The Lovely Bones: Working with the Elements (I)


I wasn’t gone.
I was alive in my own perfect world.
But in my heart, I knew it wasn’t perfect.
My murderer still haunted me.



Susie Ruth

Since this tale revolves around a divided pair that unites after a long and arduous journey, it’s fair to ask: who are these girls, and how did they get separated? While the split might be quite confusing, the answer isn’t that difficult. There are many who live divided lives: one half in light, the other in the shadows.

Who was Susie if not the girl whose life was interrupted when she was just a child? And what were her yearnings, if not the passions she was never able to fulfill? Her locker and bedroom were plastered with portraits of the idol who captured her heart, posters celebrating the possibility of world peace, and tributes to the miracle of love. She also wanted to become a photographer. Once upon a time, that had been her ambition.

And who was Ruth if not the girl who was forced into the dark, compelled to make sense of a crime long before she was able to complete that task? And what was her isolation if not a sign of that impossibility, grappling with the weight of tragedy and unable to think of anything else? Why else would she leave her home and live by the sinkhole, wearing a uniform that signaled her estrangement? If anyone came to know her, they’d probably discover that she fashioned her own tarot deck, seeking answers for the hole in the earth, a deep pit of meaningless and despair.

Two girls. Forever divided. One immersed in the dreams of childhood, the other stuck in the blackness of night. Two sets of feelings, two ways of interacting with the world – an ego and her alter – forced to live together while unable to connect. The only thing holding them together was the face of evil, hidden and obscured, a painful riddle waiting to be solved.

Susie Clouds Susie Water

The In Between is where this self-estrangement is finally overcome. Ruth couldn’t do it without Susie’s help, but neither could Susie without Ruth’s discipline and care. Both sides traumatized by the perfect storm, the confluence of elements that brought life as it existed to a violent end: Susie transported to another place, stuck between hell and heaven; Ruth haunted by the memory of a ghost caught in the throes of death.

At key moments during Susie’s trek, she’s confronted by each of the elements. And because her life gained meaning in relation to certain people, the workings of the elements are traced out in those relationships as well: each an opportunity to learn about the nature of fire, water, air, or earth. For in learning about the elements through these others, she’s can learn how to recognize them in herself as well.

“In Between” can mean undecided; it can also mean halfway or in transition. Spiritual traditions have distinct names for this, although each points to a common experience: purgatory, in which those blessed by grace are made ready for heaven; bardo, the liminal state between death and rebirth; the five koshas, sheaths or coverings that veil Atman, the true Self; or the Sat Kancukas, the five limitations that act like entanglements or armor but which, if properly apprehended, lead the way to illumination and release.

Cross of Elements

Isn’t this why Tarot has persisted for centuries, a tool for divining elemental truths (rather than the superstitious practice it’s so often made out to be)? Why else would the Osho Zen Tarot say that the deck retraces the steps of none other than the Buddha, if not because something important was hidden in its numbers and suits?

Some say that the number of cards is based on the number of steps taken by the infant Siddhartha – later to become Gautama the Buddha – as soon as he was born. He walked seven steps forward and seven steps backward in each of the four cardinal directions, says the legend, and this became the model for the “minor” cards in the tarot.

If this can be believed, the tarot traces the shape of a cross – a map – in which each element is traversed, each cardinal direction as important as any other. For only when each has been traveled – moving outward, then moving in – can any sense of completion be achieved, balancing the elements, yes, but also recognizing the rhythm of the universe. It’s just like the act of breathing: an inhale (inspiration) followed by its reverse, an exhale (expiration).

The only problem is: for those marked by trauma, the normal process has been severely distorted and thrown off track. Traversing some elements may have been improperly accelerated, while the opportunity to trace the line of others may have been curtailed or lost. And yet, the split between Ruth and Susie – born in trauma – becomes an asset: it’s a journey Susie doesn’t need to complete on her own.

Ace of Fire Ace of Water Ace of Clouds Ace of Rainbows

The Aces portray the seed or essence of each suit and element. In the Osho Zen Tarot, these Aces are given names, which is useful, since there are significant changes made to the meanings associated with the suits of traditional decks.

Fire is “the realm of action and response, the energy that moves us into situations and out of them again when we follow our ‘gut feelings’ rather than our minds or our emotions.” In other words, fire is a propulsive force that works in two directions: out and in.
Water is more receptive in nature, involving feelings and emotions. It is defined by the dynamics of flow as opposed to the light and heat of fire. Since water tends to take the shape of its surroundings, finding comfort in being contained, flow is a quality that needs to be achieved.
Clouds represent “the nature of the unenlightened mind [which is] cloud-like in the way it blocks light and darkens the landscape around us, preventing us from seeing things as they really are.” The path through this element mirrors the experience of an obscured mind, until the clouds are blown away, dissipate and disappear.
Rainbows integrate the different elements, culminating in the realization that “even the most humble, earthy activities contain an opportunity to celebrate the sacred.” Like the arc of sunlight produced in a moistened sky, the aim of this suit is to unite heaven and earth, matter and spirit in a single place.

The Ace of each suit is unnumbered since its seed or essence is unmanifest. The journey through each element only begins with Two. From that point, the sequence of numbers traces the process by which each element comes to be recognized and known, first by moving outward and then by moving in.

Suit of Fire

A closer look at the passage through a single element (although this is just a hypothesis) provides a better view of this sequence, including its tendency to become a merry-go-round – endlessly repeating – until the cycle can be stopped and an exit can be found (Ten).

Two through Five mark the outward move toward manifestation, Six through Nine mark a shift in orientation as movement turns in the opposite direction. For the suit of Fire, the outward movement begins with Possibilities and ends with Totality; the inward movement begins with Success and culminates with Exhaustion. Breaking the cycle of repetition requires avoiding a return to Possibilities, and this can only happen when the essence of Fire is understood. For it’s in the nature of Fire to burn and exhaust itself, but the ultimate goal is to apprehend its burning and how this compels travel through the circuit. The answer to this question is the seed or essence of the suit of Fire: The Source.

The face or court cards depict the personas that motivate movement through the sequence of numbers: the Page acts as messenger, introducing something new; the Knight inspires with his tendency to go to extremes; the Queen introduces a shift in orientation, the pivot that allows the energy of expansion to turn within; the King shows how the journey of return can be completed, how the cycle can be brought to an end.

When reading a tarot spread, these “personas” can represent actual figures in the querent’s life, people who have an important role to play or who signal a lesson to be learned. Alternatively, they may represent different aspects of the querent, idealized versions of the self that inspire and provide strength for continuing the journey through an element, however difficult it might be.

Suit of Clouds

The same patterns can be found in the other suits: the tendency for the cycle to repeat itself, but also the possibility for bringing its circling to an end.

For the suit of Clouds, the unmanifest seed or essence is Consciousness. The outward or expansive movement (2-5) through the suit shifts from extreme alienation (Schizophrenia) to an obsessive concern with the correspondence of things (Comparison). The inward or return movement (6-9) shifts from pursuing a goal that really isn’t one’s own (The Burden) to the grief that comes from realizing that all one’s effort and dedication has come to naught (Sorrow).

The persona of the Page (Mind) alerts the querent to an important message, which is the need to develop the essence of this suit, i.e., Consciousness. The Knight (Fighting) inspires those surrounded by the confusion of Clouds, offering the hope of protection. The Queen (Morality) reverses the Knight’s intensity and turns within instead, seeking to tame the forces that overwhelm, while the King (Control) transforms the Queen’s folded hands of devotion into the sharp edge of a sword.

While it’s in the nature of clouds to obscure, air (or wind) is the force that moves them, creating the possibility of an open sky. The Ten of Clouds (Rebirth) portrays this exit from the suit of Clouds, overcoming the danger of reentering the cycle once again. It depicts three stages of consciousness which can be seen as the three gunas: the dull and self-satisfied camel (tamas), the roaring lion (rajas), and the child dancing to its own music (sattva).

Suit of Water

For the suit of Water, the seed or unmanifest essence is Going with the Flow. This is different from water’s tendency to take on the shape of its surroundings by making it into a container. Instead, the outcome of this sequence of numbers is the achievement of fluidity and flow.

The outward movement (2-5) through the suit of Water develops from the Friendliness of duality to the inability to move with the introduction of time (Clinging to the Past); the return or inward movement (6-9) moves from the ideal abstracted from previous containments (The Dream) to a certain kind of Laziness that develops after learning how to let go. Five marks the apogee of the circuit, the point of greatest distance from the essence of the suit. Six provides the necessary reorientation, returning attention to where the process of creation began.

The persona of the Page (Understanding) brings the basic message of this suit, especially important for those who haven’t yet learned the importance of Water. The Knight is the embodiment of Trust, radical and inspiring precisely because he teaches about living without a safety net. The Queen shifts the orientation of the Knight with her Receptivity, less about trust than becoming a conduit for energy; the King harnesses the Queen’s insight for the task of Healing.

The Ten of Water (Harmony) represents the completion of this sequence, avoiding another cycle through the suit. Which is not to say such circumnavigations are bad: they’re the process through which an element is understood. According to one tradition, the Goddess who travels this circuit is none other than Lalita, “the playful one,” the primary goddess of shakta tantrism.

And who is Susie, if not this “playful” one?

Fire Clouds Water

In Ayurveda, the imbalance of elements is manifest in our doshas, the defects or imperfections that block passage to the ultimate goal. Dietary recommendations aim to reestablish a proper balance of the gross elements that constitute the material body.

The sequence of each suit in the tarot is the process by which the subtle elements come to be recognized and then controlled. It’s a transformation with a different focus: rather than addressing the doshas (pitta, vata, kapha), the objective is the development of the vital essences (tejas, prana, ojas). The name given to this practice is sadhana – sometimes associated with sitting on a corpse or in the cremation ground – and involves shifting attention from the gross to the subtle.

(And who is this practitioner, if not Ruth?)

There are specific practices that are said to assist in this transformation. Bakhti Yoga or the yoga of devotion is said to help build ojas, worshipping deities such as the goddess Lalita, or connecting with the powers of the Moon and Venus. Tejas is said to increase through the practice of pranayama, as well as mantras to fiery deities such as Bhairavi (the fierce aspect of the Goddess) or Bhairava (the aspect of Shiva associated with divine fire). Prana can be increased through the practice of stillness and Self meditation since it involves the development of space. Deities of self-realization include the Great Goddess in her wrathful forms like the self-decapitated Chinnamasta (“she whose head is severed”) or Kali (“the black one”).

Special care should be taken to keep these vital essences balanced. Like the gross elements, an excess of one can imbalance the others: for example, an excess of fire will consume air and evaporate water, leaving them depleted; an excess of air will blow out fire and dry up water; etc.

Sri Yantra Chakra and Cross

In light of this, it should not be surprising to learn that the cross of elements bears a striking resemblance to the Sri Yantra Chakra, another map of transformation: both describe the dual movement of creation and destruction, the movement toward manifestation and its reverse; at their outer limits, eight gods rule over the majesty of creation; yet for both, it’s the inward turn that marks the true path toward divinity.

In the Sri Yantra Chakra, the movement of creation and destruction is produced by the intersection of triangles that point upward and down. A shakti resides at each point where the triangles intersect, an aspect of the Goddess Herself. In manifestation, She propels the forces of creation just as, during the return journey, She retraces the world of creation back to its original source. In this way, each shakti is a guide, teaching a lesson about how the world world came to be and the divinity behind its creation. Of the ten Mahavidyas associated with this Chakra, Lalita reigns supreme: the “tantric Parvati,” “beautiful goddess of three cities.”

What the Sri Yantra Chakra makes clear (but not apparent in the cross of elements) is the body’s threefold structure, constituted by the gross body, the subtle body, and the causal body. For each gives shape to the experience of the elements in their different forms.

Learning Polarities

In addition, the movement of creation and destruction is organized around a polarity or duality – often called Shiva-Shakti but also known as Purusha-Prakriti or Soma-Agni – by which one half seeks to know itself through the other. This is how the cross of elements (and intersecting triangles) can be understood: different pairings of female and male, each having its role in a process much larger than the forces that brought them together.

For example, in the suit of Fire, the Page attracts someone new to the suit. That’s the message of the Page. The attraction of the Knight’s intensity propels the process of expansion since Knights are like teenagers, taking matters to the extreme. The shift introduced by the Queen teaches the Knight about another dimension: what he’s looking for might already be produced from within. The King completes the Queen’s insight, in this case, learning from the light she shares to discover the womb of creation itself. (This discovery ends the sequence, allowing Nine to turn into Ten.)

In the process, male and female switch polarities, taking on the qualities associated with the other. This is why Shakti is known as the active, intelligent and creative force while Shiva is passive and unmoving, the opposite of the qualities we associate with the sexes. In other words, the forces of attraction form the basis for reversing the mask of biology: the Page of Fire in her external receptivity (playing the clown) becomes the Queen defined by her internal activity (the light she graciously shares), while the Knight in his external activity (the intensity of the quest) becomes the King define by his internal receptivity (discovering the power of what lies within).

This pattern of reversal is displayed in the other suits as well.


In this way, attraction becomes a teacher, just like a disciple is led to a guru. The imperative is to recognize one’s spiritual teacher and discover the lesson to be learned. When the pairing no longer works – like Ruth and the teacher who yells at her – the relationship must come to an end.

After honing this propulsive power – the “gut reaction” that pulls one into and out of situations – Ruth sets the stage for the long-deferred reunion with Susie, exorcising the ghost that haunted them and which brought no small measure of terror and pain. Their story ends precisely where it began but, this time, with a difference. No longer indifferent to the scene before her – a man throwing a vault into the bowels of the earth – Ruth forms a judgment about the crime that was committed, a truth that Susie’s murderer sought to hide.

For unlike the relationship between guru and discipline, he was blind to the idea of transformation: having forced himself on a child, he locked her body in a darkened vault so as to feed his memory, stubbornly refusing to inquire why his hunger runs so deep.

(to be continued)

~ by mistified on October 2, 2012.

One Response to “The Lovely Bones: Working with the Elements (I)”

  1. Another great chapter.
    i can’t wait for another pieces

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