A modern reflection on the five elements of earth, water, fire, air and space.
In Tibetan Buddhism the elements are represented by awakened goddesses, manifesting as the different aspects of a fully awakened mind; stability, clarity, discrimination, all accomplishing and all accommodating wisdom.
These goddesses represent more than just qualities of experience, they are seen as living powers that infuse, and give rise to the different necessary aspects of consciousness. They are of the greatest power, because without them no experience is possible and experience is the foundation of our lives. As Ken MacLeod said. ‘We are our experience, nothing more, nothing less.’
The elemental goddesses exist as aspects of awareness that transcend the duality of subject and object. Self and world arise within their domain. However their powers also manifest in life as the more specific, familiar qualities of earth, water, fire, air and space. Goddesses practices deepen our understanding of these elements so we might manifest, purify, and bring them into balance in our lives.
The power of the earth goddess shapes all our experience. It is both immanent or within all of life, and transcendental or beyond the experience of things.
The earth goddess is the power of consciousness to present a stable world, a world of objects that appear solid and dependable. Physics is very clear that the world is not actually like this. A chair is mostly empty space in which probability fields of possible waves or particles appear or not and zoom around at high speed.
Stability is a fundamental need as a quality of experience. It is a quality found both within our experience and more significantly, at the root of our ability to even have an experience. Experience is a fixed representation of the world out there, created by the mind, symbolic and approximate. Without the power of consciousness to stabilise and solidify something out from the constant fluxing of infinitesimal possibilities in the outer world; and without its ability to create an object with form, colour, sound, taste, smell and touch, to symbolise, rationalise and approximate the chaotic kaleidoscopic information it receives, there would be no experience at all.
The very nature of experience is this power to construct a world of symbols, things, out of the endless fluxing of quantum possibilities in which to live. Wow! It is hard to conceive of such a power. We take it for granted in the every act of perception. This transcendental power is inherent in awareness, it is part of the nature of mind itself. The Tibetan Buddhists represented this power to us as the living, fully awakened earth goddess.
From the power of the earth quality comes a sense of self and world, from it arises all the myriad forms of life, the abundance of things, even the presentation of sound, a thought, a feeling. Everything is fixed and objectified through the power of the earth goddess.
This is some power! A power you probably didn’t even know you had. A power you took for granted.
Equanimity is related to the earth element. It is the ability to remain fully present to whatever arises in consciousness, to experience fully without polarising as good or bad, better or worse, fortunate or unfortunate etc. The world the earth element constructs is not moral, it doesn’t differentiate and reward the good and punish the bad, it presents everything as equal. Experience is constructed as symbols created by the mind. All experience has the same fundamental quality, awareness. Because the earth goddess is impartial, without preference she is able to act appropriately, accurately because she sees things just the way they are.
From the earth goddess comes our experience of beauty. When personal projection and partial view is removed, when all subjective preference is transcended, well then the beauty of this radiant goddess streams forth. The world arises as her radiant, living, glorious body.
The powers/qualities of the earth goddess are the same in both the outer physical and inner mental realms. The consciousness in which both worlds arise is the same. Fundamentally the inner and the outer are the same, above and below are the same. This takes some explaining, and I encourage the reader to read my earlier essay. When we connect with the earth quality in the outer world we are connecting with her within ourselves, however we have to recognise this connection consciously for healing to occur.
I experience being grounded, stable, steady, trusting, fertile, patterned when the earth goddess is allowed to flow unhindered through my psyche. I understand these qualities primarily and originally through my connection to the world around me.
When my mind quietens down, when all mental activity settles, it’s then I experience a quality of diamond-like stability as the very nature as awareness itself. Now I am rooted in the un-movable, unshakeable pristine power of the goddess, which will protect me and strengthen me, no matter the turmoil arising in the outer world. I have only to turn to her directly and she will be there to protect me. Like a diamond this quality of awareness is unbreakable, unshakeable, and brilliantly clear.
Cohesion, Connection, relationship, meaning.
Cohesion is fundamental to experience. Our experience needs to make sense, the parts need to relate to each other. If they aren’t related in a way we can understand and accept, we go mad, we disintegrate. Relationship and cohesion are related to meaning.
The more connection, and the more coherence, the more meaning.
Water is the primary medium of communication between cells; cells are built primarily from water and all inner communication happens in this watery medium. The water inside is ‘self’, the water outside is ‘other’. The water allows for all the many interactions within the cell and between the cell and its environment that foster biological life.
Any experience is about relationship, the relationship between the objects of experience, our relationship to the objects in an experience, to the feelings and emotions that arise and to the world we have created. Relationship and cohesion are fundamental to experience and this is the domain of the Water Goddess.
Water is not easily graspable. If you try to grab it, it runs through your fingers, it slips away. Because it doesn’t have a fixed shape it will take the shape of the container we put it in. The smallest hole and it is gone. It flows around all obstacles until it gets back to the ocean. Water is easily disturbed by the wind, it dances with the sun but spits with fire. It is at its most bewitching when mixing up with the other elements. Feelings come and go like clouds in the sky. You can’t hold onto them for long. You can’t predict what shape they will take. We can wake up happy, sad, grumpy or peaceful. We never know until the moment arises. Clouds that build up fall as rain. Water that is dammed up creates a flood when it bursts free. Feelings, dammed up by our determined stories, can overwhelm us. We twist uncomfortably this way and that, like water swirling in a whirlpool. The behaviour of water has a lot in common with our feelings and emotions. Feelings and emotions are the glue of our relationships, they are the meaning-makers in our lives.
Water seems to be forever searching for a way back to the ocean, only to rise again as clouds and fall as rain, and make life on land possible. Over and over, a cycling through every possible infinite expression. Thunderstorms, drizzle, trickling brook, raging rivers, angry sea, placid lake. Water connects the whole of life together, just as feelings connect people and parts of ourselves together.
Water clarifies. Pure, still water is very clear, you can see right through down into the depths. It reflects the outside world with an surreal crispness. It is this clarity that relates to the pristine awareness of the water goddess. She represents the mirror-like wisdom of awareness. She sees everything just the way it is, she sees the hurts and deceits, the fears and jealousies. All the sensitivities, the power games, the need for approval. She reflects it all, with great clarity, and she remains undisturbed. A mirror doesn’t get angry, it doesn’t try to possess its image, it just reflects accurately what appears, nothing hidden, nothing confused.
The disturbances of water are not the quality of water itself. It is the sun that pulls water back up into the sky to repeat its cycle over and over. The water would stay with its great mother in the womb of the ocean if not for the sun. Water itself would stay silent and still if not for the rocks in the stream, the forest in its way, the playful wind and burning sun. Water is the great mother, the stillness and peace of the deep ocean, pure clarity undisturbed by the performances on the surface.
Water is the determination to overcome all obstacles as it flows back down to the ocean. If we follow our feelings deep down inside us, they will take us to the divine.
The clarity of water is inside all its expressions. It is our ability to stay present and unmoved, to allow the cycles of grief and happiness their full expression, neither diminishing, exaggerating nor denying. It is the power to see clearly and with compassion.
Water is a great power in our lives, it is what connects us to others, gives meaning to our lives and ultimately sets us free. It is the great womb of life and, in conjunction with the other elements, the magical dance we live in. Drowning in a pool of tears, refreshed by a glass of cool water, paralysed by an unknown threat, and finally clarity, the freedom for all experience to reveal itself and be just accepted just as it is.
I bow down to the great water goddess, that her awakened power may manifest in me.
The third elemental goddess is associated with fire.
The first earth goddess structures our experience, she creates an experience of stability from the endless fluxing that physics tells us lies behind the appearance of solidity. She is the unbreakable diamond quality of awareness itself and the divine expression of equanimity.
The water goddess manifests in the world as a quality of cohesion, relationship and meaning. She is the mirror-like wisdom of pure awareness and expresses herself through compassion.
Now we turn to the power of the fire goddess and the vital qualities of heat, light, enthusiasm, excitement, intensity, energy, passion, metabolism, creativity and vitality that she brings to experience.
All life on earth depends on the energy of the sun. Some of this radiation is sequestered by plants and stored in high energy sugars. These sugars, packed with the sun’s energy, feed the rest of life.
But what exactly is this precious stuff we are calling energy? No one knows. It is an invisible magical power. Take its manifestation as light. We can measure light as wavelengths, in terms of amplitude and frequency, but this doesn’t say anything about the experience or nature of light itself, which is obviously quite different from these measurements. When someone turns on a light I am not seeing wavelengths, I am seeing light. Light only exists in experience. Wavelengths are mental abstractions. The word ‘light’ names an experience, not a mathematical formula.
The fire goddess manifests an essential quality of all awareness and experience. She is not a quantitative abstraction.
Similarly when we enquire into the direct experience of warmth, we cannot reduce our experience to vibrating molecules. Warmth is an experience, not an abstract scientific theory.
So what exactly is this energy stuff that manifests as light or heat, that is somehow the essence of light and heat. It seems to be nothing at all that we can name. We can name its expressions, but pure energy? Certainly physics has no idea. It describes energy in terms of relationships, in terms of measurements, but as we have already seen this somehow misses the point. All life is utterly dependent on energy and yet we can’t put our finger on what it is.
Maybe this is because it is a quality of awareness itself, part of the structure of experience. Within experience it manifests as light and heat, enthusiasm and creativity, intensity, but in itself it is something quite different. Like the earth and water elements, it is a quality that makes experience possible.
When someone turns a light on in a dark room we can see what is there. When the light of awareness penetrates the darkness of the unconscious mind we can see what is there – we can know our experience. The unconscious mind is full of stuff, a whole universe of patternings. We can’t know what is there until the light of awareness shines on it with discrimination. Until consciousness attends to the world, it is only a potential world. This power of awareness enables us to make manifest or know our experience, to separate pieces out from an unsorted, undefined unseen whole. In the Book of Genesis God says ‘let light shine out of the darkness.’ Something from within the darkness becomes light. The unconscious becomes conscious. Both these words are complete mysteries too of course.
Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge. They came to know their experience, they could name it, they became self conscious. Energy is related to this quality of making known, making manifest, the possibility of (knowing) anything at all.
Quantum physic would say that until we know something, name it, it doesn’t yet exist.
Fire energy can also be about intensity, passion, a desire to increase. Passion is propelled by our intrigue with the unknown, a wanting to posses or consume what is other than us. We desire what is unattainable, mysterious, at a distance. The dance of life is the process of separation and the yearning for reunion, the dance of electron and protons, prised apart when the universe began, coming back together as atoms and molecules. The greater the difference the greater the attraction. What is the same may be comfortable but it doesn’t stimulate the fire element. A desire is consummated when the object it utterly known, when we become one with it.
One of our deepest desires as human beings is to know who we are, to know our fullness, our wholeness. This takes us into the realm of the enlightened goddess, who is awake to every aspect of herself, in all of life, as life. The pristine awareness of the fire goddess is discriminating awareness. She is awake to the detail of all her experience. She knows herself as particular experience discriminated out from the whole and as the very possibility of any conscious experience at all. The divine expression of the fire goddess is loving kindness, for to know is to love. To know something is to be fully present to it, to be one with it, to love it.
The next elemental goddess is the air goddess. Air is related to the breath, the wind, prana and the spirit. Air is related to movement, air rushing in and out of the lungs, trade winds sweeping across the spinning planet. Standing in a strong wind makes us feel alive. If something is moving it is alive, the more movement the more life. To be moved is to be alive. When someone doesn’t react, or respond in any way, we say they are dead.
The element of air is related to change. Movement is change.
Thoughts change very quickly. Feelings are slower to change and the behaviour and actions of the body are even slower.
Everything is moving, even a rock is a mass of constant inner movement. If all movement instantaneously ceased, there would be nothing at all.
Movement is the experience of change in the field of perception. When things are changing we come to life, we take notice. When things don’t change we go to sleep, life slips away, years go by unlived. The air element brings a quality of flexibility, liveliness, quickness, freshness to our thoughts and lives.
Thoughts and ideas bubble up in our minds continuously. A new thought can change our entire view of the world, a friend can instantly become an enemy; a new thought can change our perception entirely. The upwelling of ideas heralds change, the possibility of a new direction, a new life.
‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ The idea or word bursts forth from unconsciousness, an idea pops into our mind, an impulse yet to take on form, insisting on becoming in the world.
This power of consciousness to initiate, move, to change, to bring forth is the power of the air goddess. But where exactly do our words, and the words of God come from? How does a word or idea have such power?
In quantum physics matter is observed to emerge spontaneously out of the void. How or why this happens is totally incomprehensible. To the question ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ the scientist has no answer.
This possibility of anything at all is the power of the air goddess. This is a living power, it is the essence of life, its spirit, and it gives birth to the worlds we live in.
This power, like all the powers of the goddesses, is beyond our understanding.
The pristine awareness of the air goddess is that of effective or all-accomplishing wisdom. It manifests in life as the ability to do what is required in a particular circumstance, nothing more and nothing less. It is spontaneous action, arising as an immediate response to the whole situation. It is the principle that says, ‘the world will tell you what to do.’
I bow down to the transcendental power of the air goddess, the giver of life, the holy spirit. What a wondrously glorious goddess she is. Her divine expression in life is sympathetic joy, the ability to be present to the happiness of another, to all of life bursting forth spontaneously in joy.
The last elemental goddesses manifesting in experience is space. She enters our lives as the quality of spaciousness, ease, vastness, expansiveness. When space is present we feel that everything can be accommodated, there is always room, time, and capacity. When we are rooted in the openness of space it is easy to remain present and engaged.
We all have a tendency to fill up space so there is no possibility for anything new. We keep ourselves distracted by the already known. Although we cry out for more space we have a primal fear of this element. We fear that unwelcome thoughts and feelings may bubble to the surface. We fear we may be sucked into the black hole of the primordial, we may dissolve back into the nothing we came from. It’s as if we somehow know we are not all that solid. Space, related to consciousness itself, is the totally empty ground of all our experience; as a pristine power it is the mystery of boundless, unmanifest awareness.
When space opens up we feel bored, we have nothing around us to establish an identity, a relationship. We have no point-of-view, no preference, no ideas. We need the other four elements to start dancing.
However none of the other elements can manifest without space. It is the blank canvas upon which a living painting is made, the ground in which the figure is drawn. While space itself signifies non-existence – the unmanifest – it is bursting with all the potential of life.
Space can feel disorientating, because it gives us nothing to hold onto. In the experience of meditation, however, it can feel like the place we come home to. A home from which we experience the momentary rising and passing of all phenomenal experience.
When the mind is fully grounded in spacious awareness, the world can appear as if floating in space, a miraculous and spontaneous display, an immaculate birth, where everything is bursting forth in the clear light of awareness.
This open space of awareness contains our whole world. Nothing we experience can exist outside of this space. It has no boundaries, is never disturbed but remains clear, open and accommodating. Space is intrinsically unknowable. We take it for granted, and yet it is a total mystery. Without space there is no possibility of anything at all.
The pristine awareness attributed to the space goddess is the wisdom of totality, and all accommodating wisdom. Everything is accommodated. Everyone and everything is invited to the feast. I bow down to the space goddess, she who creates the space into which all things are born.
I bow down to the pristine awarenesses of earth, water, fire, air and space.
Only by the ineffable powers of these goddesses is experience possible.
Only by their unending beneficence is existence and life possible.
Only through their incomprehensible activity are the worlds we live in born.
May any benefit of these reflections be shared with all beings.
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