Fear (kong 恐) is the emotion – or as we see in Suwen chapter 5, the expression of will (zhi 志) – related to the water element, the winter, and the kidneys. Its effect, described in Suwen 39, is to descend the qi. The text suggests that prolonged fear causes impotence and a general leaking away of the essences – a loosening and slackening, or wei syndrome. The discussion of the seasons in Suwen chapter 2 tells us that a failure to act according to the qi of winter prevents the shao yin from storing: ‘The kidney qi is powerless in the depths of the body, causing impotence (wei 痿) and deficiency in the spring.’ 

The character for fear represents a kind of restriction (功) in the heart (心) and Lingshu 8 describes a situation where the qi descends, leaving the upper jiao stranded, the heart beating fast, the lungs constricted. This is a description of a severe acute state, but in prolonged fear and anxiety this may become a pattern – not so extreme but more gradually debilitating. 

The classical texts often refer to the double expression kong ju (恐 懼), which is usually translated as fear and fright, a state in which the spirits are scattered and cannot rest in the heart. Both aspects of the shaoyin are affected – the kidneys cannot store the essences, the heart cannot store the spirits.

The final paragraph of this section of Suwen chapter 5 tells us that reflective thought (si 思) prevails over fear. Reflective thought is the emotion or will of the earth element and the centre. Its action is to turn things around, to rotate – and it is the earth element that is able to re-establish the broken connections between fire and water, heart and kidneys. 

Fear may also be a natural and healthy function of our survival mechanism; this is the will (zhi 志) associated with the kidneys in the group of five often referred to as the ‘five aspects of spirit’ (shen, hun, po, yi and zhi). The water element may dampen the excesses of the fire of the heart. But as always with fire and water this is a delicate and dynamic balance. Too much water and the fire will go out; too much fear or timidity and there will be no space for the joy of the heart. 

The other positive aspect of the fear mechanism is that facing certain fears, working with them and transforming them can lead to the ‘virtue’ associated with the water element – wisdom. And in the Chinese mind this wisdom is a practical kind of life-skill. Lingshu chapter 8, which is the seminal chapter on the effects of the emotions and what might be called the unfolding of the spiritual and emotional aspects of life, culminates in the production of wisdom (zhi 知) ‘which is nothing other than the ability to nourish life (yang sheng 養 生).’

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