Alchemical Cycle Logo Master's Thesis:
The Elements as an Archetype of Transformation:
An Exploration of Earth, Water, Air, and Fire

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Chapter 5 – Applications of the Elemental Cycle

Limitations and Boundaries

The elemental cycle is very schematic in nature.  This provides both its primary strength and its major limitation.  The mandala is not meant to be primarily a classificatory scheme, whereby any given phenomenon is reduced to a four-fold division, yet using the cycle in this way is likely to be the most agreeable and direct way of gaining familiarity with it.  In other words, the elemental cycle is easiest to understand and apply in its Earth mode, but (if we have learned anything about the elemental cycle) this is only representative of its lowest potentiality.  Regardless of this, the quaternary nature of the elemental cycle is unavoidable.

Other ways of approaching process and transformation exist – methods that are twofold, threefold, sevenfold, ninefold, and twelvefold in particular can be found in a wide variety of disciplines.  Even in alchemy we can quite usefully integrate a threefold approach (Salt, Sulfur, and Mercury) and a twofold approach (Gravity and Levity) with the quaternary nature of the elements, all of which proceed from Unity.  Yet from a purely experimental standpoint it seems that the quaternary division simply more quickly and easily yields useful, actionable information and nurtures transformation than other methods.  We could speculate that this is because the fourfold division, on the scale of unity to multiplicity, has a uniquely balanced position.  A ninefold division (such as the Enneagram) can be too complicated and difficult an instrument to wield, for all its potential capacity for discrimination.  A twofold (say, Yin-Yang) or threefold scheme (say, Fichte’s thesis-antithesis-synthesis model), although containing a much more direct power on the basis of their closeness to the archetype of Unity, can tend to yield fascinating information that makes us feel more in contact with the archetypal movements of the universe without actually backing them up with the necessary practical details that solidify such feeling into actual transformation.  The fourfold division seems, therefore, to occupy a special place with regards to the present situation of human consciousness, drawn as it is both into the multiplicity of the world and towards the underlying unity of its continual becoming.  It provides enough discriminatory power to be able to work within the most specific and detailed realms found in the multiplicity while retaining a harmonious amount of generality because of its relative closeness to the archetype of Unity.  Nevertheless, the quaternary nature of the elemental mandala means that it sacrifices both some of the global power of two and threefold schemes as well as some of the detailed potential for discrimination of the more divisitory schemes.

Obviously, it would be too much to ask of the elemental mandala for it to somehow comprehensively make sense of the entirety of existence at every level.  Even though the mandala can be applied across an astonishingly broad range of disciplines, there is a certain sense in which this capacity for breadth seems mitigated by its potential for depth.  For example, although I can apply the elemental mandala to essentially any phenomenon, such as “Why did I get a flat tire?” (E: My tires are rubber compounds in a torus shape filled with air.  There is a nail in my tire. W: I must have run over the nail, which embedded itself in my tire, causing a slow leak.  A: The air pressure inside the tire is greater than the air pressure outside the tire, and this opposition cannot be maintained without an Earth-like isolation.  The nail allowed for communication of pressures across this boundary, thus the full tire  reverses its state and becomes flat.  F: I have to get a new tire!), this is an extremely superficial application, and the elemental cycle in this case is essentially being used like a toy.

At the same time, this seems to indicate that the level of depth of the initial phenomenon is directly related to the level of depth that the elemental cycle can reveal.  This is to be expected, and is an indication that what one gets out of applying the elemental cycle is quite correlative with the quality of attention that is present in its usage.  For this reason, it can actually be quite difficult to get real depth out of the elemental cycle – simply because this requires a certain effort on the part of the user.  This principle is completely in line with the instructions accompanying any alchemical toolset: the work of conscious transformation does not simply “happen”, but is a skill requiring training in the proper concepts so that the practice may be most fruitful.  Part of the whole purpose of this thesis is to serve as a conceptual resource that can allow for more efficient application of the elemental cycle by the reader.

In other words, it is not really possible to simply “pick up” the elemental cycle like a hammer and use it with pleasing results as if everything were a nail (this would be an “Earth” expectation).  Rather, it takes a familiarity bred over repeated encounters in which our consciousness is specifically heightened in accordance with the principles of the elements themselves.  Certainly this would bar its usage by simply anyone, and there is no question that this tool, like any alchemical process, requires the Fire of our attention to be stoked to just the right level – not too hot and not too cold.  This is why alchemy is the Royal Art.

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