I find it interesting, and significant, that I seem to have written the least about this most mysterious of elements, Water, than I have about the other elements. Looking at my writings, I realise that the number of words I have dedicated to the different elements has varied. Perhaps it is understandable that Fire has occupied my thoughts the most, and that may not just be because it is my own element, but additionally, and perhaps more importantly, because it shelters what are in effect twin elements, Inner and Outer Fire, each with its own circle of influence and its own paired officials. Though they both quite obviously have the same sensory signatures, they are distinct enough to have characters quite their own, to the extent that I was delighted one day to see JR Worsley nod his head slightly when I dared to say, “Really I think there are six elements, not five.”
If I count up the numbers of words I have written about each element, there appear to be more about the two yang officials, Wood and Fire, a little fewer about Earth and increasingly less about Metal, before finally dwindling down to the least number for Water. I have concluded that this is probably because it is much easier to write about Wood and Fire, because their yang nature makes them very visible, whereas the more yin characters of first Earth, then Metal, and finally the almost ephemeral of all, Water, are less easy to grasp in words because of their more hidden, yin nature. Or at least I find them so.
When I have given talks about the elements, inevitably I always start with Wood, since its upfront character appears to be the simplest for me to describe and it is therefore the easiest element for my audience to identify with. I once tried to change my routine and started with Water, but I felt very uncomfortable doing so, particularly as I could feel that I was losing my audience as I stumbled through my description of Water’s qualities. In a similar vein it is much easier to talk about the glories of spring with all nature’s abundance on show than the unremittingly passive picture of the dark days of winter, Water’s season, with a landscape lying apparently fallow for months, often buried beneath snow.
Water is the element that I always feel quite wary of. And this is such an appropriate word to use when describing anything to do with this element, particularly if you are, like me, of the Fire element. Because Fire is always slightly apprehensive whenever it comes into contact with Water, just as Water is equally just a little nervous when it comes into contact with Fire. I believe, however, that Water has this effect upon people of all elements, but perhaps to different degrees.
It is always good to think of the way these elements manifest themselves in the natural world, for their appearance and their actions in nature are why the elements have originally been given the names that they have. There is something which makes us think of the earth beneath our feet when we think of an Earth person, just as there is something very specific to our thinking about metal objects or things made of precious materials, such as gold or silver, when we think of a Metal person. It is therefore not by coincidence that the ancient Chinese named the five elements as they did.
Everyone should at some level be wary of Water, because in its often silent and rather hidden way it is quite remorseless in ensuring that it finds its way to whatever goal it has set itself. If you think of the force of water in the natural world, you can see that it has the ability to transform itself in seconds from being something as apparently harmless and peaceful as the smooth surface of a small pond into becoming the awesome, overpowering force of a torrent drowning whole villages and towns in its path. It represents our determination to achieve whatever we have set out to achieve, come what may, and at the deepest, most primitive level, is our survival instinct. This is why so many people who have reached the top of their profession often owe allegiance to this element.
I call it the hidden element, being the most deeply yin of all the elements, because it is not as obviously aggressive as Wood, a yang element, but the power it can exert can be all the greater because it can be so unexpected and catch us unawares. I always feel that Water people can creep upon on us without our being conscious of their presence, whilst the more yang movements of the Wood element announce themselves much more openly
People often underestimate Water’s power and single-mindedness because these are often disguised by its apparently gentle, pliable nature. So what is there about water as we observe it in nature which will help us understand the nature of this element better? At its deepest level, I think it has much to do with one of its characteristics, which no other element shares, and that is its ability to change its shape at will whenever it feels the need to do so. At a stroke, often associated simply with changes in environmental temperature, it can transform itself, becoming in turn steam or ice, and in so doing turning the soft flow of water into ice-bound glaciers, a boiling kettle or the steam of hot geysers. I have always seen Water’s ability to change its shape and consistency as offering it different escape routes enabling it to avoid capture, the thing that Water most fears, for to become captive would be to hold it back from performing its main task, which is to be on the move, with the aim of drawing things together into a whole, and thus to create the image of wholeness, which is that of the unbroken circle of the Dao,
As a footnote to these thoughts about Water, I was sent some
very illuminating insights into this element all the way from
“I read your recent blog, which was interesting. These short, simple observations of each element in a particular situation are very easy to remember and think about. It's also certainly a fact that on the street, I would look at people but immediately look away! I think it is because I don't want them to know that I am looking at them unless they want to initiate contact. If they smile, for example, I would spontaneously smile back and maintain contact for a short while before looking around. It's as if I feel I am transparent and everyone is always able to see through me (literally I mean) and that everyone is trying to read my mind and judge me. And I need to distract most people (except those I am very comfortable with) from something I may have been focusing on by looking here and there, away from what originally caught my attention. I think this is what partly causes the jerkiness that is experienced by others in Water. It's also as if I need to constantly check the environment to condition my own response or state of being to it, perhaps a bit like water which changes its state so often. This takes up a lot of physical and mental energy unconsciously in its own way (as Fire does in its attempt to reach out and every other element does in their individual ways).”