“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe’ —a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts, and feelings, as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
In the Buddhist meditation called the Six Element Practice, we reflect in turn on each of the six elements—the four physical elements of Earth, Water, Fire, and Air—plus Space and Consciousness.
In each case we reflect on the presence of the element within our being: for example, with Earth we note the presence of bone, tissue, teeth, hair, etc.
We then reflect on the element outside of ourselves; in this case we consider rocks, stones, earth, buildings, plants, the bodies of other beings, etc.
Then we note how everything that is in us that pertains to the element under consideration came from the element outside.
Originally our body started as the fusion of one cell from our mother and another from our father—neither of whom was us. Then our body grew as our mother passed on nutrients that she’d ingested from the outside world. Again, those nutrients weren’t us. Later, we ate on our own, but still everything that went into building up the body was and is merely borrowed from the outside world.
Finally, for each element we recollect that everything in us that is that element is constantly returning to the outside world. Our muscles and other tissues, and even our bones, are constantly dissolving and being rebuilt (which is why your muscles and bones waste away through inactivity). We lose hairs, shed skin cells, and have to make regular trips to the bathroom to rid ourselves of waste. All of this returns to the world outside us and to the wider element. And when we die, we stop even trying to hold on. Everything that was “us” returns to the wider element.
This practice is completely liberating. It frees us from the “prison,” as Einstein called it, of the delusion that we are separate from the universe. We come to realize instead that we are nothing but interrelatedness, that we exist only in relation to the world, including other people, and that we have no separate existence in any real sense. We are completely and inseparably connected on a physical, mental, and emotional level with other beings.
The six element practice gives us a realization of this truth—a realization that goes far beyond the intellectual—and other Buddhist practices such as the Brahmaviharas help to ignite the emotions of relationship that follow from this insight into interconnectedness, widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature.