Nothing inside is, nor outside … The four elements and human mindfulness

Sven Saar

Contradicting the Dalai Lama is not something to be done lightly … But was he right when in an interview with Franz Alt in 2003 he described humans as “the greatest vermin” and claimed that the world would be much better off without us? Can a meaningful system of education be obtained from such a view?

Humans are responsible for much destruction on the planet we call home. But do we therefore have to be wished away? That is an important question for teachers, parents and grandparents: how do we inspire our children to treat the world that surrounds them in a intuitively gentle, responsible way? Although this question undoubtedly also has a moral aspect, we would nevertheless be well off course if we stood before the next generation with a raised finger: quickly and rightly that would be recognised as hypocrisy and thus become ineffective.

The holistic approach of Waldorf education grasps the relationship between the earth and humans in a different way. We proceed on the basis that the human being is wholly connected with the elements. But how can we make this connection visible to children and subject to experience?

Pictures and stories have an effect

In class 1 – perhaps even in kindergarten – pictures and stories help to let the natural world appear not just as alive but, indeed, ensouled. The wonderful Spiel von den Erdgeistern (Play about the Earth Spirits, Elisabeth Klein, 1964) lets the elemental beings of gnomes, undines, sylphs and salamanders serve good mother earth and in doing so speak in rhyming language which down into the metre reflects the nature of the activity:

Breathlessly leaping from flame to flame, the fire spirits call out:

Wir zerfasern
alles Dichte,
wir verzehren
alle Reste,
denn wir hassen
alles Feste,
und wir hassen
alles Feuchte,
denn wir leben
in der Leichte.

We break down
All that’s dense,
We consume
All that’s left,
For we hate
All that’s solid
And we hate
All that’s moist,
For in nimbleness
We live.


In contrast, the rhythm of the water spirits is dignified and sublime:

Kreisen im tiefen See,
Steigen zur Himmelshöh',
Zieh‘n mit den Wolken fort,
Rieseln im Regen dort,
Stürzen im Wasserfall
Wieder zu Tal.

Circulating in deep lakes,
Rising to heavenly heights,
Migrating with the clouds,
Drizzling in the rain,
Tumbling in the waterfall,
Back down into the valley.

 What is the favourite element with which the six-year-year old most likes to identify? Would they like to be a grumbling dwarf or a weightless sylph? There is a part for everyone in this play and everyone unites with their one-sidedness into a harmonious whole. The foundations are laid here in an imaginative way: we live together in the world and carry it within us in all its diversity. Teachers who have taken on a class 1 will find many opportunities in the following years to raise such a mood of mindfulness, of deeply felt but never sentimental connectedness with the elements into the awareness of the children.

The experience of water and warmth

At Candlemass in early February, we follow in class 2 the centuries-old Celtic custom of digging a small hole in the ground, filling it with wax and a wick and lighting it. The “earth candles” which are created in this way give symbolic warmth and are messengers of spring – they are an image of considerate human consciousness  which lovingly turns towards the earth.

The “walk in the stream” at the height of summer is quite different: the temperature is in the thirties, the summer holidays are approaching. Now the teacher ties a long rope to a tree, of which the other end trails into the stream, and the whole class brings swimming trunks and swimming costumes as well as old plimsolls to school. At about eleven everyone cheerfully makes their way to the stream and climbs into the cold water which reaches up to the chest of the children. We make sure to have a good grip on the rope and feel our way, first with, then against the current. We experience the banks of the stream from below, the current pushes and pulls at us, we feel the strength and the coolness of the water and also, very intensively, ourselves!

Experiencing cultural practice

In class 3 we learn to measure and subdivide the world and, not least, time. The hour glass is our earth clock; the constant drip into a bowl, the water clock. The sun dial makes use of the air and light element and a burning candle shows us how we can measure passing time with fire. Everywhere in this school year, characterised by practical life, we see the four elements jointly at work. Farmer, craftsman, baker: all of them combine the gifts of nature into a whole which is more than the sum of its parts. In cement in the house building main lesson, gravel aggregates and sand provide the substance, it is made pliable through water, changes chemically through the heat of the lime and finally hardens in the air.

Sensing soul qualities

When at the age of ten I clearly learn who I am and what lies within me, the archetypal characteristics of the four elements also obtain soul qualities: like water, it is difficult to disconcert the phlegmatic person who always finds a way if given enough time. Like their element, air, the sanguine never comes to rest, is always swayed by their surroundings and is always full of new colours and scents.

With fiery intensity, cholerics often go well beyond what’s reasonable and wreak destruction where they just wanted to clear up – but they create warmth for everyone close to them with their passion. And finally the melancholic, tied to the earth: reliable, inflexible and thorough, they are the haven of peace around which everything is in flux, stormy and on fire.

Diversity on earth

Not just in descriptions of the natural world, teachers will now always strive to sing the praise of diversity. In the tales of the mythologies in world history, and much more directly part of our experience in the class community, we find different types of one-sidedness everywhere which complement one another. The older the pupils become, the more conscious the different gestures become: analytical thinking awakens in its ability of recognising and classifying characteristics. Thus in botany in class 5 we wander quite consciously through the realms of nature: the plants close to the earth such as fungi, lichens and mosses are followed by the watery algae, the wind-blown ferns, grasses and trees, until finally we arrive at the colourful and fruit-bearing blossoms amid light and warmth.

We see this microcosm on a grand scale in geography. If even just one of the elements is missing, then human life is only conditionally possible in the long term – without water we are in the desert, without earth in the deep ocean, without air at the top of the Himalayas, and without warmth in the arctic. The inhabitants of “one-sided” regions are always engaged in a struggle with nature in seeking to assert themselves.  

In geography with upper school pupils it is worthwhile looking at the history of various regions and considering whether it is a coincidence that the greatest civilisational movements of humanity occur in the “temperate” countries. Northern China, India, Persia, the Mediterranean region, Central Europe and North America – all of them have as a characteristic that, at least over the course of the year, the four elements balance one another out. Rarely have supra-regional cultural impulses come from tropical of polar regions.

The whole human must be mindful

In the course of class 7, the sense for science of the pupils sharpens: if in class 6 the marvelling “aha moment” still predominated, the human soul now connects very directly with the phenomenon: where do I find the earthy, watery, airy or fiery element in my food, where in my body? We learn that fire is not just destructive but can, as the transformer of substance, lead from on elementary state to another. The carbon cycle is a good example: few children can to begin with imagine that all plant substance was once suspended as gas in the air and is then returned there through the combustion processes in decay, digestion and respiration.

In class 8, when we deal with the climate zones of the earth, the air and ocean currents of the great weather systems, we then consciously ask ourselves together with the young people the question we posed at the beginning: what, then, is the role of human beings, what is their responsibility? Each one of us would like to call out, like Goethe’s Prometheus: “I know nothing more pathetic under the sun than you gods!”, would like to emancipate ourselves from the circumstances of our surroundings and traditions and create our own reality. How can my striving for freedom be realised without thereby destroying valuable resources which will then no longer be available to those who follow me?

The Dalai Lama probably did not mean it like that … but if we take his statement seriously we really have no option but to become cynics who know everything but do nothing. And that really does not help anyone, least of all the earth. The whole human being must be mindful, not just their consciousness. If as a child I was given the opportunity to experience with my whole being my integration into the elemental structure of nature, I will want to deal with the gifts it gives me in a responsible and loving way as an adult.

About the author: Sven Saar is works as a class teacher at the Steiner Academy Hereford in the UK and in training.