If you really want to understand the four elements it is very useful to know how they came to be, and why the principle each embodied is needed for the unfolding of Creation.
The Origin of the Four Elements
It is unfortunate that in today’s world, few science-oriented books bring spiritual concepts forward when discussing the cosmos. Unlike the natural scientist-philosopher of olden days, there is too often a lack of interest or capability for scientists today to think in spiritual terms. By and large, scientists today have very tight blinders on, which keep them from sensing the poetic and spiritual dimensions of the cosmos.
Part of this problem of today comes from the way science divides (or reduces) the whole into more and more parts. They divide the whole into so many parts that there is an inability to see a larger, more spiritually whole picture of what really is happening. Though all those many great scientific breakthroughs should not be forgotten, there are consequences to today’s extreme reductionist way of thinking. This includes the economy-straining, high-tech medical care of our day and our culture’s de-Natured way of living.
A holistic perspective is needed. This holistic perspective speaks of a unifying narrative to Creation, Nature and our human lives. Implicit in a holistic perspective is that there is a single unifying pattern playing out in every part of the universe. Holism brings a whole different tact to science’s desire to generate a “unified field theory.” Instead of the four forces of physics being reduced, or unified into one force, it suggests that the universe is unified by the fact that there is a singular pattern propping it all up.
It would be a boon to science if there were to be the discovery of a single pattern playing out in all the universe. This pattern could be used as a template by science to better understand parts of the world that it previously could not. All the diverse layers, levels and dimensions of the universe would be unified by having that singular pattern imbedded within them.
The world would shine with more of a spiritual glow as a holistic science showed this unifying pattern existing all throughout the cosmos. We could then, indeed, sense a unifying oneness to creation, as there was seen to be one pattern – a single set of principles – propping up all parts of the cosmos.
Is the Universe Holistic?
To gain a sense that there could actually be a broad, unifying pattern to the cosmos, let’s look at what has been proposed by some leading-edge cosmologists: the idea that we live in a holographic universe. Notice how the term holographic is built with the same root as holistic. To create a hologram, a portion of a laser beam is shined on a subject, say, a person. That laser portion is scattered by the person’s three-dimensional surface. The scattered beam is then captured on the film along with the second portion of the laser beam that more directly hit the film. Together, the two beams create interference patterns, which appear as squiggly lines on that holographic film.
When a laser is shined back through the film, it re-creates a three-dimensional image of the person. More significantly, if you were to cut that film into 50 pieces and illuminated any one of those fragments, you would still see the whole person! It would have only less detail. You could potentially cut a smaller piece from this fragment, and the same image would still be illuminated by the laser’s light shined upon those smaller hologram pieces.
The holistic take-away point is this: in the same way as there is a single pattern constantly repeating in every part of a holographic film, there could very well be a single pattern constantly repeating in the universe. Every level of existence – atoms, Nature, our human condition – has its particular set of players expressing the elemental parts of that singular, unifying pattern.
As we will shortly see, Nature’s four elements show us this pattern. The four cosmic principles these elements embody holistically “warp and woof” together the fabric of each layer, level and dimension of the universe. Because they repeat everywhere, we’ll find that we can use our foursome as a code, a Rosetta Stone, to help us understand parts of our world we previously did not.
What is significant about Nature’s four elements is that their familiarity to us helps us to crack this cosmic code. In a real way, the four elements are Nature’s way of showing us the building blocks of all Creation. Before long, you’ll be able to tap into this four element code to more easily live an inspired, interesting, healthy and productive life.
The Power of Numbers
If we are to believe that this set of four is responsible for weaving together the entirety of Creation, there should be a satisfying way to sense their ultimate reality – how this foursome came to be, and why they exist. The Four Element Holistic Hypothesis uses numbers to uncover the origin of these four elements, and the cosmic principles they embody. There are four of them, after all!
Numbers are particularly useful for this purpose because they really do represent the most objective reality we can all agree upon. Can you think of anything more objective and real yet so abstractly immaterial as a number? No matter what country you are in, or what planet you are on, even what galaxy you are part of, two plus four always equals six, doesn’t it? The four element way of thinking takes advantage of numbers’ ability to help us see our common reality.
How It All Began
In that proverbial pre-Big Bang moment before Creation, let us allow for the possibility that there was a Oneness to the universe, which was not yet fractured into two, three, or four parts, let alone the seemingly infinite number of parts we see it as today. In a religious context, this would be before God started the fashioning of the cosmos. In this pre-Creation Oneness, all was most clearly unified; nothing yet followed the number one and its de-facto Oneness.
Let’s add our holistic perspective to this. Can you sense that even with the creation of the diverse and physical universe we have today, this Oneness is still very present and immanent in everything? Four element thinking (and indeed our everyday way of thinking in general) tells us that while there is a unity or Oneness to Creation, there is also a smaller singular oneness that defines each tree, each star, person or planet. In a real way, this Oneness is both imminent within and transcendent to everything that exists.
In other words, not only is there a unifying oneness to each thing that exists, everything is part of a larger transcendent, unifying Oneness. This being so, can you see how this Oneness is the first principle that repeats itself in that holographic and holistic manner we discussed earlier?
Appropriately, for being the expression of the first number, Oneness is posited by four element thinking to be our universe’s first principle. Even the word we collectively use to define Creation, the universe, cannot help but conjure up this Oneness reality. And let me say it here: while I may appear to be indiscriminately using the term spirituality, it is this oneness reality that is generally being inferred when it gets used by me.
Spirituality in one’s life may be thought of as coming through one’s own acknowledging, appreciating, and acting with an awareness of this Oneness. Arguably Oneness is not only the first but also the highest principle of our universe.
Various religious traditions have cosmologies that help demonstrate the movement from this original abstract, unifying spiritual Oneness to our present state of physical diversity. Science has its own cosmology –the Big Bang. Let’s see what happens as we continue to use numbers to express this process of an unfolding universe. And so we ask, “What number follows one?”
We all know it’s two. Two can be thought of as coming when that most primal number, One, is fractured, or divided, into two parts. According to the Four Element Holistic Hypothesis, each of those two divided parts actually comprises a principle, which together allow that over-arching Oneness to be maintained in this new dimension of Twoness. The Chinese call the primal Two: yin and yang. They exist as those opposing forces that pervade all Creation as electrons and protons, male and female, big and small, energy and matter, the spiritual and material poles of life.
The Four Element Holistic Hypothesis uses geometry to help us understand each number. It reminds us that the most basic expression of Two is seen as a line. Do you recall from high school geometry class how you drew arrows at the ends of a line to show how it is different from a line segment? Those two arrows imply that each of the two rays goes endlessly in opposite (yin-yang) directions.
Can you sense that what is implicit in a line is that there is an endless spatial separation of one ray from the other? The essence of Two – its principle, what it gives for the purposes of a physical universe – is “spatial separateness,” which everything in the cosmos needs for its existence. In other words, this second principle, Two, or Twoness, is the need for everything existing to have some degree of separation – space – between itself and every other entity.
Though we commonly think of opposites as attracting, can you see that at this stage of Creation – in this realm of Twoness – these opposites can only go in opposite directions, separating ever further from each other? For example, imagine that bursting out of Oneness would be a two-arrowed line with one arrow going toward the biggest big and the other going in the opposite direction, towards the smallest of the small.
Can you see how the universe as we have it today could only be generated if the opposite poles of Two could somehow be productively drawn together in a balanced way? The proof is in the pudding – as you look around, you can see a productive, diverse, physical universe is very much present. Apparently, that unproductive fully polarized state generated by Two was overcome. The Big Bang, God, the Spirit of Life – or whatever you want to call this force – found a way to bring opposites together.
The ability to resolve this intensely polarized situation would come through the power of Three. Try this: spread your arms out in two opposite directions. Imagine that one arm directs you toward the biggest big and the other arm points toward the smallest of the small. Now, slowly bend your elbows and notice how your two forearms angle into each other to create a triangle.
Until the number three came along to bring them together, the various poles existing on every level of the cosmos would go in totally opposite directions. Creation would get “nowhere.” As Three (and its Threeness) was brought forward, Two’s opposing principles were able to be drawn together, able to move toward a productive balance.
With the triangulation of Three, Creation was able to allow for opposites like “big” and “small” to create a “medium,” and for opposites like “top” and “bottom” to create a “middle.” Phrases like middle-class and middle ground are all made possible by Three. Ultimately, Three and its triangle form a principle we will call Interconnectedness or Balance.
Nature as the Coming Together of the Spiritual and Material Poles of Creation
In the realm of Two, Creation’s first two poles are found going in their opposite directions. One ray of the line is directed toward abstract spirituality, and the other ray is directed toward densest materiality. According to the Four Element Holistic Hypothesis, Three’s existence reveals to us that this primal polarity has found a way to be resolved. A balance has been found and a connectedness has been made between this primal set of two polarities: Spirit and Matter.
The Four Element Holistic Hypothesis tells us that what we call Nature is actually the coming together of the spiritual and material poles of the cosmos. Indeed, if you have ever sensed a spiritual glow to Nature, you may well have been noticing what is in fact there. Nature is seen in this way to have both physical and spiritual parts to its constitution. The point to be made here is that Nature should be thought of as an important expression of Three and its principle, Balance. Nature helps us to see what Balance naturally draws together: the physical and the spiritual poles of Creation, each of which were born by Two.
We can even apply the Threeness principle to that human agency we all call mind. Here, let’s tap into that often-noted holistic context of body, mind and spirit. Can you see how body and spirit are the expression of two opposing poles, pulling us toward two opposing ideals or values, as in the bodily versus the spiritual? With the triangulation of Threeness, there is a resolution of that opposing polar relationship by way of what we call Mind.
This Mind is the expression of the unique way in which we balance the spiritual and bodily poles of our lives. More so, it is useful to see Mind as the human agency that interconnects, or balances, all the various polar opposites of our human condition. We are each unique because we each balance the opposites of life in different ways. From a three element perspective, we are each a Mind doing this balancing act in as best a way that we can muster.
With all that said, I ask for an extension of that earlier indulgence to those times you will see capitalized words like Mind and Balance, or even of a number. When so capitalized, like our four elements, they spell out a principle of the highest order.
As we return to Three, it’s important to appreciate that the realm of Three is one of metaphysical abstraction: there is nothing physical that you can put your hand around and say, this is mind, or Nature, or medium. Creation could not stop at three if it were to reach a physical world.
The Buttressing Power of Four
Why do we drive cars with four wheels, build rooms with four walls, divide the year into four seasons, have our compasses with four cardinal directions? And too, why have quadrupeds held sway in life? Why even in chemistry has carbon and silicon – each with their electronegative valence of four – become, respectively, the builders of the organic and inorganic physical realms of Creation on our planet?
In order to move beyond the metaphysical abstraction of Three, we will find ourselves needing to understand Four – its how and why. And let it be said here: principles have both a how and a why. Why they exist is because they give what’s needed to uphold the Oneness after it gets fractured into an interconnected set of parts.
Each principle has its own how. We are about to see how Four brings forth structural stability and physicality. And with this fourth principle, we will find that the cosmos’ first principle, Spiritual Oneness, is at last able to manifest physically; Oneness is able to become, in a sense, truly real.
To understand how Four allows physicality, try this: Draw an imaginary circle (of Oneness) vertically in the space in front of you, with the diameter about the size of your forearm. Now, place one forearm in that circle – creating a diameter with its elbow positioned below the horizontal of that vertical circle (see picture).
Next, take your other forearm and lay it similarly so that both cross each other at their mid-forearm. There should be about a 120° angle between the backs of your two forearms. Now, bring the backs of both hands (and lower forearms) towards each other until they approach 90° angles. With the fun sound-effect of a quick “tk” feel the way all four parts lock into a 90° arrangement with each other.
The gist of it is this: whether by just the cold mathematical outflow from One to many, or from a spiritual abstractness toward a goal of physical expression, something very powerful was born with Four. It is analogous to the four 90° angles that came when the wholeness of that Oneness circle was fractured into four parts. Those four right angles created what I like to call the Buttressing Principle. Four permits Oneness to be locked into solid reality by something analogous to the perpendicularly-buttressed, orthogonally arranged 90° angles.
We will continue to see that there is something unique about right angles that permit them to work effortlessly to create materiality, solidity, and physical structure. It is in this buttressed or locked-together way that Nature (which was metaphysical in Three) now becomes physical – creating our sun, our airy atmosphere, water and earth. Of course, it is no coincidence that in our downward-moving way, that this fourth principle, Earth, is solid.
It is important to appreciate that each of the four quadrants buttressed together (seen here in the intersection of your forearms) represents a principle. What we call Fire, Air, Water and Earth are not only elements but also principles that are cardinal, primal and completely imbedded into the fabric of Creation. Each principle is needed for things existing on this physical realm to actually exist.
These four principles are the ever-repeating principles of a sacred pattern – a talisman of sorts, with which Oneness creates physical realness. The physical world helps us to see, interact and otherwise engage with these physicality-creating and spiritually unifying principles.
Nature helps us understand them so we might better live our life. We are given the opportunity to observe and understand these principles because they show up as the sun, air, water and earth of Nature, which we can engage in a variety of ways.
Along these lines, there is holistic significance in the way Spiritual Oneness is manifested in our world as the first of the four elements, Fire. Interestingly, the first principle Oneness truly does shine as the fire of our sun. This happens as four hydrogen atoms come together, fusing to create one helium. Can you see how Oneness energy really does shine as the light of our sun and all its fellow stars? We’ll see more of these natural expressions of these numerically-framed principles as we move through our book.
In summary, numbers – the most abstract of real things – have been connected to a set of objectively discerned principles that are recognized through the geometry of those numbers. One creates a point, which can be “inflated” to create that all inclusive circle or sphere of Oneness; Two creates a line with those two yin-yang arrows directing themselves endlessly in opposite directions (creating space between them); Three generates the triangle shape that permits opposites to find a way to come together in some balanced, interconnected way. And then came Four with its right angles.
The Ancients’ discernment of the four elements of Nature expressed their intuitive grasp of Nature’s deep spiritual reality. These elements are ultimately about the primacy of a set of four principles, which must be present for the generation of a physical universe. Nature’s four elements – Fire, Air, Water, and Earth – give a physical, “natural” expression to those four primal cosmic principles.