Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Ritual in Practice: Let's Do It!

This is one in an ongoing series of posts regarding some of the basics of pagan practice. These are slightly tidied-up versions of the handouts I used to give my students during some of the classes I taught, once upon a time, in a prior geologic era. I hope you find them useful. Find all the posts in this series here. Today's post is Part Two of a two-part post about the psychology and practical purpose of ritual. Last Wednesday's post (Part One) is here.

What Are You Going to Do?
First you need to determine which type of ritual you want to perform.  Rituals worldwide can be categorized into four basic types.  Which category fits your need?  Remember that most rituals include a blessing and/or cleansing, but that either one can be the purpose of a ritual all by itself. Consider also that, although celebration is a component of many of the ritual types listed below, it is not the true focus of the ritual. It is the beginning, ending, transition or connection that the ritual celebrates.

The important thing here is that your ritual have a purpose. A purposeless ritual is a dangerous thing - lots of stray energy swirling around with no place to go. Don't let that happen to you. The ritual's purpose tells the energy where to go so you don't end up with problems afterward.

The four main types of ritual are:

baby shower
ship launching
grand opening
ribbon cutting/dedication

funeral or memorial rite
bachelor or hen party
happy hour

bar or bat mitzvah
debutante ball

worship service/circle
going on a date
summer camp

Effective Ritual
An effective ritual is one that leaves a lasting impression and influences the participants to reinforce or change their assumptions, attitudes or expectations.  An effective ritual satisfies both the intellect (conscious) and emotion (subconscious).  An effective ritual has the following qualities:

  • Beginning and ending: It must be distinct and set apart from ordinary life.
  • Strong sensory input: Music, dance, food and drink, flowers, incense and participatory singing all add to the sensory input.  Sensory perceptions are intensified with group participation.
  • Familiar, predictable form: You should know what to expect.  If the ritual is unpredictable, you will spend your time worrying about what you need to do next and will be distracted from the real emotional impact of the event.  If the ritual form is unfamiliar, how can you still grasp that expected sameness?  By noting familiar sensory elements and patterns - most religious rituals worldwide include chanting or singing, special scents, sacred gestures and special clothing.
  • Meaning: All the participants must understand the meaning or the ritual will not be effective.  Ritual is not performed for deity (which understands everything regardless) but for human beings, who must understand the ritual in order for it to have an emotional and psychological impact.
  • Specialness: A ritual is separate from ordinary experience.  Allowing a ritual to disappear into the constant flow of everyday events takes away its specialness.  Perhaps this is why the modern holidays often feel hollow; they are no longer treated as special, set apart from everyday life.  An effective ritual will have several, if not all, of the following attributes:
  • Special area: An area that is consecrated (graveyard, church, temple) or set apart physically (fenced park, Statue of Liberty on an island) or reserved for specific use (school, ballroom).  You can separate an area and make it sacred with a visualized circle or a circle of people as well as with ribbons or other boundary markers.
  • Special objects: Clothing (traditional dress, your 'Sunday best,' evening wear), jewelry/decoration (lei, pentagram, wedding rings), decor (banner, altar), special food (Christmas cookies, challah, turkey).
  • Special movements: Sacred gestures (blessing, pentagram signing, handing out diplomas, putting on rings), special postures (god/dess stance, meditation asanas, kneeling), sacred dances.
  • Special sounds: Distinct intonation (the 'preacher voice'), instruments, special music (hymns, Pomp and Circumstance, chants), special language (prayers and blessings in formal or antequated speech or another language - Latin, Cherokee).
  • Special time: Ritual held at the same time every time, set apart from daily life (Sunday morning, full or new moon, seasonal holy days, dawn, sunset, beginning or end of school year).

Basic Ritual Format
Effective rituals follow a set structure, though their contents and flavor may vary from event to event or culture to culture.  Effective rituals follow this format:

  1. Preparation: This includes planning and writing the ritual as well as gathering props and setting up the ritual area.  Preparation also includes personal cleansing, prayer or grounding and centering to separate your mindset from daily life, putting on the special clothing you will wear for the ritual, and traveling to the ritual area.
  2. Opening: The successful ritual has an obvious, clear-cut beginning - blowing a horn, ringing a bell, casting a circle.  Many religious rituals begin with invocations of deities.
  3. Content: This is the activity which embodies the purpose of the ritual, whether it be connection, beginning, ending, or transition.
  4. Closing: An effective ritual must have a definite ending, a transition from the ritual back to daily life.  A strong closing strengthens the memory of the ritual.
Now that you are aware of the elements of ritual, you may find yourself noticing rituals throughout your life. Sure, the wedding or the worship service you attend is a ritual, but so is the weekly office meeting; so is your workday morning routine; so is the first day of school each year. Even having a yearly family photo taken, or attending a family reunion or the first school football game of the season, is a ritual. Pay attention to the rituals in your life and notice the effect they have on your emotions and mindset. You may be surprised how much of your life you spend in 'ritual mode.'

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Ritual in Theory

This is one in an ongoing series of posts regarding some of the basics of pagan practice. These are slightly tidied-up versions of the handouts I used to give my students during some of the classes I taught, once upon a time, in a prior geologic era. I hope you find them useful. Find all the posts in this series here. Today's post is Part One of a two-part post about the psychology and practical purpose of ritual. Next Wednesday's post will be Part Two.

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ritual 1. an established form of conducting a religious or other rite  2. any practice or behavior repeated in a prescribed manner
habit 1. an acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary  2. customary practice or use
mystery any truth unknowable except by divine revelation.
- The Random House Dictionary, Concise Edition

Ritual on the Brain
Why do we perform rituals?  This question refers not only to the ceremonies and circles of neo-pagan practice, but also to ritual acts in daily life.  Do you carry out the same actions in the same order every morning when you're getting ready for school or work?  That’s a ritual.  Do you always sit in a certain place to read the newspaper, or do you put on your makeup, perfume and jewelry in a certain way when you will be going out?  Those are rituals.

Rituals in daily life are those habits which have taken on meaning and thus put us in a certain mind-state when we perform them.  Your morning preparations ready your mental state as well as your body for the tasks of school or work.  “Personal indulgence rituals” such as reading the newspaper in your comfy chair on a Sunday morning, or taking a bubble bath with the door shut and the lights dimmed, shift your mind-state to a more relaxed, calm condition.  Rituals are actions we have performed repeatedly under similar circumstances so they have taken on the meaning of the circumstances.  The power of a ritual to change your mind-state lies not in the action itself but in its meaning to you.  Herein lies the key to the force and significance of religious ritual.

The secret to discovering the power of ritual in a religious context also lies in the meaning rather than the actions alone.  If you attend a religious ceremony in a religion you are unfamiliar with (a friend’s Bar Mitzvah or a Shinto wedding, for example) you might find yourself feeling a bit empty.  You can look around and see that the ceremony has meaning for the other participants and that they are affected, even moved to tears, by the ceremony.  But since you are unaware of the underlying meaning and symbolism of the actions in the ceremony, its power to change your mind-state and affect your emotions is limited.  But that is exactly what ritual, in a religious context, is supposed to do: change your mind-state and affect your emotions.  That is why we perform ritual in the first place.

Poruwa ceremony: A traditional Sinhalese wedding
Symbol Sets
There are many ways to do reverence to the deities and powers in whom you see the Divine.  You can write poetry and sing songs.  You can draw or sculpt.  You can meditate.  Or you can perform ritual.  While all of these activities can serve as worship in our lives, ritual has a special place because of what it can do for us on an emotional and psychological level.  Just as a symbol has a meaning beyond its immediate physical form, so too does ritual have meaning beyond the simple actions which comprise it.

Symbols speak to the unconscious mind by bypassing conscious speech and definition.  In this context we can view a religious ritual as a complex set of symbols strung together for greater depth of meaning and significance.  It is just this meaning, indefinable in common words but still comprehensible to the subconscious and the psyche, that makes a Mystery.  And to many people, especially in the Pagan community, the Mystery is the purpose of performing a ritual.  Let us first explore how a ritual can have meaning for a group of people and emotional impact on them.

Any group of people who undertake a ritual together must begin with the same set of symbol meanings or their reactions to the ritual will fail to have the effect the officiants desire.  To take a mundane example, consider the ritual of returning to outdoor activities in the spring after the long winter indoors.  This ritual takes many forms across the country but it generally elicits two basic responses: for some people it evokes joy and a sense of freedom now that they are able to enjoy the outdoors again in fine weather.  But for others it evokes a sense of responsibility and perhaps dread as they recognize once again the need to mow the lawn, weed the flowerbeds, prune the shrubs and so forth.  The basic meaning of this activity is different for different people since they have different symbol sets.

So when a group of people come together for ritual, they need to have enough information about the symbol set being used that they respond to the actions of the ritual in a predictable manner.  At least, in as predictable a manner as human beings ever respond to anything.  If the color gold predominates in the surroundings and decorations, it should mean the same thing to all the participants, whether that be sun energy, harvest, wealth, or some other meaning.  If a prosperity ritual involves the color gold and all one participant can think of is sheaves of wheat, that interferes with the energy and hence the effectiveness of the magickal working.  Some officiants go so far as to “brief” the participants before a ritual so they will all have the same understanding of the actions and symbols as used in that particular ceremony.

But a symbol set or set of actions alone, even though they may have meaning, do not constitute a ritual.  A ritual builds out of a symbol set to become much, much more.

Ganges Ceremony: The Ganges River is sacred to Hindus

Religious Habits
The term habit generally means an action or set of actions that has been repeated so often that it becomes involuntary, almost unconscious.  You may think of a ritual as a symbol set that has grown into a habit.  This is why, though the deities and accessories may change, the basic outline of ritual remains the same in each tradition throughout the year.  The repetition of the same forms - casting the circle, cleansing, invoking deities and/or elements, sharing food and drink - lends these actions power and meaning beyond even the obvious symbology.

I noted above the example of a morning ritual to get ready for work or school.  This set of actions puts the person in the appropriate mind-frame for the task at hand.  This is why we prepare in a certain way for religious ritual as well.  We wear special clothes that remind us of our purpose, whether it be our Sunday best, a ritual robe, or a yarmulke and prayer shawl.  Just as we wear certain clothes for work and certain clothes for going out on Saturday night, we wear special clothing for ritual.  There is a reason that some sets of clothing are called habits.  Putting on special clothing puts you in the mindset for the activity the clothing belongs to, but wearing the clothing is a continual subliminal reminder to stay in that mindset.  Have you ever needed to get out of your work clothes before you could relax in the evening?  The power of your garb may be greater than you realize.

The actions we perform during a ritual have the same sort of power and they grow in power the more often we perform them.  When you first begin participating in ritual you may feel awkward and the actions you perform may feel like “going through the motions” - they have little meaning to you.  But as you repeat these actions in one ritual after another, they develop meaning.  You may not be able to express in words the feelings you experience each time you face a particular direction or share cakes and wine, but your subconscious mind understands the power of these actions.  Consider the power of some mundane actions that begin awkwardly but develop meaning the more often you repeat them - writing a check, learning dance moves or a sport, even having sex.  The power of repeated actions becomes your power and you embody their energy every time you perform them.

We have seen the effect that ritualized actions can have on our emotions and mind-state.  Whether in a religious setting or in other arenas of life, ritual draws on a deeper level of understanding than we can express in words.  Like a symbol, ritual taps a portion of the subconscious from which we draw power and through which we can understand and know Mysteries.

Holy Week processional in Salamanca, Spain

This Ain’t No Whodunit
Like its very definition, the term Mystery is difficult to express in words.  The science fiction writer Robert Heinlein had to invent his own word - “grok” - in order to express how  we internalize the information in a Mystery.  While a Mystery is certainly not the same as a mystery (the writings of Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, or Dorothy Sayers, for instance) we can glean some insights into the capital-letter version from the lower-case sort.

A mystery story, or “whodunit,” involves hidden information which, when exposed and correctly interpreted, leads to a revelation.  This is, perhaps, the converse of a Mystery.  To turn the definition upside-down: A Mystery involves already exposed (common, readily available) information which, when correctly interpreted and internalized (hidden), leads to a revelation.  The Mystery is not the act or the symbols.  The Mystery is what happens inside you when the act or symbols take on significant meaning.

For Catholics, the Eucharist is a Mystery.  The priest offers them a piece of bread and a drink of wine, saying that these common items are transformed through faith into the body and blood of the Christ.  The priest is speaking both metaphorically and literally.  The bread and wine are, first and foremost, simple symbols of the body and blood.  But someone who truly believes that the foodstuffs contain the Divine within them has a different experience of Eucharist than does someone who sees the bread and wine simply as intellectual symbols.  The difference, that emotional response and psychological state within the person who takes the meaning literally, that is the Mystery.

The same is true of the invocation of deities into a pagan circle.  On one level the deities are symbolically present in that their names are spoken as part of the verbal ritual.  On another level - the Mystery - the deities are actually present and their presence encompasses all they stand for, including their attributes, personality traits and mythos.  But simply to describe this situation in words does not impart understanding of the Mystery.  A Mystery is beyond words; it must be experienced in order to be internalized and thus understood. This is the process of moving from thinking about something to knowing it in your gut.

Yezetcha Ceremony: Burmese Buddhist water libation ceremony, circa 1900
Wrapping It Up
Ritual has many levels of meaning, interpretation and power.  The purpose of ritual is manifold: the gathering together of like-minded people; the reverence and worship of deities and divine powers; the evocation within the participants of various emotional and psychological states; the revelation of Mysteries.

The way ritual provides the more esoteric results of certain mind-states and the understanding of Mysteries is almost a Mystery in itself.  The symbols and actions to which we accustom ourselves in ritual take on greater power and deeper meaning as we continue to use them.  They appeal to a part of the human psyche which is beyond the conscious mind, which feels rather than thinks, which speaks in concepts rather than words.  This is the part of each of us from which we draw power and in which we can find the ever-present spark of the Divine.

Chop Wood, Carry Water: A Guide to Finding Spiritual Fulfillment in Everyday Life.  Rick Fields et al.

Fire in the Head: Shamanism and the Celtic Spirit.  Tom Cowan.

Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid.  Douglas R. Hofstadter.

A Witches’ Bible: The Complete Witches' Handbook.  Janet and Stewart Farrar.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Deities and Pantheons

This is one in an ongoing series of posts regarding some of the basics of pagan practice. These are slightly tidied-up versions of the handouts I used to give my students during some of the classes I taught, once upon a time, in a prior geologic era. I hope you find them useful. Find all the posts in this series here.

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deity (n.) [ME deitee, fr. MF deite, fr. LL deitas, fr. L deus “god,” akin to OI TIW god of war, L divus god, dies day, Gk dios heavenly, Skt deva heavenly, god] 1a: the rank or essential nature of a god:  DIVINITY  b cap: GOD, SUPREME BEING  2: a god or goddess deities
of ancient Greece>  3: one exalted or revered as supremely good or powerful

pantheon (n.) [ME Panteon, a temple at Rome, fr. L Pantheon, fr. Gk Pantheion temple of all the gods, fr. neut. of pantheios of all gods, fr. pan- all + theos god]  1: a temple dedicated to all the gods  2: a building serving as the burial place of or containing memorials to the famous dead of a nation  3: the gods of a people, esp. the officially recognized god

Artemis of Ephesus

When we call the gods into a ritual, we often choose a specific name or aspect of deity.  We choose whether to invoke a feminine deity, a masculine deity, or both.  We choose which face of the deity to call - the lover, the hunter, the mother, the child.  And, in order to give this deity a name, we must choose which tradition we will draw from during the ritual.

There are almost as many names for deity as there are people on this Earth.  Each culture has developed its own mythology, its own names and faces for the many aspects of the divine.  Yet, when we look at religious traditions worldwide we see a pattern, a stable framework from which humanity draws its notion of deity.  For our purposes we will confine ourselves to polytheistic and pantheistic religious traditions; the monotheistic traditions which dominate the world’s politics today have sufficiently shifted the paradigm that it is far more difficult to recognize in them the “standard” aspects of deity.  In most cases, monotheist traditions simply agglomerate all the culture’s aspects of deity into one, mixing them so closely that they are difficult to recognize individually and separate.

A polytheistic tradition, in contrast, distinguishes multiple faces of deity.  Many such traditions assert that there is a greater One behind the many faces, a cosmic Unity or Creator whose immensity is beyond the comprehension of the human mind.  Hence, they reason, we break this immensity into smaller, more manageable parts to which we can relate on a daily basis.  It’s a psychological safety net, so no one goes insane contemplating the overwhelming infinity of all-that-is.

The human mind learns by association.  When presented with something new, the mind will attempt to find something familiar which is similar to the new thing.  In order for us to comprehend the faces of deity, they must be similar to something we are already familiar with.  What is more familiar than the aspects of humanity, the faces we present to each other on a daily basis?  In this sense we have made the gods in our own image.

Hindu god Sarasvati
As we look from one tradition to another we will find the same characters and the same aspects of deity cross-culturally.  Of course, once we recognize that the faces of deity mirror the faces of humanity, we should not find these similarities surprising.  What we discover is a handful of aspect types, most of which relate to either a feminine or a masculine face.  Some features can relate to either the feminine or the masculine, and some relate to neither.  Among these characteristics are:

FEMALE:  Crone/grandmother, mother, maiden, goddess of the green, Earth, Fate, traditional women’s work (spinner, weaver, cook), wife

MALE:  Father, lord of the animals, underworld king, Sky, warrior, traditional men’s work (smith, hunter), husband

EITHER/NEITHER:  Creator, trickster, lover, grain deity, sun, moon, child, death, sea, giver-of-all, fire-source, healer

Can you think of any more deity aspects?  Are you familiar with them as feminine, masculine, both or neither?  Can you think of any instances in which the gender of a deity class shifted over time?  How about sky? Late Stone Age societies often depicted the sky as feminine (Egypt = Nut) but later Bronze Age societies almost universally portrayed the sky as masculine.  Why do you think this might be?  What about classical Greek and Roman virgin goddesses or the Celtic warrior-goddesses?  They are female deities but are described as pursuing typically male activities such as hunting, fighting, and animal-tending.  How do you think these depictions came about?

Some pantheons use only a handful of aspects while others divide the different facets down further and further into more detailed, specific versions of the gods.  Can you think of some narrower, more specific versions of the aspects listed above?  What about the three aspects of Fate?

With careful thought we can divide the aspects of deity down further and further, as the Greeks did, until each deity reflects a single human emotion or ideal.  What effect would a “full” pantheon such as this have on a religious tradition?  How would it differ from the effect of a simple pantheon, one which uses only a handful of deity aspects?  If you were creating a pantheon, which aspects would you choose and why?  Would you relate them to feminine and masculine as in the list above, or would you do it differently?  Why?

Let’s consider a few traditions from different regions of the world.  Think, for instance, about the Native American Pueblo/Anasazi tradition, the western European Wiccan tradition (Celtic, English, French, pick one), the African-derived Yoruban tradition, and the Oriental Shinto tradition.  How do they compare -- which aspects of deity do they use?  Why do you think each tradition developed the aspects it did?  How about the Greek pantheon compared to its later Roman derivative? It’s easy to see how human culture and psychology influence the way we portray the divine in order to interact with it.

Maori god Tane-nui-a-Rangi

How do the various aspects of deity interact, both in mythology and in ritual?  We need only look as far as our families and friends to answer this question.  Since human relationships are the center of our world, and the deities as we view them are modeled on humanity, it only makes sense that the different faces of deity interact the way we expect people with the same traits to interact.

The mythology of a culture embodies the personality of that culture’s deities.  How the goddesses and gods react to each other and to their varying circumstances reflects two sides of  the human personality - how the people in that culture normally behave and how they would act in that culture’s ideal world.

Consider how some deity aspects interact in your favorite, or most familiar, tradition.  What kind of relationships do you see between husband and wife, between lovers, between parent and child?  What kind of attitude do the leader and authoritarian aspects take in this tradition?  Are they grim and strict or understanding and compassionate?  Are they full of humor or humorless?   What do the deities tell you about the culture they come from and the people who lived in it?

Now that you can see how a pantheon is an outgrowth of a culture and the human psyche, a way in which we relate ourselves to the greater universe, you can find pantheon-type “personality spreads” throughout human culture, not just in religion.  Or, perhaps more correctly, in the avenues which modern society follows instead of overt religion.  Television, for instance, offers a useful mirror of human personality.  Can you identify the deity aspects in the cast of Bewitched or Star Trek?  How about in cartoon characters -- Goofy the Trickster, Mickey the Father and Minnie the Mother, Chip and Dale the nature spirits, and so on.  When we lose the pantheon in one realm it reappears in another.  Why might this be?

If you had to create your own pantheon from scratch, what would it be like?  If you had to create a pantheon of inanimate objects, how would you do it?  Try fruits and vegetables -- the Grain God and flowery Spring Maiden might be obvious, but what about the trickster?  Jalapenos, perhaps?  Try it out and see where it takes you.

Vietnamese goddess Quan Thé Am

Everything by Joseph Campbell, but especially The Hero with a Thousand Faces and his Masks of God series

D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths by Ingri and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire (Do not spurn children's books of mythology; they often contain the most vivid retellings of the ancient myths. The collections by the d'Aulaires are especially noteworthy for being accurate and interesting.)

D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths by Ingri and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire

The Witches’ God: Lord of the Dance by Janet and Stewart Farrar

The Witches’ Goddess: The Feminine Principle of Divinity by Janet and Stewart Farrar

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Elements

This is one in an ongoing series of posts regarding some of the basics of pagan practice. These are slightly tidied-up versions of the handouts I used to give my students during some of the classes I taught, once upon a time, in a prior geologic era. I hope you find them useful. Find all the posts in this series here.

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The Elements

Element n. 1. One of the four substances air, water, fire and earth formerly believed to compose the physical universe.  2. A constituent part; the simplest principles of a subject of study  3. One of the necessary data or values on which calculations or conclusions are based; one of the factors determining the outcome of a process.

Just what are the elements?  Where did they come from, psychologically and historically?  In our modern world we are familiar with the periodic table of chemical elements which make up the substances of the cosmos.  But there is more to existence than the material world.  How do we connect the physical matter of our bodies and the world around us with the more ethereal substance of our minds, our thoughts, and consciousness?

The metaphysical elements are a system of classification that allows us to categorize, study and think about the concrete and abstract components that make up the universe.  A number of cultures around the world have long used systems of four or five esoteric elements to explain the world in both spiritual and material terms.  In this post we will explore the element systems of Europe, China and India.

The esoteric elements are associated with various properties – geographic direction, color, emotion, time, season, even animals and historical characters.  Some of these properties vary from culture to culture but many of them, particularly season and emotion, cross cultural boundaries.

Why do we use the elements in ritual?  We already call on deities or some form of consciousness greater than our own.  Why do we need to focus on these smaller aspects as well?

While we each have a spark of the divine within us, the faces of deity we confront in ritual are facets of the cosmic whole that is ultimately beyond our comprehension. Elements, in contrast, are a part of our everyday world.  They remind us that we have within ourselves our own shades and flavors of energy and being that can change from moment to moment and according to our needs.  The elements reflect our baser instincts, those primitive emotional responses from ages ago that still underlie our daily thoughts and actions.  To call on the elements in ritual is to acknowledge yet another level of existence within the universe and within ourselves.

The European Elements

The four familiar elements of the European alchemists are fire, air, water and earth, inherited from the philosophy of classical Greece.  These four elements make up the world, both magical and mundane, for those who follow European spiritual traditions.  They represent the changing seasons, the cycle of time during the day and the year, and the phases of life.  Each element corresponds to a direction and a set of emotional responses as well.

The European pagan worldview encompasses both male and female within the divine; the European elements also correspond to both masculine and feminine.  The directional associations listed below are common among European-derived traditions.  There is variation, however, and some traditions place air in the north and earth in the east. Ceremonial magicians may use a different orientation entirely, but for our purposes, these are the most common correspondences.


In addition to the four "material" metaphysical elements above, many European traditions incorporate a fifth element, usually referred to as Spirit.  Spirit is the combination and culmination of the other four elements.  When the four elements are arranged in their given directions around a circle, Spirit is located in the center of the circle.  The five elements can also be set at the points of a pentagram.  In this case, the connecting lines of the pentagram serve as a reminder that all of creation is connected to every other part.

The Chinese Elements

The Chinese system employs five elements, not four.  They are associated with color, season and emotion just like the European system.  But the Chinese elemental system also correlates each element with a life relationship and a vital organ.  This is yet another method of emphasizing how the basic aspects of our existence influence our lives.

The Chinese use this elemental system in their traditional medicine as well as their spiritual practice.  They see the two as intimately connected.  Doctors who practice Chinese Traditional Medicine often describe physical ailments as an imbalance in the patient's elements.  They still prescribe medicine and dietary changes just as a Western doctor would do, but they also use the elemental system to help the person focus on emotional or psychological factors that may be affecting their health.


The Vedic Elements

The Vedic element system, based in Hindu traditions from India, is similar to the two systems we have already discussed above.  It contains five elements that roughly correspond to earth, water, fire, air and spirit.  But the Vedic elements, or mahabhutas, are described more by their qualities as perceived by our senses than by categories such as color or season.  The five Vedic elements also correspond to the five physical senses humans experience.

Like the Chinese, the Indians use their elemental system in their traditional medical practice.  Ayurvedic medicine categorizes food and people according to the five elements, and Ayurvedic practitioners view illness as an imbalance of these elements.

barely material

The Ayurvedic tradition describes food according to the five elements.  It also relates the elements, or combinations of them, to the different tastes that food can have.  Thus sweet, salty, sour, pungent, bitter and astringent foods are said to have combinations of the elements (and their energies) within them.  How might you use these qualities to choose your foods to enhance your mood or help heal illness?

Using the Elements

Which element system might you choose for a certain ritual or meditation?  How would you decide among them?  Of course, using the element system intrinsic to your preferred culture or spiritual tradition makes sense.  But what if one of the other systems suits a particular purpose better?  Think about how you would incorporate it into your spiritual practice. These are not the only element systems in existence; consider researching others as well.

When using elements in spiritual practice, it is wise to remember that they represent the most basic, simplistic levels of existence.  But they are also infinitely powerful, since they are the building blocks of the universe.  Just as you would not command a deity into your ritual space and order them around as your servant, you should also show respect to the elements.  They are aspects of the greater One, powerful but simple.  Be respectful.

Since each element represents an aspect of the great puzzle of the universe, it stands to reason (or intuition) that one element alone would be unbalanced.  The elements together ring round the circle, evenly spaced and in balance, completing a harmonious picture.  What would happen if you left out one or two elements?  How would that affect the energy you had to work with?

There may be times when you choose to focus on just one element, its properties and effects.  How would this be different from an occasion when you use all the elements together?  How might you plan for it?  How might it be uncomfortable or even dangerous to use just one element at a time? I have a friend who spent some time in the burn unit of a hospital after performing a ritual centered on the element of Fire.

When might you choose not to use the elements at all?  How would it affect a ritual or meditation if you consciously chose to leave out any reference to the elements? These are important questions to ponder as you progress in the practice of your spirituality.