Updated: March 1, 2013
The Six Element practice
The Six Element practice is a profound contemplation on interconnectedness, impermanence, and insubstantiality. It’s one of the most significant insight practices to be found in the Pali canon, and it’s described in great detail in the 140th sutta of the Middle Length Sayings as well as being given a more cursory treatment elsewhere.
In this practice we reflect in turn on the elements Earth, Water, Fire, Air, Space, and Consciousness, noting how each is an ever-changing process rather than a static thing to which we can cling. The essence of the practice is letting go, and traditionally the Six Element reflection is said to lead to the development of equanimity and to the cultivation of the formless jhanas.
Reading through this article — which is more or less how I lead the practice, give or take the odd bit of commentary — will give you no more than a faint flavor of the practice. If you want to experience it more strongly, read through these notes again, pausing frequently and giving yourself time to turn the words into felt experiences.
Before you begin
Usually I begin by spending a few minutes cultivating lovingkindness before launching into the practice. I’ll contact my heart, see how I’m feeling, and cultivate a sense of acceptance for whatever emotions happens to be present at that time.
Then I’ll wish myself well by repeating phrases such as “May I be well. May I be happy. May I be at peace,” before taking that well-wishing into the world, sensing that my metta is radiating outwards.
Although the Six Element practice is often affirming, it can be challenging and it’s best to be in at least a minimally positive state of mind before we start reflecting in depth on our own impermanence.
So now it’s time to start reflecting on the elements, starting with Earth.