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.

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.

16 Comments. Leave new

  • This is the first time I have looked into elemental meditation and this is some really eye opening stuff

  • Practicing the 6 element meditation for a few month now and having just finished your great “Living like a River” book, I somehow got confused about the various aspects of the consciousness element. To me it seems to be composed of three completely separate flows: Mental states (thoughts, emotions, valuations), information (genetic, cultural, scientific), and the process of consciousness itself.

    Another of my confusions relates to the degree of persistence of the third aspect: Bardo teachings talk about “consciousness not connected with a physical body” passing from one life to another. All the other elements are neither created nor destroyed, they just pass through the body. That also holds for the information element (outside me it’s just entropy or unread books) and might work for mental states (neurons fire together or not). However, it’s difficult for me to imagine particles of consciousness out there. I now try to avoid that aspect in my meditation.

  • thank you…this is just what I needed

  • Randy Burkhart
    January 8, 2013 5:01 am

    Bodhipaksa- I have been studying and practicing for several years now and have never run across this one before. After using it in my sitting practice a couple of times I can see how beneficial it is and will be adding it to my daily practice. Thanks for making it available and in such a clear, comprehensible way.

  • It all entirely depends on how you define those terms. And I’m not even sure how I’d define those terms.

  • Robert Van Mell
    October 11, 2011 6:27 am

    Are consciousness and awareness the same thing?

  • Gosh! I just seem to have so little time at the moment. The best I can do is to say that you’re entirely right: a non-physical, permanent, and unchanging soul can never be known. It’s thus no more than a hypothetical construct intended to provide a sense of reassurance that there is something stable in us, despite the evidence that in fact everything that constitutes us, and every experience we have, is constantly changing.

    The Buddha’s teaching, as you’ll know. was that we let go of identifying anything as the self. Many people questioned him about this, and a couple of sources come to mind. There’s the dialog with Potthapada in the Long Discourses, where the Buddha picks apart Potthapada’s notions of what would constitute a soul. There’s also the Samanupassana Sutta which does something similar.

    When I first wrote, I had in mind some later writings, from Nagarjuna. Here’s a link to a book on Google where he presents arguments against the notion of a soul (including “soul-theory” that had been smuggled into Buddhism).

    • Just wanted to add this fascinating article, which I happen to be reading at the moment.

    • “no more than a hypothetical construct intended to provide a sense of reassurance that there is something stable in us, despite the evidence that in fact everything that constitutes us, and every experience we have, is constantly changing.”

      the ideas of the six elements, as well as impermanence and change, are also hypothetical constructs. buddhism relies on logic to a great degree, however the believe that logic can accurately represent reality is also hypothetical and therefore faith-based. i appreciate the practices of buddhism, as they do loosen the grip on fundamentalist ideas about self and identity and everything else in the world. but the philosophy that often accompanies them does not represent absolute truths any more than the idea of a soul, etc. *all* ideas are hypothetical, including buddhist ones. and i believe there is a vast freedom in that realization. even freedom from buddhist ideas. in this sense, saying that the idea of a soul is “no more than” a hypothesis, while offering equally hypothetical ideas in its place, seems like a power play by a belief system seeking to prove its superiority (nothing personal, it’s what belief systems seem to tend to do). ultimately, ideas like permanence/impermanence are all hypothetical, and also importantly, rely on each other for meaning. so i caution buddhists to be aware when using phrases like “mere thoughts” or “mere hypothesis,” unless there is a hearty willingness to apply it to their own theories as well. the goal is not to be buddhist, perhaps, but to be free.

      • Buddhism has pointed out since the earliest days that logic cannot describe reality, and that’s been a constant of Buddhist teachings since then. When Buddhism talks about impermanence, it’s not as a logical construct to be believed in, but simply a way of encouraging us to look at our actual experience.

  • Hi Bodhipaksa,
    I have just read your book “Living as a River” and found it interesting and illuminating. I heartedly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the Six Element Practice. Although I have a long way to go before I can deconstruct my sense of a rigid self I can at least understand on an intellectual level that there is potential for change.
    Perhaps you could help me with a related topic. I have several Christian friends. I am sure that if I engaged them in conversation regarding self, ego, essence then they would say that the true “self” resides in an unchangeable soul, that the soul equates to our essence. I cannot say whether I have a soul or not because it seems that one cannot intellectually argue for or against its existence (or am I wrong?). I have a hunch that it does not exist. Has Buddhism a perspective on this?
    Thank you for this invaluable website and for making yourself available to deal with peoples’ questions.

    • Hi. Thanks for your kind comments.

      Buddhism has had much to say about this over the centuries. I’ll track down some specific sources when I have time, but one of the main points Buddhism has made is to question how something that is eternal and unchanging could have any relationship with something (like our physical and mental functioning) that is impermanent and ever-changing. If there was such a thing as a permanent and unchanging soul, it could never be known, and so would be of complete irrelevance to our actual lived sense of ourselves (our personality, or self-view). The next couple of days are rather busy, but I’ll reply more fully as soon as I can.

  • Hi, Robert.

    Thanks for your questions.

    Consciousness is indeed a compounded/conditioned phenomenon. Buddhism doesn’t say what consciousness is “made up of” but points to how it arises in dependence upon sense contact, habitual tendencies, etc. Additionally, consciousness seems to be seen not as a “thing” but as a series of events. And consciousness cannot be seen as separate, because there is no consciousness without some thing to be conscious of.

    We do indeed have subconscious formations (sankharas in Pali, samskaras in Sanskrit) but these too are conditioned. They arise and pass away, and are not permanent. They also don’t exist in separation from anything else, but are part of a process. So there’s nothing there can can support the notion of a separate or permanent self.

  • Robert Van Mell
    August 27, 2011 2:50 pm


    First of all, thanks for producing this excellent wisdom meditation.


    “So these “elements of consciousness” are not intrinsic to us, are not a fixed part of us, and are not us.”


    If all phenomena are compounded aggregates of other things (as we are), then are “elements of consciousness” also aggregates? If so, of what?


    I had thought that Buddhism acknowledged that our conditioning created subconscious formations (yogacara: store-house consciousness) that made us experience the world in a deluded way.
    If so, then isn’t there a kind of permanence to the self because we harbor these formations? – Hence my confusion.


    Robert Van Mell

  • caroline i like the idia of life is a lie to thanks for writing that possitive embrace for a begiunner it also comforts me :) big time thanks to whoever wrote this to highly apriechiated

  • Hi, I did this. Practice. And the elements dissolved me, sort of, and it makes me free because it does so and therefor makes you a whole.

    I meditate regularly and practice most of buddhism in day life. And lately something is perhaps happening to me, and I get more and more used to this ” new me.” At first I thought I was loosing my mind, but now Im not afraid and have realized that this was me all along, and now I feel inzane if I get back into the old ways of thinking, seperating, worrying, judging.

    This is a message, to not fall into the patterns of illusion. I live in NOrway, and this is not real. NOthing in this world is. And that makes me feel safe. :-)



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