Many cultures that live close to the earth develop an appreciation for the spiritual dimension of the natural elements. They recognize that the elements are not only raw materials—they are also an environment in which deities and higher and lower spirits abide. There are sentient beings living in each element.
In the level of the teachings that I’m calling shamanic, the forces that affect us are taken to be outside of us rather than in our bodies or minds.
According to shamanism, the forces of nature are alive; spirits reside in the rivers, trees, rocks, mountains, waterfalls, fires, planets, sky, valleys, caves, and so on.
These spirits are related to the five external elements in the way that our internal experience is related to our bodies. Whatever our philosophy, we normally experience ourselves as residing “in” our bodies.
Similarly, lakes, trees, and rocks are bodies in which spirits reside. In shamanism these entities are not thought to be mental projections or of questionable reality. They are autonomous and self-directed. Those nonphysical beings with whom we have contact can be neutral toward us or they can obstruct us or support us.
When we buy a house or piece of land, we feel some kind of satisfaction that the land is now ours. But there are already numerous beings on that land who did not participate in our real estate transaction.
There are a great number of non-physical beings whom we can’t see with our physical eyes as well as many substantial visible beings such as insects, birds, and animals that dwell in the trees or burrow in the ground. In some sense, they own the land, too. They will fight others of their kind to preserve their own space and maintain their boundaries, just as we do.
Yet we come on the land and dig up their burrows, cut down the trees that hold their nests, uproot the plants they use for food, and destroy their eggs and their babies. How would you react if some other type of being suddenly occupied your home, moved or broke all your things, or buried your house under concrete? We bring this kind of harm to other beings that are visible to us and we also bring this kind of harm to beings invisible to us.
When we build a new house, depending on how we relate to the land and the beings on the land, we will either be hindered or supported by the spirits of the area.
They can harm us by inflicting diseases, causing obstacles in work or relationships, affecting our minds and making spiritual practice difficult, and affecting our energy and leaving us fatigued, depressed, agitated, or confused.
On the other hand, they can increase our vitality, protect us from and remove disturbing non-substantial energies in our environment, help us to focus our minds for spiritual practice, help us to heal, and develop harmonious relationship with us.
In Tibetan there is a word, sa-dak, that relates to the earth element. It means “earth spirit,” though the literal translation is “earth lord.”
When Tibetan practitioners use the earth–to grow food, to build a house, or to make a road–they request permission to do so from the earth spirits.
Just as the earth is full of beings, physical and non-physical, so is space. As with the earth, these beings and this element are not there just for us to use as we wish. Space is a fundamental aspect of existence and is also a habitat for many different kinds of beings who live in it much as we do. Tibetans believe that in the space occupying a corner of a room live thousands of beings about whom we know nothing.
We share all the elements with many beings. Some live even in fire and the space between stars. Our activities affect these other beings, and they affect us.