Working with the Four Elements

by Cathy Douglas

The first time I heard of the four classical elements, it was from a middle school chemistry teacher who was making fun of the whole idea. He said that modern concepts like atoms and the periodic table of the elements had made the division of things into earth, water, air and fire obsolete. For him, he two ways of looking at the world were a contrast between an older (ignorant) way of looking at nature and a modern (enlightened) one.

Which sort of made sense, until he then taught us everything in nature is divided into solid, liquid, gas and plasma/energy. Seemed like a pretty tight correspondence with the four elements to me!

But the time-tested idea of the elements isn’t just about abstract theories. The elements can form the basis of a system of correspondences, through which we can work with nature and her laws to improve our lives. Going even deeper, we can work with the four elements and their representatives, the elementals or elemental devas, to forge a deep connection between human and nature.

Air ElementWater ElementFire ElementEarth Element

Here are some ideas about how to do that:

Elements in your living space: Many people keep symbols of the four elements on their altar, or somewhere else in their living space. I have four mini-altars, one for each element, and also natural symbols like feathers and shells in the windowsills facing each direction. I feel this helps keep a good balance of energy in my home.

Meditation: There are many ways to meditate on the elements — focusing on them within your own body, immersing your mind in elemental images from nature, or meditating with associated crystals and other representative objects. One way to meditate on them in balance is to use a tree meditation below.

Tarot: The four tarot suits are based on the four elements. Traditionally, swords are associated with air, wands with fire, chalices with water, and pentacles with earth. In any tarot spread, considering the elemental implications of the cards is part of the reading — often a big part. For example, if you draw a five-card spread and four of the cards come from the chalices, the reading will most likely focus on emotions. This can be a great intuitive way to find out if something is out of balance or needs attention. And if tarot isn’t your thing, various oracle decks also use the elements.

Working with elementals: Elementals, sometimes called elemental devas, are spiritual personifications of the elements. The best place to find them is out in nature, where you may sense their presence or even see something out of the corner of your eye. Elementals of each type have places they prefer: Earth elementals are fond of caves, for example, and water elementals of natural springs. Working with spiritual beings always involves a certain suspension of disbelief, and some unlearning of simplistic images — time to let go of those garden gnomes and sexpot mermaids! Elementals are not gods, but rather beings that occupy a plane somewhere between gods and humans. They are powerful and a little wild, so take care in working with them. Be especially careful when asking for a favor: state your needs exactly, being careful not to request too much, lest you end up with more than you can handle. You’ll also want to mind your pleases and thankyous, and leave a small but appropriate token of appreciation.

As a Key to Understanding: Probably the basic way to use the elements is to simply use them as a way to understand the world. Elements are especially helpful in understanding personality. When you meet new people, reading their elemental make-up can give you a quick and effective way to know how to interact with them. For example, if a new boss has a strongly grounded earth personality, you’ll want to be extra careful to read the employee manual and meet all your deadlines; on the other hand, if you see more air in their personality, you may want to get ready for midnight brainstorming sessions! Either way, getting this kind of early “read” on the people around you can help you know what to expect.

These are just a few of the ways to interact the elements and benefit from their help. It’s something anyone can add to their spiritual practice and learn from. You may even wind up teaching your science teacher a thing or two!

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