What was in Buddha's Left Hand
by Ira Rechtshaffer
In the esoteric schools of spiritual practice, the left-hand path refers to the more radical understanding and methods for discovering enlightenment where we’d least expect to find it. The left-hand path, sometimes known as tantra, includes the teaching of the five wisdom energies which are associated with the basic elements of earth, water, fire, wind, and space, that we all possess. These energies have the power to re-spark our sacred or magical connection with life, the life we may remember from childhood.
The five elements function like a Rosetta stone, helping us decipher innumerable layers, aspects, and dimensions of ourselves. They reveal our psychospiritual anatomy so that we can tap our power centers and express ourselves passionately through everything that exists in our life—-our intimate relationships, our friendships, our livelihood, and through our personal projects and ambitions.
The five elements or wisdom energies are five different ways of relating with experience, such as intuition (space element), perception (water element), sensation and feeling (earth element), desire or passion (fire element), and kinetic movement (wind element). They’re also embodied in five differing emotional patterns, five relational strategies, five attentional styles, and five basic motivations that shape our thought and behavior.
Each of the elements has both masculine and feminine aspects, which help complement their opposing features. The more we’re able to integrate both the masculine and feminine aspects of the elements, the less unnecessary suffering and conflict we experience, and the more holistic our vision of life becomes.
The five elements inspire us to see, hear, and feel the world with refreshing openness so that we can step beyond our habitual patterns. They offer a system of personal transformation that guides us in transforming the neurotic aspects of personality into their naturally elegant expressions. This involves communication with parts of ourselves that may be underdeveloped, inflexible or aspects of ourselves that we’ve denied. Walking the tantric path of the 5 elements is like walking a spiral. It reflects our evolving movement inwards, towards greater depth and profundity, as well as our expansion outwards, into progressively more intimate connection with our world. At the same time, they teach us how to suffer wisely during times of loneliness, loss, grief, confusion, and even illness.
The irony is that although we’re composed of the five elements, we tend to develop a neurotic or distorted relationship with them, and suffer the consequences of such distortion. Therefore there is a need for a path of application. Tantra guides us how to tune into the elements, so that they can unleash their power to animate and enliven our connection both with ourselves and with our everyday life. Their living energy helps us to transform otherwise mundane events into occasions of appreciation. The space element symbolizes openness, ambiguity, uncertainty, but also presence, simplicity, awe and wonder. In our distorted relationship with our own inner space element, we use it to disconnect or “space out” from situations. On the tantric path “spacing out” from situations is transformed into a refreshing sense of unguarded openness.
The water element symbolizes reflective clarity, transparency, unbiased perception, and the abstract intellect. When we have a distorted relationship with our inner water element, we tend to overly conceptualize our experience. On the tantric path our overly conceptual mind is transformed into mirrior-like awareness that is clear, precise, and yet fluid. The earth element symbolizes equanimity, fertility, substance, and solidity, but when we have a distorted relationship with our inner earth, we tend to inflate ourselves to mask our feelings of inner emptiness and impoverishment. In tantra we transform the insatiable hunger to either fill our emptiness or inflate our self-worth into a healthy sense of enriching presence and equanimity. The element of fire symbolizes the heat of passion and the light of illumination, but also enthusiasm, joy, beauty, creativity, and compassion. When we have a distorted relationship with our inner fire it takes the form of neurotic passion and craving for attention, which can be transformed into compassionate relationship and intimacy with everyday life.
Lastly, the element of wind symbolizes the circulation of energy, movement, energy, vigor, vitality, playfulness, as well as the functions of completing tasks and accomplishing goals. When we have a distorted relationship with this element it can take the form of compulsive, competitive, and goal-oriented behaviors. On the tantric path, when this tendency is handled creatively, it's transformed into a deep trust of our own natural rhythms or inner winds, so that we can draw to ourselves all will that support our values and life purpose. The five-element teachings offers a user-friendly map for how to transform disturbing, neurotic states of mind into their naturally elegant and exalted expressions. This is the fruition of meditation practice.