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

| Table of Contents | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Appendix A | Appendix B | Appendix C | References | Bibliography

Chapter 4 - The Theory of the Elements, cont.

The Elements in Polarity

The alchemists understood that transformation could not be relegated to either only the internal realm or the outer realm, as these two separate domains are intimately linked and become one as we learn to approach them from a higher state of consciousness.  The alchemists sought to understand the unifying principles that linked the processes of the outer world with the processes of the inner world.  The human being was the microcosmos to the macrocosm of the Heavens, but realization of this unity required a certain perfection of the human being, which was simultaneously a perfection of the prima material of the world itself. 

An analogy to this process of integration and summation from lower states to higher states which exhibit greater unity and symmetry is found in the work of contemporary particle physicists.  These modern-day alchemists are attempting to show, with the help of massive particle accelerators, how, with higher and higher energies, the various forces that govern the material world – electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force, the strong nuclear (or ‘color’) force, and gravity – are united into a single ‘superforce’.  The differences between the forces are real, but only become manifest through a reduction of energy – a cooling – and in this way are recognized as lower level manifestations of what exists as a single, unifying force at a higher level.  Indeed, physicists have been able to demonstrate how the electromagnetic and weak nuclear forces are actually two expressions of the “electroweak” force, and it is believed that all the other forces follow a similar pattern.

This similarity between the physical search for unification by particle physicists and esoteric or traditional alchemy is not just skin deep; it leads us to a deep realization about the nature of the transformation in the universe.  The alchemists recognize that the border between what is experienced as subjective (coming-from-me) and what is experienced as objective (coming-from-not-me) is completely malleable, and that in the end each domain expands to penetrate the other, completely overlapping to form a new type of experience, which could be called the ‘subjective objective’ – a term coined by Goethe.  This unification of consciousness with the world is directly connected to the way in which the unification – we could say transformation – of the physical forces occurs.  The four fundamental forces appear completely separate from each other in their nature, effects, and domains of operation (just as consciousness and the world do), yet it is just these contrasts which prove central to the very existence and operation of our everyday world; the separation and simultaneous operation and existence of the forces results in the normal manifestations of the physical laws which govern the processes of the physical world.  Yet at higher energies these forces merge together and unify into a single principle of action.  So too, for a consciousness which is transforming itself towards a more integrated manifestation, it is the separation and simultaneous operation and existence of its contents and states of being which form the substrate for all further work towards unification.  What looks separate and individual – whether in physics or in spiritual transformation – is found to operate according to deeper principles which at higher levels work as a unity.  In alchemy, this principle of transformation is embodied through the spagyric method.  This process follows the basic pattern of separation, purification, and unification, and can be applied to work with metals and plants as well as to the moral and spiritual development of the alchemist.

With respect to the four elements, we can see that it is the complementarities, the opposites, and the reciprocalities formed between each that provide the underlying background upon which and through which transformation occurs.  These different polarities are the stage upon which transformation proceeds.  At this level – the level of Air – we become cognizant of how the ability for each element to manifest as something specific and unique arises through tensions between fields of polarities.  Nothing is simply ‘what it is’ or ‘what it just was or will be’ – rather, accompanying each experience is the sense that its contents are but the minutia of a vast, unseen world in continual oscillation and flux.  In the Air we glimpse the nature of the tensions at work within our particular experience and see how these tensions are much greater than just our individual experience, spanning across all potential experiences, providing the structure of the field within and through which any experience might appear.

Another way of saying this: we can have the sense that not only do the elements provide a template for how our own consciousness is structured, but that the elements are objective metaphors – minute expressions of a vast field of potentialities – which are at work equally in our inner world as in our outer world.  Remember that we are here speaking of the patterning at work through the Air-nature of the elements as a whole.  The elements are not simply qualitative aspects of the natural, material world.  They are also not simply a way of organizing our inner experience.  They are indications of the underlying unity of both of these realms; the elements cross the membrane between the inner and the outer in a sensitive oscillation, polarizing experience while at the same time indicating its potential unity through the very act of polarization.  In this way the elements are objective metaphors, self-involved and self-overcoming, at once both concrete and ephemeral, literal and meaningless, fragmented and complete.  They surround and inform experience while negating themselves in the process, disappearing so as to let experience happen.  The alchemist is one who learns to keep them from this disappearance through an act of the trained will, a higher holding in which the holding and the held are equivalent.

When the alchemists saw the elements forming, combining, and separating in the natural world, they recognized the processes of natura naturata – nature as created.  It was understood that the forms and activities found in the natural world qua natura naturata were not representative of their highest potential; they were, in some sense, incomplete.  The natural world could reach a higher perfection with the creative, non-natural help of the alchemists work of transformation, which was a work against nature, an opus contra naturam. To accomplish this transformation, he alchemist took cues from nature, but developed them further in way that could only be done through conscious effort; nature itself doesn’t produce the philosopher’s stone, it can only be created as a further refinement at a higher level of processes which already occur by default in nature.

The work with the four elements is representative of one way of approaching this relationship: the natural processes associated with the elements in the outer world mentioned earlier act as the starting point for a process whereby the qualities of the elements make an appearance as valid descriptors of our own inner life, before further transforming into active, objective metaphors which serve as a mediators for a consciousness attempting to cross the subjective-objective membrane between ‘I’ and ‘the world’.  Stated another way, the patternings found in working with the four elements have both a passive, ‘given’ nature which can usefully describe various phenomena stemming from our experience of the world, while at the same time these patternings provide the basis for a new, creative form of interacting which can further the development of both our own experience and our interaction with the world in a way that brings to fruition processes that would otherwise remain latent. 

In this way, an experience of the Air aspect of the elements leads to a sense of their ability to work from the future, as it were, bringing into the present the possibility for a further development according to the nature of the elements, which on the one hand has its roots firmly in the outer, objective world of natura naturata while also forming a basis for the opus contra naturam.  This reversal of the qualitative aspects of the elements from passive descriptors to active potentials marks the Air quality of the elements as a whole.  Stated algo-rhythmically, consciousness can become aware that in addition to some fact A yielding B, it is also true that B yields A.  The effect is present in the cause; the cause in the effect – each is embedded in the other without losing their separate natures.  If this is confusing, remember that one major quality of the Air element is paradox!

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