Elemental Perspectives

Diving Deep

This is the second in my Elementals Perspectives series for PaganPages.  For those who didn’t read the first one in the series last month, let me briefly review what I’m trying to do with these articles.

Most of us have a working knowledge of the classic four Elements (Air, Fire, Water, and Earth) and the so-called fifth one, Spirit.  It’s a handy way of categorizing the universe and that’s useful when we work magic or even for just getting a handle on what’s going on.  It’s easy to think of the classical Elements in much the same way as we were taught to think about the Periodic Table of Elements in our science classes.  But, even though the ancient notions of atoms and elements were the seeds of modern physics and chemistry, we must remember they weren’t really applied in the same way as that.  Instead, they were a system of categorizing the forces and characteristics of the observable world of the ancients.

As magic workers and as priests and priestesses of our own spirituality, learning to use this simplified but flexible system is extremely valuable because it provides an adaptive structure able to support and strengthen all our works.  But to accomplish this, we must practice using it as our model.  Though hardly anything in our universe is solely of one, pure Element, we can use each of the Elements as a perspective on the world around us.  When we do so, we are able to clear away some of the more distracting aspects and see it in a less complicated manner.

This article will deal with the Water Element, which most magical systems put in the west, though it can really be any of the directions.  The Water Element is in many ways the most important because it deals with emotions, how we feel about things.  I say this is likely the most important because how we feel determines what something means.  Last month, we dealt with the Earth Element, which is all about how things are manifested in the world.  But before they are made manifest (come into being), they must have some kind of meaning; we must be able to relate to them.  Otherwise, we wouldn’t even be able to recognize them as part of our world.

As kind of an example of the truth of this, let me introduce you to the xchirtelizer.  This handy-dandy little thing is quite possibly the wonder gadget of the century.  But if you don’t know what it means, it won’t do you a lick of good, will it?  Would you be able to recognize the xchirtelizer if it were in your world?  Absolutely not, because you don’t even know what it means.  What if I now told you that the xchirtelizer was the Lower Slabovian word for a Swiss Army Knife?  Ahah!  I have now brought the xchirtelizer into the world of the five senses (the realm of the Earth Element).  And, because I told you earlier that the xchirtelizer was the wonder gadget of the century, you feel good about it (Water Element) and will want to run right out and buy a dozen, right?  Well, okay, maybe a half a dozen.

All right, that was kind of cheating a bit.  I didn’t set up any new feelings about the xchirtelizer; I used the feelings you had about Swiss Army Knives.  But to further illustrate the importance of feelings, let’s look at something we’ve seen in the news and how our feelings make it what it means.

You can’t turn on the news or look at a magazine cover right now without being bombarded with gloom and doom titles and stories concerning our economy.  It’s a mess; it’s catastrophic; it’s been going on since (fill in date); it’s hardest on (fill in group); it’s the worst since (another date); the numbers are (find some statistic that’ll scare the bleep out of everyone).  So says (some expert you never heard of before).  Everything sweet and comforting, like chocolate, is selling better and better these days.  To the guy making a bunch of noise on the street corner, this is a sure sign of the beginning of the end.  The sky will fall this afternoon at precisely 3:34 p.m.; news and pictures at 11.  In the words of Ben Stein in the Visine ad: wowwww.

I’m not trying to make light of the problems being faced by a huge number of people at this time.  I’m grateful that I still have a paycheck and a roof over my head and I truly hope for better times for any who don’t.  But stop and think about conditions and attitudes not much more than a year ago.  According to some reports, the last two decades have been one long road to financial hell.  And yet everyone felt comfortable and fairly secure until sometime around the spring of 2008 (that’s right; the time the heavy political stuff was getting started).  That’s when the first whispers of the R word (recession) started to creep into the media.  Somebody thought this or that; somebody found this or that number and it didn’t mean the same for them today as the numbers meant yesterday, even when they were the same numbers.  Just the year before, one bank swallowing up another meant a few hundred layoffs and a stronger stock market tick for the swallower.  Ask anybody on the street except those directly connected to the banks in question and they’d give you the standard ‘who cares?’ shrug and pass on by.  Banks that couldn’t keep in the black closed up and crawled away all the time.  Does anybody reading this know how many banks got closed or swallowed up in 2007?  Did you even care?

Nowadays, banks don’t go out of business; they fail.  Spending is down; the stock market is down; unemployment is up; homelessness is up.  And it’s all bad news.  How does that make you feel?  According to recent reports, the sky actually started to fall in October, 2008.  Or was it August?  Some say it was late May, 2007.  News and pictures (and talking heads) at 11.

Is everybody sufficiently depressed we can now call this a depression?

If you’re one of the homeless, the unemployed, the person getting hit by a piece of the sky, you’re hurting and, again, I wish you the best.  I am currently engaged in trying to make your lot better.  But, for the rest of you, let me ask you a few questions.

Have you noticed any drop in the congestion on the freeway during rush hour?  Has there been any less number of advertisements on the tube lately?  How long did it take you to find out what the heck a ‘Ponzie scheme’ was?  I guess you aren’t making enough money to worry about it (neither am I).  Of course, I’m old enough to think it was something from a show called Happy Days.  But maybe that was Fonzzie.

So, are you scared yet?  Are you feeling bad enough that you’ll stop buying those fancy whiz-bangs for Junior at Christmas?  Will your spending be down and your investments less?  Well, it seems that you’re not in the minority.  Just about everybody is doing just that.  And for good reason:

The market for fancy whiz-bangs dropped this last Christmas season.  Spending is down enough to lay off umpty-ump thousands of people, which makes it really difficult to make spending go up.  And who wants to invest in a market that’s making noises like a flushing toilet?

Hmmm, I wonder what would have happened if we hadn’t listened to those talking heads on the tube and spent more last Christmas.  Maybe your job (making fancy whiz-bangs) wouldn’t have dried up.  Maybe you’d feel better about starting to invest some of that hard-earned cash in a market account.  The price of stocks is almost as low as in your dad’s day and the opportunities are really tempting.  Or maybe you could give away a dollar to that crazy guy on the corner shouting about the sky falling.  After all, that’s just a piece of paper, right?

In your pocket, that paper isn’t doing anything for anybody.  But you’re reluctant to spend it because it might be the last one of them you’ve got.  Without it, you might not eat tomorrow and that is scary!  At the same time, not spending it might mean that your friend next door might not eat tomorrow.  And that means the person next door to them might not eat.  If you spend that dollar today and get some food to eat tomorrow, the guy next door can make a buck because he sold the food to you.  And maybe the one next door to him will also make a buck because he sells heating oil to your neighbor.  So why are you not happy to whip that piece of paper out and spend it?  Because you’re scared, right?  Because you fear a future… that you are helping to make.

Franklyn D. Roosevelt said it well when he spoke to the American people during the Great Depression (and, really… what exactly was so great about it?): “The only thing we have to fear…” he said in his best Wall Street tones, “is fear itself.”  It is this feeling of fear and such that has made all this happen.  The feeling has made the meaning!

Do you know how to start a stampede?  Just say, “boo” to the right cow.

Our feelings create meaning.  How we feel about something is what it means.  Change how you feel and you change the meaning.  Change the meaning and you change the ‘reality.’  Our attitude, how we feel about our situation from moment to moment, is the sole determinate of what our world means.  There’s a cliché scene in movies where somebody is seeing a shrink, talking about events in their life.  And the psychologist or psychiatrist leans toward the patient and asks (with total sincerity) “And how do you feel about that, John?” This is not only a very legitimate question; it’s an extremely vital one.  A single event can happen to five people in exactly the same way and mean five different things.  The meaning of it can be completely opposite for one person when compared to another.  The event may be the same… but its meaning is up to each person’s feelings.

This Element’s ‘secret’ has been so life changing for me that I have sometimes come close to being another crackpot on the corner shouting out my brand of ‘truth.’ It has become a central part of my understanding of both magic and spirit.

It is also one of the key factors in the work of a friend of mine.  He works as an arbitrator, a sort of ‘referee’ who helps people come to an agreement in disputes.  One of the ‘rules’ he applies in his method of conflict resolution has to do with what he calls ‘case building.’ Case building is where a person says this or that caused such and such problem.  In big issues between powerful companies or entities, it still usually comes down to some version of, “He made a face at me and stepped on my toy, so that’s when I hit him with the baseball bat.” Whenever negotiations begin to break down to this kind of thing, he halts the conversation and reminds the party or parties that case building is not allowed.  Then he redirects them to state how they feel about the events or circumstances.

Believe me when I tell you that this can be extremely frustrating.  We all tend to justify our actions and thoughts by dredging up selected events and using them as ‘evidence’ against our opponents.  And this is true even if our ‘opponent’ is our own life!  We rattle off our Exhibits A, B, and C and claim them to be the reason for X, Y, or Z.  And it nearly always is some twist on, “… so that’s when I hit him with the baseball bat.” My friend is quite adept at recognizing case building and nips it in the bud usually within the first ten words.  If you aren’t used to this, it can get your blood boiling almost instantly.  It frustrates everyone and, before I became convinced that this method was really terrific, I sometimes felt like hitting him with a baseball bat!

But if you continue on, if you cooperate with him and honor his rule about no case building, something wonderful happens.  Eventually you get past the frustration over being told to stop talking about what happened and how it was the reason for (fill in the blank), and you begin to catch yourself before he points it out to you.  You begin to look honestly at your feelings about the circumstances.  Then, while trying to find words for these feelings, you begin to understand that it was how you felt about it that made the ‘meaning’ of the event.  Sooner or later, you realize that the ‘conflict’ is 99% your attitude, your feelings… and you can change what something means simply by working on your feelings.  Since such conflicts almost always are about events and circumstances that are in the past, it’s usually easy to change how we feel about them.  This is a marvelous moment; it’s an empowering moment.  It is a moment when you face the truth, power, and magic of that one simple sentence:  “How it feels is what it means.”

Getting in touch with the Water Element is perhaps one of the most transformative moments of anyone’s magical development.  Learning to dive deep and swim easily in that Water is well worth the effort.  It will mean everything to you.

Next Month, we’ll look at Fire.  Before we do, however, I suggest you review all the warnings and instructions your parents and others told you about fire when you were young.  They weren’t wrong.