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 6 – Into the World: Dialogue and the Elemental Cycle

Basic Theory of Elemental Dialogue

Air Communication: Conversation

Communication at the Air level takes the form of making verses together: conversation. 34  What was primarily lacking in Water – the ability to get beyond one’s own personal set of associations, train of thought, assumed meanings, and unquestioned assumptions – becomes a central feature in Air, where it is precisely these aspects which are consciously put ‘on hold’.  The hallmark of Air communication is the ability for participants to not simply hear the words spoken by the other for purposes of discussion, but to really listen to them.  This means that a listener creates an expanded, empty space within, which is kept free from the Water tendency to relate everything to “me”.  What fills the space created by the absence of those lower aspects is the mood of a question, expressed so beautifully in the Parsifal story: “What ails thee, Uncle?”

By drying out the rhythmic impulse to associate everything that we hear to our own default assumptions and experiences, we open up the possibility that a completely new set of experiences be made available to us, as if blown on the wind of the other’s words.  When in an Air conversation, we are less inclined to take the other’s words and their immediate context as the sole carrier of meaning.  If you can imagine that the words of the other take on a particular form and movement, an Air listener pays attention to the shape of the space around the form and their polar movements.  In other words, what is not said becomes just as important as what is directly expressed, and the avenues and associations that are not made speak just as loudly as the ones that are made.  All of this is a way of saying that the listener has the capacity for sensing what we could call the ‘gesture’ of the other. 

Being sensitive to the gesture around the other’s speech allows a much deeper insight into their meaning.  In Earth communication we simply have ‘your’ facts butting up against ‘my’ facts with no real hope of relation, let alone resolution.  In Water communication all of ‘your’ facts flow together into a stream of meaning, as do ‘mine’, and the movement of the interaction depends on how we each direct these flows around each other.  In Air communication, what is ‘mine’ is held peripherally, allowing the more subtle facets of ‘your’ meaning to appear in the space that used to be occupied by my own self-investments. 

Just as might be expected in Air, a conversation is not dominated by a one-way flow or process; rather, each party reciprocates between listening and expressing, and as this oscillation finds a natural rhythm, one can truly have the experience that verses – subtle but clear carriers of meaning – are being created.  Because the direction of the conversation is not being controlled explicitly by either party (whereas in Water communication each party’s primary goal is to direct this flow and get the other person to move in the same way), a sense of freedom, of space, and of potential can permeate the interaction.  At the same time, a danger exists in that these feelings can begin to drive the conversation for their sake – because it feels quite nice – in which case the actual content of the conversation (its Earth) all but drops out of the picture.  This can be fine and even desired in some circumstances, but in others can afterwards leave people confused about what, if anything, was communicated, let alone accomplished or agreed upon.  On the other pole, it can happen that, because each person has the sense of freely being able to express their own truth in way that is met with a real listening by others, it is taken for granted that the others must also agree with their truth.  Of course, being in the listening state of Air is in no way associated with assent or dissent for what is thus held in consciousness – it is in fact the very lack of such assent or dissent that marks the Air experience.  We are so used to dealing with others at the Water and Earth levels of communication that it can be difficult to recognize that it is possible to really listen to someone without either agreement or disagreement.

Just as the listening in Air is unique, so is speaking, which is most effective at this level when it is able to be completely clear and transparent, i.e. not full of hidden assumptions and associations that dominate the Water realm of communication.  In other words, in Air speaking, these aspects are brought out and dried up, lending a much crisper and unattached sense to the otherwise sticky and wet aspects so prevalent in Water communication.  Leaving behind one’s assumptions and attachments is quite difficult, and therefore requires something of a compromise.  On one hand, it is recognized that the speaker has a direct effect on the listener, who has opened up a receptive space for the speaker’s meaning.  On the other hand, the listener trusts the speaker to be sensitive to what is placed in the listener’s soul, and the speaker trusts that the listener will hold what is placed there with at least tact if not delicacy, and will not allow their personal attachments, feelings, and associations to come out of the Water and devour the meaning that is sensitively taking flight on the speaker’s words.  Similarly, a speaker in Air consciously weeds out much of the personal aspects that might otherwise drag the conversation down into a discussion, aiming at expression which is intended to truthfully and objectively make what is present in the inner life of the speaker available to the listener.

One danger of Air conversation is that in opening up a space for the other, one’s own perspective is lost.  In conversation, a healthy balance is achieved not by walking down a tightrope line between extremes, but by oscillating back and forth over the line in a way that keeps the momentum moving forward through constant reciprocation of the polar tendencies at play so that no single one dominates.  Air is a shared space.  In other words, Air listening is not a question of repression of one’s own perspective, feelings, and thoughts.  Rather, it is a fully conscious withholding of these aspects from entering the soul so that they don’t overwhelm the gesture of the other.  While held in abeyance, we can have the sense of being filled with the qualities of the gesture of the other, and when the time comes to let the space we have created fill up again with our own content, we ideally find that while it was ‘away’ it became modified by the experience of what we were able perceive in the other’s gesture, allowing us to express something completely new.  Holding our own personal content just at the edge of consciousness without completely annihilating it allows the greatest amount of contact between it and what the other participant offers of him or herself.  The whole point of Air conversation, then, can be understood as an attempt to expand shared perspectives through a reciprocal oscillation between speaking and listening.

For healthy Air communication, the task of the speaker is to explore the potential directions suggested by paths not yet taken overtly in the conversation without personal attachment to their outcomes.  The hearer in Air communication creates a space which acts on the speaker like a negative pressure, drawing out the more subtle aspects and helping them to freely express themselves without fear of being shut down.  The hearer attempts to surround themselves with the speaker’s gesture, and any questions that arise are asked as from the point of view of the speaker.  Both parties keep their personal attachments, associations, and implications from entering the conversation unless they are first completely desiccated of their personal content.


34: Back Although this word has been used in the Earth and Water sections in a colloquial sense, from here on it will acquire the specific connotations now discussed.

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