Alchemical Cycle Logo Master's Thesis:
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 as Mandala

An understanding of the Air aspects of the elements acts as the turning point from the elements as a passive ordering scheme to their nature as an active principle with transformative potential – their Fire nature.  We have seen that the transformative pattern of the elements moves from Earth to Water to Air and Fire, with the further creation of a New Earth.  The initial content of the Earth element evolves through the successive revelations given by each higher element, with a culmination in an insight at the Fire level.  This quite quickly becomes another ‘that’, the New Earth of another fact that can be categorized, questioned, forgotten, or tested further – it becomes a seed that can itself be brought into its Water, Air, and Fire states.

This archetypal movement through the elements forms a higher-order pattern, a continuous cycle, significant for its completeness, coherency, and capacity for evolution.  Any single element is incapable of affecting a complete transformation, yet within each single element are the threads which naturally lead to each of the other elements and thus to a picture of the whole, of the elemental cycle, pictured below.

The Elemental Spiral

At the Fire level, we recognize that the elements are in fact not capable of purely isolated existence, but require all the others; the elements comprise a unity.  At the same time, the elements are holographic: the whole is present in each of the parts.  If we examine the Earth element very closely, we will begin to notice that aspects that might normally be seen to belong to the other elements cannot be kept completely isolated, but are 'embedded' within the Earth.  Uniqueness, Relatedness, Polarity, the Whole - each of these qualities describes each element; it is only through a conscious act that we separate them. This is the work of the alchemist: to consciously work to identify the pieces, which begin as an unconscious unity, purify and understand them individually, and then bring them back together into a new, higher unity.

The elemental cycle is also fractal. This is different than simply being holographic in that the self-embeddedness of fractality is structured through patterns, specifically in this case the movement from one element to the next in a spiral/cycle.  Thus, what seems to be an Earth (or a Water, Air, or Fire) aspect of some situation, thought, or phenomenon is understood as having the potential to 'unfold' and 'enfold' all the other elements. In other words, there is always both a lower, more intricate, detailed, or "Earth" level of the entire cycle within each element, as well as there also existing a higher, larger, more general and expanded "Fire" level of the entire cycle within each element.

This dependency of each element upon the next works in both ways: from Earth to Fire but also from Fire to Earth.  We can think of the dependency from Fire to Earth as one of potential and the dependency from Earth to Fire as one of content.  This corresponds to the involution/evolution theme prevalent in alchemy and hermeticism.  In the involutory direction we see that the archetype of the Fire element is actually required for its (the archetype’s) appearance in the form of the polarities of the Air, which are the necessary background within which the rhythmic processing of the Water must occur, out of which a solidification can occur into the bare facts of the Earth.    

Working from Earth to Fire, in the evolutionary direction, we see that the insight and experience gained in working with the Fire level is only possible because of the ready silence engendered in Air, which requires the rhythmic processing of Water which itself requires the initial facts and data of Earth, which could only have become Earth because they are the result of a previous fruition in the Fire – even if only implicitly. 

This is a powerful insight because it points us towards the activity of the Fire element at work within every Earth.  Any thought, any experience, and any feeling which once enters our consciousness as something graspable in itself (an Earth), has behind it a complete process which allowed it to become something particular for us in the first place.  So much of our daily consciousness is taken up with Earth elements that we naturally ignore the bulk of their content – paying attention to every fact of experience separately would be quite an impossible burden.  Even more so is the underlying elemental process at work behind each fact kept concealed from our normal attention.  Indeed, we can see how the very coming into being of a single Earth fact is actually a way in which the underlying elemental process clothes itself so as to become visible to our gaze.  We are beings who are continually falling out of process through the activity of our consciousness – but our consciousness has the capacity to discover this process anew if it undertakes the necessary work.

The elemental cycle provides the basis for just this work, which allows us to train our consciousness to move with the various aspects represented by the elements in a controlled way.  With an understanding of the elements, we can begin to see how within our own consciousness we have distinct tendencies to embody, reflect, and manifest according to the nature of our situation particular aspects of Earth, Water, Air, or Fire. With some elements we find ourselves quite at home, capable of dwelling for long periods of time with relative ease, while the same prospect with other elements makes us feel anxious, irritated, even fearful or worse.

If we begin to train our consciousness by patterning its movements after the archetypal movements embodied by the four elements, we begin to open up a wider palette for potential experience.  We gain the capacity to respond in novel, creative, and archetypally sound ways to situations that previously had our souls locked in a stimulus-response pattern.  By entering consciously into the underlying archetypes of the transformation of the elements, we train our souls in the elemental game of our own lives, learning to skillfully transition from one element to the next as the situation requires.  This creates a sensitivity that before was lacking; we can experience the elemental qualities of any situation, thought, feeling, or behavior, and have a sense for how that experience might have been brought into its present state and how it might evolve to the next.

The fact that the patterning of the elements is in part built up from and deeply corresponds with the evolution seen in processes which take place naturally provides a built-in safeguard when we begin to transform natura naturata into our own opus contra naturam.  We become artistic experimentalists, learning to descry the objective potentials for transformation with greater and greater skill, and every result provides feedback on the process as a whole, which further reflects on our own capacity and skill.  In other words, the elemental cycle has a self-limiting nature – it does not, when used in accordance with its own nature, yield runaway results or overwhelming feedback.  Rather, its tendency is to always move towards a larger coherence that avoids stasis, repetition, randomness, and self-inflation, precisely because it includes just these aspects in a healthy, progressive interrelation, i.e. in the elemental cycle itself.

This self-inclusion also shows up in the fact that work with the elemental cycle proceeds iteratively: an input yields an output which becomes a new input.  In the previous drawing this is represented by the dotted arrows moving from one element to the next.  In fact the fractal nature of the elemental cycle naturally results from its iterative nature: the results of a single movement/form/process are not isolated from the activity of the process itself - there is a reciprocation, a relation from the results back to the process, which then continues to produce new results on this basis.  The process continually modifies itself.

As a consequence of this, the cycle produces results which have the tendency to shift levels.  This is an interesting aspect of the Fire nature of the elemental cycle – its application over repeated cycles does not produce results which stay at the same qualitative level as the original Earth.  Rather, iterating the results of an application of the elemental cycle generally widens and deepens the playing field considerably, allowing transitions of scale both on an outer (content) level as well as on an inner (meaning) level.  This is indicated by the many-layered spiral in the background of the image, and upon which we can trace a movement both inward and outward – corresponding to the inward involution of the levels of potential represented by the elements and to the outward evolution of actual content within these levels of potential.

Treading the path of alchemical transformation through the four elements has not only the effect of dissolving the barrier between objects and their processes, but simultaneously leads to a sense that the processes themselves are traces of the movements of beings.  The alchemists spoke of the anima mundi, the World Soul, which was the name for an experience in which the alchemist’s material manipulations became directly and objectively understood as the speech of ensouled beings – the beings of the World.  Matter was not completely separate from Spirit, but rather these two polarities came together to manifest as the middle realm of the Soul, a realm to which the alchemist’s own soul-life could gain access in an objective way through work, study, and prayer.

Working with the four elements becomes a soul-training in which we learn the alphabet, grammar, and lexicon of the World Soul, whose speech takes the form of objective images which are freed from the historical psychography of our personas.  Craig Chalquist, founder of terrapsychology, indicates that

the alchemists were listening into, digesting, and writing down what their ensouled materials precipitated into the alchemical imagination: the alchemists were hearing the psychic sound of an animated world, with the substances they sought to transform serving as psychological portals into the world's interiority. (Chalquist, 2007 p. 94)

Work with the elemental cycle as a mandala, a tool for meditative focusing, can lead to this experience, where we no longer identify ourselves as the sole creative agent of the contents of our imagination of the elements; rather we experience what the elements themselves are speaking to us.  This is the potential that Goethe was hinting at when he said “There is a delicate empiricism that makes itself utterly identical with the object, thereby becoming true theory.  But this enhancement of our mental powers belongs to a highly evolved age.” (Miller, 1995 p. 307)  Of course to a modern, soulless science of matter this seems like a profound self-delusion, an absurd, animistic projection which is at best worthless as an approach to understanding the world.  But, as Chalquist rightfully points out

If the alchemists weren’t projecting, if the things we manipulate bear their own psychic reality, as Jung believed now and again, then the capacity for entertaining ‘animism’ is not a symptom of primitivism, but a quality of active engagement with things. (Chalquist, 2007 p. 93)

The adepts understood this, and recognized that their work helped to bring nature to a higher state through loving human attention.  In fact, Chalquist redefines the prima materia as “a happening waiting for an attention-triggering agent.” (Chalquist, 2007 p. 96)  This agent is the fire of a human attention that dares to delve through the surfaces presented to our outer senses to touch the interiority of the beings at work there.  The alchemist, then, is one who creates new organs of perception – we could call them psychic organs – which can be made sensitive to the various ways in which the beings of the world reveal themselves.  In so doing, human attention triggers the attention of these beings, opening the possibility for a new kind of dialogue with the world.  This dialogue happens ‘on the inside’ but is not ‘merely’ subjective for that, as it is a direct sharing and intermingling of our ‘inside’ with the world’s.  At the same time, it is a dialogue which also occurs ‘on the outside’ in every physical interaction we have with the world, and the activities of nature given to our sense organs becomes a language that shines with the inner light of the beings of the world.  As we have seen, and as Goethe indicates, the outwardness and inwardness actually comprise a single unity, and in the actual experience are not distinguished from each other.

Top | Next: Chapter 4: The Theory of the Elements: The Elements as Mandala: Using the Elemental Mandala in an Earthy Way

© 2008 Seth Miller | Site: Spirit Alchemy Design |
Site map | Search this site