The Elements: What Are Their Significance for Freemasonry? [Part 2]

The Elements: What Are Their Significance for Freemasonry? [Part 2]

In our previous discussion in Part 1, we began an examination of the elements as symbols, and we will continue with that here.

We covered the first two elements, Earth and Water, and discussed their essential qualities, and symbolic correlates in mind or consciousness. As we continue with Air and Fire, the reader will do well to recall the importance of structure and fluidity, as well as inertia and change. 


 

Air

The element Air is a step up in dynamic quality from Water, yet not quite like Fire. In many ways, Air is different and yet not so different from Water. Like Water, it rises when heated, and falls when cooled. Like Water, it flows around the globe, in the form of wind. Yet, unlike Water it has a quality of expansiveness, there is more outward pressure, and less downward pressure, as it doesn’t fall or flow in a liquid form. One critical aspect of Air in our own experience is that it is the most immediately necessary element to our biology, we can go much longer without food (Earth) or drink (Water), than we can without Air. Air is an essential ingredient of Fire, and without it, Fire will immediatelyelement air die. Air has a spacious quality to it, it offers very little resistance to movement, and anything light enough can actually float or fly, which is essentially like swimming in the ocean of Air.

So, what is Air within us? As with the previous elements, clues lay in our direct experience of it. When we are in the Air, we can see clearly the furthest, like the eagle flying high above, yet able to see the smallest mouse. We refer to the most intellectual human endeavors as the “Ivory Tower,” which is of course high above and far removed from the rest of human life, able to see it all through the Air. The same could be said of mountains, which are also where saints and great teachers are often said to be found, those who are wise and “see” the true perspective of life. Air also resonates with the concept of freedom, precisely because of the lack of obstruction, and freedom is often embodied symbolically as flying – like a bird. Therefore, Air is freer and less inert than the previous three elements, and corresponds to aspects of our mind and experience which are most free and clear. Part of what Air represents is pure mind, or intellect, it is the mental space within which clear images, thoughts, and conceptual models can be formed. 

Fire

In many ways, the element Fire seems to be separate from the other three elements. Rather than being a something, a substance, fire is more of a process, a change. Fire transforms one thing into another, and also separates one thing from another. The simplest example is the separation of the gases trapped within a log from the inert earth that is left over in the form of ashes, after the burning of that log. Additionally, it involves radiation, the freeing of not just gas, but also energy which was latent within the element firesubstance that burned, giving off both light and heat. Thus, in a way it can be viewed as a transformation of that which is bound into that which is free, of matter into energy.

We can say that the essential qualities of fire are dynamism, change, transformation, and purification. In a sense, although it appears separate, fire is also the source of all other elements, for it is only by the fire of the sun that all things have motion and existence. Without Fire, all would be motionless darkness.

For these reasons, it can also be difficult to pin down the exact symbolic meaning of Fire within us, although it clearly seems significant. Certainly, Fire dwells within us, in the form of energy produced by the slow chemical “fire” of the gut, and without the Fires of our various biochemical processes, including neural Firing, we would die even more quickly than we would without Air. In terms of our consciousness, represented by light, since Fire emits light, perhaps Fire represents that which creates or liberates consciousness from matter?

In myth, Fire is featured as the gift which Prometheus stole from the Gods to give to man, which allowed humanity to have knowledge and civilization. Certainly, the discovery of Fire and how to use it is often regarded as the beginning of true Human existence, and also technology. Even those Human cultures which we regard as most primitive still possess and utilize Fire. In terms of the gradient from inertia to dynamism, certainly Fire is at the farthest dynamic end of the spectrum; representing a release of energy, it is even more “free” than Air. Fire, in a way, represents pure change, pure dynamism.

The Elements in Perspective

What is this universe? One way to answer is to say that it consists of these elements, but what does that really tell us? Another compatible perspective is the one given in the perennial philosophy, the philosophy of the Vedas and the Idealists, that this reality is most fundamentally consciousness, or mind. This is a concept being re-visited by many modern philosophers as panpsychism, due to various shortcomings in our attempts to explain the universe purely in materialistic terms. This is also the perspective generallypanpsychism four elements accepted within the occult traditions, and in fact the wisdom traditions of most cultures, if you dig deeply enough. That all is ultimately mind is also described in the Principle of Mentalism, from the Kybalion.

If all of the universe contains elements of mind or consciousness, then perhaps the dichotomy between viewing the elements symbolically vs. literally is unnecessary. If all is mind, which is tantamount to saying that all is a dream, perhaps these are simply different iterations of the same essential dynamic or pattern, at different levels of the dream; as above, so below; as within, so without. If the different elements are different forms of the same fundamental mind-stuff, whatever that fundamental substance might be. It seems to me that these elements represent a process which begins being bound by inertia, of which Earth would be the extreme, being gradually subjected to change, until it eventually becomes more and more free, of which Fire is the extreme.

This whole process could be viewed as a transmutation from matter into energy or light, just as the Fire is matter being transformed, to light the darkness. Of course, as without, so within, and some version of this same process is going on within all of us. The most matter-bound aspects of us are gradually being acted upon and transformed by the forces of change, whether from within, or from without. Every experience is to some greater or lesser degree a catalyst within this process, and causes “movement upon the waters of the deep”. Eventually, this process culminates in the ignition of Fire within us, of the inner Light.

alchemy four elementsOur pains and our pleasures, our highs and our lows ultimately give birth to the dawn of true Awareness, what some might call Gnosis. Why? Because just as the light which is emitted by Fire was previously trapped within the matter of the fuel, that Divine Spark has always been latent within us, watching, waiting for its moment to arise. 

Now, we come full circle to Freemasonry, and the significance of the elements symbolically to the Craft. What are we doing as masons, if not kindling, stoking, and maintaining a light in the darkness – a Fire in the denseness and confusion of material existence? Every element plays its part, and exists within all of us; the culmination of the interplay of those elements, when utilized skillfully, is the igniting of that Promethean Light, within the self and within the world. What nobler endeavor could one set oneself to, than that of bringing light to the darkness within oneself, and within all of humanity?

What is the Role of Gender in Esotericism and Freemasonry?

What is the Role of Gender in Esotericism and Freemasonry?

Gender is in everything; everything has its Masculine and Feminine Principles; Gender manifests on all planes. ~ The Kybalion

It seems that gender is a matter of some controversy, these days. Many people wish to do away with the idea of gender altogether, or at least eliminate any concrete definition of it, as it applies to people, because they recognize a right of each person to flow back and forth between genders, choose whatever ratio of one gender identity to another that they see fit, at any given moment, or throw the whole idea away altogether. Meanwhile, others remain more traditional, as is always the case, and there is some contention over the matter.

Gender has also long been a matter of great significance in the occult traditions, as alluded to briefly in the seventh Hermetic Principle, quoted above. Many teachings in Western esotericism and the East alike teach about the gendered principles, and how they play out in our cosmos.

Freemasonry has traditionally been, and to a large extent is still an exclusively masculine or male organization, with the “appendant body” for women, reminiscent of Adam’s rib, known as the Eastern Star. In this appendant body, women are not given the full knowledge of the craft, and are overseen by a man. The exception, of course, is the more recent Universal Co-Masonry, which allows women as equals, and which we believe to be the next step in Masonry’s evolution.

So, what is gender, what is its role in esoteric traditions, and what should its role be in Freemasonry?

Gender from Archetypes to Biology

gender in scienceThe principle of gender, as described in The Kybalion, is something which goes beyond human gender identities, although they are one manifestation of it. We can see this idea at play in such commonly recognized dualities as yin and yang, the chalice and the wand, water and fire, or mother earth and father sky. Gender, thought of in this way, is a much more abstract quality or dichotomy which, being abstract, can be universally applied to everything in reality, according to the Kybalion, and other congruent teachings.

In this way, we can view the Principle of Gender as being very similar to the Principle of Polarity, which is that all manifest phenomena have polarities, and each of these apparent polarities are actually the same phenomenon in different degrees along a spectrum. Hot and cold are just different degrees of vibratory motion we call thermal energy, light and dark are just different degrees of photonic saturation of space, etc.

So, what should be gender’s place in our thinking about life, the universe, and everything? If we take the Principle of Gender to be true, then it must be helpful to recognize the abstract principle of gender, as each Hermetic Principle is thought to be a core pattern or design of reality. We see gender and polarity in the masonic lodge in many forms, and its symbolism plays a key role in the masonic rituals and teachings. Generally speaking, in most spiritual traditions, there is some acknowledgement of the masculine/feminine, active/passive dynamic.

We also see it in some scientific understandings of reality, such as in chemistry, which is essentially the interplay of masculine-positive and feminine-negative particles in chemical reactions. Since our bodies and all biological life are essentially chemical in nature, this means that we are all made up of some complex combination of this interplay, on the chemical level. Another example is electromagnetism and the magnetic poles, or sexual reproduction in biology, of course.

The False Equivalence Controversy

ddThe principle of gender in psychology is where things get a bit more enigmatic. Many of the aspects of our psycho-emotional being that have typically been gendered have been called into question, in recent times. For instance, rationality has traditionally been associated with masculinity, and emotionality with femininity, but over the past century that has changed to a large extent, with both genders proving they are perfectly capable of both, when freed from the expectations of their limiting cultural roles.

Simultaneously, there does seem to be an element of polarity to many of the dynamics at play within the human psyche. If we ignore these, we run the risk of missing a key part of understanding ourselves. However, if we embrace them too concretely, we run the risk of boxing ourselves and others into categories of identity, which can be traps.

Here, I think, is where much of the trouble we have in seeing and accepting the coexistence of opposites within each person can be found. To me, it seems that we have historically taken something that is abstract, gender, and conflated it with something concrete: the biological sex of a person. This is a major part of what the movement for gender transcendence is about, separating the concept of gender from it’s biological manifestation. While there is some biological basis for some of the gendered traits, there are also many people who do not neatly fit into the simple black and white, male and female, masculine and feminine dichotomy. 

In order to address this, some people want to throw out the idea of gender altogether, as a “socially constructed” fiction, an idea sometimes found in postmodernism. The danger, it seems to me, is that in attempting to remove this conflation, we also delegitimize the abstract principle, which is a key to understanding how reality regenerates itself. Must we throw out the baby with the proverbial bathwater, in order to achieve this personal freedom from culturally sanctioned gender norms? Must we also refuse to acknowledge that this principle of gender does manifest itself concretely in biology, even if we also have the choice to alter or transcend that biological manifestation?

A Most Engendered Paradox

masculine and feminine
Part of the teachings on the Principle of Gender is that it is a paradox which is necessary to manifest or
generate (coming from the same root word) reality itself. Taoism teaches a similar idea with perhaps the most well-known symbol of gender and polarity, the Yin and Yang. Ingeniously, they built into the very symbol itself a hint at the paradoxically unitive nature of these opposites, which represents a unity in all polarities.

Polarity, and by extension Gender, can then be seen as an essential and paradoxical quality of all manifest reality. Just as all diverse phenomena of the universe are an illusory manifestation of one fundamental unitive reality, these polarities are the structure of the illusion itself. Remember here that illusion doesn’t mean “not real,” it actually means, “not what it seems to be,” just as a magician pulling a rabbit from his hat is very real, but simultaneously an illusion. If you peaked beneath the table, you would see through to the reality. Perhaps it may behoove us to look at Gender somewhat the same way.

Bringing this cosmic abstraction back into the realm of gender politics, what does it say about the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the concept of gender, as applied to people? It seems to me that, quite appropriately, this too is a paradox. Gender is simultaneously essential, and illusory; like all polarity, it is the essence of the illusion, and therefore of life itself, hence its place among the seven Hermetic Principles. We cannot escape it, so long as we dwell within manifest reality, but we can transcend it to some degree, and choose of our own free will what gender balance we wish to have in each of us.

Gender, Psyche, & Freemasonry

esoteric genderEsoteric traditions have long taught that both masculine and feminine exist in every person, regardless of biological sex, and that uniting these opposites within the self is one of the keys to transcendence. My favorite manifestation of this idea is in the psychology of Dr. Carl Jung, who was certainly influenced by esoteric teachings in his theories on the human mind, and integrated them in a way that is compatible with modern thought.

Jung theorized that we all contain all polarities within us when we are born; as we develop and adapt to our social milieu, whatever we identify with becomes part of a complex of ideas in our waking consciousness called our ego, or sense of self, and whatever we do not identify with become unconscious complexes, which then come to affect us in our daily life as the people we interact with reflect them.

Therefore, every person who has identified with their gender, whatever that might entail given their personality and culture, has within them an aspect which represents all that is the opposite to them, called their anima or animus. The anima is a man’s internal unconscious woman, and animus is the internal unconscious man in a woman. Every relationship we have is some interaction with this opposite-gender complex, and the uniting of the conscious ego with this other-gender part of ourselves is a major step towards individuation, or what we might call self-actualization, the process of becoming whole and fully human.

If we look at the history of Freemasonry, much like the history of humanity in general, it has been highly masculine-dominated, to the point of only allowing men to have the true knowledge. Yet, simultaneously, it has carried within it the keys of a higher understanding woven throughout the masonic symbolism that there can be a balance of the genders, and that our sisters in humanity may join us as brothers of the craft. In so doing, not only does the other half of humanity get to share in the divine knowledge, but they also bring a greater degree of the more abstract universal principle of femininity, which they are (often) inherently more connected to, to balance the craft.

self actualizationPerhaps we can see the Freemasonry of old as being like the man with an unconscious feminine aspect. From this view, the Eastern Star is his psychological anima, dwelling in the darkness, literally not allowed to partake of the symbolic light of the teachings. When a man does not have a connection to his anima, he also does not have as much of a connection to the mystical side of life, the magic and spirit of human existence, which is typically manifested more in the feminine. The result is that he will be dry, intellectual, and lacking in the vital essence of soul connection.

Brothers and friends, I believe it is time for Freemasonry to evolve, and step further into its own individuation, to embrace both people of the female biological sex, and in a more archetypal sense, the feminine aspect of spirit and mystical union, rather than mere intellectualism and charity work, noble though those may be. If the goal of Freemasonry is to make us better and more complete humans, then surely this is a necessary step toward that great and noble ideal.