Working with Elemental Energies

According to the Tibetan shamanic tradition known as Bön Po, the manifested world is comprised of five elements: ether (or space), earth, water, fire and air. These elements have both gross and subtle aspects; hence, their role in shaping our experience can be felt on multiple levels, the most obvious of which is psychological. If you lack ether, your life will come across as an endless list of chores and obligations with little to no room for leisure and self-expression. A paucity of earth will unsettle you personal and professional life; it will also keep you from establishing stable relationships. If your subtle body lacks the water element, joy, pleasure, and creativity will elude you. Extinguish your fire, and you will be unable to find your inspiration or even fall in love; a shortage of air, instead, will make you dull and resistant to change.

Bön Po is hardly the only tradition to delve into how elemental energies shape our lives. According to Greek philosopher Empedocles, the universe is comprised of four “roots,” fire, water, earth, and air. Mobilized by love and strife, these roots shape the world. Along these lines, not only did Aristoteles argue that all that is emerges out of various combinations of four elements: hot, cold, dry, and moist, but he also suggested that, when these elements are imbalanced, the body falls sick. Incidentally, Aristoteles is now hailed as the “godfather” of Western medicine.

Similar approaches to elemental energies emerged in India, where, for centuries, yoga practitioners have meditated on earth, water, fire, air, and ether as the building blocks of subtle physiology. For yogis, each element dwells in a chakra, from where it shapes both subtle and gross aspects of our experience. When these energies are not harmonized, they cause illness and disruption; such imbalances are to be treated with ayurvedic remedies such as spices, herbs, and gemstones.[1]

Other traditions regard elemental energies as the building blocks of the universe. In Taoist cosmology, the elements are fire, earth, metal, water, and wood. Each of them resides in an internal organ and can be accessed (and healed) through sound and color. This list could go on to include many more cosmologies; yet what matters is that each of these traditions suggests complex ways of working with the elements; among others, colors, mantras, and symbols may help harmonize a microcosmos in constant transformation.

If you feel drawn to work with the elements, you can choose from an embarrassment of riches; at the most basic level, however, you can start by mindfully experiencing nature.

To sense the earth element, you can lie on the grass, the sand, or a rock; you can also touch a tree, allowing your awareness to sink into its roots. Breathe in the wind on a stormy day to discover the excitement of air; immerse yourself in the ocean, and you will feel the sensuousness of water. By shining on your skin, the sun kindles your fire; a thunderclap, instead, will shock you into alertness. Lastly, as you contemplate the view from a mountain top, you will experience the expansive quality of space. This is by no means an exhaustive list: there are many ways to use your imagination as you explore the elemental energies in nature; what matters, however, is that they will all help you restore balance in your life.


[1] Western and Vedic astrology, too, postulate the role of elements as fundamental components of the universe—and so does the Tarot with its four suits.

Image by Blake Verdoorn via Unsplash

If you want to find out more about elemental energies in Bön Po, Healing with Form, Energy, and Light: The Five Elements in Tibetan Shamanism, Tantra, and Dzogchen by Tenzin W. Rinpoche is an excellent source. I also offer an Inner Alchemy course during which I lead participants in the exploration of each element.

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