The six element practice: meditating on non-self and interconnectedness

The Six Element practice is a profound contemplation on interconnectedness, impermanence, and insubstantiality, or non-self. 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.

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Introduction

In this meditation 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.

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.

See also:

Guided Meditation

So now it’s time to start reflecting on the elements, starting with Earth.

The Earth Element

First we call to mind the Earth element within ourselves. The Earth element is everything solid and resistant, everything that gives us form. When I’m teaching this practice I encourage students to notice first of all those aspects of the body that they can directly experience: the physical presence and weight of the body, the feeling of the sitting bones pressing into the cushion or bench, the hands resting on the lap, the knees on the floor, the teeth. We simply notice these experiences of solidness.

But as well as noticing those sensations we enter into an imaginative exploration of the rest of the body. Even though we can’t experience them directly, the sutta encourages us to call to mind the flesh, sinews, bones, bone-marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, diaphragm, and every other conceivable solid matter in the body, right down to the feces in our intestines. We don’t think about these things but simply call them to mind, knowing they are there and experiencing them in the mind’s eye.

Having reflected on the Earth element within, we now call to mind the Earth element externally — everything that is solid and resistant outside of ourselves — starting with the floor upon which we sit, then expanding outward to recall buildings, vehicles, roads, mountains, rocks, pebbles, soil, the bodies of other beings, trees, wild plants and crops growing in fields. Again we don’t aim to start trains of thought, but simply aim to evoke memories in the form of sensory impressions, letting images, sounds, and tactile sensations come to mind.

Then we reflect that everything solid within the body and everything solid externally is the same Earth element. There’s really no “me” Earth element or “other” Earth element — it’s all the same stuff. We normally think of our form, our body, as being us, 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.

Being of a scientific bent — and I think the Buddha was too — I often call to mind the process of conception. My body started with the creation of one cell from the fusion of a sperm and an egg from my parents, who are not me. The fertilized ovum divided and grew into an embryo as it absorbed nutrients from the world outside — from my mother’s bloodstream, but ultimately from the plants and animals she ate. And from that point on in my life, every molecule that has contributed to the earth element in this body similarly has come from outside. We can visualize the flow of the Earth element from fields and soil into the body. There’s not a single molecule of solid matter within this body that is self-originated. It’s all borrowed.

And we have to give it back. In fact we constantly are giving it back, every moment of our lives. 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 defecate. Solid matter is combusting within the body and being exhaled. Even our bones, which we may think of as the most solid and enduring part of the body, are involved in never-ending process of being dissolved and rebuilt. There are cells in your body that have no other function than to dissolve the surrounding bone, while other cells are involved in building it back up again. Even your bones are processes rather than things.

So the Earth element within is borrowed, and it’s always returning to the outside world, flowing through us like a river. And as we recollect the Earth element flowing in this way, we can reflect: “This is not me, not mine, I am not this.” There’s not really even any question of “letting go.” The earth element never was “us.” It never was “ours.” We never were holding on to it because how can we cling to something that’s flowing?

The Earth element provides the paradigm for the remaining physical elements, which are all treated in the same way — recollecting the element within us, recollecting the element outside of us, reflecting that everything that is “us” is really just borrowed from the outside world and constantly returning to it, and finally noting, as we contemplate the element flowing through us that this is not me, not mine, that I am not this.

The Water Element

We started with the grossest element, and in the remainder of the practice we progress to those that are increasingly subtle. So now we call to mind the Water element within the body — that which is liquid.

Starting with those manifestations that we can directly experience, we feel saliva in the mouth, mucus, the pulse of the blood, sweat, the feeling of moisture in the outbreath, the pressure of urine in the bladder.

Then we move on to those things we can only experience more imaginatively: lymph, fat, synovial fluid, cerebrospinal fluid, and all the liquid that permeates and surrounds every cell in the body.

Then we contemplate the element outside of ourselves: calling to mind the oceans and rivers and streams, the water that permeates the soil, the rain and clouds, the water inside plants and animals. We see, hear, and feel these things as we recall our experience of them.

Then we recognize that all of the Water within the body, which we think of as “us,” and “ours,” as “ourselves,” is in reality simply borrowed for a while from the outside world, that it’s quite literally flowing through us, and that we don’t own it. There is only one Water element — there’s no “me” Water and there’s no “other” Water. And so we reflect: “This is not me. This is not mine. I am not this.”

The Fire Element

The Buddha defined the Fire element as “that by which one is warmed, ages, and is consumed, and that by which what is eaten … gets completely digested.” In other words the Fire element within is metabolism. It’s our energy.

So sitting in meditation we can experience the heat of the body, feel the cooler air we breath in contrast with the warmth of the air as it leaves the body, feel the heart pumping, and call to mind the myriad chemical combustions taking place at the cellular level, sparks of electricity in the muscles, nerves, and brain. All of this energy is borrowed from the Fire element outside of us.

The Fire element outside is the raw physical energy in the universe, from the nuclear fusion in the heart of the sun to warmth of a cup of coffee, from the molten core of our planet to the chemical energy stored in our food as fat, sugars, and proteins.

We feed the body by taking in the sun’s energy embodied in plants or (for those of us who aren’t vegetarians) flesh. We warm ourselves in the rays of the sun, either directly or through burning fossil fuels that grew in the sunlight of ages past.

And we have to keep replenishing the body’s fuel because the element Fire is forever leaving: radiating from our skin, wafting away on our exhaled air, lost in the warmth of our feces and urine. And so the Fire element, like Earth and Water, simply flows through us, unstoppable.

And as we observe the energy within the body, we can be aware that it’s actually another river — a river of energy — passing through this form, that it is really not ours at all. “This is not me. This is not mine. I am not this.”

The Air Element

As soon as we call to mind the air element within the body — the air in our lungs and other body cavities, even the gases dissolved in our blood — we’re immediately aware of the breathing, aware that air is flowing rhythmically in and out of the body.

So almost simultaneously we recall the Air element outside of us — the air surrounding us and touching the skin in this very moment, the winds and clouds and breezes that we see and hear moving branches and grasses.

We’re taking in and giving out this element right now. Right now the Air element is entering and leaving the body as we breathe in and out. Right now, air is entering, oxygen is dissolving in the bloodstream, being taken to cells to provide energy, and carbon dioxide is being exhaled.

There’s no boundary between inner Air and outer Air. There is only one Air element, and what’s within us is simply borrowed for a few moments. 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. To hold on is to die. And so we reflect that the Air element, like the other physical elements, is not me, not mine, that I am not this.

By this point in the practice I’m usually beginning to sense in a very immediate way the impermanent, transient nature of the body. I have a heightened appreciation that what I normally assume to be a relatively fixed and solid physical form is actually a dynamic process. I often find myself thinking that to watch the elements flow through this body is rather akin to sitting by a river. I can watch the water pass “my” stretch of the riverbank, and I say “that’s me, that’s me,” but in every moment of claiming, of grasping, what I’m trying to cling to flows inexorably past. Clinging is futile, and painful. Letting go is to recognize how things are.

There’s a sense of curiosity, wonder, and openness. The world is more alive. I’m less attached to my physical form, and my sense of identification has expanded outwards; everything that has ever passed through my body — the solid matter, air, water, and energy — is now “out there” in the form of fields, clouds, forests, and soil. In a way those things are me. And because this very body is made of these same things, I am them. Having this direct sense of interconnectedness is enlivening and empowering. I’m no longer separate and small, but an intimate part of the vast cycle of the elements.

The Space Element

Space: it’s a strange and different element. It’s just there. We can’t see it, we can’t touch it, we can’t say how far it extends. We can’t even say what, if anything, it’s made of.

According to Einstein it expands and contracts depending on what velocity we’re moving at, and it gets bent out of shape by the presence of solid matter. That’s all very hard for me to get my brain — conditioned as it is to think in a paltry three dimensions — around. But there is one thing that my deluded mind “knows” about Space, which is that there’s Space that’s “me” and there’s Space that’s “not me.”

Cue Einstein, in one of his less mathematical and more religious moments:

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 very basic distinction — or delusion — of there being an inner world and an outer world is so fundamental that we rarely question it. This stage of the Six Element practice gives us an opportunity to question that assumption.

So first of all, as we’re sitting with our eyes closed in meditation, can we feel any sharp division between “me space” and “not-me space”? I’ve noticed that without the “optical delusion” of there being a delineation between inner and outer the body loses its sense of having fixed boundaries. The hands no longer have five fingers, and have become just a mass of interwoven sensations — tingling, warmth, pressure. The whole body becomes a fuzzy ball of energy. That passing car I hear: is the sound inside me or outside? The sound waves are happening in the air outside, but all hearing takes place in the brain, which is inside. The assumptions begin to show cracks.

Anyway, even if the boundaries of my space are fuzzy, I at least still have some space I can claim as my own, right? Well, maybe not. Even when I’m sitting absolutely still I’m moving. The planet is spinning on its axis and revolving around the sun, the whole solar system is swinging around the galactic core, and the galaxy itself is rushing away from every other galaxy at an incomprehensible velocity. So although I think there’s a “me space,” I’m never actually in the same space for two consecutive moments.

Space isn’t really divided into “me space” and “not-me space.” It’s all one space, and it flows through us. Space is just borrowed. We can’t own it. (Note to so-called “self”: try to remember this next time someone steals “your” parking space.)

The Consciousness Element

It isn’t obvious that consciousness is an element in the same way as the physical elements or even space. Somehow in the evolution of the material universe life has arisen, and in the evolution of life consciousness has come into being. Perhaps we could say that consciousness is the other elements knowing themselves.

The Buddha introduces the element in this way: “Then there remains only consciousness, bright and purified.” It’s just possible that he was referring here to mind’s intrinsic nature, or he may simply have meant that the mind has been brightened and purified by letting go of grasping after the other five elements. In any event, we’ve realized that there’s nothing we can grasp onto and our mind now turns its attention to itself — the grasper.

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 while, and then vanish into emptiness. None of these experiences is permanent, and all are simply passing through us in the same way that the Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Space elements are flowing through our physical form. So these “elements of consciousness” are not intrinsic to us, are not a fixed part of us, and are not us. Just as there is nothing we can grasp onto there is no one, ultimately, to do any grasping.

For more teachings on non-self, see:

When feelings of fear or discomfort arise in the practice, as they sometimes do, we treat them in just this way, experiencing the feelings in a nonattached way, surrounding them with mindfulness and lovingkindness, and realizing that they are not ultimately a part of us.

Having explained that the contents of consciousness — pleasant, unpleasant, or neitral — arise and pass and cannot be clung to, “There remains,” in the words of the sutta, “only equanimity, purified and bright, malleable, wieldy, and radiant.”
This is the equanimity that comes from letting go, from ceasing to identify with our experience. It’s the equanimity that comes from not getting caught up in our inner dramas, from not reacting to unpleasant feelings with aversion and by not responding to pleasant feelings with grasping. It’s the equanimity of acceptance.

We come to the insight that we’re not the physical elements, nor the space that contains them, nor again the consciousness that knows those things. So we may well ask, what exactly are we? This is a question that, in this meditation, we can 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 intuitive response.

When I reflect in this way the answer that sometimes arises is a sense that we are the universe become aware of itself; that we are nothing more than conscious energy; that the mind is inherently pure, luminous, wise and loving; and that we are beginning to know our true nature. But whatever arises from our reflections, we simply continue to sit and to experience the fruits of the practice, until we feel ready to move on.

I’d encourage you once again to engage with this practice as an experiential exercise in letting go. 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.

17 Comments. Leave new

  • […] wind element. Easiest to experience that as pushing wherever there is movement. Feeling the breath in your belly […]

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  • Love this. Teachings. Need. to read. Them over again. to learn about them thank you..Theodora

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  • “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.

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    • 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.

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  • Thank you. ?? Trying to process the Woolsey Fire as it was definitely a zen purge. Looking for the positive lightness of being. Without possessions. Without home.

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  • Thanks for this Bodhipaksa.I often contemplate the idea of space and that in space there is no up or down. So that there can be no left or right either or for that matter front or back. No up,down,left,right,front or back. So therefore no inside or outside. Which just seems to leave ‘me’ with the entire universe flowing through.

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  • 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

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    • 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
  • I have read your essay about earth and water, those were illuminating. Will now read the other elements. Thank you for offering these teachings.
    Jo

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  • Patrick Gabriel
    July 23, 2020 4:06 pm

    Is it essential to work your way through all 6 elements in one sitting or can you just center on one? And does it matter in what order? I get the sense that the 6 elements reverberate the mystical representations of the chakras in turn (as you move up the body from the base and within the course of the crown). So might I be imaginative and practice earth element contemplation with a client earlier to energy healing work related with sentiments of being secure and grounded, having essential needs met. Or would this be an incomprehensible deviation from the lessons! Much appreciated. Patrick

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  • Patrick Gabriel
    July 23, 2020 4:08 pm

    I just saw Julia’s question and your response I guess you already answered my question. May all beings be blessed. Patrick

    Reply

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