"The Universe is created of Four Elements—Fire, Earth, Water, and Air." —5th Century Buddhist Master
From the steppes of the Himalaya to the jungles of Guatemala, shamanism is a ritual belief system that has been practiced for over 27,000 years. From cave paintings in France to aboriginal art in Australia, shamans have recorded what they experience during altered states of consciousness and journeys into non-ordinary realms of reality. These remarkable drawings show flight, communication with anthropomorphic spirit guides, and arcane knowledge of the universe. By understanding how shamanic beliefs correspond to the four elements, we can gain a unique understanding of this enigmatic spiritual tradition.
Shamanism is the set of rituals and beliefs that are used by indigenous societies to effectuate change in our world. Shamanism is characterized by its practitioners entering Altered States of Consciousness (ASCs) to journey into Non-Ordinary Realms (NORs) of Reality. At the molecular level, the quantum level, a shaman will change their energy field to interact with the energy field of living and non-living objects. Shamans can be both female and male, and are found in many different cultures from around the world. Vajrayana Buddhist monks in Bhutan and Tibet, as well as Maya A'j r'ijs from Central America and Cherokee Spiritwalkers from North America understand the connection between shamanic rites and the Four Elements of Fire, Earth, Water, and Air. The shamanic journey first begins with the Fire element.
Before a shaman is accepted by her or his community, and the healer is imbued with powers from the realm of spirit, the shaman must first undergo a ritualized initiation process. The first step of the initiation process is the destruction of the self or the ego. A person must be reborn to become a shaman and harness a new set of abilities, which include astral travel, soul retrieval, divination, healing, and spirit communication. But to be born again, a person must first die. The Fire Element serves this end, because Fire is symbolic of ritual purification and death. By undergoing a great and sudden traumatic event, which destroys the ego and former aspects of the self, the shamanic initiate is letting of old belief systems and old ways of thinking. Fire does this by burning away antiquated aspects of the self and limiting beliefs.
Through fire, an initiate will discard their former identity, and may even die. A catastrophic illness is one way that communities find new shamans. Many shamans have undergone bouts with near-fatal diseases, and many have had Near Death Experiences (NDEs). The NDEs provide the shaman a gateway. By hovering between the realms of life and death, flesh and spirit, the shaman learns to communicate with spirit guides. The shaman is then offered a choice by the spirit guides—to accept the new destiny as a shamanic healer and practitioner or become a permanent resident of the spirit world. Thankfully for us, many initiates choose to continue along the shamanic path.
After the tribulation of the Fire element, fire, and the discard of the former egocentric self, a shaman will then begin journeying to the underworld. The underworld, or cave, is representative of the Earth element and symbolizes the link to our collective past, our connection to the planet, and our inescapable bond with every life form. The Earth element nurtures, it protects. The Earth element is the womb from which all life comes. From plants, to plankton, to eagles, to grasshoppers, all life began in the Earth and in caves, where life was protected from the sun's radiation and life forms began to evolve and emerge.
A shaman's journey to understand the Earth element is the voyage to comprehend the connection with animal guides, plant guides, and humanity's collective unconscious. It is these symbols of the collective subconscious, hard-wired into DNA and cellular memory, that provide the shaman with the vocabulary of Jungian archetypes. Cross-culturally, humans communicate with a common set of symbols passed down from our genetic past. These symbols, or archetypes, include the maiden, the wizard, the Nature spirit (such as the Pan or Trickster), the hero and heroine, the crone, the baby, and the tree.
The Earth element provides this shamanic language for use in dreams, metaphysics, and healing. The Earth element is the connection to more than one million years of evolution, the collective subconscious, archetypes, and the realm of nature spirits. After a shaman connects to the wisdom of the Earth element and the collective past, the shaman must develop an understanding of the Water element.
Water is the universal fuel of existence; life cannot function without water. To a shaman, the Water element symbolizes growth by feeding all life forms on the planet. The basis of the shamanic journey is empathic healing. By showing tears of compassion for all living beings, a shaman expands planetary health. All living beings want to be nurtured and nourished. From Redwood trees, to algae, to killer whales, to frogs, all living things desire compassion. By promoting all forms of life and having compassion for all living creatures, a shaman heals the planet. Tears of compassion and love provide growth to the tree of humanity. And as more rings and generations are added, the human tree becomes stronger.
The final element of the shamanic journey is Air. The Air provides the shaman with a connection to Upper Realms, deities, and gods. By using their psychic abilities, a shaman can transcend the limits of her or his body to communicate directly with the gods and bring forth messages for humanity. Shamans describe journeys to the Upper Realm as a Revelation of supernatural knowledge and insight. The Upper Realms are places of air, flight, and greater perspective. The earliest cave paintings of thirty thousand years ago in France and Spain show shamans flying amongst the stars. The Air element represents a place to gain greater understanding and communicate with the creator deities.
The greatest shamans of the last two thousand years ascended into the Air element after their teaching missions were complete. Jesus, Mohammed, and Padmashambhava all descended into the clouds once they finished their earthly journey. For the shaman, the Air element is the connection to land of Spirit and the Upper Realms from which gods and deities communicate their most important messages for humanity. It is into the Air element, that the most powerful shamans ascend once their missions are complete.
The journey of the shaman is the symbolic journey of creation, the metaphor for the evolution of the human machine. The journey first begins with the destruction of the self and ego through the ritual initiation of the Fire Element. The next step on the shaman's journey is the voyage to understand the Earth element. By developing a connection with all living things, a shaman can understand that all life on Earth is linked together. By exposure to the symbols of the collective past, and the Jungian archetypes of the collective subconscious, a shaman develops and perfects her or his psychic abilities with the help of the Earth.
The shaman then journeys to the land of the Water element to learn compassion. By shedding tears of love and compassion for all living beings, the shaman begins to use her healing abilities to heal the planet. The final journey of the shaman is the voyage the land of the Air Element. Amongst the clouds, skies, and further into the cosmos, a shaman journeys to develop a relationship with deities. After the final realization and a complete mastery of all the elements in the universe—Fire, Earth, Water, and Air, a shaman will journey into the cosmos to permanently reside in the Upper Realms and live amongst the gods.