By Lorenzo Roberto Ramos, Spring 2012
Experiential models have shown that a shift in perspective is only as grounded as the context from which it arises. This focus on context creates the space for us to consider models and worldviews that have fallen from humanity's current repertoire of psychological thinking. A number of such contexts come from the times during which humanity's cultural systems were radically different from today's, often centered on the spiritual aspects of life. Egyptians, Greeks, Assyrians, Indians and Persians, Chinese and Tibetans, Druids, Mayans, Yaquis, Yorubas, Romans, Arabs and all sorts of indigenous tribal societies currently battling first-world oppression indulged in these animistic/monistic lenses through which to observe the living universe.
Their systems of psychospiritual thought were all focused on this reverence for the observable world of nature, and interestingly enough, it is this holistic perspective that allowed for the world to be seen in the most human of ways. The technology used, in lieu of particle colliders and fMRIs, was the vision of the psychopomp, the seer who gave faces to the forces of the universe and called them Gods. Perhaps the most relevant contribution of these systems of thought has been their cross-cultural consensus on the idea of the human being as a microcosm of the greater whole, of the universe itself.
Such ancient ontological studies all seemed to share an interest in the elements. These were seen as the building blocks of the universe, as well as its every inhabitant. In such a perspective, the elements are treated as symbolic categories for forces and qualities found in the universe on a grand, functional scale. These 'elements' are thus far different from those we ascribe the label to today. Fire, for example, was very well the exothermic conflagration we call 'fire,' but it was also heat and light, allowing one a symbolic access-point to flame, sunlight, photons, vision, photosynthesis, transformation, digestion, and even intellect. Bodily and psychological health was seen as a dynamic system of elementary properties, complete with earthen stubbornness and windy nerve currents blowing about our bodies. The space in our bowels became the fume of flatulence and likewise holds our trachea open, and there's nothing quite as 'grounding' as the fact that our whole mass of organic matter stays put together. Does anyone see the earthiness inherent in being present for a client--or for yourself? It is the clinical insights one can draw from these ontological categories that give breadth to this discussion.
This knowledge of the mind and body was applied into a system of elemental therapy that is still practiced widely in most of Asia. In India the science is called Ayurveda, the Study of Life. Psychology is no exception within such a system; indeed, a whole branch of Ayurveda is devoted to the study and health of the mind. In fact, psychospiritual health is actually at the core of the entire elemental system, as the knowledge of such things came from spiritual insights that the masters of such traditions had, be it Chinese Sages, Indo-Tibetan Tantrikas or Greek Philosophers. The system itself holds a therapeutic standard that calls for balance of the elements within the being as optimal. Think of such qualities next time you see a client, it may lend you some useful vantage points on how to proceed with your case:
Earth: This element is all about grounding and stasis. It is the stability that gives anything presence or purpose. Earth qualities are what anyone in need of structure would need. Think of what boundaries and solidarity would mean to your client, and for yourself as a therapist.
Water: This element is the official host of all things. Our entire ecosystem thrives on the hosting presence of water, both in our bodies and outside of them as well. Water flows and fits whatever container it is put into in its natural, effortless movement. Many Axis II clients have severe problems with the nourishment and interconnectivity that is inherent in the water element. Such insight may change the way you deal with such cases, allowing you the opportunity to provide an authentic relationship with the foresight of using such a bond to engender a sense of self-nourishment in your client. One may see how central the identity is to the water element, as it our sense of self that allows us our interpersonal presence. A tall glass of confidence, I'm off tomorrow! Water is also the seat of addiction and desire, fulfillment and fixation, the cyclical cacophony of pursuing empty pleasures...as well as the capacity to discover them within oneself.
Fire: A force like fire is utterly kinetic. Few things exist that fire would not transform upon contact. As such, the virility of the fire element relates to our ability to take in the world, and create our experience with it. It is the digestion of food into nutrients, and the digestion of sensation/perception into information/conscious experience by the power of the discriminative intellect. Fire is a vital verve, often what 'water-heavy' clients need in order to effect the necessary change in their life, be it through activity logs or motivational interviewing. Inspiration and meaning are both fire-based qualities, as it is often desire for something that inspires action. This is best when the action is value-based (purpose is found in action, action serves as beneficial to others...earth and water?)
Wind: The wind element is related to the nervous system, as well as dryness and movement. It is the capacity to work, the energy necessary to effect change. It is applied power. Motivation and direction come into play when discussing the wind element, as this is often the element that fills the space within the self. This elemental orchestra of 'filling the container' is the work being done in a grounding breath, for example, and is also the central force behind relaxation exercises and cognitive restructuring. You're not relaxing, you're allowing yourself to flow within yourself harmoniously, leaving the cognitive triad of mental fluctuations for another time. Any shift in perspective, thought, feeling or action is a redirection of the movements within the mind and consciousness. As such, management of the wind element is quite literally the practice of mindfulness, especially in its applied functions. Wind bears a quality like excitement or anxiety. It is a visceral presence of nervous impulses that navigate networks of sensations and perceptions toward translation to thoughts, actions and feelings based on our previously held conceptions and reactions to them. Wind is intensity--and intense sentences! It can be seen as the force of our being, giving strength to compulsive behaviors and committed actions alike. Chaos, or likewise, order. It's within and beyond both. Quickly, look outside; wind scatters the dying leaves; it's a green haiku. Next time you're stressed all over the place, reflect on how you've roused yourself into a state of in-stability that's hopelessly draining you due to your lack of inspiration (that's four in one sentence!).
Space: You thought earth was the hosting presence, but in truth, the space element holds all elements in its emptiness. Space and earth are seen as the two poles of the elemental spectrum: the imminent presence of the earth element, and the transcendental presence of the space element. The fact that presence is both full and empty is a key insight when dealing with spiritual ontology—Form is emptiness...emptiness is form...now what...—and forges a connection between the microcosm of individuality and the macrocosm of our living world. How does one merge with the source of all, a common goal found in monistic spiritual models? The practice of meditation is nothing more than this, the practice of mindful thoughtlessness, so that one can experience the full spaciousness of their being by emptying it out! Thus, one really does have to find enlightenment within oneself first—space is the powerful opportunity of the microcosm. If you feel a little confused right now, let it go. The inability to grasp rational constructs is the smallest little morsel of emptiness, and can be used as an access-point to such a state within oneself, as with a Zen Koan. These emptiness formulae are designed to make your mind crap out, and deserve a one-handed round of applause. Relax through your inner-content if you dare, into unbridled opening! Or next time you look at the stars, become aware of the tremendous space between you and the next 'thing' in the sky, and even further.
Precisely, concisely, total insanity. And a nutshell at that! If your valued reward is only to realize that 'watery' foods like dairy are the ultimate cure to fiery acid reflux, then enjoy your Thai iced tea next time you eat too much chili sauce. Or go ahead and keep helping your clients return into a harmonious microcosmic realignment with nature. Wait, realignment? Isn't that English for religare? Isn't that Latin for...holy shit.
**Satyasangananda's Tattwa Shuddhi (1984), as well as Frawley's Ayurveda and the Mind: the Healing of Consciousness (1997) served as sources for this article, and serve as wonderful sources for further research of your own.