The Use of the Traditional Elements in Counselling


One of the most striking features of the current world of psychotherapy and counselling is the diversity of views, approaches, models and vocabularies that are in use. I was aware as I wrote that sentence that I had to put both “psychotherapy” and “counselling” in together as neither on it’s own describes to every practitioner of the art (or is it science?) the nature of their profession. We cannot agree on a name to call what we do, and we will have wildly varying views on what these two words mean; some vehemently reject either or both words and some (like me) use them more or less synonymously. If we find it so hard to even name our task, then using specialist terminology to describe the process that we engage in will guarantee confusion and discord, rather than acting as it should which is to provide the means to describe and communicate about a complex shared task.

Just as there is little agreement about terminology, there is a proliferation of approaches. Whilst few overtly claim to be “the Truth”, many suggest that they are (like rival brands of soap powder) newer, fresher, better quality, and superior in all important respects to what went before – conveniently forgetting that they are in the main simple re-hashings or re-wordings of what went before.

Whilst this diversity is undoubtedly present, some might argue that this is no bad thing. The human psyche is very complex, and any model with which to understand it must inevitably simplify it and leave out many important aspects. An architect’s model of a building usefully allows an overview of the whole plan and enables the professional to see how it all fits together. However, if he or she were to imagine that the model was the building rather than just a representation of it, there would be serious trouble. Any model, moreover, that tried to reproduce the complexity of a real building would have to be the same size as the original. “The map is not the territory”(Bandler and Grinder 1975, quoting Bateson) is an important principle to bear in mind in our attempts to understand the human being. As with real territory, perhaps we need to read many different maps of the psyche together with one another to get a more rounded idea of that psyche and to try to get some idea of how complex it is. The diversity of models that exist may all contribute to the whole picture by each throwing light on different aspects of the personality. It is very tempting (at least for me!) to claim to have the “Truth” and to have a superior version of psychotherapy than the others. One may become very attached to one particular version and start to imagine that it will explain all about how people are. There is, however, another way of approaching the subject, and it is of this that I wish to speak in this essay.

My own experience has been in both psychotherapy and psychiatric nursing. Whilst these fields are at times so diverse as to be virtually incompatible, one thing that they do share is clients (or patients, or victims, or whatever, perhaps we had better just call them ‘recipients of the service’) who come to us in need of help with psychological problems. However, those problems are so diverse that I have been forced to work in very different ways with very different people. This has meant that I have had to give some credence to and develop some understanding of models and approaches of which I have little knowledge and less natural sympathy.

Because of this it seems to me that we can accept the validity of a very wide range of psychological approaches. If we can develop not just another model of therapy but a model of the personality, we can start to ask which approach is appropriate for which personality type and which range of problems. So by developing this model or map of the psyche, we can then look at how and when a particular approach is (or isn’t) useful. We might mention that all models are “mythical” in the sense that they do not “exist” in any physical way nor do they provide us with the “truth” – rather they are Myths or constructs that we use to explain to our best satisfaction the phenomena that we observe (Guggenbuhl-Craig 1985). It is fruitless to ask which model is closer to the truth; our judgements as the relative value of the different models has to be on the basis of their ability to explain and then act upon the psychological issues of each individual.

The model of the personality that I want to develop here is a traditional one that has it roots in very ancient ideas of psychology, cosmology and spirituality and has been preserved in esoteric ideas in both Judeo-Christianity and Magickal philosophy into the present. It has been incorporated to some extent into psychology, especially in the work of C. G. Jung, yet is usually considered to be outdated and of little use to modern therapists. I will try to show that this is not the case. It is a model that I will call “Elemental”. Prior to describing it, however, I will say a little about my own reasons for choosing this approach.

It was at University that I first became a client in psychotherapy, and at the same time became initiated into a Magickal Order. This was my first introduction to both psychotherapy and Magick, and these two themes, the psychological and the spiritual, have been running together as dominant themes in my life ever since. They are very parallel processes in my mind, and it is as natural for me to see the world and its issues in a spiritual way as in a psychotherapeutic one. It has long been my hope to bring some theoretical thinking to bear in a formal way on what I have been doing informally for many years, that is to see how the Magickal approach can inform the psychological and bring it’s own perspective to bear on the process of human transformation. One of the emphases of spirituality is to work through and balance the elements within the personality, and I have become aware that whilst working with clients I use some of these approaches and ideas in order to understand what is happening for them, and then to facilitate change. I want to develop this theme in this essay, and to suggest that it may prove a useful tool for counsellors to have at their disposal

The Elemental Model

In traditional Western thinking the number four had a special significance. Actually all numbers were significant, but four was particularly so. It was the number of balance, and of system and order; location, of knowing where you are in the scheme of things. It’s development can be shown thus:

It starts with a single point, then becomes a two, then a line is formed between the two points. That line can be horizontal, the relationship between equals, or can be vertical, showing the relationship between the deity and humanity, or the higher and lower aspects of the person. If these two lines come together there is a cross. The cross has four ends and a centre, and “I”, the human being, am located at the centre, with the four end points orientating me. This symbolism, which vastly pre-dates the Christian use of the cross, has lead to the number four to represent many different but related ideas in the Western tradition, for example (and see appendix for many others):

  • The beasts of Ezekiel’s vision
  • The gospels
  • The evangelists
  • The beasts representing the gospels
  • The corners of a church
  • The suits of the Tarot
  • The Archangels
  • The winds
  • The seasons
  • The directions
  • The elements
  • The personality types

In fact there are many other symbolic uses of the number four. Our interest, however, lies in the last two, the elements and the personality types. I have long since forgotten the periodic table that lists the elements that school physics failed to teach me. But that is fine for our current purpose, for the elements that I refer to are the traditional ones of Earth, Air, Fire and Water. They were supposed between them to be the constituent parts of the universe, with the addition of the element of Spirit. Each element was associated with a number of qualities that characterised it. Corresponding to the elements were the traditional personality types, as below:

  • Earth = Melancholic
  • Air = Sanguine
  • Fire = Choleric
  • Water = Phlegmatic

When we say “traditional” we are referring to views first recorded by Aristotle and accepted throughout the ancient and medieval periods, up to about 1700. However, I do not want to develop this essay into a study of how these issues were seen in medieval times, however interesting this may be from a historical perspective, but rather to see how we can use these ideas as a framework for a more modern theory of personality. We can relate the elements to the different personality functions:

  • Earth = the body and the material
  • Air = the intellectual and logical
  • Fire = the energetic and ambitious
  • Water = the emotional and feeling

If we look at how this may apply to the personality we can see that it is possible to assign different qualities to the different types. As we look at the qualities associated with the types we can divide them into three aspects: expressive, receptive and balanced, and how they can become distorted. So we can list some of the qualities like this:

Expressive Balanced Receptive
Intelligent, witty,  focused, impractical unconstrained open-minded, clear sighted Changeable, expansive, uninvolved detached

Distortion: changeable, uncontrolled, out of touch

Expressive Balanced Receptive
Dependable, practical fertile, serving, slow to rouse reliable, calm, steady, solid, majestic, responsible predictable, boundaried, holds tight, patient, level-headed

Distortion: repressed, boring, controlling, needs direction

Expressive Balanced Receptive
Energy, drive, keenness, enthusiasm, leadership idealistic, truthful pure, cleansing confident, achieving

Distortion: explosive, frightening, destructive, impatient

Expressive Balanced Receptive
emotional, sensuous adaptable, gentle deep, harmonious


feeling, flowing lover, friend

Distortion: moody, lead by feelings, overwhelming, “drowns” others

The Jungian Personality Types

Jung remarked that although he could not account for the reason, it seems that personalities naturally fall into four categories. “For Jung it was a great discovery when he later found confirmation of more intuitively conceived idea in the fact that everywhere in myths and religious symbolism there appears the model of the fourfold nature of the psyche.” (von Franz 1971) Jung described them as thinking and feeling; intuition and sensation, and each then sub-divided into “introverted” and “extroverted”. The following diagram may be helpful:

It is interesting that von Franz (1971) goes on to say: “When one finds in dreams and mythological material that this basic structure appears in an altered form, it can be concluded that a part of the problem of the functions has already become conscious…” or in other words that when the psyche is seen in other than fourfold terms, this is indicative of some difficulty, perhaps a repression, of the aspect that has been left out. We will see this demonstrated later in the case histories. Although Jung was unable to say theoretically why there are four types, it it not difficult to see how a natural predilection for a particular type becomes a psychological difficulty. I will say more of that below under the heading “The Process of Balance

The Freudian Personality Types

Freud also saw four sorts of personalities, or more exactly four characteristic problems associated with them. He went further than Jung and suggested that they corresponded to four stages of development that only became problematical when not properly passed through. We can link them to the elements thus:

  • Anal     = Obsessive =   Earth
  • Oral =     Depressive =   Water
  • Genital     = Schizoid =       Air
  • Phallic =   Hysterical =   Fire

The Relationship Between the Elements

The traditional elements are linked with each other in a particular way that is associated with the qualities of heat and cold, and dryness and humidity. This can best be shown as a wheel diagram, (Taken from Burckhardt 1967) from which we can say that earth is dry and cold, water is cold and humid, and so on. This demonstrates the overlap between the elements and can also be useful in demonstrating how the personality types are not absolutes but shade into one another.

How Counselling Models fit into the Elemental Approach

If we look at the various theoretical models we can see that they can be aligned with the elements, albeit that many shade into each other – as do the personality types. We could suggest that there are two simultaneous processes going on here: a natural and innate human tendency to express the personality in this fourfold way; and our equally natural search for order that chooses to perceive people’s personalities in this way. Certainly there are noticeable if not exact correspondences with the different counselling models. (It is sometimes argued that the main and distinctive thrusts of each school of thought are less to do with new insights and more reflect the personalities of their originators. I do not know these luminaries well enough to comment on the truth of this suggestion, but it seems fairly plausible.) It is interesting to see that a similar position is taken by Clarkson and Lapworth. If we can assess the needs of the particular personality we can recommend a therapeutic style that can compliment them and challenge the imbalances that are present. By using this approach we can see that no one therapeutic approach is universally appropriate, nor is it always appropriate for the same person all of the time. One of the most influential figures in modern Magick is Israel Regardie. He was also a Reichian therapist. He said (in his last published interview): “…the original rule (was) to insist that all newcoming members (to the Magickal Order)…have at least a minimum of 100 hours of any form of psychotherapy…we agreed on ANY form; it didn’t matter whether it was Jungian, Freudian, Reichian Adlerian, Eclectic or what, as long as they had enough…it’s still nowhere near enough, but the hope that I have is that by the time they’ve had 100 hours they will realise the enormous need they have for further depth psychology in order to prepare them for the strains and stresses that the Great Work imposes.” (Hyatt 1985)

The Process Of Balance

In earlier times, before the domination of medical terminology, people with psychological and emotional problems were described an “unbalanced”. I like this expression; not only is it an accurate description of how people are, but it suggests that balance, once lost, can be regained. Our task is to balance the qualities of the four elements out in the personality. So we need to differentiate, as did Jung, between the natural tendency or predilection that we have for one element in particular, and the various neurotic processes that lead to problems in the psyche. As we tend to do what we are best at and ignore or avoid what is more difficult, we will tend to exaggerate the biases that naturally occur in our personalities. This is one of the ways that make us tend to increase our one-sidedness. One might give another example and say that as roles are distributed in the family in accordance with it’s own dynamics (see Berne 1966 and Burnham 1986 as well as Crowley 1921), a child will be encouraged to develop qualities that may be only partially or not at all congruent with his or her natural bias.

Bearing in mind this natural and quite healthy preference, we can go further and say that there is no such thing in reality (as distinct from our theories) as a pure “earth” or “water” etc, personality. We are all combinations of the elements, and will express a complex range of qualities that will apply to more than one element. In fact it is often those very people who can only express one element in their lives that are prone to psychological problems. As we all have some part of the other elements in our personalities, we will become cut of from important aspects of ourselves if we are unable to manifest qualities from the other elements. It is useful to observe that in traditional thinking each element contains aspects of all the others (rather like a complex version of the Yin-Yang symbol). This is called in the rituals of the most famous and influential of the modern occult orders, “earth of Earth, water of Earth, fire of Earth and air of Earth” and so on through all the elements (Regardie 1986). It is also necessary to say that there is nothing better or worse about any of these personality types. Being at good at something is good – and if we can also be good at other things, so much the better.

We might say that a person who is predominantly an Earth person is lacking the element of Water, so one might suggest one of the approaches associated with that element, one that stresses the primacy of feelings and emotions. On the other hand, it could be appropriate to use an approach that is congruent with the client’s personality type in order to be more empathetic and to engage the client more effectively. We might go further and say that a person may choose to experience several therapeutic approaches over a period of time to attempt to re-balance, compliment and challenge several of the under-used aspects of the personality

The Use of the Elemental Model as an Assessment Tool

When a client first meets the therapist, a mutual checking out happens. What they (the clients) think of us (the therapists) is a very important question, indeed a crucial one for the continued success of the therapeutic process. My own experiences as a client tell me something about this side of things, but I regret to say that this vitally interesting question must remain as unconsidered in this essay (as it is in most therapy writing), and give way to the other side of the coin: what the therapist thinks of the client.

We aim to be non-judgemental, by which I mean leaping to any premature conclusions about good and bad or pleasant and unpleasant reactions to the client and their material; but instead attempt to see the client and their problems as clearly as possible in order to work out how they can be helped. I will call this an assessment. Some people work with a formal written assessment of the client; I do not. Yet obviously something must happen in the therapist’s head (and other parts) that leads to some sort of response to the client. Some of that will be dictated by the therapist’s theoretical stance; for example, whether or not to shake hands, what to call the client, to offer a specific seat or to let them choose; and there are many more instances. Some of the other actions of the therapist will be in response to the client’s presentation of themselves, both verbally and non verbally.

It is my own personal preference to avoid using a formal check list to make my assessment, and I tend to concentrate at first purely on trying to see the client and their presentation as clearly as possible. I am also aware that this presentation will vary from time to time and as we get to spend longer together. None the less, I do make an assessment, and part of this includes using the elemental model.

There are a variety of sources of information that the client is giving me, and some of them are below:

  1. Immediate visual: what I see when I first look at the client. This will include gender, dress, size, body posture and activity. What is being said about the client by the way they sit or stand? Do they slump? Are they stiff and inflexible? What is being said by their choice of clothes? How much care has been taken with dress? What are they doing when they wait for me – pacing about? Sitting staring? Reading?
  2. Immediate behaviour: when I approach what do they do? Are they eager? hesitant? aggressive? passive? Do they move or not, or how? How do they introduce themselves?
  3. Immediate movement: it is some distance to my therapy room, so I get to see how the client walks and climbs stairs. Are they graceful? stiff? slow? bouncy? keen? reserved? clumsy? hesitant?
  4. Immediate verbal: after we have sat down I usual start with a general and rather vague short sentence on the lines of: “what brings you here?” or “what can do for you?” This gives the client scope to respond in a wide variety of ways, and how they do this will not only dictate the direction of the flow of the session but will give me both overt and covert information about the client upon which to base my assessment and my subsequent responses.
  5. Longer term observations: as we meet for some time I get an impression that is deeper and more clearly characteristic of the client. First impressions are important, but they may be skewed for all sorts of reasons and not represent the client’s personality accurately at all. In all this it is important to ask: how congruent is this presentation? Does it all hang together or does it seem like bits from a number of different people? I make no value judgements here: consistent presentation can suggest that the client has become very good at utilising one aspect of the personality and defending against the others; inconsistency may suggest roundedness or alternatively problems with identity. It may be worth mentioning that I don’t necessarily tell the client about my assessment, nor about my conclusions. Partly this is because my conclusions are at best a good guess, and I could quite easily be wrong; also my assessment will include some idea of how the client may work with intellectual material: therapy is primarily about feelings, and I don’t want to distract from them. On the other hand I don’t necessarily conceal my assessment, especially in regard to the elements. Some structuring of experiences may be very helpful for the client, and the elemental approach is often easy to grasp for clients, especially for those who are familiar with spiritual approaches.
  6. I don’t really want to go into more detail here; assessment processes may be familiar to most therapists, and I don’t want to teach them to suck eggs. The above is a brief outline of how one gets information at first and is there so we can look at how this can be used in the elemental model. The best way to do this will be to use some real examples of case histories of clients. I have changed the names and all the identifiable information, but otherwise the psychological issues are as the clients presented them.

Case Histories

Fred is a man in his early thirties who is rather short and stocky. He moves quickly and decisively. He dressed in a clean and scruffy casual way which seemed to say “I don’t care what I wear”. On sitting down he told me straight away: “I’m only here because my girlfriend said that I had to change or she would kick me out. I’ve been to counselling before and it didn’t help. I don’t like it, but I’ve got to go through with it. I know that it will hurt, so I want it over with.” I saw him as wanting or seeming to himself to be an Earth type, straightforward, to the point, concrete, with no frills. I also thought of Fire; there was an aggressiveness to him that was turned inward and thus distorted into fear. I asked why it should hurt, and he replied “I know I’m a rotten person – I don’t need to be told that. I need to learn how to be better or there’s no point in my going on living”.

He described himself as very difficult to live with, as moody and inconsiderate, as a loner who was disliked by everyone. He said that he also hated other people, especially men. He feared men and if he had to go out at night he felt that he had to protect himself by carrying a weapon and having martial arts skills in case he was set upon by a group of men. He crossed the road to avoid men, and yet despised himself for what he saw as cowardice. He seemed to me that his Fire nature, that should be confident and proud, was distorted by his experiences (as it turned out by his father and his uncles having bullied him) into fear and paranoia that lead to phantasies of revenge and violence.

Fire can be a valuable source of energy and motivation, but Fred was unable to use it for anything but defence. His Water side was very underused. His feelings were all turned inward in blame and self punishment. His Air side (although he was an intelligent man) was of no use to him: he could not get any sort of helpful understanding of what he was experiencing. My impression was that he needed to develop Air in order to distance himself somewhat from the problem and see it more clearly; that he needed Water to work more for him and to allow him to have more sympathy for himself; and most of all he needed to iron out the distortion of Fire and develop this area onto self confidence and pride in his own masculinity.

When he came to realise more about the processes that he was in, he recognised his own need for an emotionally fulfilling relationship and left his girlfriend. He engaged with Air – his intellect, and started a course in the subject he loved best – forestry, which was consonant with his Earthy nature and love of physical nature. To do this he had to start having some ambition and drive, so had to engage his Fire. He now wants to have children of his own, because he is now sure that he would not “mess them up” as he had always in the past feared that he would.

The Colonel is the only client I have ever had who wore a monocle. He is a tall, thin, neat man of sixty who sat stiffly in his chair and then when I invited him in marched decisively to my room. There he sat stiffly upright and spoke in clipped strings of words (I can hardly call them sentences): “Don’t know why I’m here – doctor sent me – man said I was depressed – man’s a damned fool! Still, you go for advice – better take it.” I asked him how he was feeling: “No feelings – no time for that sort of thing – namby-pamby nonsense – trouble with the world now – all feeling and no doing. Had an officer went on about feelings – talking to the men or some such rot – told him straight – they need discipline – no point in all this talking – just tell them clearly what to do!”

I immediately started to think that the Colonel was well developed in the Earth element: he was well dressed, neat, definite, opinionated, concrete, well organised. He had Fire; he was driven and quite aggressive – he would never be a slob. His Air seemed at first sight to be there -he was clearly intelligent- yet in fact he never used the intellectual process for any but the simplest of tasks. He was suspicious of the intellect: he feared that thinking would lead in some way to moral decadence. Water, his emotional side, was totally hidden. Earth without water is barren and sterile, producing only desert. Desert is quite neat and clean, in contrast to the messiness of fertile mud, yet can never lead to growth. One of the ways that an element can distort is by denying the existence or importance of one or more of the others. The Colonel was denying Water and Air, using only Earth and making use of Fire without really acknowledging it. I had to stay with the Earth distortion for a long time before the cracks appeared.

To cut a (very) long story short, the Colonel’s father was the General, and whilst being colonel would have been good enough for most people, for the Colonel it only represented his failure to become a General and be as successful as his father. And his father had had a World War, a proper war, and so was a Hero, with lots of combat medals; the Colonel had, therefore, never done any “real” soldiering. He had had no choice of career, nor of the rank that he was supposed to attain. He had recently retired and now would never be a general, so was compelled to live a life of failure. He has his own driving Fire, but it was harnessed to his father’s ambition, not his own. Now he was retired, and saw it as a sad come down for a man who had commanded a tank regiment, rather than an opportunity for rest and growth. On further investigation it became clear that his denial of feelings was a sham; his wife of forty years had died a year ago, leaving him without emotional support and with no practical ability to cope with the simplest household tasks (and no ability to ask for help with them).

It also happened that he had been a trainer of tank drivers, and he had felt totally responsible for all that went on in his unit. An accident had happened where a learner had crashed a tank and this had lead to the deaths of the learner and the instructor. Although he was not on duty at the time, he blamed himself for the accident, saying that if he had been there it would not have happened. His repressed and denied Water side was now dragging him down into it’s depths and drowning him. It took a great deal of work on the Air element to help him see the impossibility of this phantasy of omnipotent responsibility.

Contrary to his own belief, Water played an overwhelming part in the Colonel’s makeup, but it was not acknowledged and therefore distorted. Water is very deep, often invisible, running below the surface of the firm, dry earth; yet it will find a way out, either by a cataclysm, like a dam bursting, or by insidiously wearing away at the foundations. The Colonel’s life was like a quicksand, an apparently firm and dry surface hiding a danger that was dragging him down. Denial of feelings produce the feeling that there is no point to life. The hollow, sterile desert does not produce enough to live on, and the psyche dies, sometimes leading to physical suicide. Underneath what I first saw as a rather funny “Blimp”-like caricature was a suffering human being with no resources to find his way out. I am pleased to say that after about two years of work he is able to feel better about being a rounded human being (although he still wears a monocle).


Mary is a woman in her late thirties. She is tall, slim, willowy, graceful, quiet, expressive, emotional, artistic and physically very attractive. She dresses in flowing clothes of tasteful patterns which emphasise her slimness. She has long, auburn hair which cascades over her shoulders like a gentle stream. Her movements were expansive and graceful, her long fingers playing an invisible harp. She was someone for whom the expression “pre-Raphaelite” could have been created. I fell in love with her at first sight. This does happen occasionally, and tells me a great deal about both me and the client.

Mary described to me in artistic detail the woes of her life: she was a painter, her husband an executive who was an alcoholic and squandered their money. Her parents were harsh and unfeeling, and had never understood how poetic she was. At times she would cry out with emotion…”look at that tree! It’s just so…so…beautiful! How can things so beautiful exist?”. Life was never prosaic for her; it was never ordinary or dull. She felt pain as intensely as pleasure. She told me how a shop assistant had given a customer the wrong change. When the customer had pointed this out (quite politely), Mary (a mere bystander) had felt so embarrassed on behalf of the shop assistant that she had wanted to die. She could never bring herself to enter that shop again in case the assistant was reminded of the incident.

It will not take great familiarity with the elemental approach to realise that Mary was a Water type, almost purely. She was intelligent, well read and witty, but her Air aspects were used only as a mild form of entertainment, and provided no perspective on life. Her Fire was extinguished by the flood of Water, and she had no drive or ambition. And as for Earth – she had a body, and a very attractive one, but she noticed it only in an aesthetic way. It brought her no pleasure: she and her husband had not had sex for about seven years, and she believed him to be a closet homosexual. The prospect of never having sexual relations again did not seem to worry her, and she would not dream of leaving him for this reason. She got no pleasure from eating and seemed to be on the borderline of anorexia – except that it never seemed to occur to her to desire food or drink in any quantity or type.

The characteristic qualities of the element of Water are as follows: it is deep, unfathomable, unknowable and vast. It can be calm on the surface but pulled by violent currents below. It can change suddenly and become hostile and menacing. It is “all at sea”. The classic danger of Water is drowning – if diving into it’s depths or pulled down from the surface, the rest of the self may never find it’s way back out again. The classic therapeutic approach to over-Wateryness is to introduce Earth. That element can provide secure places to stand on and get one’s bearings (originally a term used about avoiding being lost at sea). To avoid the danger and messiness of a flood, Water needs Earth to give it boundaries and channel it. If we think of a mill race we can see how the natural flow of a river, when boundaried and channelled, can be a vital source of usable energy.

Mary had been taken over by the element of Water. She had allowed the other aspects of the self to sink beneath it’s waves and disappear. My own initial reaction to her – one of unconditional love – was really a projective identification: I was not in love with the person for there was no whole person presented to me. Rather I was asked to react only to the Archetype of Water – the lover who will prove to be a mermaid, a Rhinemaiden or a siren; incapable of whole relationships, the lover drags the beloved down to an unconsummated watery grave. Not that she had any special affection for me: she felt the same towards everyone, even those who were unpleasant to her.

My task, then, was to ground her. I had to constantly challenge her phantasies of sensitivity and bring her back to the task in hand. She told me that I was brutal, insensitive thug – but still kept coming back, for she needed to be punished in spite of never having deserved it. She had to develop Air to help her understand the processes that had affected her; she needed Fire to push her will along and energise her; and most of all Earth to anchor her solidly in the present.

Mary ended therapy after about a year. She decided that everyone (husband, children, parents) needed her too much and that it would be wrong to want anything else for herself, to spend money on herself or to have time for herself. So ended a relationship characterised very strongly by the element of Water. I was very sorry that it ended and also (secretly) very relieved.


Nick is a computer programmer. He has a nervous, distant manner, with quirky physical mannerisms and jerks. He dresses in a way that is neat, respectable and completely devoid of personal taste. He always dresses the same – my phantasy is that he has a wardrobe full of rows of identical shirts, ties and fleece jackets. He has messy hair that recedes to show a pronounced forehead that sets off the very thick lenses of his glasses. He is very well off financially and spends his money largely on extra computer equipment, and his spare time conversing on the Internet. At first meeting he reminded me of a Gary Larson cartoon version of a nerd.

At first he wanted to talk about the theories of Psychotherapy. He seemed to be both checking me out and trying to get enough information to make his own self help manual. I finally (after being rather firm with him) got him to talk about himself and why he had come. He complained that he was unable to maintain relationships, especially with women. He became tongue tied and so nervous that he imagined that any women who agreed to go out with him were either just being kind or playing a joke on him. He said this rather poignant statement with no sign of emotion; indeed he had a vague grin and a distracted air.

He talked about his parents who were emotionally distant – at least with supportive emotions – and seemed to want to try to trip him up and make him fail. When he failed (and it was not “if”, it was always just a matter of time) he would be punished and humiliated. He described a terrible situation with complete equanimity, indeed with some pleasure, as if telling a joke. I said that I found his story very sad: he replied “oh, no, you see they tried their best and I was a very difficult child”. When I asked him how he knew this he said that his parents had assured him that it was so, and that they had been paragons of reason and sweetness. He was unable, however, to give any examples of how he had been so difficult – he just took their word for it.

Nick was manifesting the qualities of distorted Air. He was very clever and bright, and could be exceptionally quick thinking, especially when he thought that he had caught me out on some theory. Yet his cleverness was a defence against feelings that he feared would be overwhelming if allowed out. Life was so painful for him that he had cut himself loose and floated away into the Air, where there are no nasty people, only ideas. Unfortunately ideas make unsatisfactory partners, especially sexual ones, so his brief forays to Earth were still necessary. He was able to manage the practical aspects of life in a way that worked, albeit primitively. My task was to try to engage his other elements, and I started to do so in a paradoxical way.

As I have said, Nick was very interested in catching me out in any theoretical mistakes or contradictions that I seemed to make. This was an intellectual game for him that he thought was amusing but which I interpreted (to myself) as an acting out of aggressive feelings, a process that was annoying to others and which pushed him even further away from people. I did not interpret this to him as I suspected that he would merely find it intellectually stimulating and would lead to argument. Instead I concentrated on the “mistakes” by being quite happy to own contradictions and indeed reserving the right to change my mind and say completely different things at different times when I felt it to be appropriate. This was a way of challenging and confounding the intellect whilst being as “real” and emotionally present as possible. One could see this process as similar to the Zen koan, which has no intellectual answer, and because of it’s emotional stance align it to the element of Water.

At the same time, while paying due respect to Nick’s intellectual abilities, I formulated my observations and replies in feeling terms. I would keep saying, ad nauseam (at least Nick was sick of it) “how did that make you feel?…how does it feel when I say that?…how does it feel to be sitting here with me?…I can feel myself getting… (whatever the feeling was) when you tell me that…” Nick was so distanced from feelings that he had to be taught the vocabulary of emotion very simply, to get used to saying the words “angry, sad, happy, loving,” etc. This was a way of working on the element of Water, which of course descends from the Air as rain, falling to fertilise the Earth and is condensed again via the heat of Fire.

I’m pleased to say that Nick did manage to connect with his Water aspect well enough to attract a woman, whom he married. She was very fond of horses and kept one in her large garden. With his characteristic humour, one of the last things Nick said to me was that with her he would at least have a stable relationship.


And finally, for my final case presentation: Myself! It may seem a little unorthodox to present oneself as a case history in an academic paper, but I have chosen to do this for three reasons. The first is that I know myself better than anyone else knows me (except for those aspects of my personality that I am the last person to get insight into) and can give a good account of how elemental forces have manifested in my life. Secondly, it is a good opportunity to give a useful example of how the elements are manifested in a physical way, and how observation of the client’s physical posture and movement can be a good way of assessing the balance of elements. Thirdly, I feel that it is a good principle (as with having one’s own therapy) to do to oneself what one does to one’s clients. We want at all costs to avoid the trap of coming across like the Victorian medical professor who gets a naked “patient” to stand in the middle of his lecture room and then points at him with a stick; I am no different from my clients, and as I am constantly tempted to aggrandise myself above the client, so I need constantly to remind myself that I am also a client on the inner journey.


Peter. A very disturbing emotional atmosphere at home in my early years made me flee away into my head, and I have always enjoyed phantasy, thinking and reading, and being alone. My natural Air became vastly inflated, not into cleverness, especially but into escapism. I had a certain amount of Fire that showed as aggressive ambition, but mixed with self indulgence and a disinclination to get down to any real work – a denial of Earth. My self indulgence was as far as I let my toe get into the Water, and as a distorted Water quality was the only manifestation of Water that I allowed.

My long, thin build was a natural for Air, and I made this more pronounced with the Air walk: a bouncy gait where only the balls of the feet touch the ground, and where the eyes look up and out. I am short sighted and have always tended to introspection (the significance of the direction of eyesight is treated rather well in Bander and Grindler 1979). As I started therapy I got more in touch with feelings and my posture started to curl inward and my eyes started to look into the inner depths as the emotions that I made contact with expressed the qualities of Water.

I joined the Army soon afterwards and experienced the horrors of military drill. Hours of square bashing and being shouted at were largely a waste of time from the professional point of view, but they did start to get me in touch with Earth. The solidity and dependability of this approach changed my posture and I started to walk more upright and with a definite and determined step. I was able to face situations and overcome them. The Army have little sympathy with Air types, and it is anyway impossible to be bouncy in a heavy uniform with size 11 boots, so my gait changed into the classic soldier’s march.

My initiation into the element of Earth continued into my next job where I was working outside and in manual labour. My success at this work, which surprised me greatly, was reflected in a confident physical presentation which was starting to balance the elements. I started to do martial arts and developed a stance and way of being physically that was very different from the Air; I was centred around the pelvis and lower stomach, a low centre of balance that reflected the positive qualities of Earth. The movements of Kendo and Aikido helped me to learn grace and flow, to express water and feeling in a sort of mime. With later therapy, especially in group therapy, I started to manifest more of Water in my posture; I could turn in on myself but also be lighter and funnier. My wit had previously been very cerebral and cut off from real experiences, now it was both Earthier and more flowing as Water entered more and more. I have recently had difficulties at work that have lead to my becoming very stiff in the joints – one of the ways that Earth expresses a distortion of paralysis, stuckness and over concreteness. I also always had a cold and sinus trouble – water trying and failing to flow through, a reflection of the glueyness of feelings.

How I am now is a combination of all these, and I will leave it to those who see me regularly to comment on what I am now expressing. I am intrigued to think how I will manifest these qualities in years to come.



I have not dwelt here on much of the work that was done in the therapy, as my intention is only to illustrate how the elemental approach can be used to assess the personality and to try to rebalance it. My own way of working is in a generally psychodynamic way, yet integrates such approaches as I am sufficiently confident to make use of. The elemental model illustrates an advantage of the integrated way of working – as different people need different things from counselling, we can develop a tool bag that can offer a response to that individual’s need, or failing that, “I know a man (or woman) who can”.

I hope that I have also shown how an approach that derives from traditional and esoteric ways of thinking can be of great relevance, not only to those whose spiritual beliefs lead them to it, but also for the practice of psychotherapy that in a more general way aims to avoid the medical/ psychiatric illness model.


Appendix 1: some of the things that there are four of:

  • The four “Causes” of Aristotle: the Substantial Cause, or what things are formed from; the Final Cause, relating to the function or purpose of things.
  • the Efficient Cause, or how things are brought into being; and
  • the Material Cause, or essence;
  • The four classes of elemental beings correspond to the elements: Salamanders live in Fire, Sylphs live in the Air.
  • As these beings are thought to possess the qualities of their element, both positive and distorted, they are often invoked in magical work so that the Magician can introject these qualities into him/herself.
  • Gnomes live in the Earth, and
  • Undines live in Water,
  • The beasts of the Gospels and of Ezekiel’s vision correspond to the elements: the Bull of St Luke is Earth; the Eagle of St John is Water.
  • This refers not only to the characteristics of each gospel, but also to the directions of the four sides of the church building and to the signs of the zodiac.
  • the Head of the Man of Matthew is Air and
  • the Lion of St Mark is Fire;
  • The four principles of magical work apply to the elements: to dare (fire), to keep silent (earth).
  • to act (water) and
  • to know (air),
  • The four rivers that ran out of Eden in Genesis are: Pison (Fire); Hiddikel (Air); Gihon (Water); Frat (Earth). They are also linked to the four main arteries in the body.
  • In Kabbalistic thinking there are four overlapping worlds: Yetsirah, the Formative, is Ruach /Air; Assiah, the Material, is Arets /Earth.
  • Briah, the Creative, is Maim / Water; and
  • Atsilut, the Archetypal, is Eysh /Fire;
  • The suits of cards, especially the Tarot are: Air = swords; Water = cups.
  • Fire = batons and
  • Earth = coins;
  • The Archangels: these are the beings who guard the different directions, and especially the points of entry into the for the initiate. They both bar entry to the uninitiated and protect the initiate from inimical forces that may prove dangerous, in particular the elemental archetypes who may possess an unwary traveller in the spritual realm. They are:South – Fire – Michael (Who is like God)North – Earth – Auriel (the Light of God)
  • I have included the meanings of their Hebrew names as these meanings do reveal interesting information about the nature of the Archangels and some paradoxical views of the nature of the elements.
  • West – Water – Gabriel (the Strength of God)
  • East – Air – Raphael (the Healing of God)


Notes and References

von Franz M & Hillman J 1971 “Jung’s Typology” Dallas, Spring Publications

Jung C.G. 1980 “Psychology and Alchemy” London, RKP

Abbott A.E. “Encyclopaedia of Numbers” London, Emerson Press

Stein, M. 1984 “Jungian Analysis” London, Shambala

Hyatt, C.S. 1985 “An Interview with Israel Regardie”, Phoenix, Falcon Press

Burckhardt, T. 1986 “Alchemy”, Longmead, Element Books

Bandler R & Grinder J, 1975 “The Structure of Magic” Palo Alto, BBS Inc

Burnham J.B., 1986 “Family Therapy – A Systematic Approach” London, Tavistock

Yalom I.D., 1989 “Love’s Executioner” New York, Harper Collins

Regardie I.,(ed) 1987 “The Golden Dawn” St Paul, Llewellyn

Berne E., 1966 “Principles of Group Treatment” New York, OUP

Crowley A., 1921, Magick in Theory and Practice, Atlantis Press, London

Fortune D., 1975 “Sane Occultism”, Thorsens, London

Guggenbuhl-Craig A., Myth in Jungian Analysis – an audio tape, I.G.A.

Clarkson P., 1994 Handbook of Eclectic Psychotherapy; Sage, London


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