The Six Element practice

six elementsThe 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.

17 Comments. Leave new

  • I’m curious as to what this practice is based on, and what support it has in the suttas. I assume it is based on the reference to internal and external elements being the same in MN140? https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.140.than.html

    Reply
    • Hi, Martin.

      As far as I know the Dhatu-Vibhanga Sutta is the closest you’ll find to a description of the practice in the Pali suttas.

      All the best,
      Bodhipaksa

      Reply
  • “traditionally the Six Element reflection is said to lead to the development of equanimity and to the cultivation of the formless jhanas.”

    Reading Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation of this sutta it struck me that suddenly it moves from discussing the elements to equanimity of the fourth jhana: pure & “bright, pliant, malleable, & luminous”: this is the standard descriptive formula for 4th Jhana. I think that Pukkus?ti had mastered Samatha to the 4th Jhana and the Buddha realising that knew that he was ready for the development Vipassana by way of equanimity based on the 4th Jhana.

    Another interesting point in this sutta is:
    “…or anything else internal, within oneself, that’s hard, solid, and sustained: This is called the internal earth property.”

    The use of word ‘sustained’ seems to suggest a kind permanence (rather than impermanence which is what we would probably expect).

    Later in the same sutta it says:
    “One neither fabricates nor mentally fashions for the sake of becoming or un-becoming. This being the case, one is not sustained by anything [doesn’t cling to anything] in the world. Unsustained, one is not agitated. Unagitated, one is totally unbound right within. One discerns that ‘Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.’”

    So ‘unsustained’ is actually non-clinging and so sustained in this case is clinging. The elements are sustained by self-clinging it seems to be saying. It is the clinging to the elements that is the problem. Everyone knows our bodies are impermanent but actually I think the Buddha is pointing out that even though we know this we still we cling to them: hence the inevitable dukkha. Without well developed Samatha this practice is probably not going to be effective to overcome clinging to the elements re: the body / five clinging-aggregates.

    Reply
    • Hi, Alex.

      Yes, you’re probably right that the 4th jhana is being indicated (that’s also what the commentarial tradition says), but I suspect that’s an addition to the text since the Six Element practice isn’t a very good way of cultivating jhana. It’s the kind of meditation practice that leads to the formless spheres, and in fact the last two elements, space and consciousness, are the same objects as the first two spheres.

      Thanissaro uses “sustained” but Bodhi uses “clung-to.” There’s ambiguity in the Pali, and the two translators have gone in different directions. We have the same kind of ambiguity in English: saying to a musician “hold on to that note” refers to sustaining, while saying to a climber “hold on to that rope” refers to clinging. I think Bodhi’s translation is more likely to be correct, and is more straightforward, and thus better. And as you point out, “sustained” can suggest a kind of permanence, which is obviously not what the Buddha is getting at.

      So the elements (and, by extension, the body) are clung-to, and this is a source of dukkha for a number of reasons, not least of which being that the body changes.

      Bodhi also has “tending toward” where Thanissaro has “for the sake of.” Again I think that’s clearer. Recognizing that everything’s changing, and in a state of equanimity, we don’t engage in mental activity that’s to do with becoming or un-becoming — that is we’re no longer concerned with trying to create particular experiences for ourselves (making them “become”) or with getting rid of other experiences (trying to make them “un-become”). Most teachers will interpret becoming/un-becoming in terms of future being (as in future lives) but it seems to me that the Buddha’s main interest was psychology, and so he’s more likely to have been talking about ou tendency to crave or resist particular mental states.

      Reply
  • […] body is constantly changing. In the Six Element practice I realize that what I take to be a separate and permanent object is in fact a constant flow of […]

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  • […] the physical world. Of course Bodspaksa explains this far better than I. He invites us to try the Six Elements Practice which is a meditation that assists our thoughts towards a feeling of being alive as part of the […]

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  • […] wrote Living as a River because I’m fascinated by the Buddhist Six Element Practice and I wanted to communicate my explorations. But my book isn’t really about the Six Element […]

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  • […] wrote Living as a River because I’m fascinated by the Buddhist Six Element Practice, and I wanted to communicate my explorations. But my book isn’t really about the Six Element […]

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  • barbara moller
    April 11, 2010 1:04 pm

    HI, I have been Meditating for 10 years with your CD’s. It has become such apart of my life. A friend has been asking me about meditation for years and I told her about the website….she then came to me and asked if I would loan her one of my Cd’s…so, I did… Weeks later she came back to me and said she did not like the voice, she did not like being told what to do!!! I was dumb founded. I did not know how to respond! It is not as if I was pushing this on her. I was saddened that she did not understand. Maybe she wanted instant gratification. You are always in my thoughts, thank you.

    Reply
    • Hi Barbara,

      Thanks for writing, and it’s lovely to hear that you’ve been enjoying my CDs. I’m sorry your friend didn’t find them an enjoyable experience. Sometimes people are afraid of change, and find it easier to blame the tools of change than themselves. I’ve certainly been there! On the other hand, maybe her tastes are just different from yours!

      All the best,
      Bodhipaksa

      Reply
  • Hi, Eric, and thanks for the kind comments.

    You might be interested to know that I have a book on the Six Elements coming out on October 1, 2010, published by Sounds True. I’ve started a website for the book, which is called Living as a River, and if you head over there you can sign up for our newsletter to so that you can know when it’s available to order.

    The newsletters will be mostly monthly, with two or three extra editions in the week of the launch, because I plan to have some special events and a few “rewards” (like exclusive guided meditationdownloads) for subscribers.

    Reply
  • Hi Bodhipaksa,

    I stumbled apon your web site (love the ‘Wildmind’ title) and am so glad I did. Not only is it eye pleasing and
    easy to navigate but the content is concise, well written and very helpful and I look forward to exploring it entirely.
    I have always innately felt connected to the earth and find the Six Element practice
    especially powerful for helping me remember what I am not. As a wise man once said “no self, no problem”.

    Reply
  • […] perhaps not!), the first time I stayed here I brought with me a guided meditation MP3 titled the Six Elements. Over a 45 minute sitting, it takes you through an exploration of your connection to the […]

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  • […] reality and often find myself looking at the world (in my imagination, of course) in this way. The Six Element Practice, for example, is an insight meditation practice in which we reflect on impermanence and […]

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  • I would also be interested in the CD and will be looking forward to seeing offered in the bookshop online.

    Reply
  • Hi Juliette,

    We have a Brahmaviharas CD (double CD, actually) coming out in the next few months and then our next project will be a Six Element CD.

    All the best,
    Bodhipaksa

    Reply
  • i read the six elements practice in Tricycle and wonder if it possible to buy it on CD?

    Reply

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