2500 years ago the Buddha taught a beautiful meditation to help us appreciate ourselves as part of an ever-evolving interconnected universe. The practice is called the Six Elements.
But why do this practice?
One reason is that having a narrow sense of ourselves – seeing ourselves as fundamentally different from and separate from what’s around us – leads to selfishness and unhappiness, and polarization, while recognizing that we’re part of a greater whole is nourishing, strengthening, and leads to healing.
By letting go of the delusion of separateness we become identified with something greater than ourselves. Another reason is that much of our suffering comes from trying to hold onto things that are impermanent and therefore inherently ungraspable; anyone who’s had the disappointing experience of seeing wrinkles or gray hair appear will know something about this, although there’s no limit to what we want to hold onto: goals, ideas, status, material objects, and even other people.
We can’t hold on to these things, but we try, and so we end up experiencing suffering.
This meditation – the Six Element Practice – involves looking at various aspects of the body and mind and seeing how these parts of “our” selves arise from outside (“not us”), and how they continually return to the outside, and consequently never really are ours. The meditation is known as the Five Element Practice because it’s structured around an early Indian conception of the world being made up of the four physical elements of Earth, Water, Fire, and Air, along with the nonmaterial element, Consciousness.
So how do we do this practice? Perhaps you’ll get a flavor of the practice through reading these notes, and if you want to take the Six Element practice further, read through them again, pausing after each sentence or few sentences and letting the words sink into the depths of your heart.
First we sit comfortably but upright, with a sense of dignity. We then take a few calming, deep breaths to help center the mind and to connect with the body, and we follow the breath until thoughts have begun to settle at least a little.
Then we call to mind the Earth element, everything that is solid and resistant, outside of ourselves: bricks and mortar, mountains, rocks, pebbles, soil, wood, concrete. We don’t think about these things but simply call them to mind as images.
Then we bring to mind the same Earth element within us. We experience the solidity and weight of the body, recalling whatever in the body is solid and resistant: bones, teeth, nails, hair, and tissues.
We normally think of these as being ours, as being ourselves, but here we recollect how everything of the Earth element that is within us comes from outside and returns to the outside. Our bodies started as a sperm and an egg from our parents, who are not us. That first cell grew as it absorbed nutrients from the world outside us, just as we now have to take in the Earth element in the form of food.
And the earth element within us is constantly returning to the outside world. We shed hairs and skin cells, and we go to the bathroom. And of course when we die we’ll have to finally let go of everything that is solid within ourselves. So the Earth element is simply flowing through us during our lives. It’s borrowed, but never owned. And we can reflect that this body never was “us.” It never was “ours.”
Then we call to mind the Water element in the world: seas and lakes, streams and rivers, dewdrops and raindrops.
Then as with the Earth element we call to mind the Water element within us: saliva and blood, synovial fluid and lymph, tears and sweat, and liquid filling and surrounding every cell in the body. And we recognize that all of this Water within the body, that we think of as “us,” and “ours” – as “ourselves” – is in reality simply borrowed for a while from the outside world. We can’t hold onto it. It’s not us. It never was us.
The Fire element outside of us is the raw physical energy in the universe, from the nuclear combustion in the heart of the sun to the glow of a burning ember, from the molten core of our planet to the crackle of lightning in storm clouds. T
he Fire element within us is everything energetic. We can experience the heat of the body, and call to mind the myriad chemical combustions taking place at the cellular level, and sparks of electricity in the muscles, nerves, and brain. And all of the energy within us is borrowed. We feed the body by taking in the sun as plants or flesh. We warm ourselves in the rays of the sun, whether directly or through fossil fuels that grew in the sunlight of ages past. All of “our” energy is really not ours at all. It’s not us. It’s not ourselves.
The Air element is represented around us by the atmosphere: winds and clouds, and breezes felt against the skin and heard moving through trees and grasses. And the air element is continually entering and leaving the body as we breathe in and out. Air enters, oxygen dissolves in the bloodstream, is taken to cells to provide energy, and then carbon dioxide is exhaled.
Our oxygen comes from trees and other plants, and our exhalations go to feed those same plants. We can’t hold onto the Air element any more than we can hold onto any of the others. In fact we can only live by letting go, never by holding on. The Air element is just borrowed and isn’t ours, isn’t us.
One approach to reflecting on the space element is to think about the shape your body makes and how you get attached to that. By “shape” I mean the precise image of yourself that you see in the mirror — how we look.
I don’t know about you, but when I look in the mirror I’m often surprised — even disappointed — by the image staring back at me. I expect myself to look younger, better-looking. I’m attached to how I looked a few years ago and somehow feel betrayed that how I look has changed. Of course a few years ago I had the same experience.
So call to mind the image you see of yourself in the mirror. Not the idealized image, but how you actually look. And notice how you identify with that, or how you find yourself clinging to some image of how you’d like yourself to look.
And then reflect on how you looked when you were five years younger, ten years younger, when you were ten, five, one year old, a new-born baby. Reflect on how you might look in five, ten, twenty years.
And realize that change happens. The precise volume of space that your body occupies is always changing, and you can’t stop that process of change from happening. So you can’t hold on to the space element.
We may not think of consciousness as being an element in the same way as the physical elements, and in fact it’s not. It’s what allows us to know those other elements, and in fact we could say that consciousness is the four elements knowing themselves. In this stage of the practice we notice – and reflect upon – the way in which sensations, thoughts, images, and emotions come into being, persist for a little while, and then vanish into the void. None of these things is permanent, and all are simply passing through us in the same way that the Earth, Water, Fire, and Air elements are flowing through us. So these “elements of consciousness” are not intrinsic to us, are not a fixed part of us, and are not us.
So there is nothing we can hold onto and nothing, ultimately, to do any holding. We may ask then, what are we? This is a question that, in this meditation, we consider experientially rather than through discursive thought. Rather than try to work out an answer in logical terms we simply ask the question, and sit, and listen patiently for the heart’s response. When I’ve done this practice the answer I get is a sense that we are transparent; that we are the universe become aware of itself; that we are nothing more than conscious, divine energy; that the mind is inherently pure, luminous, wise and loving; and that we are finally coming to know our true nature. And having done this we simply continue to sit in order to enjoy the fruits of the practice, until we feel ready to move on.
I’d encourage you too to do this practice, not as an intellectual exercise but as an experiential exercise in letting go, so that you also can begin to connect with the divine energy and infinite love that is the eternal and essential core of your being. To live is to let go, and in order to live fully we must learn to let go fully and to embrace the flow that is the universe.