Water Element


Emotion: Fear and Lack of Fear
Season: Winter
Struggle with: Trust
Need: Reassurance
Strength: Motivation, will power and wisdom
Organs: Kidneys and Bladder

Nature of Water:

Water is the stuff of life, essential for our survival. It makes up about 70% of the planet and about 60% of us. It nourishes our bodies and supports our health. Water is also the lifeblood of our planet. It regulates our climate, drives weather patterns, and sustains ecosystems. The water within oceans, rivers, lakes, springs, rain and clouds is an interconnected highway of biodiversity, supporting a vast array of species, as it travels on its 1000-year journey around and through our planet.

Water’s exceptional molecular structure grants it the status of a universal solvent, pivotal in facilitating a diverse range of chemical processes vital for life’s continuity. Its intriguing density anomaly, where it achieves its greatest density at 4°C, assumes a critical role in sustaining aquatic ecosystems by preventing the freezing of lakes and rivers from the bottom up, thus preserving life beneath the water’s surface.

Water is dynamic, in a constant state of flow and transformation. It is humble, adaptable and resilient, always seeking the low ground, responding to its environment, filling and nourishing all it touches. But water is also powerful. It can be destructive and deadly. It can spring forth from the Earth’s depths, rise as steam into the atmosphere, or solidify into unyielding ice.

Its nature is to move, distributing sustenance and cleansing impurities with grace and perpetuity. Beyond its biological significance, water has a profound impact on our emotional and psychological well-being, it is a symbol of change and impermanence, purification and renewal and serves as a source of tranquillity and reflection. In this way, water stands as a profound reminder of the intricate interconnections binding all facets of existence and the unceasing cycle of life.

Nature of Winter:

In most of the world, Winter is dark, cold, and often wet. It is a season of stillness and reflection, where the prevailing night asserts its dominance over the day. During these months, much of life seeks solace in hibernation or suspended animation. Creatures retreat to their burrows, while plants redirect their nourishment back to their roots, bulbs, and sturdy trunks, to preserve their resources for the coming spring.
This effort epitomizes the Buddist quality of adhiṭṭhāna – resolution, strong determination, and sheer will to survive this difficult and dangerous time of the year.

In an ideal world, humans too would honour the need for rest and rejuvenation during this season, but our current 24/7 culture often disregards these essential pauses. Rest, among other Yin aspects of life, is undervalued in a society that venerates efficiency and perpetual productivity, avoiding any reminders of our own mortality. This societal inclination is a profound loss because it is in slowing down the frenetic pace of our lives that we can engage in honest introspection. The extended, dark nights of winter gift us with precious moments for deep contemplation, enabling us to confront our deepest fears and heed the quiet callings of our hearts. Amidst the winter’s chill, we find an opportunity for profound self-discovery and personal growth, should we choose to embrace the wisdom of this season.

Ultimate Yin:
Winter solstice is the shortest day of the year and represents Ultimate Yin. It is akin to the bottom of low tide; the moment when the days slowly begin to get longer.


Kidneys – The Controller of Water:
The Kidneys are extremely important in Chinese Medicine, because of their link to Ultimate Yin. This puts them in a position of dynamic balance with the force of Ultimate Yang, represented by Fire and the Heart. The Kidneys are intimately involved in the process of conception, birth, ageing, and death because they are entrusted with the guardianship of the “essence of life,” known as Jing. Jing is the innate energetic potential we are born with, akin to our genetic blueprint, forged through ancestral wisdom and trauma. It holds particular relevance in the generation of blood, bone structure, bone marrow, brain tissues and cognitive function.

While fundamentally aligned with Ultimate Yin, the Kidneys paradoxically serve as the wellspring for both Yin and Yang energies. The region between the Kidneys, referred to as the “Fire of the Gate of Vitality,” embodies the interplay between Yin and Yang, where one metamorphoses into the other.

“The Fire of the Gate of Vitality” can be imagined as a stove over which the Kidney Jing is lightly steamed, producing the vital energy that fuels the body’s functions. Hence, the Kidneys emerge as the powerhouse of the body, offering the heat and fuel required to initiate and sustain action and the continuation of life.

Bladder – The Controller of the storage of Fluids
In essence, the role of the bladder in Chinese Medicine closely mirrors its Western medical counterpart. It functions as a receptacle for waste fluids originating from both the Kidneys and Small Intestines, processing and ultimately expelling them as urine.


Fear: Fear is the emotion associated with Water and winter, as both expose life’s vulnerability. The absence of water instils a primal dread, for its presence is vital to our existence. Likewise, at least historically, winter would have been fraught with danger; little food, extreme weather, hungry predators and long nights. It demands our respect and due caution. Fear, in its myriad forms, can trigger the primal responses of fight, flight, freeze or fawn often ensnaring individuals in the grip of mistrust, inaction or a disheartening sense of surrender.

Lack of Fear: The absence of fear, when balanced, embodies determination and courage, propelling us forward in the face of adversity. Yet, when left unchecked, it can tip into reckless risk-taking, a double-edged sword of audacity and self-sabotage that must be tempered by wisdom and prudence.

Taste: Salty

Sense Organs:

The Kidneys control the kidney-shaped ears. This is another link to the passivity of Yin, which is often undervalued in our system. Given the importance of the Kidneys in Chinese Medicine, cultivating the art of listening, whether to ourselves, to others, or the world around us, emerges as a fundamental skill for the development of wisdom.

Aspect of the Spirit:
Due to their shared association with Jing, the Kidneys are linked to the brain and are said to house the aspect of the spirit that is in charge of willpower: Zhi. A robust Zhi, begets a resolute and unwavering mind, offering guidance and fortitude in our journey. This alignment resonates with the Kidneys’ pivotal role in generating and propelling the energies governing all other organs, through the “Fire of the Gate of Vitality”. It also finds resonance with the innate drive for life, manifesting as fertility, birth, and the survival instinct. Relentless ancestral Zhi has ceaselessly preceded us all for millennia, resulting in our current store of Jing. Thus, it is the Zhi that steers us towards the pursuit of our aspirations, leading us to realize our dreams and fulfil our destiny.

Emotions of Water

Water represents Winter and the closing of the year. It symbolizes old age in Chinese Medicine and the wisdom that comes from elders and ancestors. It is deeply intertwined with our survival instinct, tapping into the primal emotion of fear.

The links between Winter, Water and fear have already been made. They connect us to our ancient roots, where life was fraught with uncertainty. Lack of water posed an existential threat, and for our ancient ancestors winter was a dangerous time.

Fear, at its core, is a physiological response initiated by the release of adrenaline, designed to keep us safe. As Brene Brown explains, “Fear is a negative, short-lasting, high-alert emotion in response to a perceived threat.” (Brown, 2021, p.12)

Adrenaline activates the sympathetic nervous system which sets in motion a cascade of activity. Heart rate and blood pressure increase. Non-vital functions such as digestion are shut down as glucose-enriched blood is directed to provide energy to the muscles, heart and brain. Increased respiration and dilated bronchioles provide more oxygen to help us focus. At the same time substances in the body that repair tissues become more available, and our senses become sharper. All of this happens to optimize our chances of survival.

Fear elicits instinctive reactions: fight, flight, freeze, or fawn, with the appropriate response depending on the situation’s specifics. Each carries its own set of risks.

Fighting may lead to physical harm, or social rejection, which our brains equate with physical pain. If our proclivity to fight is seen as a threat by others it may also lead to ostracism from the social support system, leaving us perilously exposed.

Flight necessitates a safe escape route and is only helpful if we are fast or agile enough to outrun our pursuer.
Freezing or ‘playing dead’ involves disassociation from the body, numbing oneself psychologically and physically. It is a defence mechanism against imminent and unavoidable danger.

Like Freeze, Fawning is a way of responding to a threat that can’t be avoided. It is most often associated with interpersonal abuse, where the victim tries to reduce the harm they are exposed to by appeasing or otherwise soothing or serving their aggressor.

Fear is natural and without the sympathetic nervous system and the responses of fight, flight, freeze and fawn our lineage of ancestors would never have survived to result in us. However, for those people with a Water imbalance, or anyone who has experienced significant or prolonged trauma, the adrenaline response becomes excruciating. This hyper-vigilance can be burdensome, causing Water types to fixate on uncertainty and the fear it provokes.

Avoiding the cause of fear may become their coping mechanism, resulting in a lack of motivation, drive, and action. This is a state of stuck-ness, drowsiness and low mood. Research shows that self-imposed boredom leads to lethargy (Brown, 2021). Linked to Yang deficiency, this is one of the five hindrances of Buddhism – Torpor. In the long run this is not particularly effective, as Dr Harriet Lerner explains:

“It is not fear that stops you from doing the brave and true things in your daily life. Rather the problem is avoidance. You want to feel comfortable, so you avoid doing or saying the thing that will evoke fear and other difficult emotions. Avoidance will make you feel less vulnerable in the short run, but it will never make you less afraid.” (Lerner, 2005, p.206)

Hyper-awareness of inherent risk is exacerbated by the Kidneys’ ancient connection to the brain and wisdom. Waters are very deep thinkers, acutely aware of the complexity of the world. Waters understand that everything is fluid, constantly in a state of flux and flow. They see that everything is interlinked and co-dependent and though in good times this is a great comfort, it can also make them feel insecure. They are not easily reassured by simplistic explanations because they know in their watery bones that the winds can change in an instant and nothing can be guaranteed.

As a result, Waters frequently imagine worst-case scenarios. Where other elements such as Wood’s tend to be disappointed because they imagine they have more control over the future than they do; Waters’ awareness of the innate uncertainty of an emerging world means that their unexpressed expectations are often catastrophic and fearful.

To cope with this, they often seek to use these future scenarios to plan for potential dangers and mitigate risks. This may help them to feel more in control in the short term but it can also have negative consequences, such as the tendency to forbode joy. Foreboding joy is when:

“We believe if we allow ourselves to feel joy, we are inviting disaster…. [but] when we push away joy, we squander the goodness that we need to build resilience, strength and courage.” (Brown, 2021, p.215)
Nevertheless, worst-case scenario planning can also have positive impacts, stimulating curiosity and openness. Confusion in the face of life’s challenges motivates learning and problem-solving.

Curiosity is courageous because it requires the vulnerability to accept that we don’t know. We have to face our edge emotions. Many people decide to stop learning rather than live with the uncertainty of doubt. Waters’ embrace of uncertainty encourages them to tolerate viewpoints that challenge their own, nurturing personal wisdom and development. Curiosity, correlated with creativity, intelligence, improved learning, memory, and problem-solving (Brown, 2021), becomes a potent tool for Water.

Wonder also thrives in this environment, fuelling a passion for exploration, learning and adventure.
“Wonder inspires the wish to understand” (Weger and Wagemann, 2021)

This motivation is another innate strength of Waters. Just as the Kidneys provide the motivating Yin and Yang that fuels the rest of the body, our Zhi (will-power) and our survival instinct are also our innate commitment to life. When we embrace the miracle that we are alive at all, it can provide the determination the adhiṭṭhāna we need to make the most of our time on earth, despite the risks.

It is this determination that fuels the flip side of fear; lack of fear, which manifests as risk-taking. Whether through financial ventures, extreme sports, or physical challenges, this can be a healthy pursuit. Risk-taking offers Waters the freedom, novelty and adventure they crave, preventing the paralysis and boredom that self-imposed fear avoidance might bring.

Moreover, the human physiological response to fear and excitement is remarkably similar as they both create the adrenaline response. Studies show that the crucial difference lies in labelling. Excitement is labelled as positive, whereas fear is labelled as negative (Brown, 2021). Risk-taking allows Waters to practice experiencing fear positively. It helps them to master emotional reactivity, develop deep calm in the face of fear, harness the power of adrenaline and go with the flow.

Although there is a chance that this behaviour too becomes self-destructive, a certain amount of risk-taking can help Waters cultivate self-trust, test their capabilities and develop the qualities of tranquillity and reflection associated with deep, still water.

Key Question: Can I trust this?
For Waters, trust can be an intricate issue due to their aversion to uncertainty.
Charles Feltman describes trust as: “choosing to make something you value vulnerable to another person’s actions.” Dis-trust on the other hand is a cognitive assessment that “What is important to me is not safe with this person in this situation (or any situation).” (Feltman, 2008, p9-11)

Despite their human yearning for reassurance, love, and belonging, Waters’ lack of trust often obstructs these desires. As Judith Jordan points out:

“From an evolutionary perspective connection was about survival, [but] today it gives purpose and meaning to our lives.” (Jordan, 2018, p.30). However, connection and belonging are contingent on uncertainty because they require vulnerability. As Brown explains, “Belonging is a practice that requires us to be vulnerable, get uncomfortable, and learn how to be present with people without sacrificing who we are.” (Brown, 2021, p.159).
Waters must muster the courage to overcome their aversion to uncertainty, in order to foster connections and find their place in the world.

Due to their sensitivity to fear, Waters may be inclined to avoid confronting the current state of the world. This is a great loss as at their best, they naturally possess the skills required for effective action in today’s complex world and make excellent and wise leaders.

  1. Curiosity: An essential component of courageous leadership.
  2. Wisdom and Tolerance: The capacity to listen deeply and entertain opposing viewpoints.
  3. Understanding Complexity: The ability to grasp the intricacies and emergent qualities of our world.
  4. Calmness: The poise necessary to act despite fear.

If Waters can nurture their inner resilience, allowing them to calmly face life’s inevitable emotional storms, they can step into their role as vital members of the broader human community. By courageously and wisely embracing the calculated risks essential for living with fortitude and integrity, they can lead us all toward the shared goal of preserving all life on Earth.

Brown, B., (2021) Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience. 1st edition ed. London: Vermilion.
Feltman, C., (2008) The Thin Book of Trust: An Essential Primer for Building Trust at Work. Thin Book Pub Co.
Jordan, J., (2018) Relational-Cultural Therapy. [online] Available at: https://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C5&q=reltional-cultural+therapy+jordan&btnG= [Accessed 25 Sep. 2023].
Lerner, H., (2005) Dance of Fear, The: Rising Above the Anxiety, Fear, and Shame to Be Your Best and Bravest Self. Reprint edition ed. New York: William Morrow Paperbacks.
Weger, U. and Wagemann, J., (2021) Towards a conceptual clarification of awe and wonder. Current Psychology, 403, pp.1386–1401.