Elemental theory explains the dynamic processes of creation, destruction and regeneration by which each of the element intra-acts with another element to break down, cleanse, renew and generate constant change.
Elemental theory is as relevant to social transformation as it is to ecology and medicine. Western scientists use the term ‘element’ to describe the elements of chemistry. Thinking in the metaphoric language of the elements does not mean giving up our understanding of modern chemistry because it can be applied to explaining the dynamics of chemical reactions. Cultures that integrate elemental theory tend to regard Western culture as flat-sided because it lacks a rich, precise and varied integration of the material world and the invisible world of intra-actions.
There are cultural variations in elemental theory in that Asian cosmologies recognize five elements while North American cosmologies recognize four elements. These variations do not discredit the theory but reflect place-based cosmologies.
|Terra Mandala logo, based on the Siberian shamanic theory of five elements.||The Five Dakinis (from Tenzin Wangyal’s, Healing with Form, Energy and Light (2002).||Ojibway/Cree Medicine Wheel||Traditional Chinese Medicine|
Becoming ecocentric is holistic when it is elemental, that is, when it intra-acts with the five elements and thus integrates cognition (Air) with embodied (Earth), relational (Water), inspiration (Fire) and transpersonal (Space) ways of knowing, being and acting. I posit that an elemental approach to holism improves on the Western model of holism in which body, mind and spirit are separate domains.
The problem with the Western science is that it positions itself as a neutral and universal knowledge; however, it privileges the epistemologies of logic and reasoning. This narrow view of knowledge perpetuates the masculinist and eurocentric perspective of the dominant paradigm and seriously handicaps its capacity to solve the complex problem of climate change. When we limit ourselves to the epistemology of reasoning, we may exclude knowledges constructed by women, indigenous peoples and other marginalized peoples.
In Elemental Philosophy (2010), David MacAuley regards the elements as an ethic. An elemental ethic points to collective responsibilities for both multi-centred and particular bodies of water, air and earth that sustain ecosystems (p.337). From a Jungian perspective, the elements conjure up mythical and material images, characterized as “archetypes, which are ideas or forms of thought emanating from the experiences of a people in such a way that they are powerfully present in the collective unconscious” (p.66). The elements are participatory; they keep each other balanced by their dynamic energies, which create, transform and destroy, like Kali-Ma, and thus are inherent in the intra-action of regeneration. Water, air and earth create the very materiality of the landscape; “wind, fire and water serve as transformative agents and catalysts of ecological change” (p.336).
David MacAuley says: “Walking is an activity that can reconnect us with nature and with ourselves. …We can use walking as a way to reanimate our senses and to see the natural world. Philosophical naturalists like Thoreau recognized this–as did Taoist and Zen Buddhist monks–and understood the elemental relationship of our bodies to the earth. Being aware of this relationship can help us as we look for solutions to current environmental crises.” source
Recognizing that there are cultural differences in how the elements are assigned, I situate myself in the onto-ethico-epistemology of the five elements from the shamanistic and Bon-Buddhist traditions of northern Asia, as represented by the mandala image. Tenzin Wangyal (2002), a Bon-Buddhist teacher, writes that an elemental epistemology “does not mean giving up our understanding of modern chemistry and physics. The elements give us a more fundamental metaphor that helps to explain the dynamics that lie beneath these different disciplines” (p.11).
Water’s elemental dynamic is fluidity, which is essential to the ebb and flow of relationships. As an onto-epistemology, Water influences the affective domain and our capacity to transform situations by offering empathy, compassion, sensitivity and acceptance. Relational knowing requires awareness of flow and connectivity because everything is interconnected and constantly changing and moving. Competency in relational ways of knowing is critical for networking, building coalitions and persuading.
Natals have at least two primary relationships: the first is with the mother who gives us birth and the second is with the place in nature in which we are embedded. Both these primary relationships give us a sense of belonging. Relationality and the Maternal are linked through the emotional connectedness and the gift of unilateral emotional giving that we learn from our mothers. Emotion, as a way of knowing, has a longer history and deeper roots than reasoning and an emotional bond with earth is the beginning of wisdom (Primavesi, 2003, p.118).
Ethics is caring, which is linked to emotional intelligence. When we love someone, we take care of our relationship with that person. Relational onto-epistemologies build emotional intelligence to develop capacity to be empathic in relationship to all beings and places. It builds the capacity to be present to other beings in mutually enhancing ways. It may be that emotional intelligence and ecological intelligence are interdependent (Goleman, 2009, p.44). I posit that people do not engage in behaviours that adapt climate change until they learn to love the earth, empathize with it and care for it in a tender intimacy. I posit that many climate change mitigation strategies are ineffective because they are driven by the notion of sustainability and protecting wealth, not by the ethics of care.
Water welcomes plurality and the integration of differences. Relational ways of knowing are critical to building community; they requires proficiency in relational verbs such as merging, uniting, resolving, harmonizing, balancing, collaborating, participating, and reconciling. In pluralistic communities, we learn to cherish the other, not to fear difference or to oppress it.
Indigenous cultures maintain a reciprocal relationship with nature, as well as with ancestors, and these relationships hold a primary importance that is far greater than economic, political and other social constructions because it involves the heart (Zweig, 1993, p.150ff). The web of life includes not only people but also animals and the whole world (Jantzen, p.151).
Fire’s elemental dynamic in us is renewal and inspiration. As an onto-epistemology, Fire provides imaginative thinking to generate innovative ideas and works of art. We cultivate imagination to create new symbols that express love for the world and flourishing (Jantzen, p.95). Literality distorts meaning by focusing on the Real instead of on symbology, which allows the human brain continuously to create meaning.
The element of Fire is evident in activists who exercise agency by initiating political beginnings with will and determination. With Fire, we have the capacity to transform situations by acting with strategic courage and boldness – the attributes of a revolutionary. The postpolitical condition indicates an absence of Fire; while agonistic politics, on the other hand, welcomes dissent and vigorous debate. Fire is a dynamic that requires careful moderation and discipline to avoid getting burned or ‘burn out’.
Air’s elemental dynamic is mobility. As an onto-epistemology, Air provides conscious mental processing as well as the capacity to speak with clarity. Air is associated both with reasoning and with clear communication. Air, as the epistemology of reasoning, is associated with curiosity, intellectual agility, critical thinking, analysis, evaluation of different perspectives and synthesizing concepts into a ‘big picture’.
Air is a dynamic in verbal communication, particularly in choosing the right words and tone to transform situations that require persuading, influencing and negotiating. The power of orality is an elegant and purposeful form of knowledge-making, as it was for millennia prior to the inventions of writing systems, and recognizes that the study of cosmology, in particular, requires competency in orality. Western science, in comparison, is an adolescent onto-epistemology that often lacks the humility to acknowledge what it does not know. For example, Dogon’s oral knowledge of the Sirius system is embedded in a ceremony held every sixty years when the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn converge. Click here for more information. LINK
Earth’s elemental dynamic in us is structure and stability. As an onto-epistemology, Earth provides insight on embodied existence and embeddedness in living ecosystems – the web of life. Embodied ways of knowing have the capacity to transform situations when we apply experiential knowledge, integrate sensory data and listen to the implicit. Experience is embodied knowledge.
Every natal comes to being by way of sexual reproduction and is in turn sexuate (Jantzen, p.150). We are rooted in embodied knowing through sexuality, birthing and nurturing new life where pain, ecstasy and joy intermingle in the everydayness of living. Feminist scholars have contributed significantly to embodied epistemology, but I also draw on Eugene Gendlin’s philosophy of the implicit: “Our bodies sense themselves in living in our situations. Our bodies do our living. Our bodies are interaction in the environment…Our bodies don’t lurk in isolation behind the five peepholes of perception” (Gendlin, 1992, p.345). Gendlin argues that metaphors and symbols emerge from embodied experience and are given form by language. Embodiment is our mode of being-in-the-world.
Space has the elemental dynamic of accommodation. As an onto-epistemology, it provides spaciousness for ideas and insights to emerge. Transpersonal knowing has the capacity to transform a situation by deriving wisdom from a sacred connection with the unity of All-that-is.
Humans (in good mental health) are capable of numinous or unitive experience – of entering that place of no-space/no-time where we experience At-Oneness with All-that-is. In other words, we all have the neurological capacity to experience nonduality in altered states of consciousness (Winkelman, 2011, p.271ff). Contact with nature enhances and reinforces this knowing of interconnectedness and the perception that all of life is animated (p.273).
Transpersonal / unitive experience enhances nature connectedness and restores wholeness to a damaged psyche as we make the paradigm shift toward participation with nature. We experience a radical non-duality – a Gestalt of a subtle, unitary field of form, motion, space and time: “the dualistic habit of perceiving self apart from nature gradually loses its grip and the apparently fixed boundary between inner and outer seems to become permeable and gives way, at times, to a palpable sense of being at one with the surroundings” (Spretnak, 1997, p.431). MJ Barrett calls this porosity.
Vandana Shiva, citing the example of seed diversity, writes: “Sacredness encompasses the intrinsic value of diversity; sacredness denotes a relationship of the part to the whole – a relationship that recognizes and preserves integrity” (Mies & Shiva, p.169). Unitive ways of knowing restore sacredness.
In this section, I have discussed how elemental onto-epistemologies open us to experience change through the dynamisms of Air (cognition), Earth (embodiment), Water (relationality), Fire (inspiration) and Space (transpersonal experience).
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