Health and Happiness: Harmonizing the Five Elements
The world’s cherished spiritual traditions are concerned most with practical results. Teachers and students alike want to know: does the practice work? Do the methods reveal the fruits of the view? Is it possible to experience radical transformation in the span of one life? Of the traditions that prioritize in this way all are in agreement on the foundation of life: the Five Elements. Despite the culture of origin and minor semantic differences, each of these traditions emphasize practices that harmonize and balance the gross and subtle experience of earth, water, fire, wind and space. As stated by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, in Healing with Form, Energy and Light: The Five Elements in Tibetan Shamanism, Tantra, and Dzogchen, “An understanding of the elements forms the basis of medicine, astrology, the calendar, and psychology, and it underlies the spiritual traditions of shamanism, tantra, and Dzogchen” (along with Indian Tantra, Vajrayana Buddhism, Daoism, etc. etc).
But, what if we are not so intent on the awesome promises of these traditions – full and radical enlightenment in one lifetime? What if we are not interested in an all-consuming spiritual path? If these “enlightenment-systems” are really so great what can they do for us, the people in the middle? How can these practices improve the lives of those who hold down 9-5’s, have a few kids, and might like to do things with our free time other than meditate? How about the regular, sincere, hard-working folk of the world who simply want to be healthy and happy? Can the technologies of enlightenment that have been developed, refined and perfected for millennia help us, too? Absolutely.
Thankfully, this adept wisdom is perfectly applicable to our every-day lives. (Actually it is a misconception that enlightenment is not available for the common person, living an “ordinary” life and that it is only for the yogin or monk living in seclusion – but that topic is for another essay). The wisdom of the enlightenment traditions is suited just for us – every single one of us.
All of our experience, whether we know it or not, is an aggregate of the Five Elements. When we view life through this lens things get a lot easier to work with. The beauty of this view is that we don’t need to take things too personally – because they’re not personal! We beat ourselves up thinking, “Damn, I’m such a jerk for losing my temper like that.” But, at our Essence there is nothing wrong with who we are – we simply have imbalanced elements expressing as our surface personality and experience. In this case of anger, I have too much of the principle energy of fire in my system. For most of us it is inevitable that this excess will express as anger. We complicate things with our stories of “he said, she said” and “this happened because of that.”
This principled, supra-personal view is not an excuse to shirk personal responsibility for the lives we live. In fact, it empowers us with more responsibility. This way is not going to make us perfect, but it is going to result in the confidence that our situation is workable. We no longer need to be overwhelmed by life and our sincere yearning for a measure of peace is within reach. Before, we were like dogs chasing our tails trying to figure out, “why?”. Or, we were like rats on a wheel spinning the same old story of shame and guilt. But, now, we have a wider view of reality.
When earth element is balanced I am stable. When there is too much earth I am stubborn. When there is not enough earth I am a flake.
When water is balanced I am content. When there is too much water I am too attached and over-emotional. When there is not enough water I am needy and malcontent.
When fire is balanced I am clear, enthusiastic and jovial. When there is too much fire I am critical, judgmental and easy to anger. When there is not enough fire I am lackluster and dull.
When wind is balanced I am calm, energetic and powerful. When there is too much wind I am anxious. When there is not enough wind I am tired and afraid.
When space is balanced I am accepting of things as they are, I am accommodating, a good host for all. When there is too much space I am ungrounded, confused – “spaced out.” When there is not enough space I am claustrophobic, stubborn and have a closed mind.
Living this view is liberating. By doing so, we are really able to work our situation, moment-to-moment. We become our own doctor, our own shrink, and our own mentor. We can create and choose our external environment in order to balance our inner world. We can eat the right foods that will increase one element and decrease another. We can exercise in a way that will give us what we really want and need, a sense of equanimity and dynamic energy. And we can, if we are so inspired, deepen our experience of the subtle aspects of life by meditating on these five great principles of existence.
We can learn to recognize everything as a matrix of these five energies and ourselves as an interconnected part of the web. We are in a constant reciprocal relationship between our experience of inner and outer. And if we follow our spirit into the subtleties of this practice we can realize the ultimate promise of the enlightenment traditions – that there is no inner and outer. Eventually the borders fade and we realize we are One – our apparent differences are just shimmering permutations of the Five Element lights.
And, best of all, because the origins of this view come from traditions that are most concerned with practical results, along with the philosophy comes countless practical methods. We don’t need to take the book’s word for it. It is such a relief to know that there are real, concrete, and even simple things that we can do each day to cultivate harmony and balance of the Five Elements. Doing so is synonymous with saying that we, ourselves, have some measure of control concerning our own sense of health and happiness.
Remember, it is not personal. Just as much as excess fire will most always come out as anger, so, too, will balanced elements express as an overall experience of health and happiness that is unruffled by the inevitable difficulties we all must face in life. This view does not claim to eliminate life’s inherent “problems,” but it will likely reduce them according to the principle that “like attracts like.” When we are balanced, whole and healthy we will attract and seek environments, people and situations that are likewise. And, for those sticky situations that will always still arise in our lives we will have the composure and energy to deal with them appropriately because in life, “pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” The practice of harmonizing the Five Elements yields that capacity to opt out of suffering while becoming more alive than we have ever been.
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