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Will Power: the Water Element in Five Element Acupuncture

The Will and Its Power: What the Water Element in Five Element Acupuncture Can Teach Us

Most of us think of will power as something desirable. It’s a positive character attribute that we both admire in others and seek to strengthen in ourselves.  Will power gives us the determination to stick with our goals. But what is the will, and how do we strengthen it?  In ancient Chinese medicine and Five Element acupuncture, will power is seen differently from in the West. The ancient Chinese viewed the will as a specific attribute of the Qi, or vital energy, of body, mind and spirit. The will is governed by the Water Element in Five Element acupuncture theory, and is associated with the season of Winter. Understanding the Chinese view can expand and deepen our understanding of will power. It can guide us in supporting and strengthening the will, as part of our healing process.

Deep healing from any chronic illness draws on our will power.  Invariably there are setbacks along with the course of progress.  Navigating the setbacks without getting discouraged requires will power, and taking the long view.  A skilled acupuncturist can guide you through the challenges of recovery.  Five Element acupuncture treatment always includes treatment for the will, the spirit of the Water Element.

Will Power, East and West

In Western culture, we often think first of will power in terms of the ability to restrain impulses. Those with New Years resolutions to fulfill may wish for more will power, as they seek to quit smoking, lose weight, or eat a healthy diet. A second definition of will power is “the ability to decide on a course of action and to pursue it.” Will power gives us dogged determination and resolve to persist in the face of challenges. If we say someone’s will has been broken, we recognize a very deep injury to the person’s mind and spirit.

In Five Element acupuncture and ancient Chinese medical theory, the will is viewed as far more than the ability to restrain impulses, or the dogged determination to pursue a goal. The will is a foundation for the self. Five Element acupuncture theory views the will as an anchor for one’s inner nature. When the anchor is strong and firm, one can change orientation without losing one’s sense of self.

A truly strong will is determined but also adaptable. Life is constantly changing. Staying alive therefore requires resilience and the ability to adapt and transform. Resilience and adaptability rely on a strong will and a robust Water Element.

Survival, Will, and Winter

The will is a vital part of our spiritual power-pack for survival. We need most to draw on its power when times are tough and our survival is challenged.

Looking to nature, the most challenging time in the seasonal cycle for plants and animals is definitely Winter. After setting seed and losing foliage in the Autumn, most trees and shrubs stand bare and dead-looking in Winter. Life has returned to the root. Many animals hibernate, and mortality is often high during this period of physiological dormancy.

Other animals, such as the bison, remain active during Winter. But, they are weakened by the extreme cold and the challenges of finding adequate food sources. Elderly, injured and sick members of the herd fall prey to the wolves and scavengers, becoming a food source by their death. Winter is above all about survival, making it through to Spring. Survival requires the will to live.

Humans also find Winter challenging, not only physically but emotionally. Even if our basic needs for food and shelter are met, many people find the darkness in Winter depressing. Some suffer from seasonal affective disorder. The aches and pains of arthritis often feel worse in the cold weather. People may feel less active and more fatigued in Winter. Our immune systems are challenged as well, as colds and flu make the rounds.

It’s no coincidence that many religious holidays fall in Winter, from Christmas and Hanukkah to Bodhi Day (the Buddha’s enlightenment). In the darkness, humans turn to the light and warmth of the inner spirit for survival.

Winter and the Water Element in Five Element Acupuncture

Each of the Five Elements manifests in a season. Winter is the season of the Water Element in Five Element acupuncture. Water, like Winter, is about survival. Our bodies are mostly made of water (about 60%), and keeping a proper balance of water is essential to survival. We can only live a short time without an adequate supply and proper balance of water in the body. In the natural world, as well, too much or too little water can be devastating. Most natural disasters – from floods, hurricanes and tsunamis, to droughts, wildfires and landslides – have something to do with an imbalance of the Water Element.

The Water Element is vital to survival, incredibly powerful and difficult to control. The Water Element evokes fear. Facing fear requires the power of will. Five Element acupuncture theory regards the will as the spiritual power of the Water Element, and fear as its emotional manifestation. As in nature, so it is within the human body-mind.

To learn more about the Water Element in Winter, watch the video.

Healing and Strengthening the Will: the Water Element in Five Element Acupuncture

Winter, season of the Water Element, is the time of year when we are most challenged. It is also the time when our vital energy and the power of the will – the Water Element within – can be nourished and most thoroughly supported. With a healthy lifestyle and appropriate treatment, Winter allows us to access and heal the deepest level of our being. With proper self-care in Winter, we will feel vitality and health returning in Spring.

A few key tips for Winter health and nourishing the Water Element:

  • Tend to your life and health with caution, prudence and restraint. Rest and restore. If you over-extend or over-work yourself in Winter, you risk illness. Caution is the beneficial aspect of fear, will and the Water Element. The sage, Lao Zi (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 15) describes the ancient wise masters as

“Watchful, like men crossing a winter stream. Alert, like men aware of danger.”

Caution is the attitude of wisdom. Proceed as if you are walking on thin ice.

  • Self-preservation requires looking within yourself. Winter is the time for self-reflection, spiritual practice, and contemplation. Take stock of your life. Does your life course feel in alignment with your truth? What needs to change? The Gnostic Gospel of Thomas states

“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

  • Don’t expect big results right away. Deep healing works from the inside out. In Winter, life energy is hidden and dormant. Trust that the work is happening within you. Tend to yourself in Winter, and you will begin to see results in Spring.
  • Develop an internal locus of control   In other words, cultivate the attitude that you have some degree of choice and influence over the course of your life. Accept responsibility for your actions.  Don’t blame others. The will, spirit of the Water Element, gives you the resilience and adaptability to pursue your life course with determination. You are the navigator, not simply a victim of fate.

Five Element acupuncture treatment works at a core level to balance the energy systems within the human body, mind and spirit. Treatment can help restore and maintain the deep vital energy of the Water Element within, supporting your entire being.


Claude Larre and Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallee, The Seven Emotions, Money Press 1996

Inner Works Acupuncture is a Five Element acupuncture clinic located in the Alphabet District in Portland, Oregon. To learn more about treatment, call us today at (503) 227-2127 to schedule an appointment.

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