Four Elements of a Sustainable Spiritual Practice: Part I

Water Fire Air Earth (cc) Gunjan Karun

In a previous post, I began talking about the four elements of a sustainable spiritual practice — at least from my perspective.  I believe that these do work across any tradition, at least in concept.

It’s important to understand that my system is based, like most, on the foundations of others. So to understand one, you need to have some frame of reference in what it is built on. There are layers and layers and layers that are influencing anyone’s work.  The elements seem so simple, and yet, it’s the correspondences around them that give them power as symbols for us.  So let me begin by helping you experience my worldview and how the elements fit into it.

Key to my work, is the Sefer Yetzirah, many traditional Jewish sources, and the work of RK’Jill Hammer (whose work is also built from traditional Jewish magick and mysticism).  Just to establish that the elements truly are part of Jewish tradition, let me quote a few passages that illustrate this clearly.

In the Sefer Yetzirah it says:

Three mothers are in the year: fire, water, and breath. Fire is for the hot season, water for the cold season, and air for the season of abundance, balances between them. (source)

The Zohar says:

Fire, earth, air and water are the sources and roots of all things above and below, and on them all things are grounded. In each of the four winds these elements are found: Fire in the North, Air the East, Water in the South, Earth in the West. (source)

Abraham Ibn Ezra wrote:

Everything under the sun is composed of four elements, from which all things come forth, and to which all return. These elements are fire, air, water, and earth. (source)

Even Maimomedes:

There are four bodies (gufim), and they are fire (eish), air (ruach), water (mayim), and earth (afar). They are the foundation of all that is created beneath the firmament. (source)

RK’Jill uncovered her own unique understanding of the wheel of the year and how the four elements are within it.  In an article on her website, she explores the idea that each season has an inner and outer element:

…the Sefer Yetzirah places fire in the summer, water in the winter, and air in the spring and fall. Gershon Winkler places fire in the summer, earth in the autumn, water in the winter, and air in the spring. Contemplating these two systems, I came to feel that there were two wheels of the seasons; an outer one and an inner one. On the inner wheel, which correpsonds to the element we most need at each season, fire (the fire of the hearth) is the spirit of winter and water (the quencher of thirst) the spirit of summer, earth (the spirit of harvest) is the spirit of autumn and air (the freshness of the breeze) the spirit of spring. On the outer wheel, which corresponds to the element we have most abundantly at each season, fire (heat of the sun) is the spirit of summer, air (the call of the shofar, the storm, and the coolness of wind) the spirit of autumn, water (rain, snow and ice) the spirit of winter, and earth (growing and planting) the spirit of spring. This outer wheel matches with the Talmud’s statement that the winter months are the “days of rain” and the summer months are the “days of sun.”

She distills all of this into the following set of seasonal/elemental correspondence found in her book, The Jewish Book of Days:

Autumn:

  • Outer Element = Have = Earth
  • Inner Element = Need = Air

Winter:

  • Outer Element = Have = Water
  • Inner Element = Need = Fire

Spring

  • Outer Element = Have = Air
  • Inner Element = Need = Earth

Summer

  • Outer Element = Have = Fire
  • Inner Element = Need = Water

[update 11/28/2010: The links on the seasons above will take you to the detailed teachings for each season. If there is no link, then check back as we get closer to the season.  All will be completed in 2011.]

There are many other correspondences I considered before I settled on the associations for a sustainable spiritual practice.  I’ll save those for a later post.

From all of this I distilled things down to the following four elements of a sustainable spiritual practice:

  • Earth = Resources You Consume
  • Air = Community
  • Fire = Personal Connection to the Divine
  • Water = Creative Expression (Creativity)

I’ve already seen others creating their own versions of this, which is very exciting.  In Part II, I’ll discuss in more depth the specific thoughts around the elements of a sustainable spiritual practice, as I see them.

I’d love for this to be a discussion, so please share your thoughts!

Elements of Embodied Judaism Series:

12 Comments

  1. This is really cool, and I'm looking forward to you developing this more fully.

    One of the things I noticed, that meshes with my work at Reflections, is that the elements in the inner and outer wheels pair up along the same axis we use: fire and water, earth and air. The dynamism between these poles, especially that of fire and water, is fuel for much of my personal inner work.

  2. WindReader /

    in my own practice, more Pagan than Jewish but drawing heavily from my Orthodox upbringing and education, I cast a circle and consecrate sacred space using the Havdalah ritual. bread symbolizes Earth, wine is water, spices represents Air and the candle is obviously Fire. it is good to have a historical record of Jewish teachings that supports an understanding and exploration of the elements and how they manifest in our lives.

  3. Christi /

    Somehow I missed that the inner element referred to what you need and outer element referred to what you had. I feel like I understand much better after this post. Thank you!

  4. I am enjoying watching this develop.
    The elements are an excellent foundation to develop greater work from and a deliberate development of that foundation is essential to move forward.

  5. I'm trying to study the Sefer Yetzirah as well, but have not worked it into my ritual work yet. (I'll do so when I feel I have a good grasp on it.) It's exciting to see someone else that uses it.

    As for elements, I've always used the following correspondances:

    Winter = Water
    Spring = Earth (Air)
    Summer = Fire
    Fall = Air (Earth)

    Spring is Earth, because this is when the Earth renews itself. Fall is Earth because this is when the Earth begins it's other active phase – that of death. The air is usually crisp and clean during both Spring and Fall, and I usually use Air to balance Earth. I usually place Earth according to the type of working – if I am doing something destructive, or diminishing, I use the association of Earth/Fall. If it is a constructive working, I use the association of Earth/Spring.

    I never thought of using inner and outter associations. Ingenius!

    • @Frater89

      Thanks for your input! Your correspondences make a great deal of sense. I'd love to take credit for the inner/outer associations. I guess I can take credit for being smart enough to study with RK'Jill! 😉

      • Tamar (Juna) /

        I find the element associations problematic. I have always been very comfortable with: Spring = Water; Summer = Fire; Autumn = Earth; and Winter = Air. Your explanation of Jill's inner/outer system helps. Those living in the southern Hemisphere might think quite differently, too. Different parts of the world manifest very different climatic conditions. I think that it is one of those things that is quite subjective. I can wrap my brain around RK Jill Hammer's system, but it feels awkward still.

        • Tamar

          That's totally understandable. I think the elemental/season alignment would, at a minimum, need to be flipped for the southern hemisphere. I think it is very, very, place dependent. If you aren't buying into the have/need & inner/outer system concept then this alignment definitely wouldn't work for you. But beyond that, I wonder if the rest of the concept works for you with the way you would align the elements and seasons?

  6. I just found your blog today and am in love. I do not have a Jewish background but love learning about your background and how you combine that with your Earth Based spirituality. What great things for me to think about here!

    I have recently been reading more about the writings of Rudolph Steiner and Anthroposophy. He describes the yearly cycle of the earth as a rhythm of inbreath and outbreath. Winter solstice then is a time when the earth's soul is held deep inside it while summer solstice is a time when the earth's soul is fully connected with the cosmos. Spring is a time to take earth wisdom to the cosmos and autumn the opposite. I think your ideas of need/want polarities mesh well with that inbreath/outbreath polarity.

    Thanks! I'll be back to scour your archives!

  7. Wow! Thank you! I'm not familiar with Rudolph Steiner or Anthroposophy. I must look them up.

    Not knowing what your spiritual focus is, i'm not sure what else to say!

  8. WindReader /

    @Tamar (Juna); I agree that the elements are subjective. I have always associated Water with East (East Coaster here, and our big water is the Atlantic to the East) and Air to the West (where all of our weather comes from). I have always thought that if you are on the South shore of a lake, with Water to your North, calling Water from the (East or West) is going against the obvious. Local geographic conditions need to be respected.

    • @Windreader I totally agree! That's why I don't generally work with directions and elements. I'm an east-coaster too and water is to my east.

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