The four classical elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water are a foundation of many modern Pagan paths, Druidry included. Within ritual, we often call out to these elements to honour them and make offerings to them. Representations of the elements often sit upon our altars, in the form of stones and candles, water and incense.
Beyond the representational and ritual, it’s important to spend time in real nature, experiencing the real elements with our bodies. The warmth of the sun, the cooling rain, the freh breeze, the earth beneath our feet.
The balance of the elements is a delicate one: we can see the consequences in our world today of what happens when, through human carelessness, the elements are unbalanced: wildfires, flooding, extreme storms, droughts and the other horrors of climate crisis.
We need to bring our relationships with earth and air, fire and water, into greater balance for the sake of the whole world.
But that’s not what I want to talk about today. One maxim which I use as a guide is “as within, so without”. This derives ultimately from the concept of ourselves as a microcosm of the macrocosm – made of star-stuff, a fragment of the universe experiencing itself.
In many introduction to Paganism books, you will read how each of the four elements corresponds with an aspect of ourselves: earth as our bodies, water as our emotions and suchlike. But beyond simply listing correspondences, how can we apply this in our practical lived lives? How can understanding the elements help us care for ourselves?
The earth is the source and final destination of our physical forms. Our bodies are made of the earth, our food is grown from the earth. How are we honouring the earth within ourselves?
When we eat mindfully, with consideration and gratitude for the earth and all the workers who gave us our food, we honour the earth within and without. Selecting food we know to be nourishing rather than junk food, and honouring what goes into our bodies is an offering to the earth. So is eating local, avoiding factory-farmed animal products or intensive agriculture, being aware of food miles and additional ingredients like palm oil and the impact they have on the planet. Cooking whenever possible helps me with this – it’s much easier to buy what I need and know what is going in my food when I’m making it myself.
We can honour the earth aspect of ourselves with our bodies too. How many of us have at some point or other said “I hate my body”? I know I have. Yet it still supports me, moves me around, allows me to experience the world. We are embodied, physical beings, and our bodies, all bodies, are sacred. Regardless of size, age, gender, ability, social ideas of beauty, all bodies are amazing and worthy of honour, for they are of the earth. Whether through exercise or rest, sex or dancing, movement or stillness, when we take time to become aware of our bodies and their needs, to honour them as they are, not as we might wish them to be, right now, we honour the earth and ourselves.
Traditionally air is considered to be linked to the mind. So one way to honour the air aspect of ourselves is to look at how we are feeding our minds, just as with earth we looked at how we’re feeding our bodies. An endless diet of social media outrage, propagandistic news media and violent films makes for anxious and stressed minds. Be informed, of course, but know when to put the phone away or step away from the screen. Read books that bring joy, that educate, that speak of the wonders of the natural world. Watch programmes that tell good stories (I love Doctor Who for this) and films that take you to new worlds.
On a more basic level, get some fresh air. Breathe, consciously and with connection. It’s amazing what a difference even just opening a window and getting some air can make to my mental state and overall mood.
Fire is for me the most challenging aspect to think of in a self-care way. Fire is associated with passion, and even anger. I carry a lot of anger with me, from the minor irritations of daily life to the rage against global devastation and hatred. At times, it feels all-consuming. How can we tend the fire within without sparking a blaze?
Anger is an energy, and like any energy, it needs to be directed to be of any use. So direct it through protests, petitions, letter-writing campaigns, direct action, anything that can make a difference and let it out as a fuel for change rather than an inwardly-focused rage.
Fire is also passion, vitality, love, sexuality, creativity. Imbas (the Irish equivalent of Awen) is known as “the fire in the head”. Find that spark of joy, of creativity, and nurture it. This fire can easily be killed by fear and shame, and I am constantly working against those forces to allow it to be kindled. There is no shame in being a passionate, firey person.
Water is linked to emotion and intuition; the deep, wordless infinities of empathy and feeling within. I know I have a bad habit of repressing my emotions until they come flooding out, like a river bursting through a broken dam.
But spending time with our emotions is important – even, and especially, the difficult ones. Counselling and therapy can help. I’m lucky in that I get this through my employer, I couldn’t afford private therapy otherwise. But there are organisations out there who can help with fees and services for people on different incomes, or no income.
I was almost ashamed to write that down, but I’m working through the social stigma of emotional and mental health. There is no shame in seeking help and counselling.
It can bring up emotions that are overwhelming, but feeling them is important – allowing ourselves to feel, entirely. My OBOD initiation rite spoke of the joys and the sorrows of life, and how it is vital to know them both.
In a suitably watery way, a long bath is often a good place to connect with these emotional currents, and simply to sit with them and let them flow, without judgement.
Of course, this is just a very brief overview of how looking at each of the elements in turn, and applying them to the idea of self-care, can help us to see ourselves more holistically, as integrated beings of body and mind, passion and emotion, physical and spiritual. I’m sure you can think of many more.
I find doing this elemental check-in every once in a while useful. Left ignored, life will sometimes tend to imbalance, and some aspect will get forgotten or pushed aside. Regularly checking in helps to live a more aware and intentional life. Maybe a similar check-in once a month, perhaps around the energy and potential of the new moon, could become part of a regular practice.
One final note: self-care is not selfish. It is essential if we are to be of any use to ourselves, and to others, and the wider world. Think of it as filling your own cauldron with magic before sharing that with others.
OK, one actual final note: this advice is actually for myself, mostly. I’m pretty rubbish at looking after myself and trying to get better at it. I am in no way some enlightened Druid who has it all figured out. I hope this doesn’t come across as preachy, it’s meant to just be a gentle help.