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.
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.