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And the results of that unfolding can only be experienced elementally. Earth yields and collapses, water expands and engulfs, heat/fire is generated and consumes, wind overpowers and destroys. Living through an actual earthquake we suddenly remember earth, real earth, not the chemical composition of soil. Maneuvering through turbulent sea or sky we remember, in our bones and blood – not “H2O” but real water, not a mere list of gases with approximate compositional percentages but real air. Our very emotions, kinds of insight, styles of personality, along with all our bodily processes, correlate remarkably beautifully and profoundly with these fundamental qualities of energy – symbolized for example by the five colors of Tibetan prayer flags.
The entirety of taoist practice and Chinese medicine, too, emerges out of elemental sacred vision and experience – again five energies, as it happens, though seen and worked with in somewhat different ways from the Indo-Tibetan. I know very little about other systems than these but enough to say that wisdom traditions in every continent seem to have arisen out of this kind of awareness.
By contrast, what does a purely scientific – that is, fundamentally conceptual and analytic – way of understanding what is “elemental” have to tell us about ourselves? About how we actually experience our lives, day to day, moment to moment? Copper, phosphorus, bromine, praseodymium: these truly are abstractions utterly disconnected from our bodily human reality. They take their places within an elegant and revelatory periodic table, yielding crisp, pristine, purposeful answers to a multitude of material concerns. And at the same time … they have nothing to say to us as we meet, personally, the phenomena of our inner lives in every instant.
I’m as much a product of my times as anyone and I’ve been experiencing Sandy, yes, as a rational phenomenon that can be “explained” via translation into meteorological language. But at the same time … there has been something, no not sentient, but in any event truly, fully alive taking place in “her.”
Today while walking, for instance, I couldn’t help but sense the closer presence of the storm. Vastly weakened from its peak, it is now passing about as close to us here as it will, and somehow this truth registered despite mostly gorgeous mild weather this last day of October. It announced itself in astonishing cloud formations and in the smell of the air, a sense of something mighty, commanding complete respect, having been discharged, of release and decline. Of the return to harmony after so monumental a display of power. Uneasy reprieve (those clouds belonging, after all, to the very same system that pulverized NJ and NYC), a feeling of some giant gliding past, all of us tip-toeing and holding our breaths as it were, hoping to avoid notice, lest maybe this Sandy character might change its mind and decide to go out, after all, with just one more bang…