The Four Elements
Finding the four elements in our own lives and patiently experimenting with balancing them can be useful for meditation, healing and practice.
The four elements can be used to adjust environment, a variation on traditional Feng Shui. For example, if a room lacks sunlight we can paint walls or add decor that is bright yellow, orange, or red to bring in the fire element. In desert settings the colors of water can be refreshing.
A red rose blooming, perfuming a garden, is a lovely symbol of the four elements. Fire is there in the sunshine that warms the soil, providing the alchemy of transformation we call photosynthesis. Fire gives the light that allows our eyes to see the beams of reflected color bouncing off a rose. The rose turns its leaves up to the sun, reaching toward that mystery of warmth and illumination.
Air provides the oxygen to fuel photosynthesis, receiving and dissipating the exhalations of trees, plants and all creatures. Air allows us to sample the fragrant molecules of a rose’s scent. In fact, the rose and the rose bush are mostly air since more air than matter composes the objects of our only relatively solid universe.
Water, the evaporating lubricant, must be replenished regularly. It carries the minerals of earth up the roots into the trunk and stem all the way to the red petals in an amazing orchestration of materials that makes even our greatest artists and architects mediocre by comparison.
Earth provides all the building blocks of matter that will be reassembled into the complex and functioning forms that make up a rose plant, providing gravity to grow against, grounding, and magnetism, for discharging and recharging.
Other cultures have other elements and different numbers of them. The Chinese Wu Xing comprises five elements, or phases. For students of the Yi Jing the Wu Xing is essential for an understanding of the symbolism associated with the hexagrams and individual lines. For students of the tarot the four elements are essential for an understanding of the symbolism of the cards. For example, consider the major arcana tarot card Last Judgement as symbolic of a seed bursting into life.
The four elements are key to astrology. The fire signs Aries, Leo and Sagittarius describe spring, summer, and fall. Air signs Gemini, Libra, and Aquarius have been compared to air, wind, and space. Water signs Cancer, Scorpio and Pisces have been compared to river, lake and ocean. Earth signs Taurus, Virgo and Capricorn have been compared to soil, field, and mountain.
Consider your relationship with the four elements throughout your life. Has one element caused you more trouble than others? For example a person who neglects the body may suffer losses due to earth related problems, in the body that might involve the bones, in the world problems with soil, structural issues with buildings, and earthquakes. Water represents emotions so it is suggested that those with emotional issues may attract problems with pipes, circulation, flooding or toxic water. Fire is said to signify spirituality but also sexuality. Problems in those areas are said to cause issues with electricity, trouble with furnaces, and losses by fire. And of course air represents the mind, and the neglected mind can be symbolized by wind storms, and toxic air.
Most would dismiss these interpretations of misfortunes as quaint occult supersition. But they have the virtue of helping us to see our troubles as invitations to improve ourselves.
Paracelsus believed that the four elements were inhabited by living beings: gnomes in earth, undines in water, sylphs in air, and salamanders in fire. All through human history we find stories about men attempting to manipulate, and in a few cases wed, these not entirely material beings. From a prehistoric Siberian shaman calling on spirits of the wind to a ceremonial magician conjuring the arch angel of air (there is an arch angel for each element), the human fascination with the elements and their alleged inhabitants has been consistent.
Some say that we are now beginning to experience the revenge of the elementals. Their task was keeping it all going smoothly. But with so much poison in the air, soil and water, they are helpless to preserve what is meant to be. So we have floods and oceans rising as the undines release chaos. We have huge fire storms fed by raging salamanders. Angry sylphs stir up destructive storms, and the gnomes send earthquakes and landslides to bury what’s left.
Balancing the four elements is the key to life. Too much fire scorches, too little freezes. Too much water drowns, too little withers. Too much earth smothers, too little stunts growth. Too much air tears up roots with destructive winds, too little suffocates.
The four elements can be applied in our personal lives. Earth is the body. Air is thought. Water is emotion. Fire is the heat in our hearts and the electricity in our nerves. Is one out of balance in your life? Too much earth and a person becomes obsessed with the body, it little matters whether they hate or love it. Too little Earth makes us weak and unstable. Too much air causes people to speculate and worry, leaving them inactive and detached from their emotions and life force. Too little air invites the harm caused by ignorance. Too much water causes people to be swept along by torrents of emotion. Too little water makes for life unfeeling and unfelt. Too much fire creates fanatics, and too little reduces human beings to passionless pushovers.
What happens when we balance the four elements? This question has the same answer as the question how can we balance the four elements? Perhaps Empedocles said it best, “The force that unites the elements to become all things is Love, also called Aphrodite; Love brings together dissimilar elements into a unity, to become a composite thing. Love is the same force that human beings find at work in themselves whenever they feel joy, love and peace. Strife, on the other hand, is the force responsible for the dissolution of the one back into its many, the four elements of which it was composed.”
How to participate in this cosmic love. A good place to start is by looking at your life current and past and cherishing what you love about it. There’s plenty to get upset about. Despondency and chronic outrage are more common now. But there’s always someone and something to love. If not in our current lives, then in our memories. To love the world, especially as it is, that’s no easy task. Yet it can be easy when we wake to the realization that we have a certain opportunity here to experience and accomplish what we came here to do.
From Spiritual Mysteries, a book in progress.
Photo by Tamra Lucid.