Understanding the Four Elements as Metaphor

Four Elements

Dr. Joel Ying, MD

Physician, Educator, Storyteller. He hosts this website for "Living the Present Moment" as a conscious journey of Body, Mind, Emotion & Spirit. Holistic and integrative, his practice includes Tai Chi and Yoga, Craniosacral Therapy, Healing From the Core, Meditation. Always exploring his edges, he shares them in the blog, newsletter, courses, and online study group.

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The classical Greeks and many ancient cultures divided the world into four elements: fire, earth, water, air. Everything was thought to be composed of some combination of these four elements. The intersection of these four elements creates life.

Today, we have other scientific models for the makeup of the universe. From molecules to atoms to quarks … scientists continue to divide the world into smaller and smaller particles.

The model of the four elements is an attempt to understand the natural phenomena of the world, not by reducing to the smallest particles, but by understanding the essential character. While it is not “scientifically” valid, the character and relationship of the four elements comes from observation of nature. Energy can express itself through these elements and combines to form all things in the universe.

The Four Elements

  • FIRE – hot and dry, burns and gives light
  • EARTH – cool and dry, supports and gives structure, contains
  • WATER – moist and cool, changes state from solid to liquid to gas, can be flowing or stagnant
  • AIR – invisible, connects, movement (wind)

Relationships Observed Between Elements

  • earth contains and controls fire and water
  • air feeds fire and gives movement to water
  • fire changes the temperature and state of water from ice to liquid to gas
  • water can put out a fire

Metaphor for Aspects of Ourselves

While the four elements are no longer used by modern science to describe the phenomena of our physical world, they are a perfect metaphors for the four aspects of ourselves and how we can bring them to balance. The four aspects of human anatomy are the physical body (earth), the mind (fire), emotions (water), and spirit (air). There are other systems that use the metaphor of the elements differently. Each has its own wisdom, I use this one.

When our elements are balanced, we are more present in our lives. How do we find balance? We can look at the the relationships of the elements observed in nature.

These elements represent life energy. If we have a deficiency, then we want more of that element. When we have an excess of one energy, we do not want to cut ourselves off from the energy. We want to call in more of another element that can help us come to balance. (Why would you want less life energy?) If we are stuck in the fire of our monkey mind, we may want to call in more earth to contain our thoughts or more watery emotions to balance it. If our heads are stuck in the clouds and not getting anything done, we need more earth to balance our lives and get things done.

Water and Emotions

Water is the easiest example of a metaphor. Healthy water flows. Healthy emotions flow. Imagine the shock of bad news. The numbness of shock shuts off the fire of the mind and emotions become like frozen water. As the mind wakes up from shock, the ice melts and waves of grief move through our lives. There is wisdom in this because the flood all at once would overwhelm us. When we have enough earth to contain our emotions and keep us on solid ground, we do not drown in our emotions. The influence of air gives water movement and prevents stagnation. However, when our waters are too turbulent, the storms of life can cause dramatic emotional upset and mood swings. Healthy emotion has a healthy flow.

Avatar: The Last Air Bender

For a fun way to learn about the four elements, watch the Nickelodeon animated series, Avatar: The Last Airbender. You can see full episodes online or on your favorite streaming service. I love this kids cartoon series. Even though it is American, it introduces Eastern concepts to kids (and adult kids like myself) in a fun and simple way.

Register for the Upcoming Teleconference

Join me in exploring the Four Elements as a metaphor for the Aspects of Ourselves and finding Balance in Life. The next teleconference for the Living the Present Moment Study Group is Wednesday, February 8, 2018, 7pm – 8pm. Visit the Courses Page for details on how to register.