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healing through balance: the Tibetan understanding of the five elements + the circle of life

Life is energy, arising from space, from the great emptiness of our Sky Mother, giving birth into form, then dissolving back into space. Our lives are a play of earth (solidity), water (fluidity), fire (heat) and wind (motility), all dancing around the vast unborn, undying emptiness of the primordial Sky Mother, ever changing and transforming, disintegrating and reconstituting.

We call these the five elements, which in many native traditions are considered to be the substance of all life and its processes. In this article I will present a brief outline of the basic properties of the elements, and how our lives are inextricably linked to theirs; from conception to death and beyond. Much like ourselves, the elements possess both positive and negative qualities, and understanding how to work with them is key to developing self-knowledge and effective spiritual practice.

Born within the elements

Roaming as an orphan in the bardo1 state between our previous incarnation and the next one, our consciousness searches for a suitable place of rebirth and appropriate parents, according to our karmic traces.

At conception, when the red light of our birth mother’s female energy unites with the white light of our father’s, a new life begins, which is known as the unity of the mother void and the son awareness.

The luminosity and dynamism of the male energy becomes one with the darkness and spaciousness of the female. The space element transforms into consciousness which takes root in the zygote – the union of the sperm cell and the egg cell – when the father’s semen fuses with the mother’s ovum.

As we grow, the earth element generates our embryonic body; blood and bodily fluids emanate from the water element; we absorb warmth and love from our mother’s fire element; and take in oxygen and nutrients through the umbilical cord and begin to grow inside the space of the womb.

Even at this embryonic stage in life, we begin to interact with the elements. Just as our bodies are shaped from the genetic material of our parents, our psychoemotional and energetic lives are also being influenced by their karmic resonance and states of mind, along with the environmental frequencies outside the womb.

At birth we leave the darkness of the womb, and begin to relate to the luminous world, and the natural elements outside, as an interdependent organism. We rely on our parents and the earth’s beneficence to nurture us, the sun to warm us, water to refresh us, air for us to breathe, and space for us to roam in.

As we grow into little humans, we begin to develop awareness of our own consciousness, through our dreams, thoughts, emotions and actions, all manifesting from our deep karmic past, forever weaving into and relating back to the phenomenal world of the elements.

Earth becomes the strength of our spine, teeth and nails; water our organs and bodily fluids; fire our internal heat; wind our breath and way of communicating with the world, while our mind reflects our relationship to space, whether open and clear, or overcrowded and neurotic.

As we reach maturity and cultivate more awareness of our inner being, the natural relationship between the internal and external elements becomes manifest in our state of health, emotional life and relationships. The inherent imbalances in our nature come to the surface, along with our karmic patterns, and these present themselves as the raw material of our day-to-day experience.

When challenges arise, they appear to come from an external source, but in reality, all obstacles originate from our own mind and karmic patterns. From this perspective, there is an outflow of the five lights2, like a rainbow being projected into the sky, with varying degrees of each colour representing the internal makeup of our elemental constitution.

the earth element

Earth is the basic building block of life. Traditionally it is located in the east, is yellow in colour, associated with autumn, and is the most substantial of all the elements.

Mountains, forests and the substrata of rock down to the earth’s core represent the strength and stability of this element, along with the earth-bounding quality that connects us to the earth and all its inhabitants, both physical and non-physical. Life is really about this relationship, because all relationships come from our primordial relationship with the earth element.

Earth supports all life and is impregnated with the female nurturing quality, which heals, restores and transforms through the unconditional love of the great Mother. However far we may stray from her basic goodness, she will always level us and bring us back to our right mind.

When earth is balanced in us and working in harmony with the other elements, we feel confident, rooted in our everyday experience, open to life and able to enjoy the benefits of a balanced body and mind. Our daily meditation and spiritual practice become strong, our life path clear and purposeful, and we are able to relate with compassion and intelligence to all beings, with a deep respect and sensitivity for the interconnectedness of life.

On the other hand, if the earth element is too dominant we become stuck and heavy, too serious, too dense. Our routines can become over-mechanised, we can lack feeling or creativity and our bodies are likely to become tense and compressed, blocking the other elements.

Earth needs to be balanced with a healthy flow of water, as well as fire for heat, air for growth and space in which to open, otherwise we can stop processing our emotions and fall into depression.

the water element

Water is the river of life that transports energy from high to low with downward-moving prana. Traditionally it is located in the South, is blue in colour and associated with winter. Its qualities are clarity, fertility, spontaneity and cohesion.

Since our bodies are made up of almost two-thirds water it’s amazing how little we resemble the fluid essence of which we are made. A continuously free-flowing body of energy, moving through the channels, energy centres, organs and the blood stream is essential for a healthy and happy life.

When the water element is lacking, we tend to get stuck in rigid thinking, repress emotions and procrastinate. Water flows easily and joyfully through life, wearing away the hardness of rock as it cascades down the valley, filling the space that it finds, then emptying it immediately, so there is no grasping, sticking or holding.

Since it is formless, it takes the shape of whatever holds it, whether wave, river, lake or rain; there’s no holding back with this element, it is always on the move.

Too much water can result in us not having enough grasp on daily life, leaving us overly sensitive or overly-emotional. An excess of water can wash away the earth beneath and become murky, creating a swamp of confusion in which we may become stuck.

the fire element

Fire is the creative or catalytic spark of life. Arising in the west, fire is associated with spring and the colour red. When supported by wind, it grows into a joyful and compassionate energy, and is able to burn through doubt, confusion, negativity of all types, depression and loss of direction in life.

Without this basic warmth, life becomes meaningless and dull. We can find it hard to connect with others or maintain our spiritual practice and give up all too easily when faced with difficulties.

Moving from low to high with upward-moving prana, we can experience this element as inner heat rising through the central channel3, which brings about a feeling of warmth and wellbeing, or the energy of bliss that accompanies sexual union. An excess of fire can result in restlessness, anxiety, insomnia, volatility and can become highly destructive, as in the case of anger; a tiny spark can set a whole forest aflame. Without the grounding effect of earth and the cooling of water, the instability of fire, especially if fuelled by strong winds, can give rise to agitation, conflicts, and great turbulence in one’s life.

the wind element

Wind is associated with the colour green and summer in the North. It is the element of change and growth, ventilation and communication. Every time we breathe in, we take the cosmos into our being, allowing it to permeate every cell. When we breathe out, we give it back again. Throughout our lives there is a constantly evolving communication between the inner and outer worlds and wind is the messenger, the vehicle through which we reconcile the two.

If we breathe fully and deeply we can strengthen the air element, develop good relationships and learn to express ourselves freely and easily, even in times of great crisis. Since breathing is a natural process, and all life cannot be sustained without air, it’s good to practise breathing every day, to oxygenate and regenerate our system.

Conversely, too much wind can cause restlessness, instability, distraction and dispersion and we can find it hard to focus or complete simple tasks.

the space element

Space is known as the ‘Queen of the Elements’, or the ‘Great Sky Mother,’ because it gives birth to the other four elements and their manifestations. Without centre or circumference, space is the infinite theatre of emptiness that allows for the play of life’s cycles to unfold, civilizations to come and go, galaxies to be born and die.

Although it is without substance it cannot be said to be a void, as it is imbued with energy. Its qualities are transparency, formlessness, openness and expansion.

Traditionally, it is located in the centre of the five element mandala, and it is represented by the colour white.

Space symbolises the true nature of the mind; empty and luminous as the boundless open sky. Meditation is the system that helps us cultivate this energy of expansion and openness. Thoughts come and go but we allow them to self-liberate into space. Sadness and joy, fear and hope come and go without attachment. We can enjoy life as it is and embrace change when it comes.

The penetrating experience of reality comes from embodying the space element and seeing the impermanence of life, so our mind merges with space and we become space.

When the space element is well balanced in us, there is time for everything, we become accommodating and unhurried, able to balance work, home life and spiritual practice, take care of our health and go on retreats. If there is too little space our lives feel cluttered, we can feel as if we’re constantly trying to catch up with ourselves yet never finding the time. On the other hand, if there is too much space, we can become unanchored and drifty, feel disconnected with life and become unable to harness the active drive of accomplishment.

the play of the elements

The earth supports life but it is by no means a passive player in our lives. When the equanimity of the earth becomes disrupted, either by an increase of the fire element at a deep volcanic level, or by events on the ground such as human greed and ignorance, the earth can give way and quake, shake, undulate, taking on some of the properties of water, and unleash havoc.

The tsunamis experienced in Japan and Southeast Asia in recent years brought similar devastation; the water element can accumulate so much force that it can rise up like a moving mountain and crash through ports, valleys and cities, obliterating everything in its wake.

Hurricanes and tornadoes, floods and droughts, storms, volcanic eruptions, forest fires and the like all demonstrate the elements in their unleashed fury. In Tibetan Buddhism we call this the ‘Dakini nature of life’, which is to say that the female principle of energy – arising from space – is at once the creative and destructive force of everything.

This is why we can’t control life or events. Rather than resist, we must find a way to work with what is, and become one with the flow of life itself.

We can take up various practices in order to help us strengthen our relationship with the elements, so as to become more present, and live a more empowered and healthier life. Conversely, we may wait until the internal imbalances begin to manifest into physical illnesses, disturbed states of mind; or instead we run into accidents, conflicts or tumultuous relationships.

Meditation, yoga, physical exercise, ceremonies and mindfulness in everyday life can all help to realign the inner balance of our mind, but there is no guarantee that we will ever actually achieve a continuous state of perfect balance. The problem lies in the capriciousness of the elements; for as soon as they come into balance, they immediately come out of balance again. So we are back to working with the Dakini force anew; which means we have to wake up on the spot, and stay awake, because yesterday’s harmony has become today’s disharmony.

This means the need for developing a direct approach to everything, without planning or scheming, analysis or thinking. We have to try to relate to what’s here and now, on the ground, without projection, hope, fear or desire.

As the elements change, so must we; reforming and realigning, regrounding and refreshing, purifying and emptying.

dissolving the elements

As we age, the internal elements grow weaker, and our relationship to the world changes drastically as we surrender to the inevitability of time. Eventually, when the life force energy stored in the channel behind the heart is used up, nothing can prolong life and we embark upon the journey of death.

However, some extraordinary people can live with great vitality into their old age, and the ones I have met have all maintained strong spiritual practices.

Chankin Viejo, the legendary spiritual leader of the Lacandon Maya, was 108 years old when I met him in Chiapas, Mexico. He walked with one foot in the heavens and one foot in the rainforest, between the worlds of dream, form and the numinous. I believe he had managed to slow the dissolution of the elements in his body, which gave him time to prepare for his death, and helped him guide his clan as they struggled to maintain a dignified traditional life in the face of accelerating deforestation and modernity.

Sitting in his hut one day I asked him: “Chankin, who will take the reins from you when you die?” He smiled and then replied: “My kingdom has come to an end.”

With regards to the elements, the death process works in reverse to conception.

At death the four elements dissolve into one other: earth dissolves into water as the body’s life-sustaining systems shut down; water dissolves into fire and the body dries out; fire dissolves into air as our temperature cools; and when we take our last breath the wind element dissolves into the emptiness of clear light.

Consciousness once again becomes an orphan, and we begin our journey into the bardo states. Due to the continuity of consciousness, it is vitally important to die with a calm and peaceful mind, so that we remain lucid in the bardo states and are able to cut through the illusory visions that arise, and be guided to a positive rebirth.

Whichever path we choose to tread, we must make our peace with our elemental constitution and our inherent imbalances and challenges, and work with them as best as we can, both in the inner world of our daily experience as well as in our dealings with the world outside.

It’s a deeply personal journey because we are all imbued with great uniqueness. We must try to find practices that help us balance the elements according to the nature of the imbalances that arise from birth. We must examine our state of mind, our emotional life and our life situation to determine what we best need.

One of our most common mistakes is to keep practising the same thing in the same way and develop strength where we are already strong, thus creating further imbalance. Very few people wake up in the morning and say to themselves: “Right, what is my greatest weakness? I’m going to work on that!” This approach gives us the energy to swing the axe, along with the intelligence and sharpness of the blade to cut through heavy obstacles.

Most of us, however, tend to carry on working within our comfort zone, fearful of the unknown and of discovering what lies on the other side. That’s what spiritual practice is for: to transcend the dualistic clingings of this life’s neurosis and uncover the awakened state of mind.

Awareness of the elements and a willingness to work with them on a daily basis will facilitate new insight, growth and balance in all aspects of our lives.

May we become as nurturing as earth, as clear as water, as inspirational as fire, as free as wind, and as open as the great Sky Mother from whence we come.

Dedicated to Chankin Viejo, with thanks and blessings.

Roland Torikian has practiced as a Maya healer for 25 years. He trained in traditional Maya medicine with Lauro de la Cruz in the highlands of Chiapas during the 1990s. On completing his apprenticeship, Roland opened a Maya medicine clinic in Dharamshala, whilst studying Tibetan Buddhist philosophy with Geshe Sonam Rinchen. Roland divides his time between Kent and Mexico, working with communities in Guanajuato, Chiapas and Oaxaca, where he hosts a retreat each spring. 

Notes

  1. Bardo is a Tibetan word for the intermediate, transitional, or liminal state between death and rebirth. It can – in a broader sense – also describe any liminal state between two events, life is made up of many bardo states, and at physical death we enter the larger bardo state as we head for rebirth.
  2. The Five Lights is a concept from Tibetan Tantra. Tantra teaches that all beings are innately Buddhas, but our deluded ignorance blinds us to the fact, so we live clouded confused lives in an apparently physical universe, unaware of the true nature of reality. To a Buddha, however, the elements shine out as five pure lights in their five colours, and are seen for what they are in their true form. For those unaware, instead of the perceiving the five pure lights, gross physical matter seems to appear, which reinforces our ignorance, and traps us within an apparent physical universe, until we become ‘liberated’ and realise our Buddhahood, thus seeing the five lights for what they truly are.
  3. Within both Tibetan, Mongolian, Nepalese Indian and other systems, the human body is seen to have three main energy channels within it. A white male channel, a red female channel and a central neutral channel.
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