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.


Aggravated? Here’s Help!

I am aggravated right now. No real reason. It’s rainy, I had a list of things I wanted to accomplish, and now that I have to do them, there are stops everywhere. I can’t make delicious almond bread until I have a clean place to work. I can’t make my lunch until I finish the almond bread. I can’t sit at my table because it isn’t cleared off.

I don’t want to clear all these things off. In our family breakdown of jobs, these things are not my job. And besides, it’s B-O-R-I-N-G. I have things to do do.

I feel stuck. I feel cranky. I feel restless.

I don’t like this feeling.

What do I do?

As someone who is not known for patience, I have had to learn to deal with aggravation. As someone who is sensitive to stress, I’ve had to learn to deal with in ways that minimize the effect on my body. Here are a few tips that I may not always employ myself (baby steps. . .), but they are useful.

  1. Regroup. If the things around you are mounting up, try distraction first. This method is great for procrastinators, because it is a way to continue to accomplish even if you can’t get the thing you want done. Take a break and fold the laundry, clean out a drawer that’s cluttered, make a phone call you’ve been avoiding. One or two productive wanders frees up space to think and work again; more than two probably means you are avoiding something important and need to refocus on the Dreaded Thing.
  2. Quick meditation. Sometimes you just need a quick chance to recenter. has one minute meditations that can help you quickly calm yourself and adjust your attitude. I keep a tab open to the site so I can grab a one-minute break here and there during the day.
  3. Tackle The Dreaded Thing. Since I’m getting worked up over the table being messy, I have at least two options. Clear the thing myself, or ask my husband to interrupt his schedule to do something on mine. The movement might help me, or addressing my peevishness because he hasn’t done what I think of as “his job” might also help me feel less powerless. Either way, I’ve dealt with the issue.
  4. Review the importance of The Dreaded Thing. Why is the thing-you-are-frustrated-with important enough to make you frustrated? In my case, the table has two levels of importance. One, I have things I want to do, and a clear table is a necessity. Two, I wanted my husband to do it and I’m annoyed that he didn’t do it. So if I spend five minutes clearing off enough space to work, the first point is a non-issue. But the second is something I need to work out in my mind or with my husband. Does he often shirk household duties? No, and usually only when he feels unwell. Do I have a long-standing issue with feeling unfairly burdened with responsibilities from events that happened before I met him? Why, yes indeed, I do! The disordered table has assumed the status of A Symbol of Oppression. It now becomes my job to work on the emotion the messy table has generated. I can decide to take care of the pressing issue, and make time to journal about the Symbol later. I can ask my husband to help me as a simple household conversation, without the weight of decades of emotion tied into it.
  5. Accept life as a sometimes frustrating experience. I don’t like this option. Not at all. But sometimes, life just is frustrating. In our household, we are two creative, messy minds in bodies with energy limitations. The occasional messy house is simply part of the fabric of our partnership. In other houses, there are facts. Children will not always behave quietly. Money issues won’t always go away. Chronic health problems may not get better, or even get worse. Accepting the aggravations that come from the unchangeable facts of life is a hard task. But learning to do so, either by working on your own or with a professional counselor or trusted friend, will lessen the irritation. Once you’ve done the long arduous work of accepting that the aftershocks of a car accident, or bad investment, or catastrophic health issue is just “the way life is now,” it will aggravate you less.

Dealing with aggravation is sometimes easy and quick, and sometimes long and painful. Developing the skill of accepting frustration is a valuable task that will free you from a lot of worry and pain. It is worth the aggravation to learn how to face frustration.

Part Six of the Five Taxations: The Boots are Made for It, But Walk in Balance

Photo Credit: Justin Schott

After a long hiatus we’re back to our series on the Five Taxations. Here are the previous articles:

Introduction/Part One: Goldilocks and The Five Taxations

Part Two: I Can See Clearly Now: Part Two of the Five Taxations–Vision

Get Up And Boogie! Part 3 of The 5 Taxations: Excessive Lying Down

Part Four of the Five Taxations: Sitting Needs Moderation

Part Five of the Five Taxations: Maybe ‘Stand Up, Stand Up’ Is Not Always Best

Today’s topic is the Fifth Taxation: “Excessive Walking, which damages the sinews.” Our culture is in love with sitting, but our advice gurus are all about the walking. Walking does have many benefits.  People recommend having a treadmill desk so you never have to sit down. 

A basic tenet of Chinese medicine is “everything in balance.” So we advise against lying down too much, against sitting too much, and against walking too much. Where many people see this as contradictory advice, we see it as common sense. You need to move your body in many different ways and rest it, too. 

“Walking injures the sinews” warns against the exhaustion of overwork. Sinews can cover a most non-muscle, non-fatty tissues in Chinese medicine-speak. Anyone who has experienced tendonitis knows it is often triggered by overuse. 

The sinews are considered to be governed by the Wood element, which also manages Liver and Gallbladder function. The Liver and Gallbladder are the organ systems most affected by stress. Moderate walking, or other exercise, is great for stress and can help you manage the energy generated by emotions, overthinking, and your response to frustrations and problems. 

But too much exercise wears you out. When you are exhausted from overwork, you have a harder time managing stress. You begin to pull on your reserves, which in Chinese medicine means overtaxing the Water element, which deals with the Kidney and Bladder systems. Together with the Liver and Gallbladder, these systems have a huge influence on all the hormonal functions of the body–endocrine, sleep, and reproduction in particular. The Water element also holds your inherited energy, which are your “reserves.” When you don’t have enough energy from your rest and breathing and eating, your body naturally taps into these reserves. Many people can over-exercise for years because they use this reserve energy as they push themselves too hard. But once the reserves are gone, you have nothing extra to help you age gracefully, manage life’s emergencies or major illnesses, or just have the “verve” that makes life a joy.

How much is too much? It depends on the person. Check with your doctor or other healthcare professional for your specific case. My advice is generally to do enough exercise so your joints feel relaxed and loose, and so your daily tension feels relieved. If your exercise leaves you exhausted for more than twenty-four hours after you do it, or if you hurt more than mild aches and pains when you exercise, dial back. If you have a chronic illness, such as diabetes or heart problems, be extra careful and be sure you have health advice from a medical professional who is qualified to help you–that will usually include a doctor at least, but maybe also an acupuncturist, physical therapist, chiropractor, nutritionist, or other practitioner.

So get moderate exercise, including walking. Enjoy it! But don’t overdo it. Like everything else, exercise is meant to be done in moderation.

When It Absolutely, Positively, Has to Be: Five Tips to Do a BIG THING

Photo Credit: Escultura

Usually, my blog is about taking time out, getting rest, and honoring your needs. I usually advocate taking more time off than you think is necessary, and avoiding the mindset that you “have” to do much of anything if you are tired or need renewal time. 

But sometimes, you have to show up, no matter how you feel. I call this a Big Thing. If someone is sick, or you’re out of sick days, or there’s something that is too good for your overall goals, well-being, or future for you to sidestep it, you have to be there. How can you have the show go on when you want to drop the curtain and beg off?

  1. Do as many health-enhancing habits as possible while you are overextended. If you must work long hours, invest the extra time or money into eating healthy food. Be sure to get at least a tiny amount of exercise, even if it means five minutes of stretching while you listen on a conference call. Sleep as much as you possibly can while still getting your Big Thing done. Naps are great tucked in after lunch (pun intended).
  2. Set limits around your Big Thing. Set some kind of limit on how far you will push yourself. If there is a new baby, or a sick family member, organize a sitter for a few hours each week. If you have a big project at work, put in a few hours on a regular schedule for a break–a nap, a movie, an afternoon off–stagger the time among co-workers if necessary. No one works well with no breaks at all. And whenever possible set a deadline. “If I have not solved this problem within three weeks, I will set it aside for a week before I deal with it again.”
  3. Ask for help, and take help that is offered. For some reason, asking for help is anathema to some people. But most people want to help their friends, family, and co-workers, knowing they will need help one day, too. So if your mother offers to make some meals so you have time to take your daughter to rehearsals for the school play, thank her profusely–and accept! If you have a co-worker willing and able to accept your phone call list while you handle your budget shortfall, thank her, and take her out to lunch when the crisis is over. Most people suffer more from stress than necessary simply by not taking help that is offered.
  4. Give yourself permission to let down in something. If you are at your parents’ house every night while Dad recovers from hip surgery, don’t worry about your normal housework. Or the dishes. If you live alone, and can’t get someone to help you, use paper plates or order the healthiest takeout you can find to save time on cleaning up later. Maybe the weekly pizza get-together at work can be shelved until you have the newest promotion done. Or you can cut your exercise time in half for a few days a week until you learn French for your trip to Europe. While you don’t want to abandon all standards or healthy activities, don’t beat yourself up if you let a few things slide here and there in pursuit of the greater good. 
  5. Reward yourself when The Big Thing is over. My weak point is rewarding myself for an accomplishment, so I want to be sure to preach about it. If you and those around you have worked hard on anything, whether the ending worked out as you hoped or not, reward yourself for your effort. Take the office to dinner when big sale is over–whether you broke any records or not. When the kitchen is finally renovated, invite friends over for a celebration cooking extravaganza. When you spend a month helping your son prepare for his finals, go to the beach for the day when it’s done–with an extra treat if he aces it. If your Big Thing is something that is not rewardable, like taking care of a sick relative who dies, you still need to rejuvenate. Take time off work to sleep, think about your loved one, or get a massage and talk to friends. You have worked hard for something, and you need to refill your reserve tank so you can enjoy the rest of your life.
Big Things can come in all shapes and sizes. When you decide something is worth more of your energy than you have to give, make sure it’s worth the hours you are taking from your life. Then use these tips to allow you to do your Big Thing and come out the other side still ready for action.

Chinese Medicine and Stress

From stock.xchang

Stress, stress, stress–everyone has stress! We spend our days hunched over computers, worrying about money, and time, and work, and whether we remembered to turn off the stove. The dilated pupils and raised pulse that are reactions to stress are designed to protect us from danger, giving us the option of fight or flight. However, modern stresses are rarely solved by running or hiding. Instead, our bodies’ natural defense system confuses our endocrine system, puts pressure on our heart, and upsets our digestive systems.

Chinese medicine has been around long before cell phones, computers, and triple-shot espressos, and it has a lot to offer our stressed-out world. We see stress symptoms as a combination of blocked energy and a wearing down of our reserves. Chinese medicine treats these symptoms using a combination of herb and food therapies, acupuncture and bodywork, and lifestyle suggestions. Here are a few of the ideas we use to treat stress:

  • Foods: Eat food that is easy to digest. Cooked, warm, non-greasy foods are easy to break down. Focus on vegetables for their combination of antioxidants, fiber, and nutrition, with small portions of meat and grains. Hot tea helps break down food and keeps your stomach warm.
  • Lifestyle: While no one who lives in the modern age can completely get away from stress, everyyone can better handle the challenges of day-to-day life. Give yourself adequate time to rest, both when you sleep at night and in little breaks during the day. One of my favorite suggestions is to get a coloring book. You can take a few minutes several times a day to relax your mind and color. You don’t have to use kids’ coloring books, either–there are great ones for everything, even The Victorian House Coloring Book (Dover History Coloring Book) (affiliate link).
  • What the pros can do. Visiting an acupuncturist or herbalist trained in Chinese medicine can be a huge help in dealing with stress. Acupuncture helps your nervous system handle any stress better, whether it’s emotional stress, a problem with your body chemistry, or just having difficulty adjusting to the change of seasons. Herbs can help you with irritability, frustration, PMS or other problems aggravated by stress. 

The good news about stress: if you feel stressed, you are alive! A life without stress, aside from being impossible, would be very boring. So find ways to deal with your stress, and live life to the fullest. What are your favorite tricks to manage your stress?