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The Four Elements

Guided Example

Here is an easy and quick way to get a taste of the qualities of the different elements.  In particular this exercise is good for giving you an experience of the most subtle element, Fire.  On the next page of this document is an image – don’t look at it yet!  I want to prepare you first so you can experience each element fully.

Your task is twofold, and both parts are simultaneous.  The first instruction is easy: look at the image after reading through the rest of the instructions and ask yourself the question “What is this an image of?”  The second instruction can be difficult: pay close attention to your consciousness while you are trying to figure out what you are looking at.  That’s basically it, but here’s some more detailed help, specifically for the second task:

Following these two instructions will take you through a whole process which will include aspects from each of the four elements.  Many things will go through your mind as you gaze at the image, but see if you can become aware of the following – (it can help to keep very brief notes, even in the form of keywords, to help you reflect on this process later):

  1. The overt content of your actual thoughts – (what you are thinking, which you could speak to another).
  2. Your emotions – Track how your emotional state changes as you look at the image.  Are you excited, frustrated, curious, dubious, bored, exacerbated, annoyed, jubilant, carefree, restless, sad, jaded, critical, joyful, timid, aggressive, patronizing, etc?  See if you can jot down a sequence of emotions in the order that you experience(d) them.
  3. The changing qualities of your consciousness – (for example, would you describe your consciousness as: sharp, clear, focused, dizzy, muddled, absolute, oscillatory, simple, spread-out, hazy, expanded, linear, fixed, etc.?)  This will very likely change and shift dramatically while you are examining the image – try to get a feeling for how your consciousness changes from one quality to the next as you explore the image in different ways.
  4. Any insights or moments of revelation.

Okay, now examine the image 40 (opens in a new window) – it is best if you print and cut it out in a circle so that you can look at it from any direction, but this is not necessary if you instead wish to turn the page around (or turn your head if you are only looking at the image on the screen).  Take a minute to look at the image and then come back here.

Can you identify what the image represents?  How sure are you?  Here is a hint: of all the possible interpretations of the image, one in particular is “the right one”, and any other interpretation is significantly less right.  How does this make you feel?  The dilemma is: how do you know when you have found the ‘right’ interpretation?  What if I told you that once you have found the ‘right’ interpretation, what you see will agree with everyone else who also finds the ‘right’ interpretation; that is, the ‘right’ interpretation is not based on your own personal imagination, but will have an objective quality.

Keep looking at the image until you “see it”.  You will know when you see it, and you will be 100% sure that what you see is the right interpretation for the purposes of this exercise.  Once you have seen it, proceed to the discussion on the next page which will help you see how your experience was a complete cycle through the elements.  And don’t go reading ahead hoping that I tell you what the correct interpretation is (I won’t) – this would detract from your experience!

I’m assuming at this point that you have discovered what the image represents.  On this basis, we can speak of your experience of first seeing the image (A), your experience of working to identify the image (which I will call B and C for reasons that will become apparent), your moment of recognition (D), and your experience after recognizing the image (E).  All four elements were at work within this sequence.

When you first saw the image (A), you almost certainly didn’t know what you were looking at.  You were presented with a visual fact – an Earth – a bunch of irregular black and white shapes surrounded by a black circle.  This visual experience is ‘objective’ in the sense that it is available equally to everyone with a normal pair of eyes (barring deeper philosophical considerations), while at the same time, what was present for your eyes never changed throughout this experiment – the same shapes kept the same relative orientation to each other regardless of how or when you observed it.  You can rely on the shapes… but that’s about it!

If you were careful in your self-observation, you probably noticed that as soon as you saw the black and white shapes, a whole process began inside your consciousness.  You had a goal: determine what the image represented.  You went through a series of mental processes whereby you tried to make ‘sense’ out of what you were seeing (B).  What is the scale?  The right orientation?  Is it an abstract figure or does it represent something tangible?  At some point you probably got a linking that seemed to have some promise: maybe the image is a figure of a mountain?   Somehow you internally ‘tested’ this idea against the idea that there is one ‘right’ interpretation of the image.  You probably went through a number of cycles of finding some interpretation of the image, testing it, and discarding it because it just didn’t feel right.  This drama proceeded, your thoughts flowed one into the next, forming a sequence of associations, while your emotions also changed on the basis of your tolerance for working within the imposed instructions.  This whole process of relating ideas to the visual experience of the image is a Water experience.

Unless you saw the figure very quickly (some people see it almost immediately), this type of Water processing likely proceeded until you approached a kind of limit.  You started to run out of ideas, of ways of looking at the figure, of tolerance for the exercise, and everything that occurred to you didn’t pass muster when you asked yourself: Do I know with 100% surety that what I see is ‘it’? Maybe you even started to wonder if maybe this whole thing was some kind of manipulation.  Maybe there is more than one ‘right’ answer?  Who is to tell me that if I see a baby’s face I am wrong?

At this point you probably didn’t quite know what to do or how to proceed so as to fulfill the requirements of the instructions and ‘see the right thing’ in the image.  This is the Air state (C).  Your initial enthusiasm for the exercise may have been replaced with frustration – even anger – at its seeming difficulty, even impossibility, and any number of emotional responses and thoughts might have started to occur to you.  Maybe I’m just stupid, maybe I don’t care about this and I’ll just skip to the end, maybe I’m determined to buckle down and win this little war no matter what it takes, maybe I’ll find a way to cheat, maybe I think this is now too boring to proceed, maybe it’s just not worth my time to continue, maybe I just need to see it ‘fresh’, maybe I shouldn’t give up because I trust that there really is some specific thing to see, etc.  Generally, getting into an Air state can bring out the widest possible responses, each of which shows something of your own patterns and habits when things start to come up against limits or are taken to their extremes.  We each have a different tolerance for being ‘in Air’, where we are farthest from the solid, dependable facts of the Earth.  In the Air state we feel both like “this can’t go on forever – it has to change” while also sensing “yet this may actually go on forever and I’ll never get anywhere!”  This is the polarity of Air.

Luckily, this polarity does come to a resolution; at some point you finally see the intended image (D).  This recognition occurred, unlike the previous states, almost instantaneously – first you didn’t know what the image represented, then suddenly you did.  How did this happen?  What actually changed?  You likely had the experience of a real release, of a coming together, of satisfaction and completion.  Now everything makes sense, you ‘get it’, and probably made some exclamation like ‘Aha!’ or had some other change in your breath pattern.  This is the Fire element at work.  We must be very careful here to distinguish the actual experience of the moment of revelation from what immediately follows, which is quite different in quality and content.  When you relate your ‘before-seeing’, ‘moment-of-seeing’ and ‘after-having-seen’ experiences with the image, you might point out some aspects like those which are presented in the following chart, which indicate something of how the Fire experience acts on the previous stages and creates a new one:

Before: (Earth, Water, and Air)

During Revelation: (Fire)

After: (New Earth)

Randomness, chaotic









Percept (seeing) doesn’t match concepts (thinking)

A concept unites with the percept

Percept and concept inextricably linked together

Many potentials

Constellating together into unity

Single actuality




Questioning, testing


New knowing





Once you have ‘seen’ the right thing in the image, and the moment of recognition passes, you are no longer directly in the Fire element, but have passed on to a New Earth.  Now, regardless of the orientation, distance, angle, and position of the image you can almost effortlessly see the same figure.  Your conceptual interpretation is now inextricably linked to the visual experience of the black and white pattern, to the point where it becomes difficult to not see what you now see.  This is the addition of a stubborn new fact to your world, which is the ash that falls out of the burning process that occurred in the moment of recognizing the image for what it was.

Your particular experience with the image is of course specific to you, and will vary somewhat from the general outline presented above.  I have attempted to make the above not so specific that I inadvertently alienate any possible likely experience with the process while not being so general as to fail in providing useful information about the actual similarities at work in the process which are resiliently consistent from person to person.  Hopefully upon reflection you can see that the simple process of seeing an unknown image and figuring out what it represents actually quite clearly takes you through an experience of each of the four elements in their proper order, from Earth to Water to Air to Fire and finally to a New Earth.

Now, with a basic understanding and experience of the four elements, you can use their principles to help you explore, illuminate, and discover creative ways of working with any type of phenomenon you choose, which is what the next section will help you achieve.

Here is another image to work with in the same way if you wish to try this procedure anew (again, look at it from every orientation).


40: Back The original image is from E.A. Burtt. 1980. The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. P. 83, but was scanned from a reference in Bortoft, H. (1996). The wholeness of nature : Goethe's way toward a science of conscious participation in nature. Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Books p.50


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