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The Elements as an Archetype of Transformation:
An Exploration of Earth, Water, Air, and Fire

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Chapter 4 - The Theory of the Elements, cont.

The Elements in Relation

Examining the elements in their natural formations has given us a solid foundation upon which to build our further understanding of the elements.  But considering each element in relative isolation is a quality of Earth thinking that has the tendency to lead only to more facts – to an ever-burgeoning list of data bits.  Alchemically, such a process of continually breaking down information into smaller and smaller components leads to what is known as dust.  If we take a physical metaphor, our science of particle physics has reached the boundaries of this process in its understanding of the fundamental particles of the Standard Model.  Yet our world is only capable of existing because the individual bits of dust do not remain isolated within themselves, but instead operate according to processes that continually bring them into relation with their surroundings.

In our case, we can see how the elements are capable of being more than simply external physical objects, or even a list of qualitative descriptors of such objects.  Rather, the elements have the capacity of relating to objects, events, and other phenomena which are outside themselves and – from a completely Earth perspective – different from them.  It is precisely the element of Water which at first transcends this lower boundary, below which each element is simply a sign for itself, a disclosure of its overt nature to the overt nature of the wider world.  With the addition of Water, a new character is brought into play that heretofore has be lacking – a character which is already encoded in the qualities that water as a physical object possesses, but which have yet to be brought to light.

WaterfallIn other words, the Water element brings a fluidity, a relational capacity, and a mediatory influence – not just to itself but to all the elements, just as each element has its Earth nature (discussed in the previous section).  In this sense, then, we can consider now, from the perspective of water, how each element is capable of being not just a sign for itself, but what we could call a cipher, in which a stream of meaning has been encoded through a process which relates signs to other signs, viz. A = B. 15

With respect to the elements we can see that, in the Earth realm, what stood as isolated facts now can take on an additional layer of meaning – a layer that does not obscure the initial facts, but rather enhances them by bringing them into connection with surrounding facts.  A wonderful example of this occurs in the tonal languages of Mandarin, where speakers are limited to approximately 200 phonemes (individual sounds).   The addition of distinct tones allows speakers to differentiate words, but this alone is not enough, as many different words sound exactly alike (homophones).  It requires context – often significant context – in order to be able to distinguish the variety of possible meanings.  This is a picture of how the Water element is strongly present in such languages.  It makes for a wholly different kind of poetry, in which a standard four-character poem is capable of carrying a vast multitude of meanings through its aural associations and contextual combinations.  As Alan Watts indicates, “Chinese has the peculiar advantage of being able to say many things at once and to mean all of them.” (Watts & Huang, 1975)  It is perhaps not too far a stretch to speculate on the relationship between this quality of the language, the cultural formulation of Taosim 16, in which the qualities of Water are uniquely addressed, and Watery movement arts such as T’ai Chi.

At first this applies to the previous discussion concerning the nature of the elements by offering a path from one element to the next.  The qualities of the Earth element have within them the potential for transformation along many paths.  The particular quality that the Water element offers serves to structure the flow of such transformation so that it occurs with a certain smoothness, a delicacy that is continually cognizant of the immediate environment, of its nearby history and future.  In this sense, then, we can see that no element remains completely itself for long, but that each element is continually evolving out of the previous element and evolving into the next.  The Earth element transforms into the Water element, which transforms again into the Air element, which finally yields the Fire element.

The same pattern helps each element transition from one to the next.  The solidity of the Earth, due to a warming process, reaches a point where it can no longer maintain its form, and must yield to a higher, more energized state: Water.  With increased warmth, the Water too, can no longer keep its self-connectedness, and is transformed into an Air state, where each tiny aspect becomes freed from its neighbors.  This state, more energetic than the Water state, still can be warmed further.  Here the warmth itself, having been the active principle of transformation all along, finally yields up its own nature.  In so doing, we are treated to its all-encompassing activity, inherent in all the lower stages but now finally revealed in its own light.

The fact that such transformation is possible at all is a stunning fact about our universe.  The elements, which we at first encounter through the outer multiplicity of the physical objects around us, have the capacity to relate to each other so deeply that they can actually become each other.  Earth, although having quite definite qualities, has the potential to manifest Water qualities, just as Water can become Air and Air can become Fire.  Indeed, every element can become any other element through the regulation of processes properly linking the first and last element. 

This understanding points the way to the fact that beneath the seeming proliferation of the manifest substances of the world lies some potential unity which is itself not manifest.  This is the insight that led the alchemists to recognize the difference between water and Water, between air and Air, and so forth.  The base, physical substances – all of them – are not absolute, but are all manifestations of the prima materia, the ‘first substance’ which has the potential to become any particular substance that has qualities accessible to our normal sensory organs.  The four elements, then, are understood not simply as outer physical substances, but as categorical stages of development through which the prima materia is endlessly passing.  The four elements are groups of qualities – patterns, modes of being – into which the all-encompassing potential of the prima materia presses itself in order to become manifest.

This is the background for the principle of sympathy, or the doctrine of ‘signatures’, which played an important part in alchemy: things which are seemingly quite different may in fact be expressive of one and the same set of principles.  Although most commonly relating plant forms and growth patterns to human anatomy and physiology, the doctrine of signatures was also understood as a general principle linking the unseen world of the spirit with the manifest world of matter, for example as presented in De Signatura Rerum, a major wok by the early 17th century Christian mystic Jacob Böhme, who was heavily influenced by alchemy, notably through Paracelsus.  

The principles forming the links – the ‘signatures’ – between phenomena are discovered through an awakening to their Water level; that is, the signatures of the phenomena can only be read once they are understood not just as objects but as processes.  It was indeed felt that the book of Nature was continually being written by unseen hands, and that the apparent multiplicity carried beneath it deep currents of patterned behavior; the four elements were such patternings.

Yet the realization of the process-nature of the external world was inherently mingled with the co-discovery of the process-nature of the alchemists own inner experience.  The alchemists understood that the only reason the processes of the natural world could be elaborated and understood was because the same processes were at work within the individual – the forces that work in building up a particular flower can also be found in the human: transformed but recognizable if one knows where, and more importantly how to look.  Rather than seeing this, as would a later, materialistic science, as simply a projection of fantasy onto a dead, abstract world, the alchemists recognized the specific workings of their central principle: “As above, so below; as below, so above.”

The question of how we approach the disparate phenomena of the world is central to understanding the Watery nature of the elements, as each element offers a lens through which we can interact with our surroundings and our own selves.  Earth, Water, Air, and Fire are thus, as recognized explicitly by Bockemuhl, Hoffman, and Klocek, descriptive of states of consciousness – habitual modes of ‘being-in’ oneself and ‘being-in’ the world.  They describe patterns of potentials which can be variously activated through our thoughts, our emotions, and our outer behaviors, forming a subtle web of underlying meanings that run through the different aspects of our being like an artist’s color scheme.

Thus we see that through examining the qualities of each element not in isolation but as stages which are continually moving from one to the next, we find that these qualities are not simply descriptions of outer physicalities, but are expressive of our own inner processes as well.  The elements are like similes, connecting through a shared set of qualities two seemingly separate phenomena: the outer world and our own, personal inner world.  We can have the experience that the qualities that are at first found purely externally are in fact precisely representative of the inner drama of our own consciousness, which can manifest itself through the patternings at work within each element.  A whole book could be written detailing how the four elements manifest within the explicitly human realm, so only a very brief introduction to some important aspects the inner nature of these states is taken up below.  It should be explicitly noted, however, that the descriptions below are general and somewhat superficial, and that the actual manifestation of the elemental qualities can be much more subtle, interconnected, and deep than the broad strokes below might indicate.  Each element has manifestations tempered by every other element, and it is not as if the states below ever show up in isolation.  Therefore, these descriptions are meant to be taken as guides for our thinking, and should not be taken in too “Earthy” a way.


15: Back See Chapter 7 for an in-depth discussion of sign, cipher, symbol, and archetype.

16: Back Alan Watts even calls Taoism the “watercourse way” and has a book by that title.

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