Winter and The Boys in The Basement

january scrabble
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It’s January. Time for resolutions.


Not if you’re a Chinese medicine practitioner.

Chinese medicine revolves around the principle that you live in harmony with your environment. As much as possible, you do things that make you fit better into the world around you, which reduces your stress and allows you to do meaningful things with less annoyance and distraction.

Each season has its features, and each season works better for different activities, energy expenditures, focus of mind, and even what health processes to focus on if you don’t have an immediate problem needing attention.

We’re in winter. By Chinese medicine standards, winter is nearly over, but we’ll get to that.

Winter is associated with the Water Element, which is associated with kidney and bladder functions as given in Chinese medicine. Kidney and bladder are associated with some endocrine functions, mostly involving reproduction and the interplay of the sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous systems, as well as the more obvious urine and electrolyte balancing functions of the anatomical kidney and bladder. We say kidney/bladde, but we also mean adrenals, some thyroid and brain function, a lot of bone function, and parts of the mind.

What does that have to do with resolutions?

Each element in Chinese medicine is associated with mental and emotional processes. Spring is a time when creativity, anger, and ambition rule–the same energy that pushes little plant heads out of the ground makes us want to hit the home improvement store and take on a new project. All that energy running around make us dislike anything that slows us down, so we get angry more easily. Summer is the time for social fun, activities aimed at bringing more joy, and thinking. All that hot weather both encourages more activity, and makes a quiet, contemplative rest when the heat is just too much make sense. Autumn is a time for sorting through things and deciding what to keep and what to let go, just as the trees lose their leaves. It is a time when nostalgia and grief are more prominent, and a time to create the boundaries for the next year (though it is the energy of spring that is more associated with enforcing those boundaries).

Which brings us to winter. Winter is a time of hibernation for many of our fellow mammals. It is ideally a time for us to nest, and is associated with the subconscious in Chinese medicine. It is a time for the potential of things, not their acting out (that’s spring’s job). It is also a time to build resources for the coming year, and to clear out any leftover stuff from the previous year. You finish off the items in your life’s pantry to let new things in.

So winter is a time for thinking and dreaming and pondering. Which brings us to “the boys in the basement.”

In a book on his advice for writing, Stephen King calls the source of creative ideas “the boys in the basement.” He discusses the importance of giving your unconscious mind a chance to come front and center if you want to be a writer–and that goes for any creative pursuit. The boys in the basement are the source of new ideas. They are the guys who don’t monitor their words, who may not always be socially acceptable, but without them you don’t think outside the box.

Winter is the time when the boys in the basement can really do their stuff. Winter is a time to free-associate about your dreams and goals. A time when it’s too cold or there’s too little daylight to get a lot of outside work done. A time when it is easier to get a little extra sleep while the sun absent from the sky. Dreaming, whether wakeful or sleeping, is a good activity for winter.

Winter is also associated with fear or terror–because of its association with kidney/adrenals, but also because it is a time when there is little or no food growing. It’s a time to face possible scarcity, and mentally prepare yourself for using what you have well. It is a time for considering who you are, what you’re made of, and what is important to do and uphold,
no matter what hardships come. Spring, with its early shoots of green things, is around the corner. But you have to survive winter first.

So what does that mean for resolutions?

Winter is not the time to hit the gym, do a cleanse, or start most new projects. It is a time to daydream about them. It is a time, as my friend and colleague Angelica does at work, to create a vision board for what you want to experience in the coming year. It is a time to brainstorm. It is a time to look at what challenges you face, either because you have no choice in the matter, or because you choose to deal with something that has hampered you for years. Try out a few new organizers, find some cool things to read. Look at a seed catalog, art supply store, or paint samples. Prepare, in an open way, for projects you want to begin in the more hyped up energy of spring.

In Chinese medicine, we see spring as starting around the Chinese New Year–February 16 this year. As winter comes to a close and spring sneaks in, begin making those plans more concrete. Decide what time you need to get up to go to the gym or do your run. Close in on a couple of projects on your list. Decide how you will handle eating out on your new diet, and what you will say to the pushy person at work while you establish firmer boundaries in your life. Write out the values you want to focus on with the sharp clarity of focus that can be cultivated with the energy of spring.

I see winter as a time to continue the flow of thought and action that ideally began the previous spring. Spring launches new projects and plans. Summer you have time to share your work with friends, and make any course adjustments. In autumn you begin analyzing what went right or wrong in the year, and deciding what activities will continue or drop off in the next year. And in winter, you begin contemplating how you want the next year to look and feel.

As the year goes on, we will talk about how each season can be used for growth, and health. One of my focus projects this year is studying brain function, particularly as it relates to anxiety. To that end, I’m starting a podcast. If you know of people who are experts in neuroscience, mindfulness, the management of PTSD and anxiety, or who just seem really serene and on track with life, I would like to talk to them about doing an interview with me for the podcast. I would be honored if you would pass my name to them, or their name to me.

As the new year begins, both the calendar year, and to my mind, the coming functional new year this spring, I wish you a joyful and productive year. I am here to help with your health issues, or discuss how Chinese medicine’s principles can help manage life better. Please do not hesitate to get in touch.