The Four Elements and Me

Here’s an interesting question I received via email recently:

I’ve been practicing following the breath and it occurred to me that the air being breathed is as much or even more “me” than the lungs within this body. I hope this is a correct assumption.

With this realization I’ve been trying to understand the four elements. Considering the interconnectedness of all things; it is easy to see how humans need light and water as do trees, squirrels, etc. How do the four elements fit into this logic? It seems as if the air does not need the bird or earth does not need the worm. The worm on the other hand needs the earth and the bird needs the air.  

Maybe this is not something I should use logic to understand? Are there any books you could recommend that may help me understand?

Here’s my answer:

I think worms and birds are something the earth and air and the other elements of the periodic table produces. There is nothing inside a worm or a bird — or a person — that was not once part of the Earth or the air or the water, etc. There is nothing in my body that has not been a part of the Earth since its formation billions of years ago.

All of the elements in this body have been recycled through countless beings. And before there were what we call “living things,” the elements that make up my body were parts of mountains and rivers and oceans and so forth. Perhaps even that which I mistakenly refer to as “my consciousness” is similarly recycled. Maybe it’s been around just as long as all the rest of the other stuff I am made of.

And the Earth was once part of a giant cloud of gas and dust, out of which formed the Sun and the other planets. And that cloud of gas and dust was once part of stars that exploded so long ago that it might as well have been forever. Maybe what we call “life” and “consciousness” were always part of that stuff. Certainly the potential for life and consciousness existed in so-called “lifeless matter” long before we came along to try to define those things.

Emptiness is also a large part of what I am. The space between the atoms of my body are vast compared to the atoms themselves. The energetic forces that hold these atoms together have no physical form. Ultimately, the atoms themselves are made of non-material energy. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form, as the Heart Sutra says.

But why do they do that? Why do the elements of the Earth — which are ultimately the elements of the Universe — shape themselves into living creatures? Why do they shape themselves into human beings? 

One would assume there must be some sort of benefit these elements receive for shaping themselves into worms, and birds, and us. One would assume there is a reason.

I know that the philosophy of materialism has it that this sort of thing just happens by blind and random chance. I know that is a very popular view these days. It is often said that scientific research supports one view and one view only — the view that random chance is the ultimate cause of life, the universe, and everything. And maybe that’s OK. Because every attempt I’ve seen to try to come up with a different sort of cause ends up sounding silly — as in the case of so-called “creation science.”

Dogen talked about having “deep belief in cause and effect.” He would not accept the idea that anything happens without a cause or that any cause fails to have an effect. Yet he never talks about a “first cause” the way some people these days do. Perhaps he understood that there was never a “first cause” or that, if there was something we could call a “first cause,” it was beyond human understanding.

So maybe it makes no sense to talk about a  “benefit” that earth, air, water, and all the other elements receive by forming themselves into animals, and plants, and people. Maybe that’s too much of a human concept to apply to the elements. 

I am an extension of the Earth, yet I do not know why the Earth made itself into me. Maybe I was always here as part of earth and air and water, etc. and now a small portion of that stuff appears as a human. And it laughably sometimes imagines itself as an independent creature. What a joke! 

In any case, if I, a portion of the Earth, do not know why I (the Earth) made me (Brad), maybe no one does. Maybe no one can.

Here’s my speculation, for whatever it’s worth. Which is not much, if you ask me. But here goes anyway. Maybe the Earth  — and by extension the Universe — wants to understand itself intellectually and one way it can do that is by forming itself into people. Maybe there are different sorts of living beings elsewhere in the vast reaches of space who are also helping the Universe learn to understand itself. Maybe some of them are just as delusional as some of us.

I don’t know any books about this subject, but there is a video that goes into this idea. It was made by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the guys who make South Park, based on a talk by Alan Watts. It’s on YouTube, where someone has titled it “Peopling.” 


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