The concept of the four elements (earth; air; fire; water) is an ancient one. It is widely used as a metaphor to describe aspects of the human condition. This concept dates back at least as far as the 5th century BCE in Western culture, and likely pre-dates that in other cultures.
In the metaphorical sense, each element represents some aspect or truth about humanity.
Air tends to stand for thinking, the power of the mind. Atoms move quickly in the gaseous form, as do thoughts which travel quickly through our minds. Thoughts are both ephemeral and influential. Fleeting thoughts are carried away as if by a passing breeze. Repetitive thoughts create our habitual behaviours and experience of the world. In neuroscience, repeated thoughts create pathways through our neurology, and therefore become more concrete in nature.
Earth represents the physical, practical, concrete aspect of ourselves. It represents our connection with our physical body, which is made up of the same chemical elements as other life on earth, including trace minerals. If you think about it, we are all part metal (iron, zinc, copper…). It’s important to be earthy enough to navigate successfully through the material world of which we’re a part. However too much metaphorical earth can keep us stuck or resistant to change.
Fire tends to represent creativity and passion. Fire is both creative and destructive. As human we imagine and create both heavenly and hellish moments here on earth. The discovery of fire allowed humanity to generate more energy from food and to colonise otherwise inhospitable parts of the globe. And yet global heating is now threatening our futures.
Water tends to represent the emotions. Water is a shapeshifting substance, and responds to the situations in which it finds itself. It may be found flowing freely towards the sea or stuck and stagnant in a puddle. It is essential for life, but water is only healthy when able to move. I find this a powerful metaphor to illustrate how we need to learn to experience our emotions but also allow them to flow through us. This is true for both negative and positive emotions. It is possible to experience a feeling of deep grief, and not so long afterwards experience laughter or a sense of calm. The problem is if we try to shut down the negative emotions, this can lead to numbness as we don’t move through the emotion. And it also shuts us off from experience positive emotions such as deep joy.
Four elements in psychology
This four element model is used in many contexts. For example, a version this is reflected in Carl Jung’s psychological mode describing four tendencies: sensing (earth) v. Intuition (fire), and Feeling (water) v. Thinking (air). This model even provides a basis for psychological diagnostics widely used in business and personal development, such as the Myers Briggs Type Indicator.
According to Jung and others, as we go through life, we develop more aspects of ourselves. We will always tend to have some psychological preferences; ways of being that come more easily to us. Some people will tend to have a preference for logical cognitive decision making. Others will tend to make decisions on how they feel. But rounded decision making will consider both aspects. “Gut instinct” can provide valuable information that is missed if we only take into account what we can quantify with our conscious thinking. However, evidence shows that decisions taken on feelings alone can be highly misleading, even disastrous. We need to be able to marry the two aspects of thinking and feeling.
And we need a balance of passion and practicality, of fire and earth, if we want to live creatively (in its broadest sense) whilst being able to make things happen in the world.
Explore and integrate the elements
There are many routes to exploring and integrating the elements. The route for me has been dance. This model first came alive for me over 25 years ago when I took a workshop which was based on dancing the four elements. With music and guidance, we were invited to physicalise the elements. This felt like a revelation and helped me understand the balance of elements within myself, at that time.
Amongst other things, conscious dance has helped me learn to move quickly through emotions. I strongly believe that if you are feeling uncomfortable emotions the best thing to do is to get moving — whether that’s walking, dancing, running, cycling or whatever works for you. It’s helped me flow more easily through my emotions, as healthy water flows.
Water, air and fire are the elements that I connect with most easily. I enjoy intellectual concepts and ideas (an air quality). The fiery side of my nature used to manifest itself as a hot temper; these days it’s mellowed more to a warmth and an ability to convey enthusiasm and energy.
I will never be the world’s most earthy person, but I look for ways to integrate earth. Cooking is a practical skill that enjoy, and which combines creativity with practicality. I rarely use a food processor, instead I chop and slice and stir and enjoy the alchemy of ingredients coming together into the wholeness of a meal.
It can be helpful to recognise the balance of elements in ourselves, and find ways to balance and integrate them into our personalities and lives.
What elements do you believe are strongest in you?