The Five Great Elements (Pancha Mahabhutas)

I’ve been called a tree hugger many times, which is a name I happily accept (and an action I admit to doing more than once!). I love trees. I love water. I love stars. I love nature. Recently I’ve been reflecting on the fact that I am nature. I’ve been studying Ayurvedic medicine (as part of my training in yoga therapy) and have been reading a lot about the Five Great Elements, which could also be called the five great states of material existence.

space

air

fire

water

earth

As part of my study I’ve been reading about the creation story of Samkhya philosophy. Samkhya is an ancient philosophical system (one of the 6 orthodox schools of Indian Philosophy) and provides the philosophical underpinning for both Ayurveda and yoga.

The creation story goes something like this…

Consciousness (purusha) and Matter (prakriti) meet (in the big bang? or as I like to think of it, the big OM). From this meeting arises the Cosmic Mind (mahat), the power of discrimination, intelligence, the 1st principle of individuation. From Cosmic Mind arises the I-former (ahamkara) allowing for self-identification.

I’ll let Robert Svoboda tell you the rest (because he does it so beautifully):

“The universe fills with numberless little individual bundles of intellect all searching for a means of expression. According to their innate predilections these ahamkara-bundles manifest as:

waves of kinetic energy known as Rajas,
material particles of potential energy known as Tamas,
and the subjective consciousness knows as Sattva.

Rajas is activity and Tamas inertia. Sattva is the balance of these two, for only consciousness can balance kinetic energy with potential energy. Nature’s ahamkara is sufficiently vast to balance the energies of the entire cosmos. The power of the I-consciousness in humans is sufficient to balance their own individual energies.

An individual bundle of “spirit,” desirous of expressing itself, uses subjective consciousness (Sattva) to manifest sense organs and a mind. Spirit and mind then project themselves into a physical body, created from the Five Great Elements that arise from Tamas. The sense organs use Rajas to project from the body into the external world to experience their objects. The body is the mind’s vehicle, its instrument for sense gratification. The mind retreats to its bodily haven each night during sleep when it is tired of roaming about outside. The spirit remains within the haven at all times, providing life to the body and consciousness to the mind.”

—from his book “Prakriti”

I love creation stories. They provide us with imaginative ways of understanding who we are and where we’ve come from. While in seminary I spent quite a bit of time exploring the two creation stories in Genesis (did you know there were two?). In an assignment in my Spirituality and the Body class I wrote: “The conclusion this person came to—that of a God breathing into the dust and raising up a being in the likeness of God—is overwhelmingly beautiful. I am happy to imagine myself as a combination of dust and bone and holy breath.”

From the Samkhya creation story, I am quite happy to imagine myself as the explosive result of consciousness and matter meeting. I am quite happy to imagine myself as the combination (kinetic/potential/mind/sense/body/element/consciousness/spirit) of energies born from this explosion.

I love nature. But more than that I actually am nature. I am nature. It’s not a metaphor, it’s true. It’s a truth that I feel in my bones and breath, in my senses and experiences, in my body and world.

I recently designed a class to help my students understand themselves as nature. I want to share a portion of this practice with you. This 30-minute guided meditation takes you through several visualizations and inquiries around the energies of space, air, fire, water, and earth. You’ll hear the sounds of our town in the recording (one of my favorite sounds of Bellingham is the seagulls). I hope the live energy of the class helps bring a sense of community to your practice.

I invite you to find a comfortable, supported posture (I had my students lie down), but I encourage you to set yourself up in a way that will allow you to stay alert.

I hope you enjoy the practice. And I hope you see yourself—know yourself—as Nature.

If you would like to purchase a set of the Five Elements Prayer Flags that I made, please visit my etsy shop.


I would love to hear from you. Are the five elements something you think about regularly? Are they part of your practice?

 

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