Earth, water, fire, air and space. According to Tibetan culture, these five elements of nature are the substance of all things. The processes occurring between them create the universe and our lives.
In order to understand Tibetan medicine, astrology or simply Tibetan spiritual traditions, we need to start from understanding the elements of nature. In Eastern culture, they belong not only to the natural world, but are also a metaphor used to describe even the smallest phenomena (including those that happen within us). Therefore, they connect macro- and microcosm, spirituality and corporeality. Tibetans also believe that the elements of nature are the embodiment of numerous deities to whom they appeal during their shamanic practices.
Right now, I am being consumed by a lack of connection with the elements, as I have been sitting in front of the monitor for a few – or even dozen – days in my Warsaw flat, writing (or trying to write). So before I allude to the elements from the Tibetan tradition, I first need to go outside to experience them. It could be the warmth of a bonfire, ideally by the river. It would be good to swim in the sea or even look at the waves. A good breath of mountain air would work wonders. But a walk in the park must suffice.
Life passes one second after another; it is a great and complex process that consists of countless smaller processes. Besides the ones connected with the body, there are also other, non-physical processes happening within us. According to Tibetan philosophy, our body contains thousands of channels through which our life force flows. Some of them are the so-called substantialist channels – that is, the nervous system, blood vessels and the lymphatic system. However, Indian medicine also assumes that our bodies contain non-substantialist channels: pathways for prana (life force energy), on which the functioning of our bodies and the level of our consciousness depend. We can neither measure nor see them, we can only feel them.
According to the Buddhist tradition, the life process can be disturbed on different levels of experience. On the physical level, there can be bodily ailments. When they appear, we go to the doctor of a given specialization and undergo treatment. Problems appearing on the mental level can be solved with the help of a psychologist or psychiatrist. According to Tibetans, there is also a third sphere, an energetic one, on the level of which disorders may appear. We are not able to diagnose and treat them by means of conventional medicine, thus we need other methods. Therefore, we use intuition, astrology, we look at our dreams, we carry out cleansing rituals, we meditate, we practise yoga, or we pray. By saying this, I don’t encourage anyone to do something they don’t understand – it is more about illustrating what caring about wellbeing looks like in areas where people live close to nature. Even in Europe, we consider it a fact that contact with nature is indispensable for a human being to function in a healthy way.
An important Buddhist practice is a ritual called the Soul and Life Force Retrieval. Yet it is a difficult and so-called ‘deep’ practice, for which we need a teacher. A simpler practice is the Elemental Energies Restoration, which can be performed independently. The starting point for the ritual is a belief that the external world has an impact on our inner world. We are made of the same elements as the universe, and so we can be with it in harmonious oneness or in conflict. But what does it mean to live in harmony with the world? Buddhism gives us a prompt: to accept what is given to us. Understanding what each elemental force symbolizes within us, what emotions and personality traits it is associated with, will allow us to find a way in which we can harmonize the elements within us and, thanks to this, experience balance in body and mind.
Space – the wisdom of emptiness
The most powerful element, in which the other four exist, is space. It is the infinite, cloudless sky. Observe it. Space gives us a feeling of freedom, ease, clarity of thinking and expansiveness in action. This element manifests itself as our consciousness. If we harmonize it, we will gain the ability of containing everything in us – both emotions and experiences. Yet if we have too much space within us, it is difficult to connect with other elements. On the other hand, if there isn’t enough of it, another element can dominate us and determine our reactions. An example of a person with balanced space is someone who has a family, a job, offspring and passions – and finds time and energy for all of them. A person with insufficient inner space won’t have time for anything: they will not be able to reconcile professional duties with childcare, not to mention passions or friendships. At the same time, a person with an excess of this element drifts on the surface of life. Work isn’t important for them, children are far away, and their partner is a housemate. Such a person isn’t focused on anything and nothing brings them satisfaction.
Tibetans claim that if our consciousness integrates and identifies with our ‘pure’ characteristics, then the Buddha emerges. If, on the other hand, it identifies with ‘impure’ characteristics, we will get entangled in the suffering of this world, which is the experience known to the majority of us. We identify with what is ‘outside’ of us, for example, with work, relationships or our bodies. And yet it is only the contents of space, only a certain experience. This is not us, because we are the ones that experience things. We prove ourselves through the mere experience of being and not by how the external world perceives us. If we lose something with which we have identified up until now (for example, our professional career or a partner), it may negatively affect our self-esteem. There is a risk that we will have a breakdown. Of course, it is sometimes the case that we treat this type of a loss as a new opening or an opportunity; such an approach will lead to accepting oneself and everything that we encounter.
The inner element of space perfectly develops Dzogchen. This term stands for a system of teachings and practices present both in the Bon tradition as well as in the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Dzogchen (meaning ‘Great Perfection’) is a state in which we experience reality the way it is, without attraction or reluctance, without interpreting it. Thanks to Dzogchen, we can learn to perceive all creations and beings the way they have been created: finite and perfect.
If we balance the influences of the remaining four elements, our connection with space will necessarily become balanced. Thanks to this, we can manage our anger and give and receive love. It is the wisdom of emptiness.
Air – fulfilling wisdom
Fresh air cooling our faces. This element gives us inner agility, freshness, vitality and flexibility. It is also connected with the ability to learn and curiosity about the world. Air carries with it change and, therefore, if we develop this aspect within us, we can change negative things into positive, transform hatred into love, jealousy into openness, pride and egoism into calm. Yet if the element of air turns out to be dominant within us, we won’t be able to stop or be content with anything, we will always feel that there is a better place somewhere else. Our life will start consisting of a constant chase after change. People with an excess of air are inconstant and emotionally labile. On the other hand, those lacking this element are stuck in one place, unable to change anything in their lives. The balanced aspect of air gives us decisiveness in thinking and action. It allows us to overcome pride and achieve calm.
The recommended practices to strengthen our inner element of air are breathing and tsalung movement exercises, known as Tibetan yoga. Air represents an all-fulfilling wisdom.
Fire – discerning wisdom
Burning fire, the sun warming our faces, the glow of a bonfire and its flames licking the wood. The element of fire gives us energy, strong will, the ability to create, inspiration and the feeling of bliss. It is the energy of enthusiasm, creative power and joy – unlike in the case of water, which is associated with contentment and acceptance.
If we have too much fire within us, we are too easily guided by emotions, we are annoyed and irritated by other approaches to life that are different from ours, we are not tolerant. People of the fire element are quick and unstable; they often feel uneasy, they talk and do a lot. When we have fire deficiency, we lack inspiration, we easily follow a routine, we don’t enjoy our jobs. Having inner fire in balance means we can overcome desire and greed. We can be generous. Fire is a discerning wisdom.
Water – reflective wisdom
A smooth surface of water, a calm lake, river or creek. If you don’t have access to wild water in your proximity, think about it. The imagination can make a lot happen. Focus on water that you can drink.
According to Tibetan philosophy, water symbolizes openness and the overcoming of jealousy. The balanced element of water means flowing through life at a good pace. We accept everything and everyone; we take joy in what we have. It is a different story if the element of water dominates over other elements. In this case, a person will experience so many sensations and emotions that their good mood will lead to neglecting duties and getting lost in pleasures. Such people don’t want to deal with problems and difficulties, even if it risks losing precious relationships and goods. An excess of water means floating through life. But a lack of it leads to a person being unable to find joy in interpersonal relationships and unable to find pleasure in life.
Balance means that we achieve calm, pleasure, sensuality and relaxation. Water is a reflective wisdom.
Earth – wisdom of balance
High mountains are a good place to experience the element of earth. Yet earth is also everywhere, it is enough to find a spot without concrete, grass or moss – just ordinary soil. Sit on it. Earth is a metaphor of strength, certainty, focus, concentration, a feeling of safety. It is the ground beneath our feet. In shamanism, earth is at the centre of Mandala, it is the centre of everything (though according to the teachings of Tantra and Dzogchen, space is the centre of everything).
If earth is in harmony with other elements, it becomes a solid basis for everything. People whose inner element of earth is balanced are confident, but not arrogant; they take matters seriously, but not too seriously. They are not easily susceptible to emotions or impulses; they don’t give up, they overcome their deficiencies or lack of knowledge.
How can we tell that our inner element of earth isn’t balanced? If the issue is excess, we experience a feeling of being stuck: sleepiness, sluggishness, passivity, which can be experienced as a laziness that is hard to overcome. The symptoms appear not only on the level of the body, but also of the mind. They are, for example, stupor or depressive states, a lack of creative powers, pettiness or excessive attachment to trivial things. On the other hand, a lack of contact with earth creates emotional liability and a lack of rootedness. People in whom the element of earth is too weak are unable to complete initiated projects, they feel uncomfortable everywhere, they constantly look for something they could rely on and someone they could depend on.
To develop the element of earth, it is good to look after life stability, the creation of a house or a relationship that can provide a feeling of safety. Of course, it is a piece of advice from the category of ‘easier said than done’. Life is a challenge that we shape using a method of small steps. Let us not let anyone tell us that others find it easy to take care of balance. On the other hand, let’s not give up at the very start, saying that we cannot change anything in our lives. Earth is the wisdom of balance.
Wisdom in simplicity
With each description of elements, there also appeared a type of wisdom that a given element impersonates. When, as an apprentice of Tibetan philosophy, I started reading books about Bon and Buddhism, the words that I was reading contained hazy imaginings of how each wisdom differs and what it stands for. Understanding came with time. I will only add that excessive reading of intellectual discourse is an obstacle to this understanding – one of the many that people from the West encounter in Buddhist teachings. Instead of rationalizing everything, let us unite with the elements and feel their properties through experiencing them in nature. Let’s connect with what surrounds us, visible and invisible. We don’t have to know and understand everything, we don’t even have the chance to fathom the entirety of the secret. We are often arrogant, supercilious, boastful, while the key is humility towards the world, gratitude for what is given to us, respect for one’s life and the environment. It may sound naïve, but we give words their true value. One step after another, we can come closer to the secret of life and the nature of the mind.
Tibetan teachings say that in life everything is possible. Ever since I understood this, it has indeed been the case. There are no impossible things: there are difficult things and there are those which, for certain reasons, I don’t want to take on, but there are no impossible things. Most barriers exist only in our minds. The Tibetan teacher Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, whose book Healing with Form, Energy, and Light was a direct inspiration for this text, says that everything can be made more complicated or simplified. According to him, in modern times we have made the rules of social life so complicated that we believe everything must be convoluted. We are afraid or we simply don’t appreciate simplicity, partly because we want things and relationships to be complicated. Let’s make matters simpler. Only then will they all become simpler.
The above text is based on the teachings of Bon religion, the core religion of Tibet, considered to be a sect of Buddhism, which also combines shamanic and animistic elements. According to oral tradition, Bon started 17,000 years ago (although contemporary scholars think it happened much later) and it is undoubtedly a source of many spiritual traditions of Tibet. According to Tibetan shamanic teachings, the forces of nature are inhabited by live beings. Mountains, trees, seas, air are inhabited by spirits and deities connected with the elements. Shamanism doesn’t doubt the existence of those beings, it doesn’t believe that they are only a projection of our minds. Although they don’t have physical bodies, they affect us; they can be neutral towards us, support us, or come into our way.
The article is based on the book “Healing with Form, Energy, and Light: The Five Elements in Tibetan Shamanism, Tantra, and Dzogchen” by Tenzin Wangyal Rin.
Translated from the Polish by Agata Masłowska
If you like reading our authors and would like to have a positive impact on the quality of journalism in the ‘New East’, please support PRZEKRÓJ Foundation.
Choose your donation