The four elements

It was a magical ceremony. I accompanied Starry Song, the shaman who had the gift of teaching the ancestral philosophy of his people through words and music, to a beautiful waterfall near Sedona, in the mountains of Arizona. I had arrived the afternoon of the previous day. As usual, I was greeted with a sincere smile and a tight hug. Although the shaman hadn’t said a word, I noticed an almost imperceptible strangeness in his eyes when he saw me. After leaving my suitcase in the guest room, I sat down next to him on the porch. As he seemed to pace his thoughts in the slow back and forth of the rocking chair, he filled the red stone stummel of his ever-present pipe with tobacco. I watched him light and puff a few times until he was satisfied with the smoke. Then he made a comment that I didn’t think mattered much: “Air is the best food for fire”. Still not understanding what he was referring to, I suggested that alcohol and petrol were much more effective for the same purpose. Starry Song looked at me with compassion and said: “It depends on what kind of movement you’re looking for”.

I said I didn’t understand. The shaman was enigmatic: “That explains a lot”. He puffed his pipe and asked: “How do you feel?”. I confessed that I was going through a very troubled phase with some confusing situations. A period in which nothing seemed to work out. I asked him if he had ever experienced similar moments. Starry Song confused me even more: “From an early age, I learnt the importance of using air to propel the fire”. He watched the smoke from his pipe drift in front of him for a moment and added: “The substance that moves the fire is the cause of the confusion of your days”. He paused to choose the best words to use, because despite the firmness of his attitudes, he was incapable of hurting anyone. He tried his best to be gentle without running away from the truth: “We never walk alone. We define who accompanies us through our thoughts, words and actions. Even the ancestors who enlighten and protect us are subject to the laws of education and justice that order the Great Mystery. Thus, by making the wrong move, we prevent them from avoiding our falls. We are the ones who have involved ourselves with antagonistic energies. Affinity generates attraction. You don’t feed the fire with the wrong substance”.

I argued that he wasn’t helping me with that cryptic language. The shaman didn’t make it easy: “Go and rest. We’ll take care of it tomorrow”. Early on, we travelled along a side road for about half an hour in his battered pick-up truck. Then it was almost an hour on foot on a trail through the mountains to the high waterfall, which formed a generous crystal-clear lake. On the banks of the lake, we spread out our blankets. Starry Song collected a good number of dry branches, lit the fire and said: “Wood is part of the earth element. It represents matter and the physical body of all things and beings; it also symbolises the root of each of us on this planet. These are the elements where transformations take place”. He blew to encourage the fire to fulfil its destiny of transforming the branches into light and warmth. As it took a while for the flame to take hold, he reminded me: “It is the breath of life that drives and sustains good transformations”. Still not getting the hang of it, I said that alcohol or petrol would do the job more quickly. The shaman corrected me: “Not exactly. Not every movement generates transformation. Many are mere repetitions; others lead us into the abyss. You can’t travel the sacred road before you know the star that guides the traveller through the dark night of existence. There won’t be sunshine all the time. When there are no stars in the sky either, it means that the Great Mystery wants you to learn to walk on your own two feet and decide on the best direction. This is why my people have learnt to read the book of the winds in order to find their bearings.”

I realised that this was just the preface to the ritual; it was preparing me for what was to come. Once we were settled in, Starry Song played ancient songs in the native dialect on his two-sided drum. At first, the melodies were fast-paced and intense, as if summoning warrior energies of protection. Then he chanted others in a softer, more welcoming rhythm, asking for vibrations of love and wisdom. The telluric energies installed in a place with almost no urban interference helped the exchange between existential spheres. After a time that I can’t pinpoint, it was the same place, but it was different at the same time. I felt my perception and sensitivity becoming more acute, which was essential to facilitate the understanding I needed. When the music stopped, there was only silence and stillness inside me. He asked me to talk about my most recent days, the ones I had referred to as confusing.

At the time, I was a partner in an advertising agency. For months, we had been competing for two accounts to handle advertising for large multinational companies. If we succeeded, the agency would take a huge leap in size, having to increase its physical space and hire more professionals. As well as bringing in generous profits, it would balance our finances; we had been operating at a loss for a few months. Of course, many other agencies were also vying with us for the same opportunity. To make matters worse, the country was going through a serious economic crisis, in which the percentage allocated to advertising had dwindled considerably. Those two accounts were the salvation for many agencies to survive in the market. Including ours. It was a tight fight.

Everyone had the opportunity to present their projects, put forward their ideas and set prices for their services. The directors of the multinationals kept quiet. As no decision was made, the expectation of a choice turned into anxiety as time went by. Although there was politeness in their dealings, ethics abandoned their actions. Ethics is not a virtue, but a primer to remind us of the importance of virtues, without which there will be no progress and every achievement will be an ilusion.

We learnt that other companies were inviting the directors to lunch in elegant restaurants. We did the same. At these meetings, during conversations that simulated informality, we learnt that we had been belittled by the competition. We started to hit back in the same tone. As the days went by, no one talked about projects and ideas anymore; everyone endeavoured to show the operational failures of the other agencies. The game became dirty. Amongst ourselves, we argued that “we were doing what everyone else was doing”, “if those were the rules of the game, we should be allowed to use them too”. There will always be vulgar excuses to justify crooked choices. On the other side, like Caesars who amuse themselves by assessing which gladiators will bleed the most in their honour, the multinationals fed our behaviour by postponing the decision. A sort of contemporary Coliseum.

I confessed that I didn’t like what I was doing, but it was a matter of survival. That’s how the world worked. I pointed out that some of the agencies that had been passed over might have to close their doors for good if they didn’t benefit from one of the contracts. Starry Song, who had listened to everything without any expression on his face, typical of those who can observe, learn and help without making judgements, asked at the end of the story: “How are your relationships?”. They’re all very confused, was the gist of my reply. I told him that tension prevailed in my agency; conversations between the partners became rougher as the days went by; intolerance towards employees had, in some cases, reached the level of rudeness, something that had never happened before. My relationships with friends and family had also changed. I admitted that they were very boring; I no longer had the patience to talk so much rubbish.

Starry Song nodded his head as if to say that he had expected this situation and said: “Instead of fuelling the fire with air, you used gunpowder” then he paused because I didn’t understand the obvious and added: “And you’re surprised by the explosion you caused.”

This time I didn’t need to ask for further explanations. The shaman went on: “Fire, air, water and earth are elementals that participate in the creation and ordering of the world. They are more important than most people realise. Each of them has a valuable function in itself, as well as precious symbolism.” He puffed his pipe and continued: “When humanity learnt to use air to propel fire, it began to illuminate the night of time. The heat of the fire was used to feed all the tribes in difficult times, by cooking roots and grains that couldn’t be eaten raw. Food is of the earth element. In this way, fire turned night into day, winter into spring, scarcity into plenty and, to this day, it serves to guide travellers lost at the dark crossroads of the Way. Fire represents transformations in motion.”

He was silent for a moment to allow me to put his words together and then said: “However, fire needs something to propel its flames. The vital energy of all living beings resides in the air; it is the road along which ideas, thoughts, intuitions and dreams travel. When in motion, air becomes wind, pollinating seeds of light in the aridity of deserts, shattering fears and sufferings. The spread of good ideas, combined with the transmutation of those that no longer serve us, innovates our being and renews our lives. A door opens, an unthought-of road presents itself.” He then clarified: “Every time life seems confusing to us, it means that we have forgotten to use our ideas to burn in the fire of transformation. We’ve lit the wrong fire”.

I said that I didn’t understand how that theory would fit in with my existential moment. The shaman explained: “Instead of using the air of good ideas to transform your reality, you’ve used the gunpowder of your interests to move the energies of your life. So instead of light, you brought darkness to your side. Instead of air, you used matter to propel fire. There was no transmutation, just an explosion.” He shrugged and reminded me: “A sorcerer can’t lament when seeing himself suffering the effects of his own spell.”

I asked what good ideas he was referring to. Starry Song clarified: “They’re the ones that make virtues flourish, the ones that expand the truth beyond the limits we’ve already reached. They make us move forward. They are the ones that serve as instruments of elaboration in the being to innovate labour in living.”

“Starless nights are perfect for learning the importance of lighting the right fire.”

I realised that he was referring to the fact that I had played dirty in the dispute over the accounts. I had used evil to defend myself against evil; I had used the wrong means to achieve legitimate ends. This was the magic that enveloped me at that moment. The shaman’s reasoning made me angry. I argued that life was not child’s play, nor was it all about marvellous theories that were unattainable in practice. Every day, I had bills to pay, a family to support and employees who needed to be paid. I wasn’t the one who had set the rules of the game, but I understood that if I wanted to play it, I would have to use the same tricks as my competitors, at the risk of not becoming a worthy competitor and having no real chance of winning. At least one of those accounts was essential for my agency not to go bankrupt, I vented angrily.

Without getting caught up in my irritation, Starry Song frowned and said serenely without giving up his firmness: “You don’t know anything about the meaning of a win.” He puffed his pipe and said: “Victories are conquests. There are no conquests outside the light; nothing is gained when you lose yourself.”

I tried to protest, but he silenced me with a firm gesture of his flat hand, as if asking me to wait and listen. When I calmed down, he clarified: “We will never have the world our way or under our control. That’s good, because the struggle is different; we have to create our own way of being and living, according to the things we like and our gifts. It’s a right. However, the only legitimate control a person can and should have is over themselves. If you let the world set the standards for the dignity of your life, you will lose control of it. Don’t complain about the darkness; it was you who put out your light.”

The shaman clarified: “I understand survival needs; everyone has them. And it’s very important that they exist, because they are the forge of the good fight, in which the fire of difficulties perfects the tempering of virtues, without which there will be no transcendence. You can’t reach the city of light by walking down the road of shadows. The values of transcendence need to be present in every gesture of the struggle for survival, otherwise destiny will prove to be shallow and savage. It is the principles of transcendence that ennoble survival by broadening thoughts, deepening virtues and allowing the difficulties of everyday life to light the fire of luminous transformations. Unimaginable possibilities will present themselves. This is the sacred magic of life”.

I argued that he was asking me to be a lamb in the midst of wolves. Starry Song showed me a different view: “The eagle does not dispute territory with wolves; nor does it perish for this reason”. I said that living like that wasn’t easy. He agreed: “I didn’t say it would be easy; I’m talking about the indispensable. That’s how existence begins to give meaning to life. Pay attention to whether you’re going to use your most authentic truth, without subterfuge and deception, or whether you’re only going to pursue your immediate interests; be careful to use every situation as an opportunity to achieve a little more for yourself. The best opportunities for exercising virtue are also the most complicated. The darker the night, the more valuable the fire of transformation. Your essence is light; when you move away from it, you extinguish yourself.”

“You are the earth element; air represents the ideas, thoughts, intuitions and dreams that drive transcendence. Your work, your efforts to survive and your choices, in other words, every move you make towards this end, is equivalent to the fire of transmutations. However, if you replace ideas with interests, you will be left with earth driving earth; then the fire of destruction will burn.”

He puffed his pipe and continued: “There are times when it’s very difficult to stay in the light. These are the best opportunities to make the right move, the move of transmutation, rather than the move of repetition, which maintains inertia and encourages stagnation in the illusion of victory. It doesn’t matter what the crowd does. Your choices count. The herd effect doesn’t move you forward. Live in the world, look after everyone, but be free. Be you”.

He was amused for a moment by the ballet of smoke coming from his pipe and said: “Survival improves us towards transcendence. In turn, transcendence illuminates survival. One is fundamental to the other in perfect symbiosis; use them in harmony.”

I took a deep breath and gave up. The shaman was right. Nobody’s bad steps can justify my stumbles. You can’t walk with lies. I had enough knowledge not to have played that game. Irritation gave way to shame. The game and the rules will never serve as excuses. In truth, each person creates the rules of their own life. Out of weakness and affinity, I had followed the flow of the crowd. 

Starry Song came to my rescue at that delicate moment: “Don’t make room for guilt, otherwise you’ll be paralysed and the days will become merciless scourges. Never do this. Make a commitment to renewal and innovation. Take your experiences into the laboratory at the heart of yourself. Use it as learning to transform yourself; rebalance and strengthen yourself. Return to the world and then light the right fire. Let your light guide your steps and illuminate the world around you. Go forward without caring about the noises of those who don’t understand you, or the roars of those who want to drag you into the darkness”.

I felt the weight of the world on my back. The shaman realised and helped me: “You have to cleanse your heart. No dense emotions, remorse or feelings of failure are necessary. When harnessed with wisdom and love, mistakes are the finest of masters”. He paused and explained the fourth element that, until that moment, we hadn’t touched on or used: “Life was born in water. Water is the road along which subtle feelings flow and carry dense emotions away. Fire renews and innovates by bringing light where there was darkness; water purifies and dignifies by bringing love where there was confusion.”

He puffed his pipe again and revealed: “That’s why we’re here. Now return to the water and rescue yourself. Let it envelop you, caress you and welcome you; allow love to influence your choices once again. Consciousness expands possibilities, love intensifies them. Good feelings release the best ideas; good ideas bring out the best feelings. This is the fire of transmutations.

I got up and walked towards the waterfall. As I approached, he suggested: “Before entering, kneel down on the banks and look at your own face in the mirrored waters of the lake. Apologise for your mistakes, be grateful for the opportunity to be reborn, forgive yourself and make a serious commitment to yourself. This is how we consecrate ourselves in the light. Be humble, love and always walk.”

I spent several days in Sedona. I returned to the lake several times to calm my heart. I let the wind blow, pollinating the gardens of consciousness. I waited for my roots to deepen in the soil of truth. I only returned to Rio de Janeiro when I felt ready to light a new and different fire. That’s when I learnt that we had won one of the disputed accounts.  There would be a big party to celebrate. That same day, I gave notice to leave the agency. Despite everyone’s surprise, I had never felt so calm and confident about the decisions I made. I didn’t reveal all the reasons for my break-up; I just said that I needed to have other experiences. It wasn’t a case of judging my partners; I had neither the right nor the competence; nor had I been better than them. I had just found another way of being; I didn’t need anyone’s approval. Despite the many setbacks and difficulties inherent in break-ups, I was convinced that other connections would form for me. This is the Way.

Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic.

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