The ancient sages saw the natural world as a macrocosmic reflection of the subtle workings of the inner energy body. In fact, Chinese medical philosophy evolved out of the practice of observing nature, and simply noticing the metaphorical patterns that would repeatedly arise within it. Of these metaphorical patterns, the one that’s been most fundamental to how Chinese medicine is understood and practiced is Yin-Yang theory.
Yin and yang can be thought of as two stages in a cyclical movement, where each part contains an aspect of the other within itself. For example, daytime is described as a yang phenomenon, but once it reaches its peak at midday, the yin that resides within the yang begins to emerge giving birth to nighttime, a yin phenomenon. The same pattern emerges when we observe the changes in the seasons. Approaching the Winter Solstice, the days get shorter and darker, and it appears as if everything in nature is slowing down, culminating almost to a pause. In this context, the winter solstice can be thought of as a time of maximum yin, where we preserve all that we’ve accumulated, so that we have the resources to get through the coldest time of the year. In 5-element theory, the wintertime is associated with the water element, and this relationship between winter and preservation is evident in the way that water freezes, the same way we freeze food to preserve it.
The pattern of qi flow through the human body during the winter mimics this pattern of preservation in nature. In the winter, our qi will naturally flow within the deepest levels of the body to contain itself. If we rest and use this time to restore ourselves by taking life slowly, we will manifest in the spring (a time of the growth of yang within yin) with a renewed potential. This idea is illustrated in Chapter 2 of the Su Wen. “In winter all is hidden, this is the season of retirement into the depth, because it is cold outside. It is necessary at this moment not to disturb or disperse the yang energy, thus complying with the energy of the Winter.”
Not surprisingly, it seems that this practice of pausing, or non-action, is very hard for us to do. As modern people, we are very attracted to our yang manifestations: of expansion, growth, generation, and advancement. It seems we’d rather go against the flow of natural phenomena, and use all of our energy to fulfill the many social obligations culturally associated with this time of year, then allow ourselves the opportunity to dive into the hibernation of winter, and sit within the void of that stillness.
Here is where I’d like to suggest that being with that void of stillness, even for just a few moments each day, is in fact the greatest thing we could do to insure our energetic reserves will be able to support our activities and growth later on. The paradox of growth, change and evolution, is that it will not happen – at least not in the most energetically efficient way – until we can let go and accept all that we are in this moment. That means accepting the yin qualities associated with the wintertime, lightening up on our expectations and agendas, and nourishing and restoring in stillness.
It can be argued that even the ancients preferred the yang qualities, by associating them with heaven and spirit, and designating yin with earth and man in material form. However, I think where we limit ourselves is by creating any differentiation between the two. Maybe heaven is on earth, we just haven’t cultivated the conditions to be able to perceive it that way, because we are not willing to sit within the stillness long enough to recognize that the seed of yang is within the yin itself.
So this winter explore whether you have a subtle preference for the manifestations of yang. Then see whether you can stay with the energy of yin long enough to recognize the seed of yang within it. This is where your greatest potential lives. In that moment of sacred stillness, you may recognize how radically powerful you are when you simply allow yourself to rest into that empty space of non-action.
There are a variety of meditation techniques that help to relax the sympathetic nervous system and create an experience of open spaciousness in the mind and heart. In Chinese medicine terminology we can physiologically translate the sensation of what we are trying to accomplish with these kinds of meditation practices as an opening or clearing of the sensory orifices. In doing this, we can directly see, hear, smell, taste, feel, or cognize phenomena in a way that is less obstructed. When our sensory orifices are open and clear, the signal to noise ratio of direct phenomenological experience is coming in with greater signal and less noise. This can directly translate to feeling more awake or alive in our body. In Chinese medicine we use herbs that are light and aromatic to help facilitate this state of being.
A personal favorite meditation technique is to practice experiencing sensory phenomena (sights, sounds, tactile sensations, thoughts, smells, and tastes) moment by moment as they arise in conscious awareness, specifically after drinking Shi Chang Pu, an aromatic Chinese herb that helps to open the sensory orifices. The Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica Classic describes Shi Chang Pu as: acrid and warm. It opens the heart portals, supplements the five viscera, frees the nine orifices, brightens the eyes and [sharpens] the hearing, and [helps] the articulation of the voice. Protracted taking may make the body light, improve memory, prevent confusion, and prolong life.