Elemental Sensation: The True “Occult” Language in Western-based Systems

[Note. The ideas expressed in the following essay have been refined and incorprated into the now public Neuromagick Training System. The theoretical basis of the relevant training is now presented in A Sensory Basis of Intuition: A Role for the Classical Elements in 21st Centruy Magick, with additional elaboration and developmental exercises, Development of Elemental AwarenessElemetnal Awarenss Continued: The Inner and Outer Cycles, and Energy Work: Making Elemental Awareness into a Tool of Focul Magick]



The literal cornerstones of the magical systems to emerge from the Western Tradition are the Classical (Platonic) Elements: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. Within the generalized Platonic cosmological scheme, the Elements represent the most basic level of categorization, wherein the particular qualities of each individual Element form the definitional bases of anything and everything. So the Elements are understood as the basic building blocks from which all things at all levels are constructed, across all levels of existence from the most rarified spiritual realms, down to the world of gross manifestation: our physical world. From that rather simplified overview, we can initially understand the Classical Elements as the fundamental basis of the relationships between extant things, the source of shared qualities, the root level of correspondences that ultimately form the orderly, coherent, and therefore predictable world. It stands to reason then that the world grows increasingly predictable as ones awareness of the Elemental qualities of things increases. In that light, consider the classic Renaissance attitude toward magick as a natural science, nicely summed up in the following famous passage:

Magick is the highest, most Absolute, most Divine Knowledge of natural Philosophy, advanced in its works and wonderful operations by a right understanding of the inward and occult virtue of things; so that true agents being applied to proper patients, strange and admirable effects will thereby be produced. Whence magicians are profound and diligent searchers into Nature; they, because of their skill, know how to anticipate an effort (or effect), the which to the vulgar shall seem to be a miracle.

In the jargon of Renaissance Natural Philosophy, the virtue of a thing refers to the fundamental qualities that define the thing, in its ideal expression. To provide a concrete example, consider the category APPLE. We know there are many different varieties of apples in the world today, and within each variety, there are many individual apples, each unique in some ways (variation in hue and shape, thickness of skin, firmness of flesh, hardness of core, number and position of blemishes, etc). Yet, no matter how many varieties there may be, and no matter how varied the individual apples within each variety, we immediately know an apple when we see one. There is a base commonality among all apples that we readily recognize in each variety and indeed, in each individual apple, an essential appleness so to speak.

That essential appleness may be conceived of as the prototype for all apples, or perhaps the image or conception of the perfect apple, if you will. It is what makes that conception the perfect apple, rather than the image itself or any expression that stems from it, that constitutes the virtue of apples. Within the Platonic cosmological scheme, all things that we may come to know anything about have a virtue in the same sense. The inward and occult virtue of a thing reaches deeper still, referring to the basic constitution of what makes the prototypical image the perfect example of the thing, which begins with its Elemental qualities, the fundamental building blocks  upon which the entire system relies. These qualities are inward and occult because they cannot be adequately described or defined with linguistic expressions, neither can they be pointed to or illustrated in any comprehensive, meaningful way. Instead, they can be sensed at a deep, guttural level of awareness, where they barely, if at all, impress upon the conscious mind when experienced, having influence rather on the more basic urges that, while significant motivators for directed behavior, for lack of understanding seem more like instinct than knowledge. It is knowledge though, the same kind of knowledge that allows us to know an apple when we see one, and it is occult knowledge specifically because we’re not aware of it as knowledge when we use it.

The above dissertation begins to describe what is meant in that classic passage as right understanding of the inward and occult virtue of things, which suggests that somehow this gut-level, pre-conscious type of awareness is to be harnessed by the magician in ways that far exceed the average usage that imbues all folk with the capacity to recognize that an apple is an apple regardless of the variety or individual differences. That is, the magician’s ability to detect and exploit the inward and occult virtue of things should be superior to that of the average person, so that to the average person, the magician’s acts and outcomes are strange and admirable (respectively), perhaps even seeming to be miraculous at times. And indeed, the training and developmental work of the magician is designed to do just that, elevate the magician’s awareness of the inward and occult virtue of things, well beyond the average.

It is essential, at this point, to keep in mind that the nature of the enhanced awareness and the knowledge at issue is in fact implicit knowledge, experiential knowledge, which, as stated above, is felt rather than thought. So again, exposure to a thing and its inward and occult virtue, impresses upon ones base urges and guttural responses, rather than the explicit thoughts and ideas. Over time and with much experience, the magician may develop a personal jargon for expressing features of the dynamics under consideration here, but the totality of it is ultimately ineffable and can never be reduced to linguistic expression, at least, not is such a way that is not inherently incomplete and therefore misleading. In this sense, what is inward and occult remains ever-occult, even to the well-trained magician, at least in terms of what goes on in the magician’s conscious thoughts.

Translating the inward and occult virtue of things into right action, subsequently, requires a special kind of language, a guttural language that functions by feel rather than words and explicit thoughts. This special language, instead of mapping strings of letters to specific words, and words to ideas, etc., rather maps subtle sensations and feelings to response tendencies, which ultimately subserves the purpose of magical training according to the Renaissance notion of knowing how to anticipate an effort (or effect). The basis of this inherently occult language is the same fundamental basis of the inward and occult virtue of things, the Elements.

Now, lists of associations and correspondences with the individual Elements can be found in many books, and on many websites these days, and one can pursue an extensive intellectual study of any or all such texts, but given the dynamics described above, doing so cannot be expected to have any practical impact on the magician's actual magical development, because magick depends on the Elemental qualities of any given thing being clearly sensed upon exposure, and responded to appropriately. The language of the inward and occult virtue of things, therefore, isn’t written in any book by way of listing the correspondences, even when the correspondences listed are 100% accurate. This special, occult language can only be learned (internalized) by enough of the right kind of experience; by sensing and responding to the Elemental qualities themselves. The following exercises provide the initial basis for facilitating that internalization process. These, however, are merely the beginning. Once these exercises are mastered, the aspirant will know enough to continue development on their own.

On a final note, the reader should not mistake the above theoretical discussion of “things” as an indication that Elemental qualities are limited to discrete and concrete objects. On the contrary, anything that can be experienced has Elemental qualities that can be sensed, including the dynamics of interpersonal relationships, unfolding situations, disease processes, other natural processes (e.g. weather, geological, etc.), the nature of any sort of organization or organizational activity (a corporation, a legal proceeding, a government policy, etc.). Anything at all that can be experienced in any way will have Elemental qualities that can be sensed and responded to in the manner discussed above.

And to give credit where credit is due, the following exercises were informed by the literature of and around the various incarnations of the Golden Dawn, and Donald Michael Kraig’s Modern Magick: 11 Lessons in High Magick; Medieval sources, such as Agrippa’s corpus on Occult Philosophy (Book I in particular); the writings of Plato (notably the Timaeus) and associated commentary, and of Aristotle (On Generation and Corruption).

The Sensory Features of the Classical Elements

The primary sensory qualities associated with the Elements can be roughly approximated with linguistic descriptions, which is what makes developmental exercises such as follows possible, eventually granting the magician deeper and more profound interaction with the inward and occult virtue of things than the average person will ever know. Aristotle first articulated these qualities, or better stated, likened them to the experience of relative temperature (hot/cold) and humidity (wet/dry), each Element being composed of a unique combination of those two qualities. Consider the following, classic schematic;

The schematic depicts the Elements in terms of the unique combination of relative qualities that define each Element, while revealing the key inter-relations among the Elements via their shared qualities. Air, for example is uniquely defined as the one Element that is both Hot and Wet. In addition, Air shares an affinity with Water because both are Wet, and an affinity with Fire because both are Hot. An opposition between Air and Earth is implied as well, because no quality is shared between those two Elements.

The basic work at hand is to develop a marked fluency with the unique combination of sensory qualities that define each Element, and to develop an intentional hypersensitivity to those sensations as the arise both during magical workings and in the routine course of interacting with the world. To accomplish this, it is necessary to employ techniques that rely on conscious thoughts and consciously directed activities, despite the assertions expressed in the introduction that the true occult language to be developed is not actually part of the conscious processing stream. It is therefore important to recognize that the explicit (that which can be declared) learning that naturally occurs over the course of practicing the following exercises are not the target effect, but are rather incidental.

In other words, the conscious mind is always present and aware of what's going on during these exercises, but the learning that really matters is experiential, guttural, and something altogether different from the conscious learning that incidentally occurs in the process. Consider high-end athletic training as an example. A basketball player knows he or she is practicing shooting baskets, and probably thinks about how far to lean forward, how much to bend their knees, etc., and also probably understands some theory about the mechanics involved. But the real learning that puts the ball through the hoop isn't in those theories or what the player thinks while practicing and shooting, it's in the actual posture and muscle control, etc., which is a matter of feel, not thought. In fact, too much conscious thought about it tends to interfere with the process (a player is said to "psych herself out" and subsequently misses). The same is true of exploiting Elemental sensations during development and in practice. Conscious understanding of the theory certainly informs the design of the exercises and what not, but too much conscious thought about the theory and the sensations themselves in practice is likely to interfere with the natural perception and desired response dynamics that the exercises are designed to develop.

The Exercises

Phase 1: The Basic Qualities

The first phase of training is aimed at awareness of the sensations associated with the basic qualities, in isolation. Each day, as often as possible, take a few minutes to sit quietly, relax, and think about one expression of one dimension of one of the basic qualities: hotness, coldness, dryness, or wetness.

  • As you contemplate hotness (or coldness or whichever), consider what it does to things, what sorts of things it affects and conversely what sorts of things it doesn't affect, what promotes or discourages it, what it promotes or discourages, when it likely occurs, why it likely occurs, etc.
  • At the end of each session, after considering issues such as those listed above, consider specifically how the concept of hotness (or coldness or whichever) relates to human experience, interactions and emotions. For example, expressions like "heated discussion," or "hot under the collar," "cold and calculating" or "the cold shoulder," "a dry sense of humor" or "being drained dry," "still waters run deep" or "braving the waters" each employ the labels we use to name these basic qualities as a metaphor for certain kinds of human temperament, interaction, feelings, actions, or experiences. At a separate time, you may want to make lists of all the metaphors that you can find that refer to each of the basic qualities in this manner, to be contemplated as part of your daily sessions as you progress.
    • When contemplating the metaphorical applications of the quality labels, try to imagine yourself participating in scenarios to which the metaphor applies. Strive to be in the scenario as much as you possibly can, and pay particular attention to how you feel. Early on, you may find that you are imagining how you would probably feel if you faced a given situation, and that is perfectly fine. Over time and with practice, however, you will notice that you're not really imagining anymore, you're actually feeling those feelings. When that circumstance becomes more than occasional, becomes the norm for you for each of the 4 basic qualities, you are ready to move on to phase 2.
Phase 2: Elemental Contemplation

The second phase continues with similar contemplation, but now instead of considering one basic quality at a time, begin to contemplate the unique combinations that define each Element, one at a time, only one Element per day, if not per week, per month or even per season. For example, if the system you're working with associates Spring with Air, Summer with Fire, Autumn with Water, and Winter with Earth, you could spend the three months of Spring contemplating Elemental Air (the combined qualities of Hot and Wet), the Summer months contemplating Elemental Fire (Hot and Dry), etc., spending a total of one year to complete the series of Elements. Other orders, the Zodiacal order (Fire, Earth, Air, and Water) for example, could be followed instead, but neither a year-long plan nor a particular order is not essential. At most, contemplate one and only one Element per day, and if you prefer a weekly, or some other schedule, that's up to you. However you schedule it, do at least one Elemental contemplation each and every day.

  • Set some time aside each day for your Elemental contemplation; 20-30 minutes total is reasonable. Begin the session with a few minutes of bringing the feelings of the individual qualities of the Element into awareness individually. Then focus your attention on sensing both qualities at once. As much as you can, do this with a meditative mindset, which roughly means to develop a singular focus on the work at hand, expressly without internal chatter/thought about what you're doing, or about anything else. The meditative mindset takes some effort and practice to develop, but the basic method is simple: focus all of our attention on the feelings in question (which you should now be able to bring up with ease due to the work of Phase 1), and if/when you notice that your mind has wondered off target or that your narrating your experience in your mind, etc., don't beat yourself up over it. Simply re-raise the target feelings, re-establish the singular focus, and continue. Be gentle with yourself as you're learning to do this, and don't push too hard or try too long. Go for a minute or two then take a minute break, then go at it again for another short spurt, etc. The meditative mindset will grow more natural and your singular focus times will naturally increase with practice. Spend about half of your total session on this exercise.
  • Spend some of the second half of your session contemplating when such feelings as you've just been experiencing are likely to arise, what sort of situations might trigger feelings like that etc. Let your imagine run on that theme for as long as you like.
  • Spend the rest of your session searching your memory for times and situations when you felt feelings that are somewhat reminiscent of the way you felt during the meditative exercise. Don't expect the feelings you recall this way to be a perfect match with the relatively "pure" sensations of the meditative exercise. In real life, all of the Elements and their qualities are naturally acting and interacting in every situation, and each experience can be understood as a particular combination of all of them. However, most of the time, one Element will dominate the situation, so the feelings that you remember, though inherently complex, are likely to be more reminiscent of your meditative experience of one Element than of the others. The first few times you do this, feel free to search your entire memory for examples. Thereafter, keep your memory searches focused on the current and/or previous day, and examine every situation you can recall, then assess each for the degree to which the relevant Elemental feelings were a part of the experience.
Phase 3: Elemental Breathing

The third phase is to be added to the routine established in phase 2 as part of the meditative portion of the session, and should begin once you can maintain the meditative mindset on a given Element for several minutes without feeling effortful.

  • When your body is flush with the feelings of the unique quality combination that defines the Element, take in a few deep breaths, keeping the feelings as salient as you can. Imagine that as you inhale you are gathering all of those sensations into your chest region. As you exhale, imagine that a cloud of Elemental "energy" is forming in front of you. When you inhale, draw the cloud back into your chest and add sensations from the rest of your body to it as you go, intensifying the sensations in your chest with each inhalation, and the density of the "energy" cloud with each exhalation.
  • Continue Elemental breathing for 10-20 cycles as you're learning, then for as long as you like until you feel satisfied thereafter. To end the breathing exercise, after your last exhalation, imagine the energy cloud in front of you, and inhale without drawing it back into your chest (you may turn your head slightly when you inhale if you like). After a few cleansing breaths, with the cloud still in front of you, gently blow at it and allow it to dissipate into the atmosphere all around. Don't worry about developing a visual experience of this exercise. You don't have to "see" an "energy" cloud in front of you, and if you don't "see" it, in your mind's eye, acting as if it's there is fine. The sensations in our body, and particularly in your chest as you inhale and exhale are what really matter here.
  • After ending the breathing exercise go on to imagining situations that might case the feelings you were just working with, and searching your memory of the last day or two for situations you experienced where you felt similar feelings. 

Phase 4: The Minor Qualities

In addition to the main quality combinations that defines each Element, there are some number of minor qualities. For example, Earth is dense, heavy, and dark, while Air is sparse, light, and bright. The traditional list of minor qualities includes:

  1. Relative density (i.e. very dense, dense, moderately sparse, very sparse)
  2. Relative weight
  3. Opacity
  4. Speed/Motion
  5. Activity/Passivity (assertive/receptive)

The aspirant is encouraged to consider and incorporate the dimensions of some of these or other qualities into their daily work as inspiration dictates. However, bear in mind that the unique combination of the two domains of each of the two primary qualities are the defining characteristics of the Elements, so as one contemplates these minor qualities, one should consider of seek out how each of them is in fact a result of the primary qualities of the Element.


After some time (perhaps a year, more or less), the aspirant will have sufficiently internalized the vocabulary of this occult language to put it to some practical use, some of which will no doubt spontaneously occur to the practitioner as a matter of course. For example, if one is practicing something like the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram, the appropriate Elemental sensations will naturally well up as each quarter is faced, as each Archangel is invoked, etc. Other such applications will be found within the literature, developmental work, and other exercises the aspiring magician will find in other sources and other  magick-related techniques within the Western Tradition. 

Some of the most important applications may be operating without effort or notice for quite some time, particularly in the course of the practitioner's routine interactions. That is, a result of doing this work is that the practitioner will automatically sense and respond to the Elemental qualities inherent in their day to day interactions with people and situations, and that is indeed the main point of doing the work. Most of the time in these routine life situations, recognizing the Elemental qualities and responding to them will not be part fo the practitioners conscious experience, and that is in fact as it should be. Remember the example of the basketball player who can psych himself out by over thinking things, and don't fall into that trap. In other words, stay out of your own way. The true value of this training is the automatic, non-conscious (occult) nature of the dynamics at work.



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