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Psychological Development and the Five Elements

By their very nature, universal truths have been discovered and rediscovered throughout the history of humankind. In different contexts and cultures, and among diverse types of individuals, these understandings have arisen like a flower miraculously blossoming in the fertile ground of the mind. Sometimes the connection is clear, sometimes hidden, yet all of these revelations echo that original core truth, making it ever fresh and available in a novel way. And so it is with the Five Elements, a leitmotif known for at least 5,000 years but eternally present. 

Erikson’s eureka

In the 1950s and beyond, the brilliant psychologist Erik H. Erikson (1902–94), who had never graduated from university, nonetheless began publishing his theories of human development, from cradle to grave. He became—and still is—highly influential in the field, and in 2002 was named the 12th most important psychologist of the 20th century. However, fame and notoriety do not concern us here, nor are they a useful judgment of the value or validity of his work. What is remarkable, however, is the relationship of his eight stages of life to the progression of Elemental development. It clearly echoes Indo-European and Indo-Tibetan Five Element theory, as well as its progeny, Elemental Psychology. Below we have Erikson’s eight stages, for which we assign the Five Elements in a progressive series.

1. Trust versus mistrust (0–1 year)—EARTH
2. Autonomy versus shame (1–3 years)—WATER
3. Initiative versus guilt (3–6 years)—FIRE
4. Industry versus inferiority (7–11 years)—AIR
5. Identity versus confusion (12–18 years)—SPACE
6. Intimacy versus isolation (19–29 years)—WATER + EARTH matured
7. Generativity versus stagnation (30–64 years)—FIRE + AIR matured
8. Integrity versus despair (65 onward)—SPACE matured

Note that in stages 6–7 there is a merging together of two elements, such that  this easily could have been—and probably should have been—10 stages, creating two five-element series.

Steiner’s schema

It is interesting that a similar schema was proposed by Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925), the German mystic and philosopher who founded the Anthroposophical movement, partly based on prior Theosophical teachings. His adoption of the Greco-Roman four-element temperament system is well known, and particularly influenced the Waldorf system of childhood education he created. Notably his developmental system of 10 seven-year cycles, did not take this into account.

Elementary Erikson

A further explanation from an elemental perspective helps to flush out what Erikson discovered through observation. If he had known the theoretical knowledge of the Five Elements, he might have greatly deepened his understanding

Below, as in Five Element Psychology, we give the elements descriptive names that epitomize their function within the psyche.

1. EARTH – the RULER – Trust

Up to age one, we develop that sense of stability and security, experiencing a world we can trust, and on which we can rely. This comes along with the protective foundation of a stable biological life and a non-verbal sense of presence. We are grounded on planet Earth, or at least our very small corner of it.

2. WATER – the LOVER – Autonomy

From 1–3 years of age, there are the beginnings of separation from the matrix of mother and the creation of self and other. Until now, our experience was one solid mass. Now, like water finding its own shape, one begins to have a sense of their boundaries, and the connection with this new thing called “others.” 

3. FIRE – the WARRIOR – Initiative

Age 3–6, there is an upsurge of Fire, the will to be and get what one desires. Immature as it is, this impulse will fuel future endeavors and successes on all levels, if the right support is given—not too suppressive and not too lenient and permissive.

4. AIR – the CREATOR – Industry

From age 7–11 years, mind gives rise to a massive amount of curiosity and creativity in its nascent stage. Life is an experiment, a journey of discovery—and seemingly unlimited mischief to get into.

5. SPACE – the GURU – Identity

Age 12–18 years are the years of prepubescence and adolescence, a time where one traditionally becomes an adult. While that might be interminably delayed in Western culture, if conditions are right one begins to understand the basis of one’s outer life, and how it meshes with the style of one’s true inner being. Proper mentorship of parents, teachers, or other influences is extraordinarily helpful, although rare.

6. WATER + EARTH – LOVER & RULER – Intimacy

Age 19–29 is a time when one is likely to establish themselves in a love relationship as well as a career. How often this goes wrong, or is delayed or traumatic, is another statement of the topsy-turvy state of Western civilization. The stability of traditions and rituals are all in the wind, either to be rediscovered or recreated in a different form.

7. FIRE + AIR – WARRIOR & CREATOR – Generativity

During this long period of adulthood or maturation, 30–64 years of age, the “soul” beings to find new depths—or stagnate. Through experience, the observation of actions and their results, pondering of the spectacle of life’s years that march before us, and the tracks we have left, our potential may ripen and come toward fruition. Spirituality, moral values, and some level of wisdom take center stage. 


Entering the sphere of the elderly, the center of the mandala, the Space Element, should be in ascendancy. All of the other qualities of the individual—ruler-ship, a good heart, warrior-ship, creativity—are aligned around a center of wisdom. Wisdom here means the integration of all these moving parts around a core of balanced and harmonious acceptance, compassion, and openness. Whatever rocky road and “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” have befallen us, our diamond-in-the-rough has hopefully been polished to brilliance, reflecting value in all that we do.

We can show this progression diagrammatically using the traditional Tibetan (and Japanese) elemental stack or stupa, as illustrated above.

Developmental Typology

Each of these Eriksonian stages could be divided into the Five Elements, i.e. psychological types, as well their deficiencies and distortions. In this way, we could have a far more accurate map of human development and potential transformation. We would better perceive how and why things go wrong, and the ways to correct them. Those ways may entail normal psychological counseling methods. But for true effectiveness, the wonders of Vajrayana meditation and other bio-energy techniques are the royal highway to a streamlined return to basic sanity and basic goodness.

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Dr. Asa Hershoff
Asa Hershoff

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