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Purity, Impurity, and the Five Elements

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Purity is not a word you hear once a week, or even once a month—except in a commercial for a new laundry detergent. Yet every culture is based on specific ideas about pure and impure. Socially, these concepts determine status, reputation, and trustworthiness. On a personal level, they inform our morality and ethics, as well as motivation and life goals. While we don’t tend to use the word in relation to health, its equivalent—detoxification—is a major theme in the healing world. Energy-based practices like yoga, breathwork, and mindfulness rely heavily on fundamental ideas of bioenergetic purification. And it is at the very forefront of all religions, both as a moral dictum and an esoteric methodology. When a theme or motif shows up consistently in so many different forums, we should pay attention. It means there are deep layers of meaning held within these ideas and practices, some obvious, some secret. 

What is impure?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines impurity as something adulterated, contaminated, diluted, polluted, tainted, thinned, weakened. That paints a vivid picture and conjures up meaning, wherever we may choose to focus. Some ideas of purity and impurity are culture-based, learned beliefs. But many are hardwired, innate realities that are associated with these words. There is no argument about drinking mud from a stagnant pool rather than from a sparkling fresh brook. There is an established way that everything in the known universe is meant to work, whether it is a tree, a star system, or the psyche. In spite of the variations within the range of normal, there is a point at which something is toxified, in trouble, damaged, and leads toward its own destruction. In the human body, a few degrees of temperature, or a few percentages points of blood oxygen level is the difference between life and death. In terms of human behavior, we have a much wider latitude, but at some point in the sullied mind there is delusion, there is madness, and yes, there is evil. So the idea of purification is both objective (factual) as well as subjective (individualized or personal) and it becomes crucial to know which is which in each circumstance. 

What is purity?

Because impurity exists, so does purification. We have a certain biological nature, a certain mental harmony, a certain inherent purpose, and a certain amount of free will. In all these cases there can be contamination. This can happen as part of collective karma, being born in difficult times or places. We may be victimized (for example, by glycosphate in our food). Or we may make bad choices (eating processed junk food), or we may intentionally poison ourself or others (smoking or selling cigarettes). There are degrees of harm and a seeming infinite number of circumstances and variables that only discriminating wisdom can differentiate. Purification means rectifying these factors on any level and simply returning us to our original purity—things as they were meant to be, doing what they were meant to do in some optimal fashion. This purification process is inherent in every cell, in every species, in every ecosystem. And in subtler ways it is part of mind, including sleep, “which knits up the raveled sleave of care.” We can start our cleansing journey by taking a tour of what the impurity-purity polarity means on different levels—body, mind, energy, spirit—and then look at a possible way to accomplish the Herculean task of “cleaning the Augeas stables” with a single shovel.

Purifying the body

The saying “healthy body, healthy mind” is certainly true from a biological perspective. A toxic body with heavy metals, pesticides, and viral loads will impair and dysregulate brain function, neurotransmitters, hormones, immune defenses, and so on, affecting mood, vitality, clarity, perceptivity, decision-making, and casting a shadow over our entire life. Still, a purified, well-oiled organism does not a saint make! One can be a fit psychopath, a super-healthy racist, or a trauma-filled vegan. By the same token, enlightened beings eventually become sick and die. Age, time, and genetics all play their role. But to be sure, poor diet and a toxic intake have no upside whatsoever. And a purified diet and metabolically detoxed organism give us a great advantage toward our material, psychological, energetic, and spiritual goals. That is why purification methods are a core part of every traditional medical system, from the ancient Greeks and Egyptians to the Daoist, Hindu, Buddhist, Arabic, and Native American approaches to healthcare. Oddly the ideas of physical detoxification, standard throughout recorded history, have no place in the pharmaceutical drug approach of today. In fact, they themselves provide a formidable source of toxicity.

Psychological purification

There are a vast number of approaches to mental wellness, ancient and modern, but they all agree that the laundry list of hostility, anxiety, confusion, doubt, depression, self-hatred, and addiction are debilitating and not life-affirming. They destroy society and debase the already difficult human condition. And in all cases it is agreed that a purified psyche is known by the qualities of peace, calm, compassion, alertness, creativity, courage, integrity, rationality, decision-making, and all the various attributes listed in what is currently called positive psychology. Some methods seek to modify behavior, purging our life of wrong actions. Cognitive psychotherapy aims to “purify” the mind of wrong ways of thinking and perceiving. Because many of these conflicted mind styles are learned, rather than innate, it is possible to change. Yet it is a long haul, as psychological patterns become deeply habitual and embedded, surrounded by defense mechanisms and justifications of an ingenious variety. Chronic mind habits and biology-based “impurities” can be managed through breathwork, yoga, homeopathy, and many other mind-body interactive approaches. Mindfulness itself is a threshold therapy, partly an energy-based system, simply allowing the wild and unstable “winds” in the body-mind to settle, while developing the habit of awareness, itself a purifying force. 

Subtle body purification

Here we move outside the field of mainstream psychology and medicine, while re-grounding in the body. Hindu yoga, Buddhist trulkor, Daoist qi gong and tai chi, among others, are physical-based exercises that can have profound transformative effects. Bioenergy fields are like the interactive hub at the center of body, mind, and spirit. Detoxifying the subtle body thus impacts our total being. But in working with biofields we are not just moving energy around like pieces on a chessboard. Instead, we enter the arena of pattern-change, of shifting the very blueprint of our lives. Bioenergy medicine includes homeopathy, Chinese medicine and Ayurveda. These affect physical and mental symptoms, but on a deeper level they can change the long-term weaknesses and susceptibilities that are part of the individual’s constitution. Even past trauma and karmic imprints can be cleared through refreshing the original template of our energy-body. These powerful methods need to be used with precision, which is why energy medicine systems such as acupuncture and homeopathy have a highly complex architecture that can require decades to master. What is important is that energy fields are the access point for affecting all other levels. And these fields are always present in a five-fold, five-element pattern.

Spiritual purification/empowerment

Religion spends a great deal of time addressing the issue of morality, negative emotions, and the actions that they engender. In past epochs and cultures, and still in our own time, religion can take the place of philosophy and psychology in attempting to purify the minds of individuals. Christians have the seven deadly sins, Buddhists the 10 negative actions of body, speech, and mind, and Hinduism, Islam, and all the rest have their list of non-virtuous actions. In general, we are told to purify the mind and heart by avoiding these acts and not turning them into bad habits. This is basically behavioral therapy, and it is certainly true that whatever we persist in eventually becomes our norm. But this may not go deep enough to change underlying psychological structures. After all, this an exoteric aspect of religion and is not inherently a spiritual practice. Every religion also has numerous forms of ritual purification, usually involving water or ablutions, but fire is a common vehicle as well. These are seen universally in Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and so on. They range from the Japanese tradition of washing before entering a temple, to Christian baptism through water, or the Hindu bathing in the sacred Ganges. Many of these traditional ablutions are actually hygienic, protecting one from contagion and uncleanliness. They are also symbolic, an obvious expression of the wish to purify one’s mind and heart. Ritual can be incredibly effective as a reminder of one’s spiritual commitments, but it can also become empty, a habitual action devoid of meaning. On the other hand, there is the possibility that they are more than merely a reminder or a symbol, but part of the path itself. The North American Indian sweat lodge is both a physical therapy and a potential visionary experience. Practices within Buddhism and Daoism combine bathing with visualizations or mantras that cleanse on multiple levels. Indeed, every well-worn religious ritual had its origin in some act of actual transformation. By repeating the ritual, we attempt to recreate that original purificatory event and partake of that sacred experience.

Karmic purification

In its most basic sense, purification simply means eliminating what is harmful. Yet beyond our current thoughts, our speech, and our actions, there are always underlying causes. These causes must, by the nature of our time-based reality, be centered in the past. Everything has a precedent, all is subject to cause and effect. And so, at least in the East, the understanding arose that we need to clear all the past negative seeds that we have planted so that they do not ripen in our present or future. Especially in Tibetan Buddhism, there are sophisticated ways of purifying karmic seeds before they manifest as obstacles of mind and body, events and experiences. It is taught that good behavior may do this—over countless lifetimes. But for those who don’t want to wait, visualizations, mantras, and meditations, such as that of Vajrasattva, provide a very rapid path for clearing vast swathes of karma in the space of hours or days, instead of decades or lifetimes. Clearing these patterns, one may expect to see changes in one’s health, well-being, and spiritual unfoldment. Indeed this may be the only way to verify the existence of the invisible threads of karma that bind up one’s life, until such time as the invention of a “karmometer” that will be able to detect and measure these quanta. One could say the the single greatest cause of failures in both physical and mental healing (medicine and psychology) is the lack of attention to the karmic aspect of sickness and mental suffering. Karmic work does not substitute for working directly with the body or mind, but ignoring it shows how unwise we have become in our technocratic, materialistic age.

Purifying consciousness

As so many spiritual paths tell us, Buddhism prominent among them, consciousness does not need to be purified, as it is the inherent stainless, primary canvas upon which all experience is painted. The Vajrayana practices of Dzogchen (the Great Perfection) and Mahamudra (the Great Seal) are designed to bring the aspirant to a point beyond the duality of pure and impure. Directly experiencing the ground of all, it is as of one taste. All of the tensions of opposites are resolved. Such a realized being is liberated from the false dichotomies that torture us in our mundane condition. This is considered the ultimate purification, where even observer, observed, and observing are not separate, but seen as different aspects of a seamless whole. Note however, that this state of realization, even when permanent, does not make the polarized, toxic world go away! It persists for us and it persists for the “realizer.” But he or she will pass through life as if it were an apparition, an appearance with no fixity beyond the stainless consciousness in which it is reflected. At death we may be reborn in Buddhist Pure Realms. These do not exactly correlate with the Christian view of Paradise, a place where all the contamination of mind and body no longer exists, and even death and decay hold no sway. Heavens and Pure Realms are not identical, as heavenly realms or states may exist in this vast universe, but equally there will be hellish realms and states where polarization and impurity reach new levels of distortion and darkness. Both exist within luminous consciousness, from which anything can and does manifest.

Vajrayana: the single solution

Looking at the many factors and levels involved with purifying our being, the task seems immediately overwhelming. Fortunately through the skillful means of Vajrayana, we have a singular weapon that cuts across these multiple layers and lines of development. That weapon, that tool, is actually at the very center of Buddhist tantra. The Five Element model was already an intrinsic reality in the pre-history of ancient India, Tibet, Egypt, and Mesopotamia, and eventually Greece and the Western world. And if that view of reality is indeed correct, then it is also at the core of our universe. It is the template of the physical world, biological world, psychological, karmic, and spiritual worlds. This means that working directly with the Elements can impact the entire fabric of our personal journey, and provide a real shortcut for the arduous purification process. This is not a new discovery, for in fact such multi-layered purification methods have also existed for thousands of years within various spiritual lineages. 

For example, purifying an area in the body that has a toxic build up of Earth, with contraction, rigidity, and hardening, may also help clear some rigid, fixed, conforming part of the psyche. This may in turn clear some ancient karma or trauma tied to the Earth Element. Through purifying and altering our energy field, our spiritual connections are enhanced. Then again, with Elemental karmic purification, both body and mind begin to shift, sometimes subtly, sometimes very tangibly. In the Vajrayana tradition, Element work descends from the highest spiritual level, flowing down in a stream of purification, though it is also seen as originating from the sacred elements within our own human form. All in all, these are two-way streets—or multilane highways—every action of Elemental purification moving up and down the chain of being.

There are practices within the meditative rituals of Chöd, for example, where one goes through each Element, emptying out all toxic imprints of body, mind, and karma, and re-infusing oneself with the pure Five on all these levels. This Elemental “oil change” is multi-faceted, designed to heal each person according to whatever blockages and distortions they have come to embody. Such impurities don’t necessarily go away easily. A deeply embedded, ancient karmic pattern, or a long-established physical illness, will take significant time to be dissolved away. Fortunately, if you are reading this, you still have some time.

Buddhaghosa (trans. Bhikkhu Ñānamoli). 2011. Visuddhimagga: The Path of Purification. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society.

Ghose, L. 2007. “Karma and the Possibility of Purification: An Ethical and Psychological Analysis of the Doctrine of Karma in Buddhism.” Journal of Religious Ethics. 35(2):259–90. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9795.2007.00306.x

Cherng, Wu Jyh. (trans. B. Adam). 2015. Daoist Meditation: The Purification of the Heart Method. London: Singing Dragon.

Khan, Hazrat Inayat .2012. Mental Purification and Healing: Sufi Teaching, Book 4. Commodius Vicus.

Nigam, Harsh. 2012. Miasma: The Road Less Travelled. New Delhi: B. Jain Publishers.

Parker, Robert. 1983. Miasma Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Satyasangananada, Swami. 1984. Tattwa Shuddhi: The Tantric Practice of Inner Purification. Bihar, India: Yoga Publications Trust.

Yeshe, Thubten. 2004. Becoming Vajrasattva: The Tantric path of Purification. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

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Dr. Asa Hershoff
Asa Hershoff

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