I’ve been reading some of Mary K. Greer’s excellent books on Tarot lately. One of my favorite things about Greer’s books is that she includes lots of interactive exercises for the reader. This can make just flipping through the books seem a bit flat and boring, but once I actually engage with the exercises and work through the books, actively reflecting on the concepts being introduced, I find that I’ve gained far more skill than I would have gained just by reading an author’s opinions on a topic. In that spirit, here is an exercise of my own to help you determine how you relate to the four classical Elements:
This can be done on a single sheet of paper, but it’s a little easier if you use four sheets of lined paper, one for each Element. Write the name of one Element (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) at the top of the sheet. Then set a timer for a short period, 30 seconds to a minute, and brainstorm words you associate with that Element. These can be nature words, sensations, sights, sounds, tastes, smells, textures, emotional or psychological qualities, verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs, whatever comes to mind. Whenever you’re stymied, come back to the name of the Element at the top of the page. Write one on each line, and if you finish the page, start a second column. Repeat, with the same amount of time, for each Element.
As you line up your four pieces of paper side-by-side, how do your lists compare? Is one noticeably longer? Shorter? Are they all about the same? Did you become more adept at brainstorming as you got used to it, so that each list is a little longer?
Now go through your lists and note how each item makes you feel: for terms with positive associations, put a plus sign, and for terms with negative associations, a minus sign. Some things will be neutral, but don’t take too long on each one, and don’t worry about how you “ought” to feel about a particular association; go with your gut instinct. If you aren’t a strong swimmer, “waves” might be a negative one, whereas for a surfer who paddled as soon as he could walk, it could be very positive. The point is to get at what you feel with each term.
Now reassess your lists in terms of how many pluses and minuses are on each. Is one of them longer, but full of minuses? Is your longest list mostly positive? What about the shortest? Which list is most nearly equal in terms of pluses and minuses?
Each of us has personal associations with the Elements. These can be informed by theoretical approaches that give us long lists of correspondences based on abstract theory, but our personal experiences can override correspondences, and can particularly give emotional color to how we perceive an element. Personally, I had a hard time getting in touch with Air, because I associated my experiences of it with wind, and especially cold wind, which I find very painful. This aversion to my mental and emotional visualization of Air made it hard for me to appreciate the Element’s positive qualities, and hard to do strong invocations, which led to difficulty balancing my approach to ritual and magic.
Brainstorming or free-associating can be both a tool for approaching a concept and a measure of how comfortable we are with it. When asked to brainstorm on a topic we feel comfortable with, the associations flow freely, giving us long lists, while ideas we have tended to shy away from, even unconsciously, leave us grasping for words just out of reach. True, sometimes we’ll have long lists of reasons we don’t like a particular thing. (I have plenty of associations with, say, spiders, but they’re all emotionally negative!) Rating the emotional appeal of each term can give you insight into why a particular list is shorter or longer, and whether that has to do with your internal filters, preferences, or preconceived notions that push you into greater or lesser affinity with a given Element.
Take a look, also, at how each list is slanted towards internal (emotional or psychological) associations and external (nature words, actions), and which words are abstract and which concrete. An Element with which you are uncomfortable might be one that you relate to mostly in the abstract. This can be either a symptom or a cause; either way, it means you might benefit from some additional interaction with that Element, especially in concrete, experiential ways that can help you form positive associations. For me, remembering a time with positive emotions that I was suddenly struck by the scent of pine resin baked out of the trees around me by a warm spring sun helped me put my relationship with Air on a whole different footing.
If you feel like this exercise shows you areas you could work on, try doing additional brainstorming around the Element that gave you the shortest list, and also the one with the most minuses on it, if those were different. Search your own memories for better associations you can form: as in my example, a good place to start is with an experience in nature that you enjoyed and that is in some way related to the Element. Brainstorm words to describe the experience, both external and internal. If you can’t find a positive experience, see if you can imagine one, or better yet, make it happen. Sensory memories with powerful emotional connections can make lasting impressions, so if you need to, make a date to do something you know you’ll enjoy, and maybe let the Element change your impression of it.
This exercise is one you can repeat, so keep some notes about it in your journal. You and the Elements just might surprise each other as your relationships grow and change.