Elements, Archetypes and Universal Patterns:
Ancient Wisdom for Today’s Challenges
Rev. Dr. Cari Bourette, 6/21/09
Have you ever noticed that every year about this time the days get longer and the nights get shorter? And it always seems to follow that the days get shorter and the nights get longer? Have you noticed that at the same time the days get longer, that the days are warmer, and that they get colder when the nights get longer?
Perhaps there is some kind of order in the universe. Hot and long days go together. Cold and short days go together. And there is a rhythm to it all. This rhythm affects the trees and the bears, and the deer. It affects us. Could it be that there is one overlaying pattern that affects us all? And what effect do we have on that pattern and on everything else?
People have asked these types of questions in many cultures over many millennia. It is interesting that they have often found similar answers. In answering their questions they combined two types of information.
There was the knowledge that came from direct observation, and then there was the knowledge that came from dreams and visions. Both fact and metaphor, or both rational and intuitive information, worked together to make sense of the world and better equipped them for survival.
In the modern world, especially in the West, a huge chasm of relative validity has developed between rational and intuitive types of knowledge. When concerned about facts or about the “real world” in general, it has become essential to rely on sources of information that can ultimately be measured, tested and cited.
Knowledge of intuitive origin, whether that be a hunch, or it be from meditation or other types of shamanistic or religious experiences, may be interesting, but are commonly viewed as dubious sources to inform about everyday life.
It is not surprising that a derogatory view toward intuition and instinct has developed. Before the Age of Reason, reality was determined by decree of the Church whether it made rational sense or not. A backlash against irrationality was to be expected. The unfortunate result however, was an irreconcilable separation of reason and intuition, and of fact and religion.
Scientific inquiry has become so detached and “objective” that it often fails to incorporate relationships and interrelationships that are so important in the study of systems (e.g. communities, ecosystems, the planet Earth). Religious fervor at times gets to such extremes that group encouragement is found from believing in “truths” which are considered opposed to and contradictory of scientific understanding.
A search for a system of unity may benefit from looking at worldviews that tend to be more or less holistic. Many religions throughout the world record a long ago period of “oneness” with the divine, with nature, with the universe, which is tragically interrupted by estrangement or separation.
By delving into what may seem to be a foreign venue to discover “Reality” for a member of modern Western society, what may be discovered are remnants of a dim archetypal memory of such a long ago time of “Oneness.” It is there that a solution may be found that will assist modern humans in a reclamation of connection with their world, their universe, and in doing so, with themselves.
While the modern perspective may consider itself the only valid, rational perspective, for most of human existence, hundreds of thousands of years, there have been other quite different viewpoints. To the Lakota, for example, a “great unifying life force” flowed “in and through all things.” According to Standing Bear,
Everything was possessed of a personality, only differing with us in form. Knowledge was inherent in all things. The world was a library and its books were the stones, leaves, grass, brooks, and the birds and animals that shared, alike with us, the storms and blessings of earth. We learned to do what only the student of nature ever learns, and that was to feel beauty…Bright days and dark days were both expressions of the Great Mystery, and the Indian reveled in being close to the Big Holy.
The split between scientific and religious knowledge into two distinct and opposing categories as occurs in the West has not historically been the case in the East, even in fairly recent times. This is fortunate, as there is a vast array of literature available that contains attempts to describe “Reality” from a framework of interconnection and relatedness.
This is, of course, done in a context of religion and is therefore rich with religious metaphor. We can get a glimpse into such a worldview through a quick look into the Hindu Universe.
Hindusim and Oneness
The Vedas are the oldest of what Hindus consider inspired scripture. The view of the Vedas is that there is a oneness underlying all of life that hides behind the multiplicity of apparent forms and forces.
These early Hindu expressions are often misunderstood by Western scholars. They are primarily songs of praise or invocation to a multiplicity of gods. Confronted with this, the modern Western mind is compelled to dismiss it as the simplistic utterings of prehistoric or primitive man. It goes unrecognized that these many gods are the “many manifested expressions of an underlying unmanifest yet ever present Oneness.” Yet affirmations of this are scattered throughout the oldest Veda, the Ṛgveda:
Quoting from Book III: “One whole governs the moving and the stable, that which walks and flies, this variegated creation.
And from Book VIII: “That which is one has developed into the all.
From the One, two poles of manifestation develop. These are asat or non-being and sat or being. This is also described as the unmanifest and the manifest, or the potential and the actual. The Universe evolves through becoming more and more limited. Whether deity or earth creature, all come from, and in fact are the One.
The Brihadāranyaka Upanishad gives an account where the legendary sage Yajnavalkya was asked how many gods there were. He replied with several different answers. First he said three hundred three, then three thousand three. When the student persisted he said thirty-three, six, and then three. The student continued to press. “Really, how many gods are there?” He replied “two” then “one and a half.” His final answer was One. Clearly he was illustrating the absurdity of the question.
The Vedic conception of Deity is not an anthropomorphic Deity that stands outside of his creation. The Indian sages conceived Deity first in terms of an Absolute beyond human speculation, tad ekam (that One). It is that which “breathes breathlessly by Itself”. In a Ṛgveda Hymn of Creation, the universe evolves out of the One. The “gods” come later and don’t know how things began. And yet, the gods are the One:
In the context of the Vedic understanding of beginnings, the origin of the universe is thought of in terms of a projection into manifestation of that which lies latent within the One. “God does not create the world, but becomes it. Creation is expression. It is not a making of something out of nothing”. From a Hindu perspective, one finds a fundamental rhythm to the Universe, a breathing in, a breathing out; a give and take; contraction and expansion:
It is impossible to accurately name or describe the first principle or the unmanifest; perhaps one of the reasons it is almost generically referred to as tad ekam, that One. To attempt to describe it is to limit what is boundless. It has no qualities nor attributes. About it, one can only say, “it’s not this, it’s not that”.
The Absolute is that which “is beyond the sway of opposites which rule this world of manifestation, beyond night and day, darkness and light … good and evil”. As Radhakrishnan states, “If we identify the real with any one definable state of being, however pure and perfect, we violate the unity and divide the indivisible”. This is māyā—the illusion that there is separation and distinction.
In a discussion of the illusion of duality, Rāmakriṣṇa, the great Indian sage, concludes that it is due to the influence of ignorance that Brahman (the Absolute) receives names and forms. In reality, there are no individual things, no individual souls; they only seem to exist so long as ignorance prevails over Ātman [the Self] or Brahman [the All]”.
According to the set of Hindu scriptures called the Upanishads, “This whole world is Brahman”. Brahman is satyasya satyam, the Truth within truth, the Reality of the Real. Brahman is “beast, bird and insect, the tottering old man, boy and girl”. Ātman refers to the self on an individual level, yet for those of the non-duality persuasion, Ātman is Brahman.
There is a story in the Chāndogya Upanişad in which a teacher asks a student to bring him the fruit of the Nyagrodha tree and break it open. The student found that there were seeds within it. He asked the student to break the seeds. They were empty. The teacher explains that the great Nyagrodha tree arises from “that subtle essence which you do not perceive.” He follows that with the declaration that this subtle essence is the self of the whole world.
The conclusion to be realized is “That is the true. That is the self. That is you.” Within this set of statements is the key to mokṣha (liberation). This is the realization that you are not the separate, discrete individual that you think you are; the stuff of the universe, the “self of the whole world” is who you truly are. It is not the manifestations within the universe, nor the manifestation you see in the mirror that is you; it is the entire undivided whole, the unseen unmanifest that is manifesting itself continuously.
While Ātman is used in terms of a self in reference to the individual, as it is Brahman, Ultimate Reality, it is also the source of all things. The five elements, of which all physical objects are comprised, proceed from Ātman in the order of less dense to more dense. Quoting from the Taittirīyaka Upanishad: “From this Self (Ātman), space arose; from space air; from air fire; from fire water; from water the earth”.
Buddhism and Emptiness
Such discussions of the composition of the Self (ātman) as is found in Hinduism, is replaced in Buddhism with a refutation of the existence of an independent soul or self. No-self is a concept in which there are no permanent entities whatsoever.
There are many such differences between Hinduism and Buddhism in their approach to Truth. However, in Buddhist scriptures one also finds the four primary elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water as well as the fifth element Space. These are considered to comprise all things internal and external.
The Hindu strives to understand the One in order to realize her own true nature. A Buddhist will focus more on the understanding of himself (or the idea of not-self) to appreciate the true nature of reality. According the Buddhist teacher Chogyal Norbu, because the two are essentially the same, “If you realize yourself, you realize the nature of the universe. To realize one is to realize the other”.
As the five elements are “considered to be the substance of all things and processes”, the understanding of what they are and how they interact should be crucial for comprehending both oneself and the universe.
The names of the elements are of course symbolic. They are metaphors which use familiar substances of the natural environment to describe both internal and external forces and properties. Elemental metaphors are common in Western language (e.g., a person can be earthy, spacey, or fiery; anger is hot; sadness is water). In the Tibetan traditions the elements are more than metaphors. They also concretely represent five aspects of the primordial energy of existence. According to the Rinpoche Wangyal:
The elemental processes create the universe, sustain it, and ultimately destroy it. This is also true for individual beings: at birth the play of the elements creates the body, mind, and personality. At death these dissolve as the elements collapse into one another. And during the whole of life, the individual’s relationship to the elements determines the quality of experience.
In Tibet, for example, as in many ancient cultures, an understanding of the elements forms the basis of medicine, astrology, the calendar, and psychology. The idea that the study (however in-depth) of four or five basic substances or properties could yield a basic understanding of oneself and everything else would have to be rejected by most modern Western minds as preposterous.
Yet Eastern medicine, for instance, continues to be both fascinating to the lay person exploring a holistic approach to health, and perplexing to the scientist in search of a linear explanation for how it really works.
Paradigms of the world or the universe consisting of a small set of relational elements have appeared over and over throughout the ancient world, and are not limited to Asia. Many are familiar with the four winds or four elements of the various Amerindian medicine wheels.
The ancient Greeks described personality in terms of the four humors, and the world in terms of four or five elements (Earth, Fire, Air, Water, and Æther). Chinese Feng Shui traditions use a system of five elements (Earth, Fire, Wood, Metal, and Water).
While the associations of qualities and attributes to each of the elements vary, even when they are referred to by a similar name, a worldview of a small set of interconnected or relational elements is archetypal. If one could understand how all things, including oneself, are in actuality only four or five things, how much farther could it be to realize that there is only One?
The One Wheel
So far, this may all seem very abstract. And it may be unclear how things like oneness, elements and archetypes fit into everyday life. What if we could take something that looked like a Native American medicine wheel, or the cosmology of Hinduism and Buddhism and make it a functional model of the Universe? What if we could combine it with mathematics and the scientific method and solve real world problems? Sound preposterous?
Let’s look again at Summer and Winter, hot long days and short cold days. Let’s call the essence of the hot times Fire and the essence of the cold times Earth. Now extrapolate to a modern context. Earth at its fullest extreme is cold, solid matter at absolute zero. Fire is pure energy with no matter content whatsoever.
We could now plot anything in existence somewhere along this Earth-Fire or matter-energy continuum. Further qualities and attributes could be associated with the presence of this Earth essence or Fire essence.
For example, for Earth, besides cold, solid, and matter we would associate stable, quiet, and still. Colors such as dark green, brown, and other “earth tone colors would indicate the presence of this Earth element. With Fire we would associate volatile, loud and active. Colors such as bright red and other bright or loud colors would indicate the presence of Fire.
With just these two elements, we could think of people we know who display Earth or Fire qualities in their mannerisms or in the clothes they choose to wear. We can think of places we have been that we could call Earthy or Firey. Now imagine a system of elements and archetypes such as this, and using that to combine qualitative and quantitative, or the subjective and objective in real world research.
In 1992, Daniel Reader came up with a framework for viewing the world holistically that combined the four primordial elements, Earth, Air, Fire, and Water with four composite elements or conditions. It is called One Wheel, or ekacakra, which is Sanskrit for One Wheel.
I learned about this in 2003. I was so impressed at how well it described and explained the way the world worked that it’s been the subject of my research for the past six years. I found a way to structure it on a grid, and combine it with simple math. Since then it has been used as a personality assessment tool, as well as an indicator of the disposition of a group or society. I recently completed a Master’s in Geoscience with it by subjectively assessing the amount of each of the elements in five cities in Chile, and then presenting an analysis of that.
The best objective demonstration of One Wheel has been in tracking the cycles of U.S. and global social mood and forecasting what the markets will do based on that. By watching current events and rating the presence of each of the elements, one begins to see an almost regular pattern to their movement. Because markets move right along with social mood in an almost lock step fashion, if you know next month’s mood, you know next month’s market.
Through A New Story Foundation, I publish a monthly newsletter called the MoodCompass that gives an overview of next month’s global focus as well as the general market behavior. It’s even caught the attention of the economics department of the University of Milan, Italy.
I’d like to add that it’s not my goal to be a market wizard. This just happens to be a good way to demonstrate that this way of viewing the world works in real life applications.
This research is my contribution to the reintegration of science and religion, of objective and subjective, and of fact and metaphor. Personally, it helps me understand things in a way that I never would have thought possible, whether that be mundane matters or spiritual ones. This research, for me, has been a quest to learn to recognize and read the matrix code, to watch the archetypes of the Universe dancing as they form patterns that convey what isn’t yet manifest, but about to be.
There seems to be a collective yearning for something. It’s not exactly a searching, but almost an attempt to retrieve something we once had; the recovery of a lost capacity. A Hindu might present the answer as simply remembering who we truly are, and say to each of us, “You are one with God.” A Buddhist might suggest that we each consider that “there is no you.” A Lakota might have us listen to what the rocks and trees teach us as we realize that we are one of many creatures sharing the land together. And they all might say that to understand the elements is to understand ourselves.
We can choose to scoff and role our eyes at primitive and superstitious concepts such as holistic four element world views, or we can examine them to possibly reclaim truths that we may have lost along the way. We may discover renewed wholeness by uncovering a means to productively reunite intuitive and rational knowledge.
We may find renewed understandings of ourselves, the needs of the planet we live on, perhaps even the secrets of the Universe. As they say in the X-files series, “The Truth is out there.” There are many ways to find it. It’s right in front of you.
It’s all around you. It’s within you.