The ancient wisdom traditions are all connected to the concept of working with the elements. Man and nature are intimately intertwined and their deep insight into that nature evokes a strong connection with the world around them. The five elements are earth, water, fire, wind and space. This may seem like an archaic and primitive understanding of the universe, but let's look at the manifestation of these five elements.
We are all familiar with the qualities of the elements in the phenomenal world. Earth is solid, water is fluid and cohesive, fire is radiant and hot, wind/air is constantly moving even when not apparent, and space is the container in which all of this plays itself out. Each of these can be further examined in terms of their characteristics and qualities as far as the mind can elaborate.
Solid, liquid, heat and gas. We are all familiar with the physical properties of matter from elementary school. Earth is solid, water is liquid, fire is heat and wind is gas. Of course don't forget space which accommodates all of these states. The interesting thing here is that we start to see that all of these five elements are present in one element- water. Ice has more earth properties, water is water and water vapor is the wind element. All of these states manifest based on the amount of heat or fire in the system, which itself is contained by space. So if this is true for water, what about iron?
Let's look at an atom. Earth is the nucleus, water is the chemical bonds that creates a sense of cohesion, fire is the heat or energy of the system and wind is the constant movement of the atom. Space pervades the entire particle. You are probably better at quantum physics than I am, so please explore deeper.
Our own bodies
Our own bodies are composed of physical matter, earth. Of course we are 70% water, blaze with the heat of the fire element at 98.6' F, are 100% energy (wind) and 99% space (may need to check my math). Much of Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine is based on the balance of the five elements and how imbalances effect the rest of the system. Interesting stuff if you like to read.
We all have experience feeling grounded, a predominance of the earth element. With the water element we feel connected, experience a deep sense of peace and calm. Fire is creative, an inner radiance and intuition. Wind is thoughts and concepts. Space is all-pervasive. Too much earth and we feel heavy and tired. Too much water and we are emotional wrecks. Too much fire and we get angry and hot tempered. Too much wind and we are agitated and restless. Too much space and we are, well, spaced out.
All five elements are naturally present in our own awareness. With the earth element we discover a natural meditative stability. The water element is a calm and peaceful mind. The fire element is an inner radiance and clarity. The wind element is movement even within stillness. The space element is the expanse of awareness without center or limit.
When the elements dissolve, either in our meditation or at the time of death, we can recognize their dissolution which serves as markers on the path. Earth dissolves into water and appearances have a mirage-like quality. Water dissolves into fire and we experience wafts of smoke-like images. Fire dissolves into wind and we experience firefly-like appearances. Wind dissolves into space and we experience the clear light nature of mind, an innate calm and utterly lucid awareness like the deep blue sky just before sunrise. Rest in that state.
We should become familiar with the dissolution of the physical elements at the time of death, both concerning our own death and also supporting our loved ones as they set out on the journey. The dissolution of the earth element is marked by losing your strength and outer movements. The dissolution of water is when the saliva and urine is no longer produced, the body becomes dry and water is no longer accepted or needed. The dissolution of fire is when the heat of the body recedes to the heart center, the body slowly continuing its process of shutting down. The dissolution of wind is the gradual slowing of the inhale and exhale, leading up to the final breath as a long exhale. It is important not to disturb the body at this time, because the person is starting to experience the inner dissolution of the elements leading up to and culminating in the clear light nature of mind. Their ability to recognize and abide in that nature of mind determines their next rebirth, if they become swept away in appearances or remorse the winds of karma will start to stir and helplessly propel you along on your journey. This is why it is important to practice and familiarize yourself with these five elements in this life, when you can still act of your own volition.
The practice of the five elements is a very simple and pragmatic way of understanding our world and our own experience. It orients you with a bigger picture and makes the complex approachable. Orienting yourself in this way, you can continue to investigate and elaborate on your understanding to the extent that the mind can reach, a true psychonaut.
As long as the mind exists, their is no limit to the extent of space.