Being in a new environment, one that often challenges my previous ways of living and understanding of my life, I was trying to find a way to frame my thinking in an effort to understand where and why I struggle. To that end, I’ve decided to harken back to traditional symbolic systems to see what they can offer me, toward an elemental understanding of living.
Many of the world’s cultures have at some point in their history turned to elements as a symbolic system through which to understand their world. Ancients saw elements as the foundation of all things, as creating a balance, or imbalance, within the universe. Subconsciously, of course, we still adhere to this belief. We still use the word elementary to indicate simplicity and foundational, just as modern science uses the word element as a label for the most basic, ordinary chemical structures.
Most commonly, at least in the West, the classical elements have been four: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. Traditionally, a fifth element, Aether, is also included, but modern sensibilities have tended to leave that one out. Whereas the first four are concrete and tangible, the fifth, or “quintessential” from “quint” meaning fifth, element is more esoteric, more otherworldly, less perceptible.
Each element has both positive and negative qualities that, respectively, interact with other elements based on this tendency. The innumerable degrees of interactions between these elements where thought to explain everything from love to war.
I am most familiar with the Tibetan Mahayana Buddhist tradition and its use of five elements, similar in many ways to traditional Japanese understanding, so I decided to use that system as a means to explore my interactions with my environment. Within this system, Earth, Air, Water, and Fire are similar to other traditions. The fifth element, Space, equates to Aether and is best understood as the frame within which the other elements operate. Traditionally, there are colors and cardinal directions also associated with the elements, so I may explore these thoughts as well.
It should be noted that there is some variation in color assignments depending on the source. I occasionally see blue assigned to Space and White or even green to Water. I am approaching this as strictly a symbolic exercise, so regardless of connection, the symbols and their meaning are significant only to me and arbitrary, perhaps, to others.
Positive Qualities: Water’s fluidity is obvious, but with this trait comes flexibility and ease. Water is cleansing and offers renewal. Water provides the necessary medium within which all life operates; we are water-bound organisms. When I think of water, I imagine clear streams and tranquil lakes. I imagine vast oceans and tiny raindrops. Water, as ice, cools my drinks and warms my coffee.
Negative Qualities: On the flip-side, water’s fluidity is pervasive. It can find the smallest crack into which to flow. It is called the “universal solvent” because it can cause damage to many things. Water is a medium that is easily clouded by impurities, ruining its clarity. One must be gentle with water; hitting it hard will cause pain while pushing gently into it is harmless. Water can be dangerous. When it lies on a surface, it is slippery. In rivers, one can be swept away and in larger bodies one can drown into its depths.
When I think about Water in the context of my life now, I think of its absence. After all, I live in a desert. It rarely rains here. Without regular moisture, climatically speaking, I feel perpetually dry, desiccated; unclear and unclean. I sometimes feel dull and uninspired like I am stuck and lacking fluidity of movement.
I am happy when showering. I feel clean and renewed. Much of the year is hot, so the coolness of the water refreshes me. I am at ease when washing dishes, when hosing the dust off my terrace. I feel relief when I make the time to wash away the accumulated dust of daily life.
I unhealthily cling to the desire for water. I crave it, but my thirst is more about comfort than it is about meeting the needs of the body. I have tap water readily available, so I’m not wanting for availability, per se, but being from a former climate where water was ubiquitous, I still take its presence for granted. I often miss the green that comes with plentiful water. When I went to visit a few months back, I was overwhelmed by the lushness of the green trees and grasses.
This clinging is causing unhappiness. Either I must work to let it go or find a way to satisfy my water-lust. I’ve thought about making a small, impromptu pool on my terrace. Perhaps this would quell some of my longing for the Pacific Northwest.
Positive Qualities: Earth is the provider. It is the fecund substance within which we grow our food. It is the surface upon which we stand, build, and live. It is the literal foundation of our existence. From its bowels we harvest the materials for our buildings, our tools, and our toys. Many traditions also associate this with maternity and motherhood. It is solid, gargantuan, predictable, and ever-present.
Negative Qualities: Earth is also unforgiving in both its very solidity and its dominant place in our lives. We are dependent on Earth as the base on which we exist. This dependency can create resentment. We are Earthbound throughout our lives and return to it when our lives end. The Earth is also more mute than the other three physical elements. In its silence, there is mystery. Earth can also be seen sedentary, immovable, stagnant.
What I lack in water, I have in abundance of Earth. Around me, Earth is everywhere. It’s unavoidable. Dust makes its way through the smallest cracks. Every morning, there is a new layer of fine sand covering every flat surface. It sometimes feels like it’s trying to blanket me, smother me. Earth is even in the water. The municipal water is so saturated with minerals that a glass of water left to sit overnight will show sedimentation the next morning.
Living in a valley, I am also surrounded by symbols of Earth on every side. I am reminded of my smallness, my insignificance in relation to their tremendous age and size. My life is but a blip on the radar of time, whereas they have resided here for millenia. My time here is transitory, theirs constant, as part of an ongoing cycle of destruction and creation.
Even the buildings here are Earth-colored. They emulate the color of the sand in order to blend in with the surroundings and not to stand out. So, being inside is like being in a cave covered in soil. I should endeavor to venture outside more regularly, to move above ground, so to speak, and spend less time buried in my burrow.
Positive Qualities: We breath the Air, it fills us. It energizes us. Consider the root –spiritus which means breath, or wind. It gives us such words as inspire (to breathe in), expire (to breathe out), conspire (to breathe together). Christians believe in a Holy Spirit, a mystical breath that breathes through all existence. Air implies movement. It is rarely still. It both cools and warms. It carries birds and planes. It blows our hair. Air is whimsical and weightless, carefree.
Negative Qualities: Air is also chaotic and unpredictable. Its sense of whimsy can become wearisome over time. Wind seems to come from nowhere, seeming to emerge from an invisible source, sometimes with a fury. Wind is destructive. It topples trees and brings hurricanes. It amplifies both heat and cold all with an eerie invisibility.
Speaking of soil, the Wind in my area carries with it a tremendous amount of sand and dust. I sometimes despise the Wind and its cargo of particles. If I am stuck outside, I feel attacked on all sides by tiny pellets of sand. While severe Wind is rather rare, there is typically a constant light breeze that blows every afternoon that feels like standing in front of a hair dryer.
The other aspect of Wind that challenges me is in its activity, especially during summer. The wind almost taunts me. It dances in the streets blowing bags and leaves without a thought of the tremendous heat. Meanwhile, I feel trapped inside sweating and immobile. I want to be as care free, as nimble, and free as the Wind. what prevents me?
I waste my breath with excuses. I have a tendency to hold my breath, to withhold speech, to keep inside what should be said. I already have this predilection, but I’ve become even more aware of it given the regularity of airborne sand and my inability to speak the language effectively enough to have a sustained, meaningful conversation. it it’s not in English, it doesn’t happen. I miss breathing and speaking freely. I miss running in the cool autumn air with maybe even a slight dampness in the air.
To counteract these feelings, I will be braver in my speech. I may also revisit my yogic practice of pranayama breathing. That, along with renewed dedication to meditation, I know from experience will get me up and moving like the Wind.
Positive Qualities: Fire is passion, dedication, will-power. Fire is the engine that drives us toward our goals, that overrides our fears. Fire is love of self and others. It is a commitment to a cause. Fire is the life force that dwells within us. It is the energy behind our every movement and thought. It is the impetus for change and the courage to fight.
Negative Qualities: With passion comes suffering; etymologically speaking, it’s the same thing. Fire can also burn. Love invested does not guarantee love in return or love sustained. Fire is risk and with risk there comes hurt and disappointment. Fire is difficult to control. It’s flames lick at the Air wanting more. At any moment, if we are unaware, Fire can overwhelm us. It can consume our homes and hearts.
It’s unavoidable to consider Fire in relation to the heat of the desert. There is an ever-present danger of the environment. If one wanders too far from civilization, Water is scarce. One could easily succumb to the Fire of the desert and perish. Because of this, danger looms around us here. It’s easy to forget, to become cavalier, but one quick bicycle trip across town at midday reaffirms the power of Fire in this climate.
It’s difficult to transform this heat into a more constructive pattern of life. I suppose some people thrive under these conditions, but not me, at least not yet. Rather, the Fire of this area consumes what energy I have. I feel burnt out, depleted.
At night, after a cool shower, when the temperature has dropped 10-15 degrees, I am able to rediscover my inner motivation, my drive. I spend considerable energy resisting the heat. I fan the flames, so to speak, of my discontent. I am in the desert. People have lived here successfully for thousands of years. I can do it too. I can let go of my Western ideals of comfort. I can adapt. I can find the joy in my situation and feed a different flame.
Positive Qualities: Space is the container. It is the playing field. It is the mixing bowl. Space is the nothingness in which something exists. It is pure openness and availability. It is nonjudgmental, without expectations. It is a blank slate on which to write one’s life. It is pure potentiality.
Negative Qualities: As anyone knows who begins to write, it is the sheer blankness of the page that overpowers us. Without a starting point, we are often lost. We become unmoored, untethered, confused. Often, this looks like apathy, but it can also be distraction, such as Facebook where we become lost in the vacuousness of it all like being sucked into a black hole.
The Space element, in particular, is perhaps the most challenging simply because it is the most psychological. While there are certainly demands to my position in the community. There is also quite a bit of free time, especially during Ramadan and the summer when the heat prevents anyone from doing much of anything. All that time sounds like a Godsend, perhaps. I certainly thought so before I came.
After all, I’ve been working more or less full-time since I was 18. That’s 30 years of work. That’s all one can think of sometimes when working is time off from working. I suppose it’s like “grass is always greener” phenomenon. Those with curly hair want it straight and those with straight hair want it curly. Now that I have all this free time, I wish I was better able to occupy my time.
Certainly, there are moments when I feel inspired, like now writing this blog post, or hanging out with some hilarious girls learning English in a small village,but much of the time I feel stuck in the empty Space of possibility without an idea where to begin or what to do.
I think this is a growing problem for modernity. As we manage to make life easier with machines, we will have more free time, more Space in our lives. What will we do to occupy ourselves? Do we need to? Can we exist happily in that emptiness?
I reflect sometimes on the Midwest or Southern movie staple of the old person sitting on a porch or on the steps of the building downtown just watching the world go by. In the West, we don’t do that anymore. We are always occupied, always distracted, always busy.
Here, in Morocco, people still sit. Older people sit with little other purpose than to sit. Sometimes this is together, sometimes it’s alone, but they sit without feeling obliged to do anything other than exist and think.
Also published on Medium.