in winter again, it is necessary to rest 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 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 life 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.  When 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) as long as possible.  But when we’re always running (whether 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 use stimulants, like coffee, sugar, and fast-paced media, we convert our deep reserves into short-term energy we can use right now.  In Western terms, this concept equates to the use of our nervous and endocrine systems, and especially the adrenal glands, which squeeze out stress hormones to help us cope.  Adrenal fatigue is an American epidemic.

The consequences of this form of imbalance are usually most apparent during this season. The reason we get sick more in winter is mainly because we are violating its natural dynamic.  The world around us is darker, it has turned inward and reduced its ambitions, but we refuse to go along with this trend.  Modern innovations such as electric lights, down jackets, and efficient heaters allow us to be just as active during the winter as the rest of the year.  If you want to kick a cold or flu, though, your best bet is to abide by winter’s character and simply stop and rest.  

But the lesson of winter goes way beyond colds.  One of the best things 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 ways to observe this practice.  Watching TV and movies, reading, socializing, and being on the computer don’t count, since the mind is still active.  And, while sleep is important, it’s not quite the same as cultivating stillness either.  The gift we need is to invite stillness into waking life, so we can learn to bring a peaceful foundation into all the chaotic and dramatic situations we encounter.

Look out the window and learn.  Nature has profound things to teach.

Be well,

Dr. Peter Borten


  • Naomi Mimnaugh
    Posted at 21:00h, 02 February Reply

    Thank you for reminding me there is beauty and purpose in this Season. 🙂

  • Laura
    Posted at 21:56h, 02 February Reply

    Thank you so much for naming this concept so well. I love winter.

  • Mark Offenbacher
    Posted at 20:06h, 03 February Reply

    Love this article Peter, such a great reminder.

    Living in the Pacific Northwest and particularly Central Oregon I get to experience the bounty each season brings.

    Although I’m a very active person and love the outdoors winter curtails extended times outside. Nonetheless I commune with nature daily even if its a brief minute or two of stargazing into the sub-zero night sky. In those few minutes I’m reminded not only of my greatness but how much I have to be thankful for.

    Thank you.

  • laura
    Posted at 23:08h, 05 February Reply

    Thank you for putting into words this concept of “winter”, and helping to remind me that my urge to be in sync with the natural rhythms is not simply being “lazy”!

    Looking forward to hearing your ideas on the winter-to-spring transition.

    • Peter Borten
      Posted at 02:55h, 06 February Reply

      Thanks, Laura. Yes, the winter to spring transition is my favorite! -Peter

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