The five elements
Much like life today, life in Shakespeare’s time was an intricate system where everything was interconnected, albeit in a different way: The positions of the planets, the colour of your socks, what you ate. All of these and more could affect your humours and, through them, your entire being, body, mind and soul. The understanding of medicine and the human body then was based on the theory of the four bodily humours. The concept, however, has far deeper ancient roots, including ancient Egypt and perhaps even Mesopotamia. Specifically, the medical theorist Alcmaeon of Croton (C. 540–500 BC) outlined the idea which dates back to ancient Greece and the Pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Empedocles (c. 494 – c. 434 BC) who believed that there were only four temperaments, referred to later as humours, composed of natural elements like water, air, fire and earth. It was posited that the humours affected your entire being, from your health and feelings to your looks and actions and the key to good health was to keep your humours in balance.
In medieval science, aether, also spelled æther, or ether and also called quintessence, was the material that fills the region of the universe above the terrestrial sphere; this then became the fifth element of Ether (the original element from which the other elements were forged).
In Hindu philosophy it was thought that the original element was Ether or Akasha, which then gave birth to the other four elements in succeeding order from most subtle to least subtle. According to Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, ‘earth is solidity; water is cohesion; fire is temperature; air is motion; and space is the spatial dimension that accommodates the other four active elements. They are the five primary pranas of vital energies. They are the constituents of every physical, sensual, mental and spiritual phenomenon.’ (Healing with Form, Energy and Light, 2002). Tibetan philosophy states that all life is made up from these elements and that the elements’ names represent symbolic processes of energetic transformation that take place in nature and hence also within ourselves. It must be noted that in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) there is the additional element of Metal and the omission of Ether.
Besides their being a fundamental building block of astrology, the tarot and other divination systems, great use was made of the four classical elements in the pursuits of alchemy in the medieval period, especially by the likes of Jabir ibn Hayyan, Paracelsus and other prominent alchemists. The concept of the fifth element, Ether or Spirit (Aether in ancient Greece), was taught and shared by the philosopher Aristotle, who is often thought of as the father of metaphysics (although he is responsible for the ideas behind separation of spirit and flesh, or mind and body, a false dichotomy which is still with us today).
Using the astrological principle of ‘as above, so below’, we can appreciate that just as we can find these classical elements in nature and in natural processes, so too do we carry all these elements within us. The question then becomes, what is our relationship to these elements and how do we bring these into balance within us? What symbolic and energetic relationship and awareness can these elements bring us? How should we work with these energies for the highest and the best?
The element earth represents our terra firma and so symbolically refers to our physical body, which is constituted of a number of periodic table elements, such as oxygen, nitrogen, carbon and others. It also represents structure, order, manifestation and boundaries, thereby focusing and concentrating energy into physical form. Crystals and gemstones are a high form of expression of Earth energy, where their symmetrical shapes and crystalline structures create power and the capacity to heal, balance and direct energy. For those who believe that to be esoteric or of mystical understanding, there is the very real fact of the existence of lasers, computers and other applications of crystalline structures in our high-tech world.
Working with Earth relates to mastering our relationship to our physical body, an essential pursuit in any spiritual practice. What is your relationship to your body and the material world? To find out, sit in meditation and use whatever preparation technique that works for you. Visualise yourself moving into the depths of the deep, dark, rich earth. Become at one with darkness and focus on how you are responding to the experience. Does it feel warm, comfortable and nurturing? Or are you uncomfortable, claustrophobic or irritated? Is there a part of your body that feels agitated? Just let yourself release these feelings and sensations as they appear. Afterwards, reflect on what you have learnt about the Earth element. Is there a symbolic connection between your meditation and your relationship to your body and physical existence?
To bring this element back into balance in your life, try the following breath visualisation technique. Breathe in the pulse of the earth into your base chakra, thereby tapping into earth energy and drawing it up into body. Visualise this warm, energising force moving into all the areas where you feel more balance is required. This could be in your body or in a specific area of your life. Then release this breath into the area that requires healing. You could also use a similar process to bring Earth energy into a world situation for someone else who needs it.
The element Water connects us to our feelings and emotions, helping us to develop our ability to feel without attachment. Before we can achieve that state of loving detachment, we need to learn about every kind of emotion and develop the ability to step free of our feelings.
Taking a lesson from the capillary action of trees as they draw water to their treetops, we see that the flow of water is effortless given the right environment and having the focused purpose of higher feeling and love. As seen when you drop a dot of ink into a glass of water, this substance has the property of diffusion, meaning that emotions move and permeate others quickly and easily. Are your emotions of the higher vibration or are they negative, needy, and full of attachment and unrealistic expectation?
With our bodies being comprised of 70 per cent water, we can understand why we sometimes find it so difficult to separate ourselves from our emotions. Therefore, developing your emotional body should be a key focus of your personal development activities. Water also gives access to those who use it to tap into psychic and intuitive abilities. Yet in order to manifest this gift fully we need to master the emotions.
Water relates to astrological signs of Pisces, Virgo and Scorpio, as well as having a strong connection to the Moon as seen in the effect of tides. In the tarot, Water is represented in the suit of cups, and brings us wisdom on feelings, emotions, love, relationships, abundance and intuition.
Working with Water supports us to flow into a masterful relationship with our emotional body, thereby focusing the power of Water energy through loving detachment. Are you the master of your emotions or their slave? Connect to your own Water element to discover where you are in and out of harmony with its flow. Visualise yourself standing under a waterfall in a beautiful rock pool, surrounded by nature. Allow the water to flow over and through you. How does the water make you feel? Do you feel fresh, inspired and excited? Or do you feel nervous and anxious? Observe these feelings and release them into the water. Make a few notes afterwards on where in your own self you are challenged by this element. What have you learnt about your emotional body? Where are your emotional attachments?
Once you are ready to heal this element within you, visualise yourself lying on a beautiful tropical beach. With every deep in-breath visualise the waves drawing out to sea and with your out-breath visualise the waves gently washing back in and over your body, bringing balance and harmony to every aspect of your emotional body. Continue this breathing exercise until you feel free, light and peaceful. You could also use this exercise to bring healing for others and to encourage mastery over emotional processes on a global level.
The element Air represents our minds, thoughts, ideas, logic and mental inspiration. Just as our minds take abstract ideas and break them down into logical units, as well as connecting knowledge and information into patterns, so does the element of Air blow away the cobwebs and help us to see things clearly. Plato described the qualities of Air as ‘mobility, sharpness and the ability to penetrate’, showing us how the mind can cut through the fog of emotion and see truth more clearly. However, a mind that has stagnant thoughts is just as vulnerable to illusion as a poorly developed emotional body.
Air relates to the astrological signs of Libra, Gemini and Aquarius. In the tarot, Air is represented by the suit of swords, which teaches us about thinking, intellect and overcoming mental difficulties. It also teaches us about moral understanding, the search for truth and understanding, cutting through negativity and dealing with external forces and opposition.
Working with the element of Air helps us to develop and refine the mind as a tool of the soul. We often hear the mind being spoken of negatively in spiritual development. It is true that a busy and noisy mind can be a huge barrier to spiritual growth, yet without a refined, knowledgeable and sharp mind we cannot discern between truth and untruth and we cannot really grasp deep spiritual symbols and meanings. If your spiritual path focuses overly much on the heart and feeling of your spiritual existence, then it limits your capacity to think, discern and connect seemingly disconnected spiritual truths together.
What is the state of your mental body, mind or thoughts at the moment? Are your thoughts busy, disconnected and chaotic? Or is your mind clear, quiet and expansive? One of the best ways to work with the element of Air and strengthen the mind is to develop the ability to think, study and acquire knowledge. This creates a disciplined approach to working with information and ideas. A refined and powerful laser is a good symbol of this, as opposed to weak torchlight. Meditation is also a powerful tool to quieten and strengthen the mind, allowing Spirit the space to enter.
To bring the Air element back into balance in your life, try the following breath visualisation technique. Visualise yourself as a big old tree. As you breathe in focus on your leaves drawing in air down into your roots, and as you breathe out feel your life-giving prana moving out to nourish others. Where does your mind feel out of balance as you do this? Allow this flow to enter the areas of imbalance and bring deep healing.
The element of Fire represents the aspect of us that rises above the physical, emotional and mental aspects of ourselves, often referred to as the integrated personality, intuitional self, energy body or higher mind. The ancient Greeks differentiated between fire that was destructive versus fire that was creative. Fire is an energising, activating and masculine element, calling us to stimulate our consciousness with energy, passion and creativity.
Fire relates to the astrological signs of Aries, Leo and Sagittarius. In the tarot, Fire is signified by the suit of wands, representing energy, action, growth, creativity, passion and business enterprise. It also teaches us about the intuition and how to harness our creative potential into focused projects and endeavours.
Working with Fire stimulates you to burn away any area of your life where you may lack energy, inspiration, drive, creativity and spark. This will help you to develop your higher mind and intuitional body by preparing your energy levels for Divine inspiration. Intuitive insights and a sense of wonderment and zest for life come from having a good balance of the Fire element within you. Too much Fire can also lead to too much activity that is not grounded through the other three elements. Divine inspiration needs balance in all areas to manifest fully.
Are you feeling inspired at the moment? Do you feel the flow of creative inspiration and expression moving through you? As always, meditation is an essential tool to keep us connected to higher mind, intuitive flow and inspired energy. Another powerful tool is to be of service by helping others. Find a place or space that resonates with you to give your time, skills and resources to help others or even one other, be it through a social enterprise, sponsorship, or even through mentoring someone who needs to develop the skills that you have. When you see others struggling with their humanity you will no doubt become inspired with how your life can positively affect others.
To bring the Fire element back into balance in your life, try the following breath visualisation technique. Visualise that in your chest or heart chakra there is a fire grate holding smouldering coals. As you breathe in visualise the air fanning the coals and as you breathe out feel the warmth of the coals infusing into every cell of your body.
Where do you feel cold and uninspired? In what areas of your life could you use more creative expression? Where can you be of service? Allow the energy of Fire to bring balance and healing into these areas.
The element of Ether connects to our Spirit or that Divine and Infinite Spark that each one of us has glowing within us. This Spirit pulsates beyond the four elements of the material world and keeps us connected to the eternal and infinite whole. Although we may seek to find Ether by escaping all the other elements, it is in fact through the elements of the material world that we truly realise Spirit. By bringing all these aspects of self into balance we are able to move to much deeper levels of experience and, in turn, greater service to others. Through the activation of this element we recognise our unity with the whole of humanity and we recognise our responsibility to strive ceaselessly to serve humanity and the natural kingdoms.
Excerpts: Odyssey Magazine #34, #3, 2010
An Adventure in Body, Mind and Soul