Inquiry 1/4: What the Elements Have to Teach Us About Nourishing Careers

Photo by  Rosan Harmens  on  Unsplash

Photo by Rosan Harmens on Unsplash

I’m sure you’re already privy to the environmental destruction that’s taking place across the United States this summer. Huge swaths of land and communities living on them (human and non-human) have been harmed or displaced due to hurricanes in the Southeast and forest fires raging in Colorado and Oregon.

There’s an old adage that goes, “As above, so below,” meaning: the world around us is a reflection of what’s going on internally, both individually and collectively.

Reading about and experiencing the natural disasters this summer got me thinking about what might be going on for many of us within and how excess Fire or Water could (figuratively) manifest in our worklives.

In many Native American traditions, practitioners work with the Elements, of which there are generally four: earth, air, fire, and water. I am by no means an expert on these elements, but I can share with you what I know from working with them in my own humble way.

The Earth element is just that: it’s the dirt, the ground we stand on, the material life all around us that we can see and touch. It’s composting, fertility, foundation, and stability (in the literal and non-literal senses).

Air is inspiration, the breath, our ability to intellectualize and imagine. It’s also the power of wind and our ability to take flight.

The first element I want to explore more deeply in this post is Fire. Fire is about transformation, heat, the ability to cook food, gather around the hearth, and protect ourselves.

The second element I’ll explore is Water. Water is the realm of our emotions - depth, currents, healing, and fluidity.

When the planet is healthy, all four of the elements are in balance and working together. As we’ve seen in the news lately and maybe even experienced ourselves, things are out of balance. Texas and Florida have received far too much Water; Oregon and Colorado have fallen victim to Fires that are out of control.

Things are off kilter, and I would argue that that’s not just the case with the earth around us - it’s true for many of us internally as well.

If we’re each made up of these four elements, then our well-being (just like the planet’s) is dependent on them being in balance and in harmony with one another. Isn’t it possible that if there are forest fires and hurricanes raging within us, our external lives might reflect that back to us in the form of chaos, destruction, and confusion?

Fire and Water both have important lessons to teach us about how to create worklives that are nourishing - to ourselves, other beings, and to the planet.

Photo by  Jovi Waqa  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jovi Waqa on Unsplash

When in balance, Fire gives us the energy and vitality to get shit done. It’s the grit, motivation, and creativity that’s required of anyone trying to do meaningful work in the world. Without that Fire, we become depressed, demotivated, and really, really tired.

Too much Fire, however, can become an obsession with productivity, judgment toward ourselves and others, and eventual destruction of the Earth around us - our stability, groundedness, and resources.

When I first started out in HR, I had a lot of Fire: I felt passionate about what I was doing, and I saw how I could do really well for my organization. I stoked that Fire constantly with a sense of accomplishment and by engaging in competition, and eventually, I went up in flames. I was angry with my colleagues, I thought I was better than everyone, and I literally burned out, ending my job in a heap of smoldering coal.

What I was missing was Water.

Water is the flow and depth that we need when we want to do meaningful work but not at the expense of ourselves and others. It’s the willingness to look deeply at our own motivations, question our assumptions, and let go of trying to control every last thing in our careers.

Without Water, we become consumed by our ability to act and do, even if it costs us our health. We lose touch with our intuition and our spiritual connection, eventually wandering empty and aimless.

Too much Water is just as destructive, however - like we’ve seen in the hurricanes this summer. Heavy rains result in flooding, drowning, and a total loss of control over our lives. Without enough heat, Water will freeze and trap us in an icy, desolate place. I know my Water element is out of balance when I’m using “going with the flow” as an excuse to chase shiny objects in my business and abandon the goals I’ve set for myself.

Paradoxically, I think many of us experience an excess of these elements as well as their absence.

With regard to Fire, there’s an unhealthy fixation on taking action and always being “on.” We become slaves to external motivators like prestige, wealth, or the need to be right even when our internal flame - the thing that truly motivates us from within - is weak and low.

The key with Fire is stoking the right flame: the one that feels like it’s coming from your core, not the one that feels like it’s about to burn your eyebrows off.

Similarly, many working people flow with whatever route is taking them downstream and feeling easy only to realize later that they’re about to flow right off a huge waterfall or into the wrong ocean.

Photo by  Jeremy Bishop  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

At the same time, many of us are extremely uncomfortable going with the flow and rescinding control over anything. When was the last time you just did the work that you wanted to instead of what was on your “to do list”?

Unfortunately, there’s very little space in the professional world to incorporate stillness or reflection regularly. Projects burn like wildfire until they’re complete, but those involved likely aren’t asked along the way “how is this feeling to you?” or “what do you perceive here that’s not being said?”

None of the elements are better than any other; what matters is that they are in balance with one another so that we have access to all of the wisdom and energy inside of us.

If you get the sense that you could use a dose of Fire - if you’re feeling low energy, demotivated, or stagnant - I want to offer some ideas that have helped me reignite the flame within:

  • Structure and discipline that makes sense to you and is easy to access. Play with how good it feels to get something done, no matter how small.
  • Pretending like you have energy. Research shows that simply acting like you’re energized tells your brain it’s time to kick into gear.
  • Finding an accountability partner, whether it’s a friend, a coach, or a mentor.

What’s important here is that your body is on board with what you’re doing; if you’re just trying to cultivate enough energy to continue living a life that’s in misalignment with who you really are, these strategies won’t work.

If, like many of us, what you need is some extra Water element, play around with these ideas:

  • Not doing. This could mean dedicating an afternoon to not doing anything on the to do list, or sitting with how uncomfortable it is not to take over a task that someone else should do, or even getting rid of the to do list altogether.
  • Exploring your emotions. Noticing, naming, and accepting the feelings that come up, even if they feel embarrassing, silly, or scary, might be the most important work of our lives. Imagine how Water could help you do this.
  • Playing with open-ended inquiry.

This last one is what I want to offer you for the next four blog posts, which I’ll publish between now and the Autumnal Equinox on Friday, September 22nd. Equinoxes can act as thresholds for our lives, and we can use them to help decipher what we’re ready to shed and what’s coming to life in the next season.

Inquiry is a practice I use in coaching because it’s a powerful way to utilize the Water element and access information from our depths and not just our rational minds. The way I use it with my coaching clients is very simple: a question arises during our session, we hone in on the most powerful aspect of it, and then they let it live inside of them for the week.

Photo by  Aaron Burden  on  Unsplash

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

There’s no expectation that the question will be answered - it’s simply a guide to help them explore a part of themselves more rigorously, and there are always gems that come up.

For this post and the next three, I want to offer you an inquiry - a question that you can simply call up whenever you have the space. You can think about it, journal about it, meditate on it in yoga or on a walk - whatever works for you.

My invitation is simply for you to let this inquiry lead you somewhere, anywhere. Let your intuition tease it apart and play with it.

Today’s inquiry is this:

What is it to be in harmony with myself?

The questions to come will build off of this one. If it would be helpful to you to engage in a conversation about this inquiry, I would be honored to do so! You can always email me at megan(at)