The Mahabhutas, or 5 great (maha) elements (bhutas) is one of my favorite topics to study and to teach because they make such simple, beautiful metaphors for engaging the full opportunity of being. Going further, the more I study and engage and play with the elements in my own life the more I develop a sensitivity to and connection with the physical earth and natural world around me. The more I do that, the better steward of the Earth I become and the more connected and settled I feel within. As if that weren’t enough, each time I come back to teaching the elements they open up with a fresh perspective and new and exciting applications for daily living. This little blog series on the Mahabhutas is a reflection of today’s study, today’s understanding and application.
The Mahabhutas or 5 Great Elements as described by the yogis are: Space or Ether (akasha), Earth (prthvi), Water (Ap), Fire (Agni) and Air (Vayu). (The 5 elements of Traditional Chinese Medicine are slightly different, but more on that later.) We’ll begin with Space.
Space (aka Ether) or in Sanskrit, akasha (ah – kah – sha) is the “first” of the five elements. It is vast, expansive, unbounded, completely open, permeates and contains all of the other elements within it. Permeates and contains? Yes. That’s what so miraculous about Space. Think of our planet orbiting in outer space, held in outer space, but then also begin to recognize that that same space between the stars is the same space between your body and the screen on the device you are using to read this. Simple enough. Now try to conceptualize that we – the great collective we of existence which includes the animate and the inanimate – are mostly space. Indeed some physics estimates it at 99.99999% space. If you take an atom and enlarge it to the size of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Rome, the nucleus would be the size of a grain of salt.** An electron, even smaller. Since, as far as we know, a hydrogen atom only has one electron zipping around the nucleus, that’s a lot of “empty” space! What comprises this “empty” space is one of the great questions of modern physics and a fascinating topic beyond the scope of this blog except to say that physics, like the ancient yogis, is beginning to think it vibrates.
What does all this trippy space data have to do with an engaging metaphor for abundant living? Quite a bit. Remember, space permeates and contains.
A few days ago I began my morning as I generally do by reading a passage from a spiritual daily reader. On this particular day I was presented with a question that knocked quite loudly on my thick skull, reframed my perspective and inspired this contemplation. See, it was a Monday morning. I’m often quite persnickety on Monday morning (until I get my classes planned) because I wake up feeling overwhelmed (until I get my classes planned) by all the tasks I’ve assigned myself for the week ahead. On this particular Monday morning I was feeling particularly overwhelmed when I read “what are you doing with what you already have?” This may seem like a minor thing, but to my cluttered brain, it was a revolution.
At that one moment I came to realize that this sense of being overwhelmed was really just a matter of proportion and perspective. And that, as is too often the case, I was stuck in a perspective of lacking. Overwhelmed and lacking? Seems like a bit of a contradiction in terms, but it’s true. When I feel lacking of any kind, be it in time, resources, knowledge, sleep, strength, various digestive enzymes, whatever, I feel physically constricted. Compressed. Like there are a thousand and one little things piling up all around and in me and it’s all “just too much.” My shoulders slump forward, my belly caves in and I want to curl up in the fetal position and wallow. My pulse quickens.
When I feel spacious, it’s really an umbrella term to describe an overall state of ease, wellbeing and trust in my gifts and resources. A sort of “all is right with the world and the possibilities are bright and endless” kind of thing. When it comes to feeling spacious, there’s a definite lack of lacking. Space permeates and contains all the other elements. The very nature of space is fullness (purna), abundance. True to form, it’s even suggested in the sound of the Sanskrit, with it’s long, full “ah” sounds, sharp clipped k and flowy, directed “sha.” Ah- kah-sh-ah. Akasha.
To ask, “what am I doing with what I already have?” is to move from lacking to abundance, from compression to spaciousness. It is to focus my attention on my spiritual gifts and talents, to be mindful of how I use each 24 hours; to celebrate and serve the great skill and depth of heart of the students who attend my classes; to enjoy the world of fresh, whole foods I can eat and not dwell on the processed goodies I can’t because they make me sick; to be grateful for the countless resources at my disposal; to care for my home and manage finances wisely; to breathe with attention. To focus on the full and joyful use of what I already have is to live into gratitude. To live into gratitude is to embody the fullness and abundance of space.
Take a moment and think back to a time when you felt completely at ease. Notice the sense of space that inhabits this memory. Where are you? What are you doing? Thinking? Feeling? What are the circumstances, colors, textures, sights and sounds surrounding and contributing to this feeling? Live into these details to enhance the presence of space in this memory, then let the details fade away, while the sense of vastness remains. Steep yourself in this sensation then, after a few moments, let it go, knowing that you can return to it at anytime because the nature of reality, your reality is Space. It permeates and contains all things. It’s what you already have.
For further exploration of space and the other four elements subscribe to this blog and it will automatically find its way to your inbox when I post. To explore these elements through asana, come out to class!