top of page


Updated: Sep 29, 2023


The five elements in Chinese medicine theory – water, wood, fire, earth and metal - are each associated with a season, energetic direction, emotion, organ system, taste, colour and many many many more resonances as observed in nature.

One of the associations that I find most fascinating relates to the spirit and it's five different qualities, each one associated with an organ system – Kidney, Liver, Heart, Spleen and Lung and also therefore with the corresponding element. One spirit, five flavours.

In Chinese philosophy, as with most non-western philosophies, dualisms such as mind-body and spirit-matter aren't based on ideas of separation or superiority. Body and spirit are inseparable, mutually supportive, transform into each other, and are of equal value. The yin yang symbol perfectly encapsulates this supportive, transformative and dynamic dualism (see previous blog post for more info on this beautiful and profound symbol).


As we sink into winter I thought I’d share a bit of info on “zhi” - the spirit of the Kidneys, the water element and winter. The common translation of zhi is “will”, also ambition, purpose, knowledge.

Will here does not mean that sort of unrelenting self-discipline, striving or effort, ruthless pushing or a fierce drive to achieve goals so often sought after. Rather zhi works below the level of conscious effort, a force that moves us towards our rightful paths. Soft and wielding will-power rather than hard and fast will-power.

Zhi is described as the will that can’t be willed, the kind of will that allows us to move forward with the force of the current. But like anything it takes a little initial effort and practice to soon become effortless. A tutor described this to me once as green light travelling. We have to take action to get in the car and start the engine but the engine stays running without our effort. When we’re moving towards what’s right we experience fewer barriers, as opposed to red light travel when we get roadblock after roadblock. That’s not to say that any barrier means its time to give up but to just keep mindful of when challenges are healthy and strengthening, and when something (or someone) is just too darn persistently difficult. I feel this way with writing, it takes a bit of effort to sit there and get started, but once I do, a load of waffle usually flows out and it feels good :) Same with exercise for me. I know both activities are nourishing for body and soul, and lovely and flowy when I get going, it just takes a teeny tiny effort to get over the resistance and get started.

Like life itself, observable everywhere in nature, we have a drive to stay alive and not only survive but thrive. I want to add here that I believe this drive shouldn't be at the expense of another living being’s drive to stay alive and thrive. If one being’s well-being is boosted at the expense of another’s - be it through eating habits that rely on the death of another, mass consumption, economic inequality, one person's needs in a relationship consistently taking priority etc - then that affects the overall balance and ultimately won’t work well for anyone. At the same time, a small cost to us might have a huge benefit for someone else. (I think the self care industry can twist putting the self first into something too extreme at times). Consider both self and others - human and nonhuman - and the benefit-cost ratio of our choices as we exist in entanglement with a myriad of others. They say no man is an island but even islands are connected below the surface. It’s all about connection and consideration.

Swerving back to will... according to the classics, the Kidneys house the zhi, so things that damage the kidneys affects our will. The emotion related to the water element, kidneys and winter is fear. Fear that doesn’t flow freely and release from the body lingers in the kidneys. Overwork, lack of sleep, attack of cold, addictions, chronic doubt all drain Kidney qi - “burning the candle at both ends” is a phrase that sums up Kidney energy depletion perfectly

If zhi is imbalanced, we might experience two extremes – collapse of will, lack of drive, passivity, withdrawal, fear-based and paralysing comparison and even despair. Or there might be restlessness, constant activity, hyper-determination, over-achieving, competitiveness, and insatiability. It’s a lack of drive or overdrive and both have their roots in a fear of not being enough. Just like water can be both a barely there trickle and a massive destructive force, we can aim to level out and harness a smooth flow.

If we have a strong kidney spirit we have a drive to be alive, curiosity and compassion towards ourselves, others and the world around us, generosity, a sense of confidence and willingness to connect, cooperate and share.

Aligning our Will

In balance we move as if propelled by an invisible force, effortless, hardly noticed because it’s so natural and doesn’t take away from others. This effortless effort is known as “wu wei” in Daoism, going with the flow. When our will is in alignment with the rhythms of nature we progress effortlessly, in tune with others and our surroundings. There is a difference between true will and hard, rigid, closed, self-serving will-power.

To paraphrase from “The Way of the Five Elements” by John Kirkwood, the will of heaven (sub nature/source/universe/God as you will) is stored in our essence which is itself stored in the kidneys like a blueprint for our highest development and contribution. We can align our personal desires (will) with this inner blueprint in order to flow effortlessly along our stream of destiny. Life presents us with situations that provide opportunities for understanding this alignment, and the more balanced our zhi is the more we can recognise and integrate how this alignment can arise.

Winter Energy

Winter is one phase of a seasonal cycle, both end and beginning. We can try and see winter as a chance to reduce our load a bit if possible, let go of what needs to end and embrace the space of new beginnings. The direction of winter’s energy is inwards and nature urges us to take a slower pace of life and go deep inside, back to our roots, be still and listen. What seeds are there? What will feed you and others over the next year? Take your time and rediscover your passions and compassions.

I much prefer the idea of starting new year resolutions in spring, the start of a new seasonal cycle. Chinese new year is 22 January next year, a new lunar cycle (and a much more palatable time than the 1st Jan) to start thinking about changes, putting plans into action in spring. Until then, go slow, be still and allow your will to unfold. We can nourish our will by stepping out of our comfort zone, but taking baby steps.

A great way to do this is to embrace the power of water, go to the beach, have a bath, have a footbath, and just listen. Also eat warming foods – lots of stews n soups esp with kidney beans! Tuck your shirt in and keep your kidneys warm. Massage your lower back and kidney area. Do any rituals, practices or therapies that help you release fear. The Kidneys hold our root energy so connect with familyand cultural heritage if it feels appropriate to do so and start to resolve / release / make peace with friction within yourself or with others. Support others and allow others to support you. And of course have acupuncture!!

ACUPOINT – Zhishi “residence of will”

Massage your lower back with your knuckles going up and down either side of the spine and out from the waist. This way you will access acupoint “Zhishi”.

You can also lie on your back make fists with your hands under your back and the acupoint Zhishi. Specifically it is level with the junction of L2 and L3 – roughly at the level of the navel and approx 4 fingers’ width out from the spine.

Connects with kidneys and lies on the bladder line. Physically treats lumbar pain, incontinence, infertility. Spiritually strengthens will, allowing access to courage, determination and perseverance, supports a person experiencing fear and anxiety by engendering trust.

Access that space of beginnings within you, connecting with your roots, ancestral and natural, power, stability. Be still and feel your will becoming unblocked, open, free, balanced and ready when the time is right.


It takes effort to go against the slower inward energy of winter and so is extra depleting. Doing too much in winter is like swimming upstream. Work, rest and play, definitely enjoy socialising and celebrating (it's all about the balance), but most of all take a cue from nature and REST!!!

Please do get in touch with any comments or thoughts if any of this rambling resonates :-)

114 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


Taste of Space | Worthing Community Acupuncture
bottom of page