Most of us already have internal reference points and associations with the elements of Earth, Fire, Air, and Water. Chances are you have some elements that you easily identify with and others that don’t feel like natural allies. In exploring them in depth, we can also consider what resources we naturally call upon, and how we can have too much or too little of an element in our quality of moving through experiences or emotions.
There is much written already about the spiritual symbolism of the Elements. Some the correlations might be water and emotions, earth and grounding, fire and passion/power, and air as quick movement or tangible change. I personally find those associations very helpful when thinking about allowing elements to function as allies in our personal work. I include them in the explorations below.
But I also think that there is more texture and nuance available when we consider the elements metaphorically, they are a guides for ways that energy can move in different situations and circumstances. Because no element is static, it takes many forms and of course there are manifestations that combine more than one element at a time.
In my initial field of Art Therapy, we would often speak about letting metaphor be a way to explore something where we may feel blocked or resistant, that projecting into the metaphor can be a way to step back and gain perspective on a topic that would be challenging to approach directly. I think of a metaphorical approach to the elements as the inverse of that, connecting to the metaphors and lessons of elemental energy and bringing them INTO a situation to gain clarity or move out of “stuckness.”
This a short guide to considering how this can be explored in a contemplative practice.
I have roughly approached each element through: overall associations, representations and qualities, transformations and alchemy, and a few allies that work with the elements and know them well (plants, animals, etc).
Air moves freely, and is often associated with thought or the mental level. It can symbolize freedom and expansion, or can lack reliability- going from refreshing to destructive in an instant. The difference between flexibility and chaos can be a fine one. Air can carry objects through space, it can be within or without a form or container. When with mixed with earth or water it can cloud our vision, or its obscurity can feel dreamy and beautiful.
Air can only be seen by its relationship with matter or other elements such as earth or water, which makes it a sort of mirror. Its most pure forms could be wind, types of gases, the breath, convection systems (temperatures of air moving), and the atmosphere overall. Air can move in all directions, it is less effected by gravity (the lightest of compounds), it can move physical matter and even suspend it above the earth’s surface. A tornado or hurricane can bend, move, and transport even very dense and heavy materials- sometimes with destructive ends (speed being a factor). Lighter materials such as dust, pollen, and viruses can be suspended in the air.
We can create our own wind with our breath, dispersing the seeds of a dandelion or removing dust from a surface. Air can make a beautiful partnership with water to create fog, mist, bubbles, and steam (with the added element of fire). It can combine with fire more directly in the form of smoke.
An imbalance of air can feel like life moving in too many directions, or feeling stuffy and suffocating. When in alignment it gives us maximum flexibility.
Allies: winged animals and insects, aerodynamic seeds, feathers, sounds produced by air, the desert, anything which bubbles (including bacteria which releases air as something ferments), plant leaves as they convert carbon dioxide and produce oxygen
A tiny flame, embers, smoke, hot springs, the desert, volcanos, the core of the earth, a forest fire, the sun, ultraviolet light, charcoal… Many of us many initially think of fire as destructive, and it can be, but it is also an alchemical activator- a source of light and warmth, the element that most directly pushed forward our human evolution. Working with fire is harnessing the capacity for radical change, transforming one material into another. Creating life and survival in a barren landscape.
Fire uniquely contains the capacity to alchemize and directly transform matter. Most clearly with see this in the flame or fire itself, but also in other forms of energy like electromagnetic fields and lightening. You could say that fire both produces heat and is caused by heat, a strange paradox, perhaps represented through lava, hot springs, and geothermal energy. It has a strong relationship to light, producing light and sometimes being caused by light (like holding a magnifying glass and focusing the sun through it). It can break down matter and reform it, as a direct result like in charcoal or embers, or alchemically as in metal work.
It can move through air (lightening), is fueled by matter (earth) and can be dampened by water and/or earth. It is life giving and life taking, true of all the elements but perhaps most dramatically. It is directly transformative, it transformed our species’ evolution. It has been used in ceremony cross-culturally for a millennia. Its importance for humans in particular can’t be understated. Fire is represented by the Sun.
We see it pair with air as smoke, with earth in its capacity to melt metal or in the molten core of the earth, and with water in steam.
An imbalance in fire element can be felt when we push too hard and wind up depleted and burnt out, or when we struggle to begin projects and needed changes that we we really want.
Allies: Electric Eels, reptiles (which use the energy of the sun to power their bodies), objects which retain heat and light, bioluminescent creatures, candles, incense, flint, the mythical dragon, Echinidas, bees, the oriental hornet
The ocean, rivers, lakes, icebergs and glaciers, the water table, our blood and body fluids, rain, snow, hail, steam, clouds…water has a longstanding symbolic representation of our emotions as well as our intuition. All elements involve intuition but with water we experience flow and movement in a different way. We need it to live but we can also drown if immersed completely.
Water has a great capacity to hold and contain. It can hold heat, dissolve and contain minerals, suspend earth and particles within it, reduce or enhance our sense of weight, and it can change the shape and function of our bodies. Water can harden into a solid when cold enough, and it can evaporate and become a gas when hot enough. After evaporating and in clouds it can travel great distances (assisted by air). It is responsive to the gravity of the moon, it can appear to take on beautiful colors depending on the color of the surface below it, it can be glassy on the surface like a mirror or kaleidoscopic when in motion.
Our bodies are made primarily of water, as most mammals are, as well as many plants and insects. Water is life on this planet. Water can wear down stone, or expand the size and volume of soil. We remember its compatibility with the other elements when we remember the salinity of the ocean, a fluffy cloud that rains when it becomes heavy, or water vapor evaporating on a hot day.
When water is out of balance we can feel battered by our emotions, or numb. We can feel overwhelmed or held, nourished or ungrounded. Water can carry us gently like floating along a calm river, or it can sweep us away and overpower. Like all elements, water is needed but in the right amounts.
Allies: sea mammals and fish, liquids of the body, natural bodies of water and the water from the faucet, mangroves which growing in standing water, algae and bacteria, frogs and turtles, cocooning insects, dragonflies, Lotus flowers, Water lilies, and seaweed
The physical globe/planet, soil, rocks and gems, plants, trees, mushrooms, sand, moss, mountains, cliffs, valleys, canyons, a seed, earthquakes, tunnels and mines, caves…are all examples of how we may experience Earth. We may associate this with being grounded and connected to ourselves and others, with a steady and reliable feeling, with growth and change.
Our planet is called Earth, holding all the elements within, around, and on it. It is decomposing matter recycled into vital energy and carbon. Earth can be heavy or light in response to water or minerals, it can condense into rock and crystal, it can be airy and light as dust. It can be rich humus soil, granular sand, silt, or dense clay. It provides the literal ground for plants and the surface upon which animals and humans move. Within its core and across its surface it maintains the gravity and electromagnetic fields which make much of our lives possible.
Earth is heavy, but it has ways to move. It can crack open and shift through the movement of tectonic plates below the surface, it can be carried by air or water. It is resilient mostly to fire, though the matter that grows out of it can be fuel. Most of what we need to live is grown on or fed by the earth. Earth can be a wide range of colors, from brown, to black, to red, to tan and even almost white. It can be soft and even, or cracked and rigid.
When earth is out of balance we can feel stuck or flighty, we may be unable to see clearly (internally preoccupied) or overly wide in our lens. We can use some of these examples as guides to help us connect to what is needed: if we are feeling stuck and unable to move we may imagine the energy of a seed, that pushes a tap root down while stretching up in the open air- finding flexibility and connection. Or if we are ungrounded and lacking focus, we may imagine the symbol of a cave, traveling inward to ourselves, finding clarity in the sparse environment.
Allies: moles and ground dwelling creatures, earthworms, mushrooms and fungus, roots, bulbs and rhizomes, mycelium, metal, earthworms, a compost pile
Elemental Energy in everyday life
An easy to observe transforming or releasing of elemental energy is the sound that each element can produce, through their interactions with each other. Ice cracking and ocean waves, a roaring fire, wind whistling through the trees, or the sound of earth compressing beneath your feet are all auditory ways to experience the movement and release of the elements.
The elements are all around us, but if you don’t have access to a particular form you can also watch videos online, listen to recordings, draw pictures of the elements and their allies, imagine them in your meditations, or bring them into your personal space through lighting a candle, caretaking a plant, drinking a glass of water, or blowing air on your skin.
If there is something in your life that is troubling or causing distress, you be curious about if there is an elemental quality that represents the change you seek. Can you bring the feeling of a roaring fire to a conversation you fear, or the glassy surface of a lake after a long and stressful day, or perhaps the invisible power of wind when you are seeking strength and don’t know where you can find it?
You can give yourself a reminder of these qualities, through placing objects with a certain color, drawings, a lockscreen background for your phone with a picture that captures a quality of the element, or a post-it on your mirror that says “you’re made of water.” Consider how you may already be doing this, or where you’re being called.
Experiment and play. What element can you call upon in this moment? How is it already present?