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

Appendix A - An Elemental Primer

The following pages are meant to serve as a layman’s introduction to the elemental cycle in a completely self-contained and practical way.  No previous experience with the elements or the elemental cycle is necessary to gain both a conceptual understanding of their usage and potential as well as a practical experience of the qualities of each element.

Overview of the Elemental Cycle
Introduction to the Four Elements
A Guided Example
How to Use the Elemental Cycle
Tips, Hints, and Secrets
Stuck with an Element?
Metaphorical Qualities
Physical Qualities
Questions List
Feedback Questions

The elemental cycle is an amazingly versatile tool which helps structure consciousness on the basis of the archetypes of the four elements of Earth, Water, Air, and Fire.  Among an almost endless number of potential applications, working with the elemental cycle can:

  1. Help you sort through and process difficult personal issues
  2. Help you illuminate and better engage with your specific and unique inner processes
  3. Provide a coherent and well-grounded template that you can apply to any research question
  4. Reveal your hidden assumptions, habitual patterns, and default modes of consciousness
  5. Help you transform your consciousness to be more grounded, connected, capable, and resilient
  6. Give you avenues for proactive engagement with a variety of situations
  7. Reawaken your sense of the mystery of your own depths
  8. Reconnect you with the amazing world you live in but rarely perceive
  9. Help you study effectively

Reading through this document will help place you firmly on the path towards discovering how you can use the elemental cycle in ways suited to your own particular situation and goals, as well as giving you a set of practical tools with which to begin applying the elemental cycle to an area of your choice. 

The most useful outcome of working with the elemental cycle is not to obtain an answer to any specific question.  More important is the way that such work changes our sensitivity to the subtleties of the whole range of potential manifestations of phenomena in general.  In other words, working with the elemental cycle develops our capacity to understand and work with phenomena in a robust, integral, and healthy way.  It objectifies our consciousness, smoothes out our tendencies to approach things from a one-sided or entrenched perspective, opens up possibilities for change on any number of scales and levels, allows deeper entry into otherwise complex, subtle, and confusing phenomena, and provides continuous feedback about our own evolution.



Overview of the Elemental Cycle

What is the elemental cycle?

The elemental cycle is a universal tool that can help you understand and connect to phenomenon around and within you more deeply and effectively. For any given topic, it can help you clarify what it is actually like, flow with how it is changing, be open to its possibilities, and illuminate its inner meaning. You can think of the cycle as a key that fits almost any lock – all you need to know is how to turn the key. Stated another way, the elemental cycle is a tool for structuring human consciousness according to objective patterns of manifestation.

What is the elemental cycle good for?

Training in using the elemental cycle has a number of benefits.  As the cycle is quite objective in nature, it has the ability to help us understand external phenomenon, such as those present in the natural world (the growth of plants, the constitution of our Earth, weather patterns, physiology, etc).  On the other hand, the elemental cycle is just as potentially useful as a tool for personal illumination and is a living spiritual technology facilitating our own transformation.  Working with the elemental cycle can help you become a more effective learner, a smoother communicator, a more open listener, and a more insightful ‘understander’.  It can help you transform.

To what types of situations can I apply the elemental cycle?

The elemental cycle works with the archetype of change, and can thus be instructive at some level for any phenomenon that is transforming.  Because essentially every situation is changing, the cycle can be applied to any phenomenon you choose.  What this means is that when you encounter some event, topic, or occurrence in life that seems confusing, difficult, interesting, mysterious, or that simply presents to your soul the feeling of questioning, the elemental cycle can be used to help you skillfully enter into the archetypal background that informs its unfolding, allowing a deeper glimpse into its structure, relations, potential, and overall meaning.  The elemental cycle helps streamline your effort, and lets you know where your attention might be best concentrated.

How do I use the elemental cycle?

This document is designed to provide a practical introduction to the usage of the elemental cycle.  Unlike training in a strictly scientific discipline, where terms and laws are formulated exactly so as to eliminate alternate interpretations, work with the elemental cycle is more like an art, where analogy and metaphor are just as useful as “facts”.  Luckily, it is an art that has at its core an objective set of principles – we could call them archetypes – which yield something interesting: the elemental cycle itself helps train you in how to use it!  In fact, it would be possible for you to arrive at the principles of the elemental cycle on your own simply by paying attention to the world around you, or your own physiology, or to music.  Indeed, you already have a wealth of experiences which will help you understand the elemental cycle.  Because the elemental cycle is a way of accessing the lawful patterns of change and transformation embedded within the processes of the world, paying attention to those processes – even ones that you are already familiar with – provides potential feedback from the world that can tell you about the elemental cycle itself.

The point is that you don’t need to know everything about the elemental cycle to use it effectively.  Simply rhythmically paying attention according to the principles laid out below will serve to lead you towards a more complete understanding of how the cycle works and how you can use it.  There are as many ways of using the cycle as there are individuals, and no way is necessarily better or worse than any other.  Like anything in life, you get out what you put into it.  My goal is to help you streamline what you ‘’put in” so that you maximize your potential return.

How long will it take?

Work with the cycle can be undertaken on almost any scale.  It is possible to work through a full cycle in a single sitting; alternately, fruitful work with the cycle can also take years.  Practically, you should expect to gain a basic theoretical understanding of the elemental cycle simply by reading through this document.  Working through the included introductory example and allotting at least five minutes a day to actually try the exercises can give you a basic practical understanding in a week or so.  I have been working with the elemental cycle for over eight years and still continually find new aspects and layers of the cycle!



Introduction to the Four Elements

Below is a very brief description of each element along with its associated qualities.  On the next page starts a guided example that will help you experience these qualities directly for yourself.  The triangle images are symbolic representations of each element that can give you a visual identifier to refer to when thinking of an element. 

Earth -


The Earth element is the base, factual level of the phenomenon.  It is the ‘obvious’.  It is the data of the sensory experience of the phenomenon.  It is any aspect about which definitive statements can be made, such as “It is red”, or “it happened at 4:30”, or “It makes me feel queasy.”  These are all facts; they can be recorded as statements, A, B, C.  The Earth level of the phenomenon can therefore be “true” or “false”, “correct” or “incorrect”.  The Earth element seems unambiguous: it just is what it is, and every fact seems more or independent from every other fact.

Earth Symbol

Water -


The Water element brings the facts of the Earth into relationship.  No fact is stable, or exists in isolation.  Rather, every fact is a precipitate that falls out of the interweaving contexts of its immediate environment in time, space, and mind, just like a crystal of salt precipitates out of a solution when the water evaporates.  Water is what is changing, what is moving from B to C and has already moved from A to B.  It is the immediate past and immediate future of the phenomenon.  It is the tendency for the phenomenon to change the way it appears over time.  Water is the way the phenomenon relates to other aspects of itself and other phenomenon; facts connect to other facts to create a stream of evolving meaning.  In the Water realm, the truth of one fact leads naturally to the truth of another, related fact.

Water Symbol

Air -


In the Air element, the movements and changes of the phenomenon are found to exist between sets of polarities, whether opposites, complements, or reciprocals.  The movement from A to B to C is understood as existing somewhere along the polarity of the scale A to Z.  The facts are no longer static, nor are they simply related to other facts.  Now the facts of the Earth level of the phenomenon are experienced as if inverted or reversed.  In Air we have the experience “what if?”, and we see the phenomenon from one or more of the polar points of view.  We recognize that once we get to Z, we go back to A – and moving the other way, A moves into Z, and in the end A and Z aren’t quite so far away from each other as we may have thought.  Air is the space around the phenomenon, what arises when we make the apparent solidity of its Earth nature become as invisible and mobile as the air itself.  In Air, the phenomenon presents aspects of itself that are simultaneously one way and another way.  Facts might be both “true” and “false” at the same time, and the context of the Water level expands to include so many additional aspects that it is like there is no real context at all, or that everything is contextually relevant.  We may get very confused, and lose track of what seemed to be stable facts from the Earth level when we reach the Air level of the phenomenon.

Air Symbol

Fire -


The Fire element resolves the tendency towards dissipation of our understanding at the Air level into a coherent, meaningful, encompassing whole.  It burns away all the extraneous fluff and gives us a glimpse of some aspect of the phenomenon that makes us say “Ah-ha!” to ourselves.  We feel now that we have some real understanding of the phenomenon that was previously unavailable to us; we have an insight.  The facts from the Earth level, the movements of the Water level, the reversals of the Air level now all fit together simultaneously as an ordered whole in a way that makes ‘sense’ to us.  We recognize that in fact the Fire insight was present all along, embedded at each level like a secret waiting to be discovered.  We may feel like the insight came from outside of us, as if the world is speaking to us in a language that we are just beginning to learn.

Fire Symbol



Guided Example

Here is an easy and quick way to get a taste of the qualities of the different elements.  In particular this exercise is good for giving you an experience of the most subtle element, Fire.  On the next page of this document is an image – don’t look at it yet!  I want to prepare you first so you can experience each element fully.

Your task is twofold, and both parts are simultaneous.  The first instruction is easy: look at the image after reading through the rest of the instructions and ask yourself the question “What is this an image of?”  The second instruction can be difficult: pay close attention to your consciousness while you are trying to figure out what you are looking at.  That’s basically it, but here’s some more detailed help, specifically for the second task:

Following these two instructions will take you through a whole process which will include aspects from each of the four elements.  Many things will go through your mind as you gaze at the image, but see if you can become aware of the following – (it can help to keep very brief notes, even in the form of keywords, to help you reflect on this process later):

  1. The overt content of your actual thoughts – (what you are thinking, which you could speak to another).
  2. Your emotions – Track how your emotional state changes as you look at the image.  Are you excited, frustrated, curious, dubious, bored, exacerbated, annoyed, jubilant, carefree, restless, sad, jaded, critical, joyful, timid, aggressive, patronizing, etc?  See if you can jot down a sequence of emotions in the order that you experience(d) them.
  3. The changing qualities of your consciousness – (for example, would you describe your consciousness as: sharp, clear, focused, dizzy, muddled, absolute, oscillatory, simple, spread-out, hazy, expanded, linear, fixed, etc.?)  This will very likely change and shift dramatically while you are examining the image – try to get a feeling for how your consciousness changes from one quality to the next as you explore the image in different ways.
  4. Any insights or moments of revelation.

Okay, now examine the image 40 (opens in a new window) – it is best if you print and cut it out in a circle so that you can look at it from any direction, but this is not necessary if you instead wish to turn the page around (or turn your head if you are only looking at the image on the screen).  Take a minute to look at the image and then come back here.

Can you identify what the image represents?  How sure are you?  Here is a hint: of all the possible interpretations of the image, one in particular is “the right one”, and any other interpretation is significantly less right.  How does this make you feel?  The dilemma is: how do you know when you have found the ‘right’ interpretation?  What if I told you that once you have found the ‘right’ interpretation, what you see will agree with everyone else who also finds the ‘right’ interpretation; that is, the ‘right’ interpretation is not based on your own personal imagination, but will have an objective quality.

Keep looking at the image until you “see it”.  You will know when you see it, and you will be 100% sure that what you see is the right interpretation for the purposes of this exercise.  Once you have seen it, proceed to the discussion on the next page which will help you see how your experience was a complete cycle through the elements.  And don’t go reading ahead hoping that I tell you what the correct interpretation is (I won’t) – this would detract from your experience!

I’m assuming at this point that you have discovered what the image represents.  On this basis, we can speak of your experience of first seeing the image (A), your experience of working to identify the image (which I will call B and C for reasons that will become apparent), your moment of recognition (D), and your experience after recognizing the image (E).  All four elements were at work within this sequence.

When you first saw the image (A), you almost certainly didn’t know what you were looking at.  You were presented with a visual fact – an Earth – a bunch of irregular black and white shapes surrounded by a black circle.  This visual experience is ‘objective’ in the sense that it is available equally to everyone with a normal pair of eyes (barring deeper philosophical considerations), while at the same time, what was present for your eyes never changed throughout this experiment – the same shapes kept the same relative orientation to each other regardless of how or when you observed it.  You can rely on the shapes… but that’s about it!

If you were careful in your self-observation, you probably noticed that as soon as you saw the black and white shapes, a whole process began inside your consciousness.  You had a goal: determine what the image represented.  You went through a series of mental processes whereby you tried to make ‘sense’ out of what you were seeing (B).  What is the scale?  The right orientation?  Is it an abstract figure or does it represent something tangible?  At some point you probably got a linking that seemed to have some promise: maybe the image is a figure of a mountain?   Somehow you internally ‘tested’ this idea against the idea that there is one ‘right’ interpretation of the image.  You probably went through a number of cycles of finding some interpretation of the image, testing it, and discarding it because it just didn’t feel right.  This drama proceeded, your thoughts flowed one into the next, forming a sequence of associations, while your emotions also changed on the basis of your tolerance for working within the imposed instructions.  This whole process of relating ideas to the visual experience of the image is a Water experience.

Unless you saw the figure very quickly (some people see it almost immediately), this type of Water processing likely proceeded until you approached a kind of limit.  You started to run out of ideas, of ways of looking at the figure, of tolerance for the exercise, and everything that occurred to you didn’t pass muster when you asked yourself: Do I know with 100% surety that what I see is ‘it’? Maybe you even started to wonder if maybe this whole thing was some kind of manipulation.  Maybe there is more than one ‘right’ answer?  Who is to tell me that if I see a baby’s face I am wrong?

At this point you probably didn’t quite know what to do or how to proceed so as to fulfill the requirements of the instructions and ‘see the right thing’ in the image.  This is the Air state (C).  Your initial enthusiasm for the exercise may have been replaced with frustration – even anger – at its seeming difficulty, even impossibility, and any number of emotional responses and thoughts might have started to occur to you.  Maybe I’m just stupid, maybe I don’t care about this and I’ll just skip to the end, maybe I’m determined to buckle down and win this little war no matter what it takes, maybe I’ll find a way to cheat, maybe I think this is now too boring to proceed, maybe it’s just not worth my time to continue, maybe I just need to see it ‘fresh’, maybe I shouldn’t give up because I trust that there really is some specific thing to see, etc.  Generally, getting into an Air state can bring out the widest possible responses, each of which shows something of your own patterns and habits when things start to come up against limits or are taken to their extremes.  We each have a different tolerance for being ‘in Air’, where we are farthest from the solid, dependable facts of the Earth.  In the Air state we feel both like “this can’t go on forever – it has to change” while also sensing “yet this may actually go on forever and I’ll never get anywhere!”  This is the polarity of Air.

Luckily, this polarity does come to a resolution; at some point you finally see the intended image (D).  This recognition occurred, unlike the previous states, almost instantaneously – first you didn’t know what the image represented, then suddenly you did.  How did this happen?  What actually changed?  You likely had the experience of a real release, of a coming together, of satisfaction and completion.  Now everything makes sense, you ‘get it’, and probably made some exclamation like ‘Aha!’ or had some other change in your breath pattern.  This is the Fire element at work.  We must be very careful here to distinguish the actual experience of the moment of revelation from what immediately follows, which is quite different in quality and content.  When you relate your ‘before-seeing’, ‘moment-of-seeing’ and ‘after-having-seen’ experiences with the image, you might point out some aspects like those which are presented in the following chart, which indicate something of how the Fire experience acts on the previous stages and creates a new one:

Before: (Earth, Water, and Air)

During Revelation: (Fire)

After: (New Earth)

Randomness, chaotic









Percept (seeing) doesn’t match concepts (thinking)

A concept unites with the percept

Percept and concept inextricably linked together

Many potentials

Constellating together into unity

Single actuality




Questioning, testing


New knowing





Once you have ‘seen’ the right thing in the image, and the moment of recognition passes, you are no longer directly in the Fire element, but have passed on to a New Earth.  Now, regardless of the orientation, distance, angle, and position of the image you can almost effortlessly see the same figure.  Your conceptual interpretation is now inextricably linked to the visual experience of the black and white pattern, to the point where it becomes difficult to not see what you now see.  This is the addition of a stubborn new fact to your world, which is the ash that falls out of the burning process that occurred in the moment of recognizing the image for what it was.

Your particular experience with the image is of course specific to you, and will vary somewhat from the general outline presented above.  I have attempted to make the above not so specific that I inadvertently alienate any possible likely experience with the process while not being so general as to fail in providing useful information about the actual similarities at work in the process which are resiliently consistent from person to person.  Hopefully upon reflection you can see that the simple process of seeing an unknown image and figuring out what it represents actually quite clearly takes you through an experience of each of the four elements in their proper order, from Earth to Water to Air to Fire and finally to a New Earth.

Now, with a basic understanding and experience of the four elements, you can use their principles to help you explore, illuminate, and discover creative ways of working with any type of phenomenon you choose, which is what the next section will help you achieve.

Here is another image to work with in the same way if you wish to try this procedure anew (again, look at it from every orientation).



How To Use the Elemental Cycle

The following presents only one way of working with the elemental cycle.  As you become more familiar with its subtleties, new ways of working will become apparent.  There is no single ‘best’ way to use or understand the elements, but the following can give you a foundation for further work:

First, very briefly:

Choose a phenomenon and express your phenomenon as a question (see appendix 1, number 2 for sample questions).  Write this question down.  Then use the questions appropriate to each element as described below, beginning with Earth, to explore your phenomenon.  Record your feelings, thoughts, and any insights or ‘answers’.  Repeat the asking of the questions from Earth to Fire in a rhythm that seems natural.

Then, in More Detail:

  1. (Fire) Choose a particular phenomenon of any kind around which you have a question, or with which you feel a need for transformation, or an area which you have identified as needing your attention for one reason or another (again, see a sample list of potential questions in Appendix 1, number 2).  Try to formulate this phenomenon or issue as a concise question, which you should write down in a small journal designed for work with the elemental cycle.  Don’t worry that you have the ‘right’ question – the elemental cycle includes helping you recognize when to shift your question.
  2. (Earth) Concentrate on your chosen phenomenon.  Try to notice as many of its details as you can.  The idea is to get as clear as possible about the basic facts of the situation.  Spend between 5 and 15 minutes identifying as many facts about your phenomenon that you can, using the following questions as a guide. You don’t have to actually answer each and every question (this is true for each element) – if you feel there are too many questions, let your intuition guide you to one or two, focus on those for a while, and change if needed (see appendix 1, number 3).
    1. Ask:  What are the facts?  What is different?  What is unique?  What could everyone else agree upon?  What stands out?  What seems constant?  What can I count on?  What is irrefutable?  What are the pieces?  What categories do the pieces fit into?  What feels like a heavy weight, like a solid stone, or like gravity with respect to this phenomenon?
    2. Write down the facts that you notice. Also record how you felt as you did this exercise. Did you feel stifled, sure, apprehensive, robust… etc.?
  3. (Water) Do not proceed directly to Water, but try you take at least a short break where you are not thinking about your phenomenon at all.  Then approach your phenomenon again, this time with the purpose of seeing if there are any patterns to what you noticed in the Earth level.  It can be helpful to try and remember as many of your Earth facts as you can.  Once you can’t remember any more facts, re-read your written record.  Then spend between 5 and 15 minutes working with the following questions as a guide.
    1. Ask: What is changing?  Do any of the facts connect to each other?  Do the facts manifest in a sequence?  Are there parts which at first appear different but upon reflection have some similarity or are like each other?  What is the immediate context of the facts?  What patterns do I notice?  Are there any rhythms or cycles?  What are the processes that give rise to the individual facts?  Is there a specific context that makes the phenomenon more (or less) pronounced or apparent?  How is one aspect turning into another, seemingly different aspect?  What about my phenomenon makes me feel like I am floating along, caught in the waves, drowning, or repeating the same thing over and over?
    2. Describe in your journal the impressions, insights, feelings, and any images that arise when you consider the Water level of your phenomenon.
  4. (Air) After a break of no less than 5 minutes and no more than a day or two, try to move to the Air level.  Your goal is to expand your awareness of the polarities of the circumstances, and to lessen your reliance upon the overt facts or entrenched aspects of your phenomenon.  Briefly remember your Earth facts.  Then recall their immediate context and movements.  Then spend between 5 and 15 minutes working with the following questions as a guide.
    1. Ask: What is reversing?  Where do I go if I extrapolate the movements I identified in the Water level to their extremes?  What is the overall range of manifestation of the major aspects of the phenomenon?  That is, what are its limits?  Where does the phenomenon seem to ‘run out’ or dissolve?  What parts do I seem to be unable to focus or concentrate upon?  If I could imagine the opposite of one part or the whole phenomenon, what would it be?  How would I feel if this reversal actually occurred?  What about this phenomenon makes me feel like I am losing my moorings completely, like my knowing runs out, like there is no truth, or like every part is equally important or unimportant?
    2. Describe in your journal the impressions, insights, feelings, and any images that arise when you consider the Air level of your phenomenon.
  5. (Fire) After a break of no less than 5 minutes but no more than a day or two, return to your phenomenon.  After very briefly recalling the facts, feeling their embeddedness in flowing processes, and their simultaneous polarities, place yourself in a mood of open questioning, where you do not expect any answers.  You cannot make yourself experience the Fire level, but can only increase the likelihood of its appearing to you by getting yourself out of the way of its manifesting.  Rhythmically moving from Earth to Air will prepare you for the Fire level, and the entrance into the Fire level may occur at any time or while doing any of the other exercises.  Your goal at this stage is to silence yourself inwardly after working from Earth to Air in an open, listening, ready state of quiet enthusiasm for your phenomenon without expectation, need, or fear.  The following questions will help you recognize when a Fire moment occurs or has the potential to occur.
    1. Ask: What is the whole?  What lies within or behind the phenomenon that allows the seemingly conflicting aspects of the Air level to coexist in a harmony, in a way that is not mutually destructive, but rather is mutually enhancing?  Do I have a new insight that makes better sense of all the previous levels?  Is there some subtle aspect of the phenomenon that once seemed insignificant but now seems like the key to the whole thing?  Do I have the feeling of participating in something larger than myself?  Do I suddenly notice how this phenomenon shows up in places I never expected or noticed before?  Do I have the experience that the phenomenon is speaking to me through other, seemingly unrelated aspects of my life and experience?  Do I feel transformed in some way?
    2. If a Fire moment does not seem to occur, do not worry – this is expected; it will occur when you are ready.  To become ready, you must establish a rhythm of working from Earth to Water to Air.  This is best if done every day for about a week for ‘medium-juicy’ questions.  More difficult or deep phenomenon may require years of work before any answer appears.  In the mean time, describe in your journal any impressions, insights, feelings, and images that arise when considering the Fire questions above.  This is the place where you may be led to a new question.  In fact, your Fire moment may consist of the realization that you need to ask a different question.  Pay particular attention to this possibility by asking your original question again at the end of the Air exercise.  Then let your question go and return to daily life.
    3. If a Fire moment does occur, describe in your journal any insights, feelings, images, and experiences.  Try to encapsulate your experience or insight into a statement.  Sit with your insight for a while.  Then try to formulate a new question about your phenomenon based on your Fire experience.  This becomes the seed – the new Earth – for a higher level of working with your phenomenon.  You can begin the elemental cycle again from the newfound vantage point of your modified question.
  6. After working with the cycle, please respond to the feedback questions below and return them to me via email (spiritself AT or snail mail: Seth Miller, 2451 SE 75th Ave, Portland, OR 97206. Thank you!



Tips, Hints, and Secrets

Help in working with the cycle:

  1. This one bears repeating: the most useful outcome of working with the elemental cycle is not to obtain an answer to any specific question. More important is the way that such work changes our sensitivity to the subtleties of the whole range of potential manifestations of phenomena in general. In other words, working with the elemental cycle develops our capacity to understand and work with phenomena in a robust, integral, and healthy way. It objectifies our consciousness, smoothes out our tendencies to approach things from a one-sided or entrenched perspective, opens up possibilities for change on any number of scales and levels, allows deeper entry into otherwise complex, subtle, and confusing phenomena, and provides continuous feedback about our own evolution.
  2. Your initial question can be about anything – there are no wrong questions. However, you may find a list of potential areas to which one might apply the elemental cycle helpful. The following is a tiny sample of valid ‘research questions’:
    1. “Why do I feel fearful when the topic of _____ arises?”
    2. “What should I eat?”
    3. “How can I reduce the stress in my life?”
    4. “How can I change my habit of _____ ?”
    5. “What is my purpose in life?”
    6. “How can I communicate more effectively?”
    7. “How should I plan a presentation about _____ for _____ ?”
    8. “What is the nature of cell division?”
    9. “How is granite formed?”
    10. “How does a lily grow?”
    11. “Why do I have difficulty communicating with _____ ?”
    12. “How do I learn this computer program?”
    13. “How does the weather affect mood?”
    14. “Where should I live?”
    15. “Should I change jobs?”
    16. “What are the effects of watching television?”
    17. “How can I find something sacred in my life?”
    18. “Am I investing my money wisely?”
    19. “What school is best for my child?”
    20. “Why do I have this health problem?”
    21. “How can I find time to _____ ?”
    22. “What is the nature of the elemental cycle?”
  3. The questions for each element are just guides designed to connect your consciousness to the archetype behind the element.  Do not feel that you must answer every question.  Feel free to make up your own questions at each level.  Once you get the ‘mood’ of each element, you might dispense with the verbal aspect of the questions and simply approach your phenomenon in the mood of each element, where your consciousness embodies each elemental mode in its structure and function according to your will.
  4. When recording your impressions after each exercise, anything is game.  Do not feel that you must restrict yourself to thoughts or feelings that seem overtly well-connected to the phenomenon.  Allow yourself to be aware of the subtleties of your experience, and do not necessarily discount anything.  Sometimes the key to the phenomenon lies in a subtle or seemingly unrelated image or feeling that occurs.
  5. Everyone will move through the elemental cycle in a way that is unique.  There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way. 
  6. As you become more familiar with each elemental stage, feel free to spend more or less time with each elemental stage as appropriate, or as guided by your intuition.  Pay particular attention to any feelings that may occur when considering how long to stay with a given element, or when considering the question “Am I done with this element?”  This will help inform you about which elements you have a tendency to ‘live’ in by default.  The goal is to be able to build the capacity to work from any element according to the needs of the situation at hand.
  7. Try to find a rhythm of moving through the elements that is right for you.  You may try one element every day or so, or you may try to move from Earth to Air in one sitting, repeated over a period of a few days or a week.
  8. Let the cycle itself be your guide.  Continue to rhythmically place your attention on each element in a questioning mood as you feel inclined.  Do not expect particular results, but allow the process to connect your consciousness to your chosen phenomenon and lead you to the next phase.  Be detailed.  Be flexible.  Be willing to let go.  Be creative.
  9. Earth Tip:  To begin with, you may find that it is almost impossible to notice details of your phenomenon without also experiencing an accompanying judgments or emotion.  In fact, the details may even consist entirely of a judgment you make about the phenomenon.  This is normal – simply note your judgment or emotion in your journal.  In working with the cycle, you will slowly learn how to notice details about your phenomenon without becoming distracted by any emotional triggers, interpretations, or desires to have the phenomenon be any different than it appears.  At the same time, this does not mean that such things will no longer occur to you.  Rather, it means that you will strengthen your capacity to keep a part of your consciousness in “witnessing” or “observer” mode, regardless of the complexities and drama of your inner experience.  This part of you simply and profoundly says “this is what it is”, without any judgment, and is often accompanied by the feeling “and it is really okay that it is this way”.
  10. The List of Metaphorical Qualities and the List of Physical Qualities provide a useful way to get a handle on the elements and their transformation. Examining the columns (one for each element) should give you a decent all-around impression of the individual elements, while working with the rows should help you get a feeling for the transformative capacity of the elemental cycle.  If you “get stuck” in an element, briefly scanning the column for the next element in the cycle may help your transition.  If you “don’t get” an element, briefly scanning the column for that same element may help put you in the right frame of mind for working with that element.
  11. Working with the elemental cycle is working with an archetype of change.  Although the elemental cycle can be used simply for external research, if worked with rhythmically, it will naturally lead one towards self-transformation, and can be quite instructive and illuminative with respect to the training of the inner life.  In other words, do not be surprised if, when working with the elemental cycle in any context, insights about your own inner life occur.  This is a gift of the well known principle: “As above, so below; as below, so above.”
  12. Because the elemental cycle stems from very objective principles of change, its own nature helps correct any personal interpretations, misconceptions, or blind spots that we may have with regards to how the process works in a given situation.  It is, in this sense, self-correcting, and can therefore be relied upon as a guide in a way that we could call hygienic.
  13. The effectiveness of the elemental cycle relies in large part upon how you use it.  It works best when your will is applied to it with calm enthusiasm in a rhythmic way.  The quality and rhythm of your attention is more important than any theoretical understanding or skillful manipulation.



Stuck with an Element?

Help is at hand!

Everybody gets stuck sometime.

You will likely find a particular element in which you feel like you “don’t get” or alternatively that you just “get stuck”.  This is an important realization and working through the area that you can’t get into, or that you can’t let go of, can often provide the key to the rest of the process, as well as to your own transformation.  The most common difficulties are of two types:  firstly, you can have difficulty moving into an element after feeling like you successfully and completely engaged with the previous one, as if you just “don’t get” the new element.  You try to ask the questions but feel like you have no idea about what you are looking for or what an appropriate response might look like.  Secondly, you can have difficulty getting out of an element to move into the next one, as if you “got stuck” in the element and can’t move beyond it, even though you may “get”  the next element.  When you “get stuck” in an element you may find that you feel very comfortable asking the questions associated with that level, and that you have plenty of responses to those questions, but just feel like you can’t leave the element when the time comes to try the next one. 

Earth Symbol

If you “don’t get” Earth and have trouble engaging with it, or feel like you are noticing too few details, try to consult a resource that can give you help identifying different elements of your phenomenon.  Such resources may include Wikipedia, encyclopedias, or other expert sources – even just asking your friends or family about the phenomenon can help.  Alternatively, or additionally, it may help to leave the phenomenon for the day and come back to it fresh.  Try to look at your phenomenon from a new angle, literally and metaphorically.  It may also be helpful to work with the Water element, as familiarity with the process level of your phenomenon will naturally suggest new places to look for facts.


If you “get stuck” in Earth, you may feel like every experience is an Earth experience, or that all that exists are details.  This can make you feel like there are an infinite number of facts to notice, and might lead you to feel overwhelmed, trapped, or like you cannot continue with the process because it is too suffocating.  If this occurs, you may want to alternate your focus on the questions of the Fire and Water elements.  The Fire element will help you remember why you are doing this in the first place, why the phenomenon interests you, and of your enthusiasm for reaching a transformative understanding; the Water element will help loosen any anxiety around the solid facts of the Earth element, and will show you both that there is an underlying flow that keeps things connected and moving, and that things don’t have to stay the way they are.

Water Symbol

If you “don’t get” Water, you may feel apprehensive about the inevitability of change. You may feel like you are pulling up your anchor and to set yourself adrift on a wide sea, with no land in sight, and that as a consequence you have no clear indication about where to go or in what direction you should place your effort, because every direction looks the same. You may feel like there are infinite avenues to explore, and too many aspects that are shifting, forming connections or dissolving connections to make sense of anything.

In this case, returning to Earth and reviewing the facts of the situation helps summon a mood in your soul that there is something you can rely upon, something objective and solid that gives you a firm foundation to proceed. Try to take one aspect of your phenomenon and then imagine it changed just slightly, like it took a single step to the left or right. Then try to imagine the potential repercussions of this for the rest of the facts – do they change too? If so, how?

If your phenomenon allows it, you do not have to imagine this sequence, but can actually manipulate your phenomenon like an experiment: keeping all but one variable constant, shift that variable slightly and see what happens. Paying attention to only one shift at a time can be a good place to begin dipping your toe into the Water realm. Following the resulting domino trail when one fact shifts leads you under the surface entirely, but gives you clarity around how you got there, allowing you to feel more at home.


If you “get stuck” in Water, you may feel like everything connects to everything else, but that the patterns are so entrenched that you lose the forest for the trees. You may also feel like you have more or less completely understood the gesture(s) of your phenomenon, and that there isn’t really much left to explore, like it’s the “same ol’ thing day after day”, or like what you are dealing with is just another cog in the wheels of a big machine – “things are changing all-right, changing the same way as before”. In this case, you can propel yourself out of the ‘mud’ by taking any fact about your phenomenon and imagining the consequences for the whole if that fact suddenly became its opposite.

Working with the Air element in this way can shake of the momentum of repetitious cycles and open up new vistas. You may also benefit from another person’s perspective on the matter, particularly if they do not agree with your present view. Simply try to imagine what would have to be the case if the other person’s perspective was accurate.

Air Symbol

If you “don’t get” Air, you might find it difficult to see alternate points of view. The connected flow of meaning in the Water realm might make great sense to you – so much so that alternatives just seem theoretical, even not worth pursuing. Entering the Air may seem like trying to grab onto an abyss, where there isn’t anything obvious to hold on to. When trying to engage with it you might find your mind filled with disconnected, seemingly random thoughts. Your feelings might become amplified and may tend towards what may appear to your rational mind as excess. We have a tendency to experience one meaning at a time – Air requires that we be able to simultaneously experience multiple meanings. Because of this, there can be a great temptation when trying to deal with the Air level of a phenomenon to give up entirely, or to have the feeling like you cannot tolerate continued confusion and lack of knowing.

This is both natural and useful, and indicates that you are doing the work. If you can’t engage with the Air element, try to imagine some sequence you identified at the Water level in your mind’s eye. Now see if you can push the sequence forward just slightly to a new stage that you have not yet observed or imagined, making sure that the feeling of the movement of your sequence is maintained. Now reverse the sequence in your mind and play it backwards. When you reach the beginning, push the sequence backwards to a previous stage that you haven’t yet observed or imagined, again while maintaining continuity. Run this sequence forwards and backwards, trying to expand the range just a little each time. You can do this multiple times, where in each instance you take the phenomenon in a different direction on its forward and backward ends.This lets you use the principles of the Water element to expand naturally into the Air element.

Working with Air can be difficult, and you may need to work with letting go of any particular feeling or interpretation you have about your phenomenon (generally established in the Earth and Water elements). You can help mitigate any biases you bring to the phenomenon by creating a space in which you consciously explore the complete range of possibilities associated with the content of your thoughts and feelings when doing the Earth, Water, and Air exercises.

To do this, after working normally with an element of your choice, review your experience and pick out the most apparent or important thought and feeling that occurred to you in regards to your phenomenon. Then consciously imagine what it would be like if each one was taken to its extreme, as if they had a volume knob that went past 10 and all the way to 11. What would this feel like? What would the content of your thought about your phenomenon consist of when exaggerated like this? Now try to explore what would happen if the volume knob was turned down, past zero until it reaches 11 again from the reverse side.

If this exercise is too difficult, then simply notice your mood as you engage with the other elements, and see if you can imagine what it would feel like to be in a completely opposite mood. For more help, you can even try reversing other aspects of how you perform the exercise: if you usually sit, try lying or standing. Try doing the exercise outside, or even simply face the opposite direction. You can even try doing the exercise 12 hours later/earlier, at the complementary time of day. Oscillating between these polarities every other day will definitely put you in an air state.


If you “get stuck” in Air, you may feel like anything goes, and that it is impossible to tell between what is true or false about your phenomenon. You may delight in the infinite possibilities but feel at a loss when you try to see how everything is connected on a higher level. You may become frustrated and feel like you aren’t ‘getting anywhere’, even while feeling like you are on the border of some realization.This is a time to cultivate patience.

It can be useful here to consciously place the exercises aside for a while to let them rest in your unconscious. If you have a creative hobby, practice that instead, particularly if it gives you a sense of accomplishment and enthusiasm. When you come back to the exercises, try to do so with fresh eyes and the feeling of allowing but not requiring completely new experiences to be possible.

Try to let go of your expectations – you may need to consciously allow yourself to experience the possibility of ‘failure’. This is beneficial, as long as you do the exercise anyway.

Fire Symbol

If you “don’t get” Fire, you may feel that when you are working with the Fire element you feel like a failure, or that you will “never get it”. You may feel like something important is passing you by, like you are somehow blind to something that should be obvious. As a result of this you may feel like there is no bigger picture, no insight to be had beyond what is already apparent to you.

There can be a number of reasons why your work may not seem to yield a connection to the Fire level. In any case, a common symptom that shows up before the Fire level becomes apparent is frustration, as if there were a friction process occurring deep in the soul. This is actually an indication that you are moving in the right direction! It is the conscious application of your will to the exercises that is pushing a part of yourself up against the unknown, and the abrasion this causes results in a fiery frustration, potentially even anger – at the exercises, the phenomenon, or yourself for feeling incapable of ‘getting it’.

This is the moment in which the will must become even more present – but not in a forceful way. Rather, you must learn how to surrender your will to a higher part of yourself – the part of yourself that can Witness your life without judgment. This higher surrender, or we could say conscious suffering – cleans out the part of yourself that acts like a screen between you and the Fire level of the phenomenon.


It is very difficult to “get stuck” in Fire when working with the cycle in the way indicated in this document. The nature of the Fire element generally restricts one’s ability to willfully ‘hold on’ to a given state. However, if you find that you seem to see deep meanings in every aspect of your phenomenon, or if the bulk of your thoughts about your phenomenon are accompanied with the feeling of grand importance, you may need to balance your approach.

Alternatively, you may feel so passionate about your phenomenon that you feel full of the need for some kind of action but cannot get a clear sense for where to focus your efforts. You may even lose your ability to identify obvious features of your phenomenon because everything becomes more than it seems.

In any case, return to the Earth element and seek to become intimately familiar with the facts and details associated with your phenomenon. Grounding yourself in the Earth element will keep you focused and attentive to the actual phenomenon. This will either substantiate your intuitions or will show you where you need to let go of a particular way of viewing your phenomenon in order to incorporate more of its Earth aspects in a coherent way.



Metaphorical Qualities

Qualities and Descriptors of the Elements

The qualities transform one into the next, from left to right.

Facts Relations Polarities Wholes
Solid Liquid Gaseous Plasmic
Opposing Complementing Reciprocating Enantiodromiating
Gravity Movement Levity Space
Impacting Pulsing Turbulent Resounding
Being Shifting Involuting Creating
Singularities Comparisons Simultaneities Paradoxes
Isolated Connected Interpenetrating Unitive
Self-contained Contextual Unbounded Integral
Uncompromising Compromising Indefinite Facilitating
Stubborn Conforming Waffling Being
Unchanging Changing Chaotic Evolving
Apparent Subtle Hermetic Esoteric
Divisatory Connecting Hyperbolizing Harmonizing
Actual Relational Potential Capacity
Separating Joining Complementing Communing
Objects Processes Inversions Holons
Distinguishing Relating Reversing Unifying
Contrasting Comparing Polarizing Gestalting
Still Flowing Involuting Exploding
Waiting Emerging Reversing Completing
Informing Discussing Conversing Dialoguing
Identifying Trying Waiting Surrendering
Analyzing Processing Brainstorming Creating
Reserved Polite Gregarious Luminous
Informative Orienting Expanding Transformative
Structural Fluid Inverting Dynamic
Instincts Urges Desires Motives
Matter Growth/Decay Sympathies/Antipathies Self
Separate Mixed Layered Holographic
Solitary Independence Dependence Mutual Independence Omni-dependence
Dogmatic Flexible Mutually Accommodating Mutually Supportive
Antipathetic Sympathetic Empathetic Compassionate
Knowing Understanding Wondering Meditating
Obvious Contextual Subtle Insightful
Static Penetrating Interpenetrating Omni-present
Thinking Imagining Inspiring Intuiting
Instantaneous Sequenced Simultaneous Timeless
Individuated Patterned, Rhythmic Random, Probabiliistic Archetypal
Known Felt Unknown Intuited
Just Me Me and You You? Me? We
Speaking Tolerating Listening Acting
Just this This next to that Either this or that Both this and that
Maintaining Balancing, Mediating Extremizing Evolving
Having been formed In the process of forming Loss of all form The activity that does the forming



Physical Qualities

List of Qualities and Behaviors

These mostly apply to the physical manifestation of the elements, but are also able to be understood metaphorically.

Definite Relational Chaotic, Invisible Supersensible
Shaped No intrinsic shape (shape of container's "bottom" and "sides"), or spherical No intrinsic shape whatsoever, fills all space of a container Dynamic shape dependent upon the activity of its medium
Located Shifts location, dependent on balance between outside and inside forces Attempts to fill all space, actively moves to periphery, Dispersive Constantly in motion, and constantly moving other things
Inertial (strongly resists change) Constant change (inner movement), easy to move, changes transmitted via waves to whole medium Moves expansively, quickly, constant connects/disconnects, supremely sensitive Actively transforms other objects (warming, burning, melting, vaporizing, etc.)
All surface, all border, all ‘outside’ Border operates differently than insides, inside vs. outside (surface tension) Borderless, diffuse, all internal boundaries, pressure differentials Activity only, no borders but with location, inside=outside, boundarylessness
Differences, Unconnected Self-connecting, continuity with immediate environment Self-disconnecting, Self-negating, self-dissociation Integrating, Connected to self and others
Indifference Mixes w/ other liquids and gases, connects to solid surfaces (capillary action) Makes way for all other substances, tendency to interpenetrate but not truly mix Contact necessitates change, transformative
Rigid Flowing Expansive, Clear Illuminating
Structured Dependent, flexible Amorphous, reciprocating Dynamic
Centric, Gravity Lateral, planar, spreading Peripheral Levity
No obvious self-movement Rhythmic forms (waves) Vortexial forms, spirals Dynamic forms - infinite possibilities
Cold Wet Dry Warm
Formed Unformed Formlessness Forming
Settling Spreading, Covering Encompassing Pleromic
Existing Dissolving Diffusing Metamorphosing
Frozen Melted Vaporized Combusted



User-Friendly List of Questions


This list is also available in a print version in case you want to take it with you. (Opens in a blank window)


Earth -

– What are the facts?

– What is different?

– What is unique?

– What could everyone else agree upon?

– What stands out?

– What seems constant?

– What can I count on?

– What is irrefutable?

– What are the pieces?

– What categories do the pieces fit into?

– What feels like a heavy weight, like a solid stone, or like gravity with respect to this phenomenon?

Earth Symbol

Water -

– What is changing?

– Do any of the facts connect to each other?

– Do the facts manifest in a sequence?

– Are there different parts or areas which are self-similar?

– What is the immediate context of the facts?

– What patterns do I notice?

– Are there any rhythms or cycles?

– What are the processes that give rise to the individual facts?

– Is there a specific context that makes the phenomenon more apparent or realized?

– How is one aspect turning into another, seemingly different aspect?

– What about my phenomenon makes me feel like I am floating along, caught in the waves, drowning, or repeating the same thing over and over?

Water Element

Air -

– What is reversing?

– Where do I go if I extrapolate the movements I identified in the Water level to their extremes?

– What is the overall range of manifestation of the major aspects of the phenomenon?

– That is, what are its limits?

– Where does the phenomenon seem to ‘run out’ or dissolve? – What parts do I seem to be unable to focus or concentrate upon?

– If I could imagine the opposite of one part or the whole phenomenon, what would it be?

– How would I feel if this actually happened?

– What about this phenomenon makes me feel like I am losing my moorings completely, like my knowing runs out, like there is no truth, or like every part is equally important or unimportant?

Air Symbol

Fire -

– What is the whole?

– What lies within or behind the phenomenon that allows the seemingly conflicting aspects of the Air level to coexist in a harmony, in a way that is not mutually destructive, but rather is mutually enhancing?

– Do I have a new insight that makes better sense of all the previous levels?

– Is there some subtle aspect of the phenomenon that once seemed insignificant but now seems like the key to the whole thing?

– Do I have the feeling of participating in something larger than myself?

– Do I suddenly notice how this phenomenon shows up in places I never expected or noticed before?

– Do I have the experience that the phenomenon is speaking to me through other, seemingly unrelated aspects of my life and experience? Do I feel transformed in some way?

Fire Symbol



Feedback Questions


As a part of my ongoing research, I am interested in how others use or experience the elements and the elemental cycle. You can help by submitting your experiences to me. You can respond to the following questions, or alternatively (or in addition) you could write out any feedback that you feel is appropriate. All your feedback is kept strictly anonymous. You can skip any questions you wish.

You can submit your responses in the following ways:

  1. What is your name (for identification purposes only – will be kept strictly private and will not be included in the thesis)?
  2. What is your age?
  3. What is your occupation?
  4. If you would like me to be able to respond to you by email, you will need to enter your email address here:
  5. What is the highest level of education that you have completed?

  6. Describe any previous familiarity you have with the elements Earth, Water, Air, and Fire, from any context.
  7. On a scale of 1 to 10, rate how easy was it to understand this document overall, where 10 is ‘completely understandable’, and 1 is ‘completely confusing’.
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
  8. Which parts of the document were very clear and understandable?
  9. Which parts of the document need to be refined or made more understandable?


  10. On a scale of 1 to 10, rate how likely you would be to try using the elemental cycle again in your own life, where 10 is ‘would definitely use it again’ and 1 is ‘would definitely not use it again’.
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
  11. On a scale of 1 to 10, rate how easy it was to actually apply the elemental cycle to your chosen phenomenon, where 10 is ‘extremely easy’ and 1 is ‘very difficult’.
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
  12. On a scale of 1 to 10, rate how useful the elemental cycle was in helping you understand and work with your chosen phenomenon, where 10 is extremely useful and 1 is not useful at all.
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
  13. With which element did the asking of the questions yield the most useful insight or information?
  14. Did you feel you were able to complete a full cycle from Earth to Fire?
  15. If you had a Fire experience, can you briefly describe what it was like, along with any insights you may have had about your phenomenon?


  16. Which section of this document did you find to be the most useful, and why?


  17. Which section of this document did you find to be the least useful, and why?


  18. Which element was the easiest to apply to your chosen phenomenon?
  19. Which element was the most difficult to apply to your chosen phenomenon?
  20. With which element did the asking of the questions feel most comfortable to you?
  21. With which element did the asking of the questions feel least comfortable to you?
  22. Is there anything you can note about the process of working with the elemental cycle that seems important to indicate?




40: Back The original image is from E.A. Burtt. 1980. The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. P. 83, but was scanned from a reference in Bortoft, H. (1996). The wholeness of nature : Goethe's way toward a science of conscious participation in nature. Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Books p.50


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