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The five elements in Tibetan Buddhism

Updated: Feb 16, 2022

Earth, water, fire, air, and space.

Theories about the five elements have been a part of the way Tibetans have seen the world for millennia. They describe the various forces in nature and how these forces affect human health -- and the qualities of energy and mind along the path to awakening. This theory states that the universe is made up of five elements—earth, water, fire, air, and space—and that each element represents both a force of nature and a quality of mind.

In this teaching series on Insight Timer (click here to follow me, Claire, on that app), I'll cover each of the elements and explain what its unique qualities are, how to connect with it in life, and how it can help your meditation practice. I've found the elements a valuable way to understand what's out of balance in my life and how to find a way back to a natural state of balance.

I'm using Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche's excellent book, Healing with Form, Energy and Light for this series. (That's an affiliate link, just FYI.)

Want these teachings delivered free to you inbox as an email course and get invited to future live sessions? Sign up below!

Skip to an element: earth, water, fire, air, space

The earth element

The "heaviest" of the elements, earth symbolizes stability, equanimity, and rootedness. Love and acceptance are fundamental elements of earth energy. By connecting with this energy, you can access a deep sense of stillness and peace.

You can connect with the earth element in daily life by immersing yourself in a natural environment, such as a forest, field, desert, or mountain. Try walking barefoot, sitting on the ground, or lying on the earth.

When we meditate on earth, we strengthen our ability to focus the mind and let it settle into its own rich, abundant nature. Practices like focusing the mind on the breath, bodily sensations, or a mantra can help generate earth-like stability. And meditating on equanimity strengthens that aspect of earth energy.

Learn more about the qualities of balanced earth energy -- and the drawbacks of unbalanced energy, like feeling scattered or sluggish -- when you watch or listen to the teaching below.

The water element

We all want to flow more easily through life, with grace and ease. Did you know that flow in Tibetan Buddhism is associated with the water element?

In the teaching below, I'll explain the basic qualities of the water element in Tibetan Buddhism (ease, flow, and emotional connection), what happens when this element is imbalanced, and how we can balance our water in daily life and meditation practice.

Just like the other elements (earth, fire, air, and space), water has a wisdom that can support our meditation practice. Because water represents the qualities of flow and comfort, it can help us settle joyfully into life and meditation practice.

Water is also associated with heart-opening meditation practices like loving-kindness or compassion meditations, or with opening to the blessings of our practice lineage. When we meditate with the water element, we can become more aware of when we are holding back from true connection and when we feel integrated with the rest of our world.

listen now --->

Passion and creativity: the fire element

The fire element is associated with passion and creativity in Tibetan wisdom teachings. When its power is balanced and nurturing us with its heat, our creative projects will come to fruition more easily, and we'll find joy in the process. But when the fire of our body, energy, and mind runs low, it's hard to feel enthusiastic about life.

In meditation, if the fire element is too strong we'll have thoughts and ideas popping up constantly.

There are different techniques on how to reduce the fire element, but one effective way is to do practices that cultivate the earth element, like a body scan or breath meditation that enhances your mind's ability to rest on its object. This will turn down the intensity of thoughts appearing constantly. To enhance the fiery quality of your practice, explore new kinds of meditation (like mantra practice or guided visualizations), new teachings, or a new spiritual podcast.

To cultivate balanced fire energy in daily life, you can try:

- spending time outside in the sun

- thinking about what excites you creatively and then taking steps to pursue it

- noticing the warmth of your body

Learn more with the teaching below.

Listen --->

Or watch (below)

Intellect and transformation: the air element in Tibetan Buddhism

Intellect, curiosity, change, and transformation: these are all important qualities on the spiritual path, and in Tibetan Buddhism they’re related to the air element. The air element can help us to move with greater flexibility and grace through life, making changes in our lives when we need to and releasing that which is no longer serving us.

Too much air energy can lead to constantly swirling thoughts and anxiety as we meet life’s challenges. Too little air and we have trouble making changes and greeting life with curiosity and the willingness to learn.

In its subtle aspect, air is the energy that flows through the channels of our subtle body and connects the physical body with the mind. To balance your air energy, gentle chi kung exercises are great!

To connect with the air element in the natural world, you can go outside and feel the breeze on your skin, notice the air you breathe in, or watch leaves dancing in the wind.

Luminous emptiness: the space element

In Tibetan Buddhism, the space element is understood as emptiness or the nature of mind, and it is this emptiness that allows for everything to manifest in its own unique way.

Space is an essential part of our existence. It's the empty space in which all things exist. Everything in the world is made up of space and matter. Emptiness is also an essential part of our existence. It's the state of mind in which there is no attachment to anything.

In meditation, practitioners may focus on the space around them as a way of becoming aware of their own mind and the vast potential for transformation that exists within it. When we experience space and emptiness deeply, it can be quite liberating. We let go of our attachments and see things as they are, leading to a sense of freedom and peace.

Listen to the full teaching

or watch on YouTube

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