My father-in-law has always had a very clear idea about what he wanted in his life, and has striven hard to achieve it. As a result, he accomplished much and was well rewarded for it, giving him the means to live out a rich and satisfying retirement. But while this might lead others to recline on their front porch and enjoy their remaining years in idle pleasure, he hasn’t rested on his laurels now that he has retired. As is common with men of ambition, he still has goals and plans, and he wakes every day with a sense of purpose.
He has lived fastidiously all his life, watching his diet, and exercising regularly. As a result, he is in exceptional health for a man of his age. But in spite of all these efforts, something happened this spring which threatened to derail all his unfinished plans. He unexpectedly developed a staph infection in his blood, more commonly known as septicemia, which almost killed him.
These kinds of near-death experiences tend to bring a new sense of clarity to life, and this has certainly happened with my father-in-law since then. But what I found most interesting during his illness, was how strongly he tried to retain power over his life. In the same way that he skillfully extracted his desires from the world around him when he was younger, he quickly created a plan to draw life out of his rather miserable month-long stay in hospital. Enlisting the help of many family members, he obtained the food he desired, collected his preferred articles of hygiene, and through repeated visits, eventually accumulated enough components from his home office that he was able to mostly conduct his affairs at the hospital just as he did at home. He had a table to use as a desk, pens and paper, and plenty of books to keep his brain working. And rather than rest in his hospital bed, he would sit at his makeshift desk, read, and make notes to himself.
Once my father-in-law finally returned home, he was required to carry an IV bag with him for a couple of months so that he could continue to receive the intravenous antibiotics he needed to get well. Any of us would find this tiresome after awhile, but what really bothered my father-in-law was the constraint this placed on his ability to take a daily morning shower. Because neither his IV line in his arm, nor the IV bag itself could get wet, it seemed that daily showers would no longer be possible, which vexed him considerably. I suggested that he take a bath instead, as then he could safely keep both his arm and the IV bag out of the water, but this change in routine was completely unacceptable to him.
Over the next few weeks, I was amazed at the number of different ways in which he tried to get around this new constraint. Initially, he tried wrapping his IV bag in plastic, but he could never get it completely water-tight. He tried washing his hair with only one hand so that the IV line in his left arm wouldn’t get wet. Both of these efforts failed no matter the adjustments he made. Eventually, he came upon a plan to disconnect his IV line temporarily each morning, with my help, so that he could shower without its encumbrance. But his IV line frequently became clogged without a continuous drip through it, and the nurses at the clinic who flushed his line each day began to complain. He eventually found a way to hang his IV bag outside the shower door, while also protecting his left arm from the water. But throughout this endless drama, I wondered why he couldn’t just accept defeat and take a bath for a couple of months. Sure, it was a little annoying if you preferred to take a shower, but certainly better than what I saw as a futile battle against the inevitable.
But here was the essential difference between my father-in-law and myself: even as a sick man, he could still summon the energy to maintain this fight, whereas I would have buckled quickly under the unremitting difficulty of the situation. I believe it is this deep resource of energy which has fueled all of my father-in-law’s ambitions over the years and to a large extent, explains why he has been so successful. Yes, he is also intelligent and has a strong work ethic, but I would maintain that without the energy to do so, he wouldn’t have gotten nearly as far.
On a recent visit to the Humber Arboretum, a nature preserve near where I live, a guide took us through a heavily wooded area and pointed out some animal prints in the still soft mud of the spring. “What animal do you think made these prints?” she asked us. “Coyote?” a man called out. “A fox?” called another. She smiled knowingly and shook her head. “No. A coyote or a fox would never make paw prints like these,” she assured us. The prints were quite evenly spaced; you could clearly see that the animal had four separate paws. “A coyote or a fox would never waste his energy like this,” she said. She pointed out how you could see each of the animal’s four feet. “A coyote or other wild animal has to conserve their energy because they never know when they may eat again. As a result, they will place all four paws down at once, at almost the same spot. That way, that they can efficiently leap farther, using less energy, than if their feet were separated”. As I listened to her, I realized that it was true: when you see wild animal prints, you typically see only two paw prints, which look as if they have just brushed the earth before leaving off again. “These prints were probably left by someone’s Labrador retriever,” she laughed. “You see how he’s inefficiently moving his paws all over the place? These prints could only have come from an animal who doesn’t need to worry about his next meal”.
All living things need to conserve their energy, because the latent energy within us is so precious, and because new energy can be difficult to create. Just as trees store energy for growth deep in their trunks in the form of sap, we humans also store our energy deep within ourselves. In Chinese medicine, our energy is said to be stored in one of our most vital organs: our kidneys, whose functioning would also include that of our adrenal glands. This makes our kidneys very important for maintaining the will to live. In Chinese medicine, this stored energy in our kidneys is referred to as the “Gate of Vitality”, or “Ming Men Fire”. Our kidneys and adrenals are like the coals at the bottom of the fire, which are always glowing and hot to the touch. The heat that our kidneys and adrenals generate spreads upwards throughout our bodies and gives us strength and energy. When this hot glow of coals wanes and cools, we become weaker and closer to death. And so, if we want to have a long and fruitful life, with enough energy to accomplish our goals, we should be sure to take good care of our kidneys and adrenals.
Much of the strength of our kidneys is genetic. In Chinese medicine, a large portion of our kidney strength is referred to as “Pre-Heaven Essence”, which means that whatever kidney strength we have was gifted to us by our parents before we were born. If our parents had weak kidneys and adrenals, then this weakness will be passed down to us, and there is really nothing that we can do to change this genetic inheritance.
Those people who are gifted with strong kidneys and adrenals at birth can easily find energy for all their daily ambitions. Without thinking much about it, they can swing from chore to chore and accomplish much throughout the day. With this seemingly endless supply of energy at their fingertips, they can make grand plans with confidence and rarely worry about their ability to carry them out to completion. People thus blessed tend to have a strong will, like my father-in-law. They will fight any battle important enough to them, knowing that they have plenty of reserved energy to sustain them.
Those born with weakened kidneys and adrenals live a different life, and sadly, are often criticized in a Western culture that prizes vitality over other equally valuable qualities. For, often through a poor genetic inheritance over which they have no control, these people are more prone to tiredness, listlessness, and a lack of confidence over their ability to complete the assignments before them. These people may be equally intelligent, and may also understand the importance of hard work, but simply don’t have the stamina to achieve their goals. In short, they have a lack of will power. They may have the will to achieve their goals, but not the power to do so, and over the course of their lives, they can eventually become resigned to the fact that many of their goals will never be met.
If you have weakened kidneys or adrenal glands and are now despairing of ever obtaining that store of energy that others have in such abundance, there is much that you can do to improve your situation. You may never have the energy to waste that some others do, but you can preserve what you have, and even kindle some more, with careful effort.
Firstly, to preserve what you have, you should take better care of yourself. Don’t overwork yourself, especially without proper meals. If you must work hard, ensure that the food you eat is also nutritious, with enough protein to maintain your tissues, and plenty of fruits and vegetables to provide you with anti-oxidants, vitamins, minerals, and fibre. If you deplete your body with overwork, while also failing to restore the nutrients which you have used, your body will be forced to dip into its reserves, which will weaken your kidneys with time. Ensure that you get proper rest so that your body can regenerate itself. And avoid chilling this source of “fire” in our bodies with the excessive intake of cold drinks, or other cold foods such as bananas and citrus fruits.
Apart from avoiding unnecessary depletion, you can also help to beef up your energy reserves by taking herbs to strengthen your kidneys and adrenals. The herbs known to strengthen your kidneys are some of the best known and most treasured herbs in the Chinese herbal pharmacy. Prepared rehmannia root, fleeceflower root (also known as he shou wu), shizandra berries, and dodder seeds are all good herbs to help rejuvenate your kidneys. In Ayurvedic medicine, ashwagandha and asparagus root (also known as shatavari) are used for the same purpose. While these herbs will help to nourish and calm stressed adrenals and gently strengthen your kidneys, other stimulating herbs can also be used to re-kindle latent kidney energy. These more stimulating herbs, used to stimulate “kidney yang” would include eucommia bark, horny goat weed, or morinda root. These herbs will replenish your inner “fire”, helping to restore the energy needed to achieve your goals.
Those of us with weakened kidneys and adrenals may never have the same abundance of energy as those who were birthed with it, but if we can effectively prevent its depletion and faithfully restore what we can, we can still have very productive lives. In fact, someone who carefully protects their kidneys can often have more energy at the end of their life than someone who carelessly depleted it without thought while they were young. We might not all have the boundless willpower of my father-in-law, but with enough care, we can maintain that fiery glow in our core, and allow it to smoulder and radiate a generous amount of heat well into our advanced years.
About the author: Rebecca Wong has been working in the herbal business since 2000. She has received her training in acupuncture and herbalism from respected authorities Paul Des Rosiers and Vu Le at the Ontario College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Toronto, and Michael Tierra at the East West Herb School in California.