Recognizing the 4 directions is foundational to shamanic and early human cultural practices. For practicality in the modern world, we know the 4 cardinal directions: North, South, East, West. For fellow original Spongebob Squarepants fans out there, we know there is also “Weast.” Anyway, while my sense of direction is terrible despite clues in nature like the North star, growing moss, etc., I am able to connect with the directions in other ways.
The number 4 is a very grounded number (think stable like a table). When standing in any given spot, we better perceive our physical body in this dimension by recognizing the space around us. This thought could turn into quantum physics real quickly, but I’ll stick to the benefits of this more philosophically. To consider the 4 directions goes beyond “being aware of your surroundings.” This awareness is of your own existence.
I don’t know the intricacies of, for example, Native American cultures who honor the 4 directions, but I do know their honoring is an act of gratitude. So basically, to be aware yourself, your position in space, and the vastness all around you is a perfect opportunity to feel a sense of gratitude. Gratitude has a number of benefits on mental and emotional health, but it is also the gateway to connecting on a much more spiritual/energetic level.
The 4 directions are also tied to natural elements. The element to cardinal direction or associated animal might be different depending on who you ask or to your own interpretation. You might find you tend to hang out in one direction a little longer than the others or that the order varies for you. Personalize your elemental, directional connection so you can feel the most from it. Let’s travel!
Some people understand the South to be Fire. The way I work with it, it is Earth to me. The South to me is grounding and physical. In shaman practitioner training the animal representation of this direction is Serpent. The idea is that a serpent is “belly to belly” with the Earth, or is the creature who has the most bodily points of contact with the Earth. The serpent sheds his skin releasing all he no longer needs to the Earth so he may continue to grow.
To work with the Earth is to ground. There are multiple ways of grounding that have countless benefits. Gardening is the ultimate Earth activity. Walking around outside barefoot where you can is a great start. To be barefoot in the grass or on a sandy beach is to more directly connect with a living system, our source.
In yoga, you may hear your teacher give the cue to “ground through the 4 corners of your feet.” While you’re standing this is to lift your toes, spread them, and attempt to press them back down one by one. It’s mindfully shifting your foot to feel its outer edge and inner edge make contact with the ground beneath you.
If you have some kind of personal ceremony, honor the Earth by sprinkling a little dirt in your space. If you are setting intentions or releasing something, you may choose to bury it. Just be sure whatever you bury is biodegradable. I have this lovely paper that is free of chemicals and has seeds embedded into it that I have written intentions on and buried. Or you could get creative and write what you want to let go on a banana peel!
Another grounding option is to think red! Red is the color of the Root Chakra located at the base of the spine. This chakra is aligned and most healthy when we feel safe, secure, and supported. Bring more red into your life to remind you of stability and Earth connection.
The West is the place of Water. This direction houses our mind and emotions, and as the place of the setting sun, it is dark. The darkness is our biggest challenges and personal struggles (our shadow). When we face this direction (there’s no avoiding it), we fully feel our emotions, notice the content of our thoughts, and accept that our challenges are part of the process of reshaping who we are. The animal of this direction is Jaguar who represents the fearlessness we can cultivate as we move in this direction. Water is cleansing, and to mindfully drink more water or bathe in it is a small step towards connecting to it.
Like I mentioned, the elements of North and South are sometimes swapped. North here is of Fire. Fire is transformation, warmth, light. I work with the North as a place of beauty and magic. It is a direction of dreams and appreciation of the sweetness in life. The animal here is Hummingbird, who is a nectar collector. Safe bonfires, candles, or lighting your hearth on a winter night connect us to fire energy. Creativity is an act of North and Fire.
The East, the place of the rising sun, is Air. Connect to the East by noticing the direction or flow of the wind blowing or with breathing exercises. The animal here is an Eagle/Condor. This direction encourages us to be visionaries and to fly (symbolically). You may notice more feathers or collect them as reminders. All of the transformation, releasing, reflection, darkness, and new creation work that has happened in the other directions allows you to arrive in the East to reap the benefits of all of it.
To honor the 4 directions is to embrace the cycles of life. The elements are foundational to life and crucial to our survival. It is very enriching to actively acknowledge these elements in both a literal and meaningful/spiritual way. This acknowledgement parts the veil for us to see the world sparkle in a way our routines otherwise distract us from. It invites us to slip into our role in the living system and participate in our growth.
Where do Earth, Water, Fire, and Air show up in your life? If you like this page, please share it.