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March 24, 2016

The common translation of Zhi in terms of the Kidney spirit in Chinese medicine is “will” or “willpower.” According to Larre and de la Valle, it is perhaps more directly translated as “wish, design, goal, aspiration” (Larre and de la Valle, 1995: 191), from which they follow, suggesting an organic metaphor of growth, “the intent in the heart persists and develops, the way a plant begins to rise upward from the soil” (Larre and de la Valle, 1995: 191). There is one reading of “will” or “intent” which could suggest an individual thrust, the movement or stirring of some distinct aspect of a single being, toward a becoming of itself, drawing upon or marshalling its own intrinsic resources, and acting on its own behalf. This is not an uncommon way to understand and employ the idea of “will” – to understand it in terms of one who is described as “strong-willed” and the like. Such a reading, though, of this concept in Chinese medicine seems limited to me, a partial and even perhaps secondary or derivative orientation to a more primary, and perhaps even more primal, sense of “will.”

The Kidney energies are, in terms of Dragon Rises, Red Bird Flies, associated with the “I am” of existence, that which is before and after the individual consciousness, from which it springs and to which it returns. The emotions associated are both fear and awe, fundamental emotional experiences when standing face to face with the unknown. The Kidney energies are the watery depths of all that is before knowing, before individuation, and after knowing has expired itself, after the individual wave has reached its peak, and crashes or slides gently again beneath the surface. In truth, in the way this presents itself to me, there is really only ever one, fundamentally undifferentiated, whole, and complete energy or substance, simply manifesting in myriad different forms. This is, of course, not my own unique insight (how could it be), but is nevertheless an axiomatic truth of many spiritual traditions of which I have become convinced and even in my own way realized. It would be disingenuous to pretend that my engagement with the medicine and its concepts are not informed by these factors, and so I can, at best, simply state them openly and plainly, acknowledging that they shape my understanding. With that borne in mind, the Water phase in which the Kidneys participate can be understood as our limited and mortal perspective on that from which we come and to which we return, but which we are always and forever completely composed of, from the beginning. The Wood and Fire and Earth and Metal are not other than this same energy operating at different momentums and taking on different shapes and forms. I am not attempting to suggest that Water is more primary than the rest, but rather that these all participate in and are fundamentally the same energy, and that it is the Water phase which represents to us that aspect of this energetic experience which cannot even in its conceptualization for us be limited to one individual consciousness or lived experience. Of course neither can the rest, but it is perhaps easier to conceive of a single spark of consciousness manifesting itself in the Fire phase as an individual’s proclamation of “I Am!” in joyous recognition of the fact of themselves. That this spark is never fundamentally removed or distinct from the rest of the same roaring wondrous fire of the great mystery that is our fundamental unity and even identity one with another does not detract from the glittering vibrancy of its perfectly unique flashing light, and so it is easier to describe aspects of the Fire phase in words that fit to its uniqueness in each coming forth. But it is the Water phase that reminds us that we are never this separate and dissociated sparkling self drifting alone in the infinite, but are instead fully and wholly at each moment the same stuff and indivisible from the whole energy of the infinite.

Why does this matter for Will? This matters because it suggests that the surging forth into life that is Wood, the roaring flames of creativity that are Fire, and all the rest, find their motive force in the Water phase, and hence in the spirit of the Kidneys, the Zhi. But if the Kidney energies are before the individual consciousness, if the Water phase speaks to us of the great and vast movement of the whole mystery of the undivided Dao from the beginning, then this Zhi, this Will, cannot be limited to the individual consciousness acting with its own specific or distinct intent. The Will then that is manifesting forth as a plant growing from the soil, through each of us and as each of us, is the Will of that great vast mystery, the potency of the Life-Force itself. The Will that is the Water phase spirit of Zhi moves in us and through us beyond our limited understanding and capacity for control. It is the very freedom and uncontained wildness of life itself, beyond any of our tiny concepts and strategies for individuation. As Larre and de la Valle note:

will applies itself to life in the first instance. It is the will-to-life, it then achieves all that life, through the heart, recognizes as true, acceptable, and favorable. (Larre and de la Valle, 1995:  54)

The shaoyin connection has been hinted at more than once, and there must be in any such analysis a determined engagement with the fundamental intertwining of Water and Fire. The Heart is the manifestation in its fullest and most creative sense of all that is latent and potential in the infinitely extended world of possibilities that is the Water. The Water is inexhaustible in its possibilities, unlimited to or by time or space, and rather plays in and through them, manifesting its infinity of possibilities in the bursting forth into the manifest and brilliantly unreplicatable spacetime singular moments of the Heart energies, the individual, the unique flame dancing. Is Shen other than Zhi? I cannot imagine how it would be so. Zhi is simply the coming forth of all things into the crystallized moment of expression that is the Shen that is the flower in the sun, the luminous eyes that sparkle when we look deeply at one another, the perfect expression of just-what-we-are that is utterly unique and perfect and yet never other than the whole expression of the universe coming forth.

This is, again, not my unique insight. In their work on the Kidneys in Chinese medicine, Larre and de la Valle again suggest that “the Chinese character Zhi is to do with what makes life within an individual emerge from the universe” (Larre and de la Valle, 1989:  26). They continue, suggesting that Zhi can be recognized as the “will of life, so in Zhi we must understand the roots of life where will is built and the power to organize to organize things” (Larre and de la Valle, 1989:  26). The intensity with which this understanding of Zhi strikes me has a potential to obscure the other phase energies, overwhelming their coming into being and differentiation in its all-pervading potency. In a sense, this is not inaccurate. And yet, to believe that Zhi, where our perception and experience of the infinite potency of the mystery that is beyond our individual consciousnesses and conceptual arrangements of reality, is the only phase within which this whole reality operates misses the point. Each of the phases is wholly of this same undifferentiated stuff. We experience ourselves as the up-rushing spontaneous and unstoppable birth and rebirth of Wood, the creative individuation and manifestation of Fire, the connection and bonding of Earth which is a reflection and experience of the extraordinary ways in which the undifferentiated plays in perfect freedom with every unique manifestation of itself, and the transformation of what our shape of uniqueness expresses and acknowledges as “self-and-other” in the dense connections that constitute it for Metal. In this sense, the Will that is before and after the individual self is never other than the drive, intellect, creative spark, and very body of ourselves that are expressed in the other spirits, simply in different conformations and transformations of that same Will coming forth, that which offers us perfect freedom and yet is completely beyond our control or even our conceptualization.



Hammer, Leon. Dragon Rises, Red Bird Flies: Psychology, Energy & Chinese Medicine. Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press, 1991.

Larre, Claude, and Elisabeth Rochat De La Vallée. The Kidneys. International Register of Oriental Medicine with the Ricci Institute, European School of Acupuncture, 1989.

Larre, Claude, and Elisabeth Rochat De La Vallée. Rooted in Spirit: The Heart of Chinese Medicine. Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press, 1995.


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