Summer 2012 Edition
The Fire and Earth Elements of Summer
The ancient Chinese viewed the seasons of the year as the movement of one unified Qi energy that transforms itself into five distinct phases of being. Each of these five phases is said to be powered by one of the five elements, (winter/Water, spring/Wood, summer/Fire, late summer/Earth, autumn/Metal). The Chinese referred to this cyclical progression of phases as the Creation Cycle, since each element provides the conditions to generate the next element. For example, water feeds wood, and makes possible the growth of plants. Wood serves as fuel for fire to burn. Fire creates ashes, which become earth. The compaction of earth creates precious metals, and finally metal enriches water to provide it with life-giving minerals.
The Chinese also saw that this continual cycle of energy has a peak and a low point, and the energy cycles back and forth between theses two yin/yang polarities. The winter time(Water Element) is the lowest point in the cycle, and is the most yin time of year. During the winter, the energy has gathered internally, and is in a state of hibernation. When spring arrives, the Wood Element brings forth that internal energy in the form of new growth and life. The energy continues to build and expand until it reaches its zenith during the summertime when the Fire Element has brought everything into the fullness of outward expression. Hence, the summertime (Fire Element) is the most yang time of the year. It is said that the power of the Fire Element is known as "maturity," and we see this in nature as the new plant growth that began in the spring has now reached a state of its maximum expansion for the year. The Fire Element manifests in human nature as love, joy and Divine Consciousness that emanates from the Divine Spark that resides in our heart. The fully enlightened expression of this is known as Divine Love, which knows no bounds and is inclusive of all beings, friend or foe, just like the warmth and light of the sun that impartially shines upon all the earth without discrimination.
At the apex of the annual cycle, there is only one direction for the energy to go, which is down. This marks the time when late summer begins, which is animated by the Earth Element, whose power is known as "decrease." The Earth Element manifests as the peak energy begins to drop slightly, and the maximum growth of the plant life yields the bearing of its fruit. Thus the late summer is the time of harvest, which arises from the generosity of Mother Earth, who provides abundance to be shared among all her children. The Earth Element gives a quality of roundness and fullness, that is exemplified in a large, juicy, ripe peach that is just about to fall from its tree branch or the exuberant, full-bodied womb of an expectant mother. The Earth Element instills in humans the same quality as is felt in the loving and caring instinct of a mother, who wants to give the very best of life to her children. The enlightened manifestation of this quality comes forth as a natural empathy toward all of Mother Earth's children, which motivates us to dedicate ours lives to the protect and serve of our fellow human beings and the planet as a whole.
Late summer is a somewhat shorter season than the other four. Thus, there is a short window when harvest must be gathered precisely at that time or else the bounty will begin to rot upon the earth. This rotting in the Autumn occurs through the energy of the Metal Element, which carries the energy even lower to a point of complete decomposition into the essential elements where nature can again abide in a state of dormancy during the winter.
When we find ourselves at that point where the summer has transitioned into late-summer as the Fire Element has given way to the Earth element. And so, we now examine how the Fire and Earth Elements manifest in our Tai Chi Chuan form. The Fire Element is wonderfully embodied in the posture known as Single Whip. As we stand in Single Whip, our chest is opened to facilitate the opening of the heart center to generate the joy, bliss and compassion that arises from Divine Love. While holding this posture, it can be helpful to imagine and feel that the tan tien is like the brilliant, warm sun. This healing warmth will gradually begin to radiate throughout the entire body, and helps to open our heart to send love and compassion outward to all beings.
The Earth Element enlivens the postures of Lifting Hands and Strumming the Lute. In both of these postures, the arms are rounded and extended with the palms addressing the anterior space in front of our body. This mudra has the double aspect of both giving and receiving, which comes from the essence of the Earth Element. A lovely image for these postures is like a mother receiving a newborn baby into her arms. While holding these postures, we would like to awaken and embody that quality of the loving gentleness and secure, warm embrace that is natural and appropriate while cradling a precious child. We can also reverse the image and feel that we are handing the same child, with utter care to someone else to invoke the giving aspect of the Earth Element.
When the Elements feed into each other, as in the Creation cycle mentioned at the beginning of this article, then each Element serves to strengthen the succeeding Element. However, when that does not occur, weakness and imbalance in one element, can cause the same in the succeeding element in the cycle. For example, if the positive qualities of the Fire Element are lacking, then the Earth Element may weaken, and the giving and receiving of Earth may devolve into grasping and only giving in order to get back in return. In contrast, when we are able to properly generate warmth, love, joy and the Light of Consciousness that a healthy Fire Element gives us, we can then transform that into a selfless generosity inherent in the act of unattached giving and receiving that is naturally provided by a healthy Earth Element. From that perspective, it is interesting to note that in the sequence of the form, Single Whip immediately precedes Lifting Hands, just like the season of summer and the Fire Element naturally precede late summer and the Earth Element in the Creation Cycle. Therefore, by standing in Single Whip first, we are simultaneously enhancing or priming the Earth element, so that the subsequent holding work in Lifting hands becomes even more dynamic.
With this example, we can begin to understand that our Tai Chi Chuan form has been elegantly designed with an internal logic that utilizes the natural interplay of the Five Elements in accordance with the life-giving and health promoting laws of nature. In the spirit of the Earth Element, may we graciously receive the blessings of this art, and share it for the benefit of all beings.
author: Thomas Malone
Philosophical Support for Meditation
One very valuable philosophical support for meditation is the fact that the Divine does not take sides. The question is not whether "God is on our side", but rather whether we are (or more personally, I am) on the side of the Divine.
Human potential may be expressed as the free will to transcend our narrow, egocentric views, habits, and attachments and consciously channel / embrace the Divine. This is the most difficult work possible. For eons all beings have strongly identified with their material bodies and processes, and matter is subject to inertia and entropy.
Inertia is the tendency of matter and processes to continue in the same pattern (habit) unless acted upon by a force (free will).
Entropy is the tendency toward heat equilibrium; all dynamic processes generate heat, which is dissipated into the system, which then dissipates it into the larger system and so on. A consequence of this is the truth the Buddha expressed as "All composites are impermanent." And the more complex the system (machine, organism, etc.), the more rapidly it declines. Think of computers and smartphones: hypercomplex systems that in 3 to 8 years devolve from state-of-the-art technological wonders to landfill.
Human bodies are very complex systems, but also very well-designed, efficient, and to a limited degree, self-repairing; the mean time before failure (MTBF) is currently 67.2 years.
So for at least 13.5 billion years, whenever Consciousness has identified with a body or psyche, it has been strongly subject to falling into ruts (inertia) and falling apart (entropy). The fact that there are any conscious beings alive anywhere in the universe (or, for that matter, that there is a universe at all) is so unlikely from a material perspective that it serves as compelling evidence of the Divine.
The choice facing us - the ultimate expression of free will - is whether to continue to turn toward and identify with the material, or turn toward and identify with the Divine. Each human being has this choice in every moment; everyone has had momentary experiences of total peace, unconditional love, inspired insight, harmony, beauty, etc., but they always fall away. Why? Inertia and entropy. But these very obstacles can be turned to our advantage.
While good habits may not be as easy to maintain as bad habits (deeper ruts), the more regularly we practice meditation (and later, returning to conscious awareness of the Natural State), the more we build momentum and gain confidence. And the awareness of entropy lends urgency to one's practice; one Buddhist master observes, "Life is like a bubble - it can burst at any moment," and another advises, "Practice with the urgency of a person who is putting out a fire on his head."
The single most useful skill in learning how to routinely return to Divine transcendence is meditation. The Divine is immaterial and inconceivable; it takes a very quiet and disciplined mind to contemplate the infinite and eternal. (The truth is that quietude and undistracted awareness are actually qualities of our true nature - not something to be contrived or manufactured - but one needs to uncover this truth for oneself by becoming proficient in meditation.)
May your view and practice unite in Ultimate Realization for the benefit of all.
author: Patrick Wooldridge