Life’s Work: Wisdom of the Water Element


It seems likely that each of us has some important work to do in this lifetime. And I don’t mean the capitalist-style, work-your-butt-off-make-the-money-til-you-die kind of important work. Our work might be creative. Or invisible. It might be transformative. It might not show up in our lifetime, lost in the stream of a shifting, changing world. Our work might be about learning how to love deeply. Or making beautiful things that enrich other people’s experience of being alive.

The winter season is associated with the water element. The water element is from where we are born and to where we return when we leave this life. You could call it the collective subconscious. You could call it the deep creative force, the subconscious movements of the universe. Some might call it god. The void. The great unknown.


When you return a drop of water to a puddle or an ocean it immediately becomes one with the other drops of water. It effortlessly belongs. Our experience of life as individuals is mostly an illusion, and one that causes a lot of pain. Everything in life is interdependent, and if we really think about it, almost nothing we touch or use escapes the dependence or influence of others.

Even if you grow your own food, the soil, sun, rain and air are integral to the existence of that food. We are never in isolation. Our cells, our vibrations influence each other. We are always having impact on each other. Some of this is obvious, some of it is very subtle.

Life’s work is always a collaboration. We are always working with, for and about others, even when it seems solitary. What each of us channel is something we are all connected to.

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Although the winter season tends to inspire a kind of hibernation and we might find ourselves being less social, the energy of the season encourages us to take care of ourselves as part of the seasonal cycle that impacts all living things. It is the time to root deeply. Just look to the natural world if you are unsure how to feel harmonious with the winter season.

An inward energetic doesn’t have to mean isolation. It offers the time and space to connect with the deeper layers of ourselves and there I think we find that our pains and joys are collective. The human experience, our genetic make-up, even, is far more shared than different. Which is why when people are suffering in the world, we all suffer and why individualist greed and hoarding of resources is so misguided.


We each have our own path, at times direct and at times winding and mysterious, but all paths are interwoven. Winter is a good time to connect with our water element and ask ourselves if we feel we’re on our path, to set intentions to be doing our life’s work, to dream deeply of all the things spring and summer energy will help us manifest.

I’ve never been someone to fixate on the “meaning of life” or the point of all this. Of course there are certainly times I want to know why things happen the way they do, what the lesson is to be learned from misfortunes and pain. And I wonder if some of what we are playing out is what has been passed down to us genetically. Is my tendency to focus on what isn’t working out in my life (called the “negative bias”) part of the strategy humans used to survive as defenseless beasts in a world of prehistoric predators? Is my anxiety there in part because my great grandparents fled the Ukraine to avoid anti-Jewish pogroms? How much is passed down through all our human genes and how much is more personal, more familial?

What is Karma? What is a legacy? What is destiny? What is it to you?

In Chinese medicine the idea of destiny is related to the water element, the organ systems of the Kidney and Bladder and the winter season. Our destiny or life’s work is thought to reside in those aspects.


A basic physiological understanding of Chinese medicine is that the interaction between fire and water is essential to our health and well-being. This plays out in many body functions, and is a great example of the interplay of yin and yang, but what I’m going to focus on is how it plays out in terms of this question of our life’s work.

The Kidneys are thought to house our blueprint, our destiny, our DNA. How this plays out in our lives, that’s up to the Heart, an organ system of the fire element.

The Heart is like the authentic you that shows up for every moment. The Heart is the true self, which is changing all the time, so it lives fully in the present. In a healthy relationship, the blueprint of the Kidneys is guiding the course of our lives and the authenticity of the Heart is in turn influencing that blueprint and the path we are on. In balance, they keep us on track to having a deep, meaningful life while allowing flexibility, growth and new understanding about how we can best contribute to the world.

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You see why this concept feels relevant to our life’s work. Finding a balance between the talents, skills and interests we have with the work that needs doing in the world’s present circumstance ultimately leads to fulfillment of the Kidneys’ desire and satiates the Heart’s authenticity. We call this Heart and Kidney communication. A common diagnosis in Chinese medicine is “Heart and Kidney not communicating” and this can lead to problems of a physical or spiritual matter. Or anywhere in between.

You could look at the Kidneys as the genetics and the Heart as the epigenetics. Genetics refers to our genes, the tangible material that is contained within our cells. Epigenetics refers to what actually shows up, why certain genetic material gets turned on and not other genetic material. Although epigenetics as a concept has been around for a long time, it didn’t start getting mainstream attention until the mid-90s. A lot remains unknown about why people with the same genes manifest them differently. You can have a marker for cancer or Alzheimer’s but never get it.

What’s cool about epigenetics, is that it is malleable, reversible and ultimately more within our control than just what genes we were born with. Everything is not predestined. We get to make a lot of choices about how our physical, substantial beings evolve throughout our lifetime. That’s based on lifestyle, environment, diet, exercise, relationships, meditation, creative and emotional expression, stress. It’s based on everything that isn’t just what we were born with. So essentially, in the “nature vs. nurture” debate, the answer is always both. They are inseparable. How we live determines what of our genetics manifest.

Because of the brilliant nature of the language of Chinese medicine, it is assumed that whatever happens to us, happens on all of our levels. Physical, mental, emotional, spiritual. There isn’t even language for separating those layers of our being.

This means that if someone is denying their true, authentic nature, unable to show up for the moment, they might become sick. If fear is allowed to control a person, preventing them from moving forward on their path, fulfilling their life’s work, they may experience physical pain. Some people who are chronically stressed develop heart disease. Under chronic stress, who is really able to honor the Heart by showing up as their authentic self? And so the Heart becomes sick. If a lifestyle is careless or unrewarding, it may increase the likelihood of disease manifestation. And likewise, an illness might be our way back to the path. It feels like a punishment, this pain and suffering. But as Buddhism teaches us, pain and suffering are an opportunity for transformation. And opportunity to really show up for your life.

I’m starting to believe my path is meant to be a wandering one. I have many passions, hobbies, communities, interests. Sometimes that makes me think I’m flaky or unfocused. Can’t I just pick one thing and get really good at it? The answer is no. That has been frustrating in the past, and it still is, but I see how all of my different interests influence each other in an expansive way.

My legacy isn’t going to be a piece of music that gets played for hundreds of years after my death. It isn’t going to be a building that I designed or built. But I like to think it will be a slow and steady presence, a vibration of compassion, deep thinking, healing, inspiration and joy that impacts the people around me and then gets transformed and passed on. That might be the most I have to give to the world.

These words, seen or unseen, might be my legacy. There’s only so much control we have over that anyway. But when I show up with my authentic self, when I’m present and compassionate with the people around me, all the disjointed parts of my life make sense. I don’t feel the loss of a major, definable, direct purpose. And if I happen to write a prize-winning novel that’s read for centuries, well that wouldn’t be a bad thing either. But it will be a story based on everything I’ve learned about being human through all the different paths I’ve wandered. It will be something about the human condition that hopefully most people can relate to. It will be because I showed up with my authentic self.

Posted on February 26, 2019 .