six elements

You are the universe become conscious of itself

Photo by Will Swann on Unsplash

My favorite meditation practice from the Buddhist tradition is also one of the least well-known. It’s a reflection on the interconnected nature of our being, and it’s called the Six Element Practice.

It’s my favorite for a number of reasons. For one thing, it’s deeply poetic, evoking our nature as intrinsically part of the universe. For another, it aligns closely with contemporary science, which is a subject I love, and which gives the practice added richness. Lastly, it’s very effective: I and many people I’ve taught this meditation practice to have found that it radically changes our sense of who we are. It gives us a sense of connectedness, of lightness of being, and of freedom.

The meditation involves taking the six elements that make up our being, and seeing how each of them isn’t in any ultimate sense who we really are.

These six elements come from an ancient way of understanding the universe, but although it’s a model of reality that we no longer use, it makes perfect sense on an experiential level. So we have, in the traditional order:

  • Earth, which is anything solid in our being.
  • Water, which is anything liquid.
  • Fire, which is the energy that animates us.
  • Air, which is anything gaseous within us.
  • Space, which is just space — the “container” for the other elements — our sense of being separate from the universe.
  • Consciousness, which is what is aware of the other elements and of itself.

The first four are the four classical elements of antiquity, and are very common-sense. We’re made up of solids, liquids, gases, and energy. This is how we experience the world.

In the Six Element Practice we reflect on each of these elements in turn. First of all we connect with the element within us — which we’d normally think of as being me, myself, or mine. So for the earth element we can experience the solid touch of the body against the floor or our seat. We can be aware of the bones and muscles, and teeth and hair. And what we can’t directly experience, like our inner organs, we can imagine.

Second, we connect with the same element outside of ourselves. So for the earth element we recollect whatever is solid in the world. We can call to mind our experience of walking on solid ground, of picking up a rock, of touching the rough bark of a tree, of holding an apple in our hands. It’s particularly useful to recall experiences of food, like the bread and fruits and vegetables in your kitchen.

This is useful because, thirdly, we reflect that there is in reality no “me” earth element or “other” earth element, but just one earth element. And we can do this by connecting with how the element comes and goes in the body.

Where has all the solid matter in the body come from? All of it, we can realize, comes from the outside world. Your bones and muscles, hair, teeth, inner organs, etc., were formerly soil and rock and wheat and milk and vegetables and so on. And because of the way your body constantly replenishes itself, what was previously your body is now soil and plants and air and animals, and everything that’s presently in the body is in the process of returning to the world again.

And having reflected in this way, we now have a different view of the solid matter in the body. What at first we may have looked at as a “thing,” separate from the world, now is seen as a flow or a process, inseparably part of the world. We see the earth element flowing from the outside world, through this human form, and back into the outside world again.

And lastly, as we observe this flow we say to ourselves, “This is not me. This is not mine. This is not myself.” Because how can you “own” something that’s just passing through?

So we reflect in the same way for the other physical elements, and see that all the solid, liquid, gas, and energy that’s inside us is really just temporarily passing through.

But passing through what? This brings us to be space element. We think of there being a space — a human form — through which the elements are passing. But what is this human form but the first four elements themselves? Take those away, and what’s left? We come to see that there is nothing at all in our physical makeup that is separate.The elements of the body that came from the outside world never really left the outside world. When you see your body you are seeing nothing more or less than a living, ever-changing part of the universe. Separateness is an illusion.

Lastly, there’s consciousness as an element. The traditional description of this is quite involved, but it starts with a recognition that there are three inter-related things: 1) form (the first five elements), 2) the perception of form in our sense organs, and 3) consciousness of form in the mind. The suggestion seems to be that these three things form an inseparable continuum. We tend to think of consciousness as being something separate from what it perceives, but this practice leads us to let go of identifying any part of this continuum as being either “me” or “not me.” There’s a unified, non-dual phenomenon of the universe perceiving itself — the universe become conscious of itself.

So if even your consciousness isn’t “you” in any real sense, then what are you? I think this is one of the great things about the Six Element Practice — it just leaves you with a sense of mystery. A sense of mystery is a kind of openness. It’s a setting-aside not just of definitions but of the need to define. We no longer, temporarily at least, need to try to pin down who or what we are. We no longer need to separate our experience into the categories of “self” and “other.” There’s no me “in here” experiencing a world “out there.” There’s just a vibrant aliveness, the mystery of the universe become aware of itself, and a sense of liberation — life without boundary.

If you’re interested in the Six Element Practice and want to explore it further, join me for a six-week online course starting July 12.

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The great mystery of being

Wildmind’s online course, The Great Mystery of Being: A Practical Introduction to the Experience of Non-Self, begins on Wednesday, September 20th.

The greatest insights that the Buddha had are that our sense of self is a burden that we drag around with us, and that it’s possible to lay down that burden.

The six element practice is a beautiful and poetic reflection on impermanence, interconnectedness — and especially non-self.

The practice encourages us to examine everything that we take to be “us” and “ours” and teaches us to see that nothing in the mind or body truly belongs to us.

In fact the concept of there being an “us” that anything can belong to is subjected to close analysis.

It does this by examining each of the “elements” that constitutes the body and mind:

  1. Earth — everything solid within the body
  2. Water — everything liquid within the body
  3. Fire — all energy within the body
  4. Air — anything gaseous within the body
  5. Space — our sense of separateness
  6. Consciousness — our perceptions, thoughts, and feelings

Over the course of six weeks we’ll explore each of these elements in turn, and see how everything that we take to be “us” is in fact merely “borrowed” from the outside world.

In time, our illusion of having a separate and permanent self can be seen through. No longer do we have to worry about whether the “self” we thought we had is good enough, worthy enough, capable of becoming awakened, etc. Instead we come to a direct perception of the thoroughgoing nature of impermanence, so that our “self” is nothing more than a dance of ever changing experiences. Accompanying this is a profound sense of release, relief, and confidence.

There’s no promise that these six weeks will take you all the way to awakening, but you’ll certainly experience a shift in how you perceive yourself. You’ll at least experience a taste of liberation.

Register today to explore the great mystery of being!

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Two events in NYC


I’m appearing in two events at the New York Insight center on Oct 9 and Oct 10.

Dharma in Dialogue: Mythbusting the Dharma

The first of these is a conversation and Q&A with James Shaheen, editor and publisher of Tricycle magazine. James and I both have an interest in clearing up misconceptions about the Dharma. James has been running a series of articles by teachers such as Bhikkhu Bodhi, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, and myself, “mythbusting” some common misunderstandings of Buddhist teachings. I run a site called Fake Buddha Quotes (“I can’t believe it’s not Buddha!”) that examines the many supposed Buddha quotes that circulate on Facebook, Twitter, etc., and that often have nothing to do with the Buddha at all.

“Mythbusting the Dharma” runs from 7PM to 9PM on Oct 9. No registration is required. There’s no fixed charge for the event”—make a donation at the door.

From Me to We—And Beyond

The second event is an all-day workshop exploring our interconnectedness with each other and with the elements, with planet earth and with the universe. We’ll be delving into the Buddha’s Six Element Practice in order to expand our sense of who we are, breaking down the boundaries that make us feel separate from one another and from our world.

This event runs from 10AM until 5PM, and the registration fee is $70. (Scholarships are available). Click here to reserve a place.

New York Insight is at the heart of New York City, between Broadway & 6th Avenue, at 28 West 27th Street (10th Floor), New York, NY 10001.

If you’re in the area, I’d love to see you.

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The Six Elements CD


The Buddha taught the Six Element Practice as a way of challenging our assumptions of our own separateness and permanence. In this practice we reflect on the various “elements” that compose our being (solid matter, liquid, energy, gas, space, and consciousness itself) and see how each is a flow, rather than something static. Through this practice we come to see that every aspect of our being is in a permanent state of flux, and that we are nothing more or less than the universe become conscious of itself.

The practices on this CD will help you to:

  • let go of limited views of yourself
  • feel a greater sense of awe and wonder
  • experience a greater sense of connectedness
  • find a sense of peace and stability in an ever-changing world

Bodhipaksa, who leads these meditations, has been practicing the reflection on the Six Elements for over 20 years. His gentle guidance will help you to access deeper levels of tranquillity and calm.

This CD contains two tracks:

1. The Development of Lovingkindness (15:36)
The Six Element Practice should be entered into from a state of healthy appreciation, and it’s traditional to begin with a short period of metta bhavana, or development of lovingkindness.

2. The Six Element Practice (46:16)
In this insight meditation practice we reflect in turn on the elements Earth, Water, Fire, Air, Space, and Consciousness, noting how each is an ever-changing process flowing through us. The practice helps us to see and appreciate the reality of our interconnectedness with the universe. It liberates us from a limited view of ourselves and helps us to see that we are nothing less than the universe become conscious of itself.

Total Running Time 61:52

The 6 Elements can be purchased as an MP3 download.

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Six Element Practice: Guided Meditation MP3

aryaloka Buddhist center

Here’s another guided meditation from the retreat I’m co-leading with Sunada at Aryaloka. This one’s the Six Element Practice, which is a reflection on non-self.

The quality of the recording is not great, and the only editing I’ve done is to increase the volume and to remove a cough or too. You’ll hear the building creaking, and people shuffling (and no doubt some coughs that I missed).

Still, I hope it’s of benefit:

Here’s an audio-only version:

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Guided meditation: The six element practice

Here is a recording of meditation Hangout on Google+ where Bodhipaksa leads a session of the Six Element Practice, which is a traditional insight meditation practice taught by the Buddha.

The Six Element Practice is a reflection on impermanence, interconnectedness, and non-self, where we notice that the elements of earth (anything solid that constitutes “us”), water (any liquid in the body), fire (the energy in the body), air (any gases within the body), and space (the body’s form) — that is, what constitutes our physical body — are not in any way separate from the world, but are simply borrowed from what we consider to be “not us.”

Even the separateness of the experiencer and that which is experienced is dropped, so that we can come to a state of pure non-dual awareness.

For more information visit our online guide to the six element practice.

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On doing a variety of practices

Sometimes I have meditation students who have problems learning a particular meditation technique because it appears to be fundamentally different — even contradictory — to other approaches to meditating that they’ve learned.

In fact, I’ve had experiences myself that are similar in some ways to this. I once went on a retreat run by teachers who have a different approach to me in order to learn more about their techniques and perspectives, and I found that some of the things they said plunged me into doubt and confusion — and aversion.

I found myself in my meditation continually arguing about things that they had said and about how I thought they made no sense. There was one statement in particular that I thought was contrary to the Buddha’s teaching. A teacher said, “In vipassana we don’t try to get rid of the hindrances” — the hindrances being a traditional classification of distracted states of aversion, craving, and confusion. This threw me into turmoil for two days! I kept thinking of all the suttas (discourses of the Buddha) where he talks about the necessity of overcoming the hindrances. In the face of this (and other teachings), the advice not to try to rid the mind of the hindrances seemed positively un-Buddhist.

This turmoil went on until I had a chance to talk to the teacher who had made this statement. And when I told her I was confused, she replied, “Oh, I didn’t really mean that — it’s just something I say to the beginners.” The intention was to help beginners not to see it as “bad” that they were experiencing the hindrances: to help them avoid the trap of developing aversion to the hindrances and trying to push them away or suppress them.

So sometimes these confusions are apparent, and if you dig deeper you find that two seemingly different approaches aren’t as different as they might seem.

Other times meditation practices may actually be based on quite different premises. There are practices where you’re very definitely trying to bring particular states into being. For example you may be cultivating lovingkindness in the metta bhavana. There are other practices in which you may be just allowing your experience to arise, without interfering with anything. Those are very different approaches, but it’s not that one or the other is wrong: they’re just different tools.

When we cling to the idea that there’s one “right” way to meditate, and that new approaches are “wrong,” this isn’t very helpful. If you hear anyone saying that there’s only one way to meditate, I suspect they’re misinformed, caught up in clinging, or selling something.

The Buddha taught many different meditations: anapanasati (mindful breathing meditation) leading to jhana, meditations leading to the formless spheres, metta bhavana and the other brahmaviharas, six element reflection (and four- and five-element reflections), simply paying attention to the impermanence of our experience in meditation, etc. He taught visualization practices. He offered us a rich tool box of approaches to working with our experience.

These approaches are all valid and complementary, and the practice of one can enhance the experience of the others.

Some people might argue that in doing a number of meditation practices you’re digging many shallow wells rather than one deep well. But since meditation practices are different tools meant to accomplish specific tasks, it’s more like using a variety of tools to dig one deep well. Sometimes you need a shovel, sometimes you need a pickax, sometimes you might need a pry-bar, sometimes you need to take a rest (that’s a tool, too). You’re taking many different approaches — but to one end. There’s really only one task.

There are just two things I would add to this. One is that we need to be clear what the task is; what is the well you’re digging? And second, we need to use the right tool, or combination of tools.

That task, the well we’re digging through Buddhist meditation practice, is what I call “unselfing.” Any practice you’re doing is reducing the sense of having a fixed and separate self that leads us into suffering. Some of the approaches are “samatha” (i.e. they’re aimed at developing and strengthening positive qualities such as mindfulness and lovingkindness) and some are “vipassana” (i.e. they’re aimed at changing, on a fundamental level, how we see ourselves and our relation to the world) but all meditation practices involve unselfing.

Simply paying attention to your breathing — letting go of distractions as they arise and returning over and over to the breathing — unselfs us by quieting the constant thoughts we have that involve comparison, aversion, and clinging (activities that reinforce out sense of self).

Cultivating lovingkindness unselfs us by expanding our sense of concern beyond ourselves and into the lives of others, so that we see others’ joy and pain as being part of our concern. In a way we expand our sense of self, and thus dilute it.

Six element meditation unselfs us by helping us to see that there is no separate self. We’re not physically separate from the world, so there’s physically no “me.” Our consciousness is also not separate from the world either. There’s nothing to grasp onto; there’s not even a “me” to do any grasping.

“Just sitting” practices that lead to experiences of non-duality lead to unselfing by reducing our sense of separation.

Any meditation in which we’re observing the arising and passing of our experience is likewise unselfing. We train ourselves to see more and more clearly that there is no part of “us” that is stable. How, therefore, can there be a stable, static, separate self?

So we need to have a coherent sense of what it is that we’re actually doing. Deep down, there’s no conflict between these practices, because they’re all unselfing. Because the practices I do are all doing the same thing, but in different ways, they’re all complementing each other.

Then there’s a question of which tools to use, and in which combinations. For me, some form of mindfulness of breathing and some form of developing lovingkindness or compassion are crucial. These two practices are complementary to each other, and also essential. We need mindfulness. We need lovingkindness. And this may be all we do for a few years.

But eventually some form of vipassana approach is necessary as well, whether it’s six element meditation or simply observing the impermanence, non-self, or unsatisfactoriness of our experience (or doing all three).

I’m not too good at dealing with complexity, so two or three regular practices is about all I can manage, although when I’m on retreat I’m happy to explore other approaches. But I’d guess that for most experienced meditators something like three to four practices is enough to be getting on with. Precisely which ones

You may find it’s useful to have a schedule, and to plan out what practice you’re going to do on any given day: body scan on Monday, Mindfulness of Breathing on Tuesday, Metta Bhavana on Wednesday, etc. That might give your mind permission to be content with what you’re doing on any particular day. Or if you don’t suffer from the torment of not knowing which practice to do, you can just play it by ear. At times you might have to be disciplined so that you don’t avoid a practice you don’t think your “good at.” Other times you need to give yourself the flexibility to work on what needs to be worked on.

So to cut a long story short: don’t assume there’s only one right way to meditation. Be clear about what the well is that you’re digging, and see how the various tools available to you help you to dig that well. And lastly, choose the most appropriate meditative tools, and use them as wisely as you can.

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Buddhist Geeks interview with Bodhipaksa

living as a riverBuddhist Geeks is an insanely popular podcast, featuring in-depth interviews with some of the most influential Buddhist teachers around today. Recently the Buddhist Geeks’ Vince Horn interviewed Bodhipaksa about his new book, Living as a River, which explores how penetrating the truths of impermanence and insubstantiality can free us from fear and clinging.

The interview has now been transcribed, and is available online:

Vincent: Hello, Buddhist geeks, this is Vincent Horn, and I’m joined today, over Skype, with Bodhipaksa. Bodhipaksa, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. I know that you’ve actually tuned in to Buddhist Geeks before, and I’ve been following you on Twitter. So, it’s really cool to connect with someone that’s kind of plugged in to what we’re doing here at Buddhist Geeks.

Bodhipaksa: Thank you, I’m a big admirer.

Vincent: Cool. Thank you. I just wanted to say a little bit about your background, and this is sort of new for me. Even though I studied Buddhism in college, I knew very little about the order that you’re connected with, and that’s currently called Triratna Buddhist Community. It was formerly known as the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order. You were telling me before the interview that the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order is not a community that’s really that popular in America, but that it’s huge in other areas.

Bodhipaksa: Yes, it’s very large in Britain, in particular, it’s possibly the largest. It’s certainly one of the three largest Buddhist movements there.

Vincent: Nice. What was the deal with the shifting the name from the Western Buddhist Order to this Triratna Community?

Bodhipaksa: Well the Western Buddhist Order and Friends of the Western Buddhist Order started in London in the 1960s. It was initiated by a Buddhist monk who was from England who’d been practicing in India for 20 years. He came back and decided, for various reasons, to set up a new kind of Buddhist movement. He wanted, specifically, to set up something that addressed the Western condition. He didn’t think that either of the two main forms of Buddhism that were around in Britain in the mid-60s were particularly appropriate. There was monastic Buddhism, and there was kind of “hobby Buddhism.” People going to evening classes and learning about Buddhism but not really thinking of it in terms of a life-changing practice.

So he decided to start something that wasn’t monastic but was full on. Initially, actually, he called the movement Friends of the Western Sangha, renamed it, shortly afterwards, to Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, as that meant more to some people. But it’s grown since then. It started off in a little basement in London, and we now have a lot of order members, about a third of the Order, I believe, is in India. We have other members in Australia, in New Zealand, and a couple of people in Russia as well. Pitching yourself as being Western when you’re in those places doesn’t really work very well.

Vincent: Right.

Bodhipaksa: So, a name was picked, which is more universal. Triratna means the “three jewels,” of course, of the Buddha dharma and sangha. So we have a name that’s in Sanskrit and can be related to wherever you are.

Vincent: Nice. It sounds like this is a more progressive, looking it from the point of view of sort of spectrum of conservative to progressive, in the Buddhist tradition. So I think this is highly progressive type of movement.

Bodhipaksa: Definitely not conservative, more experimental. We have a lot of women order members. They’ve been smaller in numbers than the men, for example. Of course, as you know, in traditional Theravada Buddhism, in most forms of traditional Theravada Buddhism, there is no full ordination for women, so we’re progressive in that kind of regard. The women are catching up, actually. They’re going to be overtaking the men in a few years, I understand.

Vincent: I wanted to talk with you today about some of the things that you’ve written in a book that’s coming out right around now, which is “Living As a River: Finding Fearlessness in the Face of Change.” This book is coming out through Sounds True, where I worked for a few years, and your name definitely came up a lot while I was there.

I just wanted to say, first, that I really enjoyed reading it. It just flowed in a way that was really pleasant to read. I think it was the ideas, too, were very accessible. I’m thinking now, as you describe the Triratna Community, that there’s a connection here between the way that the ideas sort of just made sense immediately to my Western mind. Yeah, so I just wanted to thank you for that, because it’s not always common to read a book that’s both profound and also is really accessible and easy to read.

Bodhipaksa: Thank you very much.

Vincent: Yeah. I wanted to speak with you about one of the ideas that seem really central to the book, and of course, is central to the Buddhist tradition, which is the teachings on non-self. Could you say a little bit about why the teachings on non-self, or person permanence, are so central, so important in the way you talk about things?

Bodhipaksa: Well sure. I guess, the teaching of non-self or not-self is absolutely central to Buddhism. It’s seen as being one of the core delusions that we need to overcome if we want to achieve a deeper level of happiness and well-being. The idea that we have a separate and permanent self seems to be burned up with a lot of fear and confusion. It leads to defensiveness and to acquisition, a kind of overinvestment in materiality and then things like status, etc. So, it seems to be something that we really have to work at.

Vincent: There’s one piece where you talk about the mind and the brain and how we’re sort of wired for what’s called “change blindness.” What’s the deal with that concept, because that’s something that I found was a kind of a unique way of looking at this whole thing?

Bodhipaksa: Sure. Well, I try to think of some of the reasons for why we think we do have separate and permanent selves because we tend to, almost all of us, have this idea that “Yes, I am separate. There’s this boundary between me and the rest of the world, and I don’t really change that much.” Even if we can’t, exactly put our finger on it, even if we’ve seen a lot of change in ourselves, we think that there’s something permanent within ourselves. So, I try to look at some of the reasons for why is that we might overlook the change that is actually taking place in our experience. One very interesting thing that psychologists have been looking at is what’s called “change blindness.”

I describe a really interesting experiment in the book where people were invited to participate in a psychological experiment. They didn’t know exactly what the nature of the psychological experiment was when they were signing up. All they knew was that they had to turn up like it’s, for example, the fourth floor of the Psychology building in Harvard. They would be asked a few questions. So, you walked in, you got your letter saying that you’ve been invited to participate in the project. There’s somebody behind the desk who asks to see your letter and say a few words about what you’re going to be doing. You’re going to be going down the coordor here, take the second door on the left, but I need to give you this packet, first of all. He ducks behind the desk, stands up again, hand you the packet, and you go on your way. Most people, something like 80% of people don’t notice that the person who stood up with the packet was not the same person who ducks down behind the desk to get the packet, in the first place. [Laughter] They didn’t look alike, they weren’t dressed the same. They were of different heights, they had different hairstyles, they had different facial features. That’s a lot of change not to notice.

Vincent: That’s incredible.

Bodhipaksa: Some people noticed it, about 20% of people, I think, did notice it, but the vast majority of people don’t. It seems that we’re just not very good picking up on change. There’s various theories, I think, for why that is.

The brain can’t really process very much information at one time, so when you’re suddenly there in front of the desk and you’re busy thinking about all kinds of things, like, “Did he say the second door on the left or did he say the right? Am I going to get paid? I wonder what the questions are going to be like.” So, your mind is already kind of half-full of stuff. There’s not really enough mental space, as it were, to pick up on some other things.

So, we just end up screening out a lot of change. There’s a lot of the experiments like this being done actually. One of the most fascinating ones which I did was watching a video of people passing a basketball back and forth. You had to kind of how often the people dressed in white passed the ball to each other. What you didn’t notice until you watch the video again, that somebody dressed in a gorilla costume walked right through in the middle of the basketball court during the game. You just don’t see, you just don’t notice it. It’s hard to believe you wouldn’t, but it’s not.

Vincent: It’s amazing. I mean, I’ve heard about the gorilla experiment before, and I just couldn’t believe it. Yet, it seems really clear that, in fact, people didn’t see the gorilla.

Bodhipaksa: I think one thing that happens is that we just kind of label our experience. We have this kind of crude wordless labels almost. So, the guy behind the desk is just “the guy behind the desk.” We don’t need to know anymore about the guy behind the desk. If he was somebody who we thought we might need to remember, then we might put some energy into really noticing his facial features, of how he was dressed or whatever. But, he’s just “the guy behind the desk. “So, that label suffices, it’s almost like an icon that’s there, and we just continue on our way.

I’ve tried to integrate this into my meditation teaching, because I realize that the brain has a limited capacity for bandwidth. Our short-term memory, for example, can only usually hold about 5-7 things. There’s not really that many things that we can pay attention to at one time. So, what happens when you’re sitting, meditating just following your breath, is very often that a lot of thoughts are coming up and you start paying attention to those thoughts. And I found that, if you, as it were, choke the bandwidth of your mind by just paying a lot of attention to a lot of different stimuli at the same time, then you enter a state of a kind of open, expansive awareness, where there’s basically no room for thinking anymore. You’ve taken up all of your bandwidth. It’s a bit like there’s a bandwidth hog using your wireless internet connection, and everything’s going really slowly. That’s normally a bad thing, but here what we’re talking about going slowly is the discursive thinking that’s connected with stress and anxiety and irritability and wanting things. There’s no room for that anymore, so all we do is just notice our experience.

Vincent: And this is something that is really counterintuitive to the normal way of walking around, and I wanted to talk with you about one of the main practices that you present in the book, which is the Six Element practice. Could you say a little bit about where that practice comes from, and then also it’d be fun to get into how it works and how it’s related to what we’ve been talking about.

Bodhipaksa: Sure. It’s a practice that is found in the earliest strata of Buddhist teachings–that is the Pali Canon–and it’s found in a text called the “Middle Length Sayings.” And, it is a practice of reflection on impermanence and non-self. In a way it’s kind of a non-duality practice, because what we’re doing is we take each of the elements in turn, and the elements are: the Earth element, which is everything solid, both within ourselves and outside of ourselves; the water element, which is everything liquid within ourselves and outside; the fire element, which, outside of ourselves, is represented in terms of energy, and within ourselves is represented in terms of the energy that’s involved in life or living metabolism. There’s the space element, which is the space that contains our body, and the space outside of ourselves, and there’s the consciousness element, which is a bit different.

What we do, for example, with the Earth element, is we start off by reflecting on the Earth element that constitutes the body, so you become aware of everything that’s solid within your body, and you can do that in two ways. You can do that experientially by just accessing your experience of the body right now. You can feel some solid parts of the body. Your hands are in contact with each other, for example, or your feet are in contact with the floor, or your butt is in contact with your meditation cushion, or whatever you’re sitting on.

So you can feel some of the solidity, but the practice also encourages us to use our imaginations and connect with what we know is there and is solid. So, I can’t sense my kidneys and my liver, for example, or even my bones, except where they’re making contact with something, but I become aware that all of that solid matter is there.

You reflect on the solid matter outside of yourself, so having reflected on solid matter that constitutes you, you reflect on the solid matter that constitutes what you normally think of as being “other.” So you’re calling to mind all the solid matter in the outside world–the Earth itself, all the rocks, the soil, the plants, buildings, other beings, etc.

And then you’re reflecting that these two things are not separate. So, you can reflect, for example, on how everything that is within you, everything that is solid within you, has come from the outside world, and we don’t tend to think of this very much. We’re vaguely aware of the fact that we’re eating, and that’s solid matter, and it’s going to be incorporated into the body, but when you start thinking about it, there’s not a single molecule in your body that is completely self-generated. There’s not a single atom which you’ve created. It all comes from outside. Even when you were born–or before you were born–when you were conceived, you started off as being a cell from your father, sperm, a cell from your mother, an egg. They weren’t you; that was part of your mother, part of your father. They fuse. They start growing by absorbing the elements from the outside world, and all of that is borrowed, and that goes on through your entire life. Everything is borrowed.

And you reflect on how it’s all moving back, as well. So having reflected on how the Earth element has all come from outside of you, you reflect on how the Earth element is in a continual process of returning. So, right now, I’m exhaling carbon dioxide, which was carbohydrates, which had been part of plants in the outside world, so it’s all flowing through. I took a dump this morning, so that’s part of the Earth element returning. And losing skin cells–as I’m sitting here, hairs are falling out. So there’s all this Earth element returning to the outside world. And of course, when you die, ultimately, you give all of it back.

So, you reflect this way for the Earth element, for everything solid, for the water element, everything, liquid. I think I forgot to mention gas in the previous explanation. But the fire element, which is the energy taken from the outside world, and the air element, which I forgot to mention earlier, and is everything gaseous within the body and outside. And, you start to sense yourself not as being a thing, not as something separate and static, but you start to experience your body as being something in a process of flow. It’s like a stretch of river, which is not a thing. It’s an event, as it were. Things are flowing through.

You reflect on the space element, which in a way, it’s your appearance, which is continually changing. You reflect on the fact that all of these physical elements that we’ve been talking about have been passing through you, but this space that is you isn’t ultimately you either. It’s continually changing, and it’s also borrowed from the outside world. You don’t have any space that is just you.

So, what we’re doing is we’re looking at what we normally identify with as being ourselves, and realizing that there’s no substance there, there’s certainly nothing separate. There is nothing static.

I haven’t mentioned the consciousness element yet. That is the other thing that we identify with. We identify with our bodies, and we identify with our minds, and when we look at the consciousness element, all we see is a continuous process of change. There are various experiences coming into being, existing for a short time, and passing away again. There’s physical sensations of heat, pressure, etc. There are thoughts, feelings, emotions. They’re all arising and passing away again, so you begin to sense that, too, as being a river. And if none of these experiences that you’re having are, as it were, stuck inside you–if you’re not attached to them–if they’re not attached to you in some way, then in what sense are they actually you? You start to experience this sense of almost existential vertigo. All the attachments that you have to thinking about you are a certain way begin to get let go of.

Vincent: It sounds like, in some ways, the practice you’re describing is very similar to many types of practices, and yet there’s a difference that I’m also noticing. I’ve never done a practice quite like what you’re describing. And I was wondering, because it seems like you’re the type of person that can sort of take a step back from their own approach, if you could maybe say a little bit about what you found the strengths of this approach to be when compared to, maybe, other approaches and techniques, and also if you’ve noticed any weaknesses or limitations.

Bodhipaksa: Ok. In terms of strengths, I think it’s a very all-around practice. What I described in terms of the consciousness element, for example, is very similar to Vipassana meditation–traditional, classic insight meditation. In fact, it is traditional, classic insight meditation. But you’re also reflecting on your body, which is quite a powerful and grounded thing to do. You’re not just reflecting on your experience of sensations within the body, as you would tend to do with insight meditation, but you’re reflecting on your body as you are attached to it in your day-to-day experience.

So, I think it’s got that strength. It’s something that you can reflect on outside of meditation, of course, as well. When you’re eating, when you’re going to the bathroom, when you’re lifting the plug of hairs out of the shower and flushing it down the toilet, you can be aware of all these ramifications of what you are as a process. It does seem to be quite powerful.

On the other hand, well, that power can be unsettling for some people. When I was taught the practice, I was taught that it’s very important to do it in a metta-ful state–that is a state of mind imbued with loving-kindness. If you tried to, as it were, dismantle your sense of self when you’re not in a very positive state of mind, or if you experience self-hatred, for example, then I think that could lead to quite a disturbing and jarring experience. So it’s not a complete practice. I think it has to be combined with loving kindness practice, in particular. I’d say if it’s got a weakness, that’s it, but, in a way, it’s not really a weakness. It’s just how it is.

Vincent: Interesting. And one thing I was noticing is that there seems to be a real recognition just built in to the way that the practice is described–of this interdependence of things, that maybe is not as obvious in, for instance, some of the techniques that I’ve practiced.

Bodhipaksa: Yeah. It’s definitely a practice of reflecting on interconnectedness. It can lead to very strong experiences of the dissolving of the sense of self and other.

Vincent: Interesting. And like you’re saying, sometimes that dissolving can also be disturbing, and so there’s a way in which it’s got to be balanced by something.

Bodhipaksa: Yeah. Yeah. If you have that balance, though, if you have that sense of loving kindness so that it’s not so threatening anymore–and I have had experiences of feeling quite threatened during the practice–but if you do have that sense of confidence that comes from loving kindness, then that dissolving of the boundaries between yourself and others can be a really powerful experience. The practice leads, in fact, not to the dhyana that you often hear talked about, but to what’s often, in my opinion, erroneously called the arupa jhanas, the formless dhyanas, or higher dhyanas, which begin with a sense of the breakdown between the sense of self and other.

Vincent: Yeah, it’s interesting just the way you’re describing space and consciousness. Those are in the higher dhyanas or jhanas.

Bodhipaksa: They’re the first two.

Vincent: Yeah, they’re the first two.

Bodhipaksa: Yeah. So, the practice segues into the experience of the so-called arupa jhanas. I say that “the so-called” higher dhyanas, because it turns out you don’t have to go through the dhyanas, the four dhyanas, in order to get to the so-called higher dhyanas, and in the Pali Canon, they’re never called dhyanas; they’re called ayatanas, spheres. So I think there’s a bit of mythology built up that you have to go through the dhyanas in other to get to these so-called higher dhyanas. You can do it that way, but you don’t have to.

Vincent: Cool, I love the Buddhist Geekiness coming through right now. It’s good.

Bodhipaksa: Me too.

Vincent: [Laughs] So, to take it even to, maybe, a next level of geekiness, there was one thing that I was struck by as I was reading “Living as a River,” and that was that in some ways, when I heard you talking about non-self or writing about impermanence, there’s a way it struck me that it could be interpreted as you describing what I want to call “ontological realities”–that in some way, impermanence and not-self are true in some ultimate sense. And, as you know, this is one of the big critiques that the Madhyamaka school, and particularly Nagarjuna, were making of earlier strata teachings. And I wondered if you could say a little bit about that, because it’s something that isn’t really entirely clear in reading the book itself.

Bodhipaksa: Well, I would have hoped it was clearer than it might actually be, so maybe that’s something for the 2nd edition. No, I don’t think of impermanence and insubstantiality in a way as being ontological realities. I don’t think the Buddha really talked in terms of ontological realities at all. I think he talked about how our experience is, and I think what he was saying was that within our experience–what he called “The All”–that is, the sum totality of everything that is possible for us to experience. Within our experience, everything is changing all the time, and that there’s nothing within our experience that is permanent enough or stable enough to be able to be the basis of a separate and defined self.

So, I don’t think the Buddha really was that interested in external reality. I mean, obviously he was, in a sense; he lived in the world, but he wasn’t a scientist in the sense that he was making a statement that all fundamental particles are impermanent, for example. Even if he was aware of that concept, that wasn’t his interest. His interest was in suffering and how to get rid of suffering, and in order to address that, you have to look at the nature of our experience.

When the Buddha said everything is impermanent, I don’t think he was actually talking in terms of the world–the physical world that we inhabit. It so happens that it seems that pretty much everything does change. I believe some fundamental particles–perhaps neutrons or something–don’t, in a way, change; they don’t mutate into other particles; they don’t decay, but of course it all was moving around and interacting with other things, so there’s some kind of change there. But I don’t think that’s what the Buddha was interested in.

The Madhyamaka got–well, the Mahayana, more broadly–got kind of caught up in the same kind of trap. I mean, they ended up having to. They tended to reify Sunyata, emptiness. It tended to be seen as being a thing, and so you have Mahayana teachers who are having to say, “Well, emptiness itself is empty.” You got to keep reminding people of this, because it’s just a natural tendency to see impermanence as being a thing, and it’s not a thing, it’s just a description of the way things change. Sunyata isn’t a thing, it’s just a description of how our experiences and how our experience doesn’t constitute anything that can be taken to be an existent, permanent, separate self.

Vincent: Cool. And I guess to sort of finish up or wrap up this conversation, which has been really fascinating, I wanted to talk about, the penultimate goal in some ways, of Buddhist practice, which is enlightenment. And, one of the last chapters in your book is called Entering the Stream. You talk about stream-entry, or what you call entry-level enlightenment.

This is something that I know some teachers do talk about. And then, a lot of teaches seem to shy away from this in some way and there’s maybe not a lot of awareness of this concept, hich is actually, if you look back in the early strata like you were mentioning the Pali Canon. This stream-entry comes up all the time. So many suttas have this as a mention of, this person got stream-entry listening to the Buddha or, or doing this practice, etc. So could you say a little about stream-entry, and also, if you’ve noticed that this is something that people may shy away from in their teachings?

Bodhipaksa: Yeah I’ve noticed that there are some teachers who definitely make a point of talking about enlightenment and that enlightenment is why we’re doing practice in the first place. But when the average person comes along to a Dharma Center, usually their motivated by, something along the lines of, their life sucks. Or there’s some element of their life that sucks. There’s stress and there’s conflict with other people. And they just want to be a bit happier. So they come along and they find that there’s these tools which help them to become a bit happier, at least. I mean the tools can do a lot more than that. But, meditating makes you happier. When you’re, experiencing a bit more loving kindness, you’re a bit happier. When you learn to let go of things, you’re a bit happier. When you’re paying more attention to your experience and experiencing the freedom that comes with that, you’re a bit happier. And people I think get kind of stuck in that. It’s like, “Oh, this is okay. Yeah I’ll just keep doing my dharma practice and I’ll just keep getting a bit happier.” Buy they’re not thinking in terms of making some kind of big breakthrough in the way that they see the world. There’s this incremental change that they’re bringing about in their mental state. But they’re, not fundamentally challenging the way that they see the world.

And I think even teachers can get caught up in that. I have, in the past. Several years ago I was talking with some fellow practitioners and teachers. And saying, “You know I realize I don’t think about enlightenment very much. [laughing] Do you guys think about it? Do you talk about it? Do you teach about it?” And everyone kind of sat there and realized, “Well actually we, we don’t.”

So I started making it a point, and this was probably about seven or eight years ago, I started making a point of being more up front about why we were doing dharma practice in the first place. And, thinking more in terms of aiming at stream-entry. And, in a way I had always thought about that. It was in the back of my mind. But it wasn’t so much a kind of, conscience goal. More something I assumed would just happen at some time.

Vincent: Interesting. And I’m wondering, do you think to some degree with teachers that there’s a way in which the path has become so integrated into their own lives and so normal in a certain sense, that it becomes, weird to think about those sort of things? Or not natural in some way, to think about that in terms of their own experience, but it might be, in some ways, really important for someone who’s just starting on the path? Do you think that’s a possible explanation for why you and those teachers weren’t sort of talking about it that much?

Bodhipaksa: I’m not really sure. I think there’s a number of things going on. One is that we have a tendency, I think because of, a lack of self worth, and because of the nature of our delusions, whereby we think we have separate and permanent selves. We tend to think that spiritual goals are very far away. My own teacher, the founder of the Western Buddhist Order, Sangharakshita, he’s talked about stream-entry a lot. Which is why I said it’s always been in the back of my mind, at the very least. And, he said stream-entry is attainable in this lifetime. If you do a good few years of solid, dharma practice, you can take it for granted that you’ll, at some point, reach stream-entry. And so stream-entry becomes the goal. So there’s a lot of people in the Triratna Buddhist Order, who talk about stream-entry and think about it, as the next goal. But it becomes kind of, elevated. In the same way that the Buddha’s attainment has become kind of elevated, it’s almost out of our reach.

The Mahayana did this a lot. They took the goal of the Buddha, of Buddhahood, and said, “You’ve got to practice for innumerable lifetimes. You’re going have to practice for hundreds of thousands of lifetimes in order to get enlightened. And the Buddha has all these amazing cosmic qualities and he can create entire universes and all this kind of thing.” The Buddha seems so far away. He’s remote. Totally remote.

And people start doing something similar with stream-entry. They start thinking of stream-entry as being, well it’s basically enlightenment isn’t it? And if you’re enlightened you’re basically perfect. So somebody who’s a stream-enterer is going be completely sorted. And it becomes another attainable goal. It’s a goal that’s been put in front of us and we’ve been told, “You can do this.” And we say “no, I don’t think so, not now, maybe sometime in the future.” That to me I think is the main reason that stream-entry gets pushed off is because well, we don’t think that we’re worthy, we think that there’s something inside of us that’s fundamentally flawed that’s going stop us from getting there, and so we make it unattainable.

Vincent: Interesting. And could you talk a little bit about why entering the stream is important; maybe kind of what it is, if it’s something that you can talk about.

Bodhipaksa: Okay. Why it’s important. Well, in the terms that the Pali Cannon uses, that is I think we can assume are the terms the Buddha used, there are a number of fetters holding us back. These are delusions and attachments that stand between us and full enlightenment, full Buddhahood. And if we break the first three of those we’re what’s called a stream enterer–we break the fetter of having a fixed and separate self, we break the fetter of doubt, and we break the fetter of dependence upon practices or inappropriate dependence on practices.

And all three of those are broken more or less simultaneously. I believe the teaching is they’re broken simultaneously, but I don’t know if you necessarily can experience them simultaneously. I think they’ll tend to be experienced in consecutive terms. And there’s just a breaking of a fundamental core delusion that there is something a separate and fixed about you. And that’s a liberating experience. When that core delusion dissipates and you realize everything that constitutes your experience is just changing all the time, and there is nothing else. There’s no hidden baggage that’s holding you back. Obviously, there’s the psychological baggage that holds us back and we have to transform, and dig up, and work with, and transform, but there’s nothing fundamentally holding you back from enlightenment. There’s an enormous sense of confidence, which emerges, which replaces the doubt.

Another thing that happens, which is related to the third fetter, is that you realize this is all actually very simple. When we’re caught up in the third fetter of inappropriate dependence upon religious practices, that tends to get caught up with our lack of self confidence. So, we think well, we need some special teaching, we need some special teacher in order to get enlightenment. We need to be doing something else from what we’re doing, so we perhaps wander restlessly from practice to practice, or we do our daily practice in a kind of semi-despondent way because we know it’s not really taking us all the way yet, and there’s an element of doubt involved in that.

But really what the Buddha was saying was something really simple. Look at your experience, right now. It’s changing all the time. It’s continually changing. All you have to do is look, and you’ll see that it’s continually changing all the time. There is no basis for a fixed, separate, permanent self.

And what tends to happen of course, with practices is that we talk about them, and think about them, and we sometimes over think things. An image I sometimes find myself using, a slightly absurd one, is that stream-entry is a bit like the Buddha having said, “Look, there’s a big pink elephant floating in the sky. Look at it.” And everyone says, “Wow, the Buddha says there’s a big pink elephant floating in the sky, I wonder what this elephant is like? I wonder how big this elephant is?” And then you get all the schools of thought about the big pink elephant, about whether it’s closer to being white, or closer to being red, etc., etc. So we talk about practice, we talk about impermanence. Ayya Khema made the point we sometimes talk about impermanence so much that we forget to look and see that every experience that we’re having right now in this moment is impermanence.

Yeah, it’s actually really simple in the end. Just look, just see, notice that everything is changing all the time. At some point you’ll get it. At some point it’s going to click and you’re going realize that yeah, everything I’m experiencing is completely impermanent. There’s no basis for a fixed separate me.

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Rainer Maria Rilke: “Go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows.”

CaveTo many people, the word “mindfulness” excludes the imagination, but, as Bodhipaksa explains, there are powerful insight practices that involve mindfully imagining our connection to the wider world.

For many years I’ve been practicing a meditation known as the Six Element Practice.

The Six Element Practice is an insight meditation involving reflection on our impermanence and interconnectedness.

For some practitioners of the most common form of “insight meditation” — that taught by S. N. Goenka, and by various teachers of the Insight Meditation Society — the notion of reflecting on our experience in the way that we do in the Six Element practice can seem odd, and even contradictory to what they understand of meditation and of mindfulness.

In the form of meditation they practice, thoughts and images may come up, but they are to be observed without interference and allowed to pass. The impermanence of thoughts and images is noted but thoughts and images themselves are not actively cultivated. S. N. Goenka states in one of his books, “Vipassana uses no imagination,” and the variations of the phrase “no imagination is involved” are scattered throughout his teachings. In the Six Element practice, in contrast to Goenka-style vipassana, we do in fact consciously cultivate the arising of thoughts and images. We mindfully reflect and imagine.

 Images spring into my mind, evoked by the words I’m speaking  

In the Earth Element reflection, for example, we call to mind everything solid within the body. This includes some aspects of the body that we can directly sense, such as the mass of the muscles, the hardness of the teeth, and the resistance offered by some of the bones. But being aware of what is solid in the body goes far beyond what we can directly sense, and takes us into an awareness, for example, of the internal organs, the bone marrow, and even the contents of the stomach and the bowels—all things we are asked to become aware of in the traditional descriptions of the practice. These are things we can’t perceive directly, and so we have to imagine them. In the Buddha’s day people would be familiar with anatomy from seeing animals butchered, and from seeing bodies in charnel grounds. Nowadays we can picture those organs in the mind’s eye by drawing our experience of illustrations we may have seen in books, magazines, or on television programs.

Similarly, in the Earth Element reflection we call to mind the solid matter in the outside world. When I’m leading others through the practice I usually draw attention to some examples: the solid floor that supports us and the building covering us, the ground below, rocks and boulders, the distant mountains, the trees and other plants in our environment, buildings, vehicles, the bodies of people and animals, etc. As I say these things out loud for the benefit of students, I find that images spring into my mind, evoked by the words I’m speaking. Sometimes, in order to cultivate a sense of the solidity of the external Earth Element I’ll recall or imagine grasping a handful of soil, or hefting a stone in my hand, or pushing against the rough bark of a tree trunk.

 Einstein once referred to our sense of separateness being a kind of optical delusion of consciousness.  

Imagination allows us to see aspects of reality that aren’t immediately obvious to the unaided senses. Our senses end up fooling us because they’re unable to directly perceive process. When I become mindful of my body, aware only of what is available to my raw senses, I can be fooled into thinking that my body is more static and separate than it is in reality. Einstein once referred to our sense of separateness being a kind of “optical delusion of consciousness.” He was using the words “optical delusion” as a metaphor, but the metaphor is actually very accurate. When I look at my body I see a boundary separating self from other. I also see something that is relatively unchanging. This is what my senses present to me—the body as a “thing.” And yet in my imagination I can recall the way in which my body has come into being by ingesting nourishment and how what constitutes my body is constantly changing from being “self” to being “other.” By recollecting in my mind’s eye the various ways in which the elements flow through my body, I find I can have a truer perception of what the body is: something that is not separate and not static.

All this, however, rather goes against a certain idea of mindfulness, which is that it involves being aware only of what arises in our present moment experience, such as the sensations being presented to our bodies and any thoughts and feelings that arise naturally. In the Buddhist tradition, however, the mind is considered to be a sixth sense, so that when we reflect on our internal organs or on the solidity of the earth we are simply paying attention to the present moment experience of our visual and tactile imagination. Mindfulness can include these things.

And imagination can be a valuable gateway into insight. It allows us to, in Rilke’s words, go into ourselves and see how deep is the place from which our lives flow. Imagination helps us to make the invisible visible, and to see truths that our unaided senses cannot detect.

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“Living as a river” – an interview with Bodhipaksa

Recently Wildmind’s founder, Bodhipaksa, was interviewed by Tami Simon, the owner of the renowned publisher of spirituality audiobooks.

The interview (transcript below) is part of a series called “Insights at the Edge,” which also includes conversations with Buddhist teachers Sharon Salzberg, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Jack Kornfield. The interview includes a discussion of science and spirituality together can help us appreciate the interconnected nature of reality, and of Bodhipaksa’s forthcoming book on the Six Elements.

Here’s how Sounds True describes the podcast:

Bodhipaksa: Living as a River

Tami Simon speaks with Bodhipaksa, a Buddhist teacher, author, and member of the Western Buddhist Order since 1993. He currently teaches Buddhism and meditation to prisoners and is the author of several books, including Wildmind: A Step-by-step Guide to Meditation, as well as the Sounds True audio learning programs Still the Mind and The Wisdom of the Breath. In this interview, Bodhipaksa discusses the fluid nature of identity: what he calls “living as a river.” (56 minutes)

Tami Simon: So Bodhipaksa you submitted a very interesting book to Sounds True, which we’ve decided to publish and you called it in your submission, The Six Rivers of Becoming: What Science and Spirituality Teach Us about Who We Really Are and, of course, who knows, by the time Sounds True publishes it we might call it something like How to Be Happy Through the Six Rivers of Becoming. I’m curious first of all what brought you to writing this book and if you can tell us a little bit about what it’s about.

Bodhipaksa: Okay, the book comes out of a practice that I do. It’s an Insight Meditation practice called the Six Element Practice, and it’s a reflective meditation where you are working on becoming aware of what it is that you identify with of being yourself You’re realizing that what you identify with being yourself is in fact not something static and not something separate from the outside world. So you’ve got these six elements, which are earth, what is whatever’s solid with in the body; water whatever is liquid in the body; the fire element, just all the physical energy in the body. There’s the air element, whatever is gaseous within the body. There’s the space element, which is not one of the classical elements. The way I understand that in my practice is it’s the sum total of space that all of that matter and energy take up. So it’s your form, your physical appearance, which we identify with being ourselves.

And there’s the consciousness, which resides within all of our functions. With each of these elements, what you can do is reflect on the ways in which there’s not a thing there, but a process. And what you might identify with, for example as the earth element or the solid matter within your body right now has come from outside of you. A little while ago the calcium that’s in your bones was actually in bread or milk. The protein that’s making up your muscles was in a burger or slab of tofu. And what you’re doing it you’re becoming aware that what you commonly identify with is just borrowed from the outside world. It’s not something that you can hold onto because it’s continually passing back to the outside world. What you identified with a few moments ago as being you is already beginning to depart. So skin cells are flaking off. Hairs are falling out. Your combusting carbohydrates in your body and you’re exhaling them as carbon dioxide and that carbon dioxide is becoming trees. You go to the bathroom, you take a dump, that gets flushed away somewhere and gets broken down by bacteria and protozoa and gets built into plants, etc., etc. So when you start looking at yourself in this way you start to get a sense of yourself not as a thing, but as a process. And you start to realize that everything that you identify with as yourself is not yourself. It’s all borrowed. It’s all coming from the outside and it’s all returning to the outside.

Tami Simon: So Bodhipaksa I think most people even before deconstructing their body into these six different elements just think, well, of course who I am has a lot to do with my body because I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have a body, so my identity has a lot to do with my body. Correct? I might not be just my body, but I am kind of my body in a certain way, aren’t I?

Bodhipaksa: Well in a certain way, we are, yeah, What are we if we take away our bodies and our minds? It’s more a question of how we actually relate to our bodies. For example you look in the mirror and see yourself and notice that you’ve been changing. What does that feel like? You notice there’s a few more gray hairs there or some wrinkles that weren’t there before, You’re belly’s sagging a little bit more. Well, we suffer because we identify our bodies as being ourselves and our bodies are continually changing and so our basis for feeling secure about ourselves is continually changing because of identifying with something that’s insecure. So if you want to be happy what you have to do it embrace change and stop clinging to something that is continually changing because by clinging to something in an effort to find some kind of security, when that something is continually changing you’re going to end up suffering.

Tami Simon: Well, I think a lot of people have a great deal of panic, let’s say, if there’s a diagnosis of terminal illness kind of thing, of course. So without my body, I might not be here, so of course I feel identified with my body.

Bodhipaksa: Yeah, right, and it’s quite natural. It’s and evolutionary thing, really. We have to take care of our bodies, and this practice wouldn’t suggest that we start neglecting our bodies. It just suggests that we stop seeing so much importance and significance in them and start accepting the fact that they do change.

Tami Simon: So part of the idea behind this deconstruction into the six elements is recognizing the amount of change that’s always going on and that’s just the fact of what’s happening?

Bodhipaksa: Yeah, yeah, and those effects from that. This practice is traditionally regarded as an antidote to conceit. It can mean an inflated sense of self-importance. When we start being so proud of our bodies because they’re firm and good looking and people like them and that kind of stuff, that is setting up the conditions for future suffering because at some point people are going to be looking at our bodies and thinking, well, ten years ago she was pretty good looking. Ten years ago he had a body on him, but look at him now. So, this element of conceit gets let go that way. But there are other interpretations of the word conceit in this practice, which is that it’s conceiving ding. There’s a conceding of yourself as being either separate and of being either better than, equal to or worse than other beings. And all of those things are sources of suffering. We set ourselves up as being separate from the world or from other people and as soon as you start doing that, you set yourself up in competition with other people or separate and therefore we’re all competing for the same scare resources such as love, etc., and again we end up suffering because of that. We’re working on letting go of multiple levels of identification so we can be happier.

Tami Simon: This question that it seems like this six-element practice is exploring, what is the self, what is identity. It seems that is a core question in spirituality. Wouldn’t you agree?

Bodhipaksa: I think it’s the core question, who we are, what we are. I think at the time at the Buddha people were asking this question a lot: what is the true self? And most answers came down to some kind of true self or soul that was within us that we couldn’t necessarily have direct experience of or some aspect of ourselves would be taken to be an unchanging and separate entity. The Buddha’s response to that seemed to be quite radical, that you should let go of any identification whatsoever. It’s quite a hard position for us. Even with someone who’s been practicing two or three decades, it’s not an easy position to grasp. I have some sense of what the Buddha meant by that. But I can’t I’ve in any way plumbed the depths of what he was pointing at.

Tami Simon: This idea of dropping any kind of identification. So when you do the six-element practice how does that take you through that process of disidentifying?

Bodhipaksa: it’s quite a subtle thing, really. You’re doing this with the physical elements, so you’re becoming aware that everything that constitutes your body, whether it’s solid, liquid, gaseous or energy—all of that really isn’t you, and it’s not something that you can really hole onto. It can do many things to you, and one of them is that it causes this sense of lightness. It’s like having had a fist and then it begins to kind of open again. And it’s hard trying to communicate that to someone because you’re been going around your entire life with your hands in fists, and someone says, yeah, you don’t really need to have your hands that way, you can relax them a little bit, you can let go of them a little bit. It’s kind of hard to see how you can do that and hard to imagine what that would actually feel like until you’ve done it. But there is that sense of lightness. There can be a sense of humility, as well. Because we go around thinking that we’re the center of the world and actually we’re just a little vortex or matter and energy and consciousness in an absolutely huge world. A huge and very, very complex world, which is full of billions of other vortices of energy and consciousness ang matter. And it can bring about a sense of humility.

It can bring about a sense of appreciation as well because you start realizing how much you’re dependent upon others and other processes in the world round about you. And I think all of these things are ultimately kind of liberating. They’re liberating ourselves from a sense of, hey, I’m so cool, I’m the center of the world, you know, I’m the center of the universe. Everything revolves around about me. Get out of my way, here I come. We start to be more appreciative.

Tami Simon: Now probably the main way that people identify is with their thoughts about themselves. Wouldn’t you say? I think I’m this, I think I’m that. You were talking about the physical aspects of the body in terms of the elements, but how do we work on this disidentifying from what we think about who we are?

Bodhipaksa: Well, I think the longer you practice the more you start realizing that things can change. When I started practicing I was a really, really bad tempered person. I was so moody and bad tempered. I didn’t realize I was moody and bad tempered. I just thought the world was just full of idiots [laughs]. It’s kind of funny thinking about it?

Tami Simon: How old were you Bodhipaksa?

Bodhipaksa: This was early twenties and I guess I was quite arrogant and also quite insecure, as well. So over the years I’ve gone from being full of ill will and contempt for other people to being much friendlier, much more approachable, much more compassionate person. And so I’ve experience myself this big change in my personality. I think a lot of people who haven’t experienced that–that kind of change–still have the sense, well; you’re stuck with what you’re got. So if I’m a bad-tempered person that’s just how I am or if I’m full of craving and can’t stop eating or pursuing sensuous delights, and that’s just the kind of person I am. This is the way I was made. So people identify with the way that they are at a particular time and don’t realize—perhaps can’t realize—until they begin a process of changing. Actually, these things are quite malleable. There’s a lot of change that can go on.

Tami Simon: I guess still what I’m asking about is I have these ideas about who I am. I have these thought structures. I’m a person who is whatever. So what you’re saying is to take that lightly. That that could change?

Bodhipaksa: Yeah, it might be true in a sense, right now, but a lot of things can change very, very quickly. Think of someone for example like Eckhardt Tolle who told us about his experience of having this radical shift in consciousness, where literally one minute he’s depressed and contemplating suicide and the next minute he’s completely at peace. When you’re experiencing depression you think that’s how it’s going to be. This is how I am. This is how it’s going to be. I’m stuck. But sometimes the underlying support for a mental state, an attitude like that and all the views that go with it about the kind of person you are and the kind of world that you live in, and how that world that you live in relates to you. The whole substructure for that can just completely collapse at a moment’s notice. Radical change can happen quickly. Sometimes it takes a long, long time not to be a bad-tempered person, but sometimes things can just change quite instantaneously.

Tami Simon: How do you think the practice of meditation affected this bad-tempered person in their early twenties? Or do you think there were other factors that created this gradual change in you? How did you become less bad tempered?

Bodhipaksa: Well I did a lot of metta badna [?] loving kindness practice and . . .

Tami Simon: Can you tell us specifically what you did? What were you focusing on?

Bodhipaksa: Right, well, metta badna[?] or development of loving kindness is a practice for developing a more appreciative, friendly, loving, compassionate towards ourselves and toward others. I did that practice a lot where we start with ourselves, wishing ourselves well, more onto a good friend, and then a person we don’t have much emotional connection with, someone we have difficulties with, and then expanding that feeling of loving kindness to the world. I used to have a lot of enemies. I used to have a lot of people I didn’t like and so I would wish those people well. Sometimes things would change quite rapidly. I think I discovered within my first few weeks of meditation that my mood could suddenly shift.

I remember once I was a student at the time and I was sitting in the car with a bunch of other students I shared an apartment with and they were having this conversation and it was so trivial and I was just way above all this of course. They were talking about their fathers’ ties or something like this and to me this was so trivial and I was condescending and got myself into a real bad temper about it, and I remembered like just the week before I learned this loving kindness practice, so I just sat there saying may I be well, may I be happy, may I be free from suffering and after about four or five minutes I realized, Hey, I’m not in a bad mood anymore. I actually felt human and open and responsive to the people round about me, rather than judgmental of them.

So practice just does change you. I sometimes have to adapt the practice because there were parts of myself I just didn’t like. I became aware of how judgmental I was and I didn’t like that, so that became a problem in itself. I became judgmental of my judgmental attitude. So what I did was I created a version of the practice for myself, where in each stage of the practice it was just me. So I started off with wishing myself well, and in the friend state I would wish well the parts of myself that I liked and appreciated. In the neutral-person stage I’d take parts of myself I’d never really paid much attention to, and I would wish them well. And then in the enemy or the difficult-person stage I would take parts of myself I didn’t like and I’d wish them well. And that was very transforming as well, because it was because it was a practice of complete, unconditional loving kindness towards parts of myself that were not just difficult, but actually in pain.

I started to realize that underneath my prickliness and bad-temperedness was actually a lot of pain that I never really acknowledged. I guess I’d been brought up in a rather stiff-upper-lip culture where people are very reserved and you just dealt with it. If something happened round about you and it was difficult or painful it was kind of unmanly to show the world or even to admit to yourself that you found it painful. So I went through a long process of just allowing myself to feel pain and realizing that that was okay and welcoming the pain, and treating myself almost as a good friend who turned up on my doorstep. If you had a good friend who turned up on your doorstep and they were really unhappy about something, you’d probably want to just welcome them in and, “Sit down, dude, what’s going on? Tell me about it. I want to know.” And you’d kind of embrace their pain in an offshoot of kindly inquiry, and that’s what I started doing with my own pain as well, realizing that I could just welcome that in and [ask] what’s going on here? And that in itself was enough to take away the bad-temperedness, because the bad-temperedness was just an outward symptom of an inward problem of not accepting my own pain and my own vulnerability.

Tami Simon: And how did your view toward other people change–all those people you thought were idiots in your early twenties? [laughs]

Bodhipaksa: I still occasionally find people who I think are complete idiots [laughs], especially on the Internet and especially in political discussions. However, people that I actually knew I tend to be much more forgiving towards them. I’ve come to realize more and more that everything that everybody does comes ultimately from a good motive, which is that they want to be happy. It doesn’t matter how outrageous the behavior of that person or how unethical it may seem to be. They have a belief that in doing the things that they’re doing, it’s going to make them happy, and that in itself is actually a good motivation. It’s a good thing to want to be happy. It’s the strategy that is wrong or in error. When people are going things that generally pisses us off, sometimes it’s just us, the way we respond, but when someone’s genuinely doing something that’s unskillful or unethical it’s a strategy for becoming happy, but it’s a strategy that’s just not going to work, and that’s the problem with it.

There was a Buddhist text I translated once when I was studying Pali at university and it was quite staggering really. It was almost the antithesis of Buddhism–letting go of greed, letting go of hatred, letting go of delusion. And there was a passage where the Buddha said if greed, hate, and delusion make you happy I wouldn’t tell you to let go of them, I’d tell you to embrace them because the whole worth of the Buddhist path, the Buddha said is about one thing, which is suffering and how to get rid of suffering which in more positive terms is about happiness and fulfillment and how to find them. So the about greed, hatred, and delusion is not that they are somehow wrong, it’s that they don’t work. They’re strategies for finding happiness and they don’t actually create happiness, they create unhappiness.

So when you start having that perspective in mind—obviously, I can’t always keep it in mind—but when I can have that perspective in mind it’s much easier to be forgiving of people because you realize that at heart, right down in the core, there’s something very positive there, it’s just that there’s layer of delusion there, which is leading to strategies that aren’t going to work. And that in itself—that recognition—is a way to be more compassionate toward people, realizing that they’re doing something that they think is going to make them happy and it’s not. It’s going to make them unhappy.

Tami Simon: Now I was joking earlier with you Bodhipaksa that by the time your manuscript goes through the publishing process it’s going to be called something like How to Be Happy, but it does seem that there’s a connection between the six-element practice and that work of deconstructing ourselves that relates to happiness and I’m wondering if you can make that more explicit?

Bodhipaksa: Right, well, it is ultimately what the practice is about and it’s ultimately what all Buddhist practice is about. I suppose the way it works is that we seek happiness in trying to find some sense of security and how do we find security? Well we cling to something. We identify with it. We try to hold onto it. So with the impermanent world that we’re living in and we try to cling to our sense of ourselves as being separate and special, for example. Those strategies just don’t work. We’re not separate and in a way we’re really not that special—in some ways kind of miraculous, but in other ways we’re surrounded by miraculous things, so we’re just one miracle amongst many and if you’re just one miracle amongst many you’re not really that special.

So in letting go of the unhelpful strategy I’ve tried to hold onto, what you can do is embrace change and find security in not finding security, which is rather paradoxical, I realize, but we find happiness in a sense of well-being in a sense of security by realizing that we can’t hold onto anything.

Tami Simon: So Where’s the security in that?

Bodhipaksa: Well, that’s kind of interesting. I’m not sure I can actually put that into words right now. What comes to mind, I suppose, is that a lot of time in our lives we’re at odds with the world. We’re trying to hold back change. We don’t like getting old, for example. We don’t like the thought that we’re not really that special and we’re in denial about the actually reality of things, so that’s kind of inherently insecure. And I think just realizing the reality of things is the only way that we can actually feel secure. Actually, I think I can probably give a better answer.

The practice ultimately leads much through the body but also through the mind and paying attention to our experience and noticing that that experience, too, is just flowing through us. We have feeling, thought, emotions, etc., that are just passing through, and what we’re doing in the practice is developing a sense of equanimity towards all of our experience, which means we’re just allowing it to be, we’re just allowing it to flow through us. And it’s that sense of equanimity that I think is real security. These things are real hard to articulate. I think even for the Buddha these things were hard to articulate.

But, equanimity is an extremely nonreactive, nongrasping state of mind, which just allows things to be. And I think it’s ultimately that state of equanimity which is real security.

Tami Simon: Now the metaphor you use throughout the manuscript is this idea of living as a river. Can you talk a little bit about this idea of the river.

Bodhipaksa: Well, in the practice you’re observing the flow of each of these elements. And there’s a number of images that come to my mind when I’m doing the practice. I’ll have conjured up this image of each element coming from the outside world, it’s passing through this six-feet length of body and passing back into the outside world again. And I’ll have the sense of observing something like a river. And sometimes I just imagine that I’m sitting by a riverbank, a six-foot length of riverbank that I’m seeing, and that’s me. But every time I say that’s me, the water there has already moved as soon as I’ve articulated that though—that’s me—the water’s already passed through. It’s already gone. You’re left with a sense of trying to grasp the ungraspable. We have the sense that our self is a thing, the body is a thing, but actually it’s a process and you can’t hold onto a process. A process by its very nature is something that’s continually changing.

Trying to grasp into the river and hold back this six-foot length and it’s just flowing through your fingers. That’s one way that the river image comes to me—probably the main way I start thinking about myself as being not a thing, but a process.

Tami Simon: So part of the idea of doing the six-element practice is that we become accustomed in some way and accepting of our “riverness.”

Bodhipaksa: Yeah, our riverness. I like that word. Yes, It’s embracing our riverness, truly accepting our riverness, I suppose, rather than embracing even. Embracing has a sense of grasping or trying to cling to.

Tami Simon: And then, I know you have this interest in science, and even though this six-element practice is an ancient practice that there are now discoveries in contemporary science that are confirming or at least shedding light in some way for you on the value of the practice and how it works and I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about this.

Bodhipaksa: Sure, I think the six-element practice was in a way a kind of a scientific practice. That’s the best understanding the Buddha and people of that time had of the world was that it was made of solid, liquid, gas, and energy, all existing within space and somewhere in there, there was consciousness residing. So it was in a way a kind of scientific practice. And when you read things like the description of what the fire element say—the fire element internally, that is within the body—and it describes it as that which digests and causes the heart to beat, etc., so it’s all the physical processes within the body. So I think he was trying to be scientific in the way that the practice is structured. Our understanding of how change happens in the body has changed a lot. The ways that we have of understanding how the body is not ultimately ours, have also changed a lot.

So for example, you start thinking about your DNA and for a lot of us, that’s the essence of who we are. There’s more viral DNA in your genome than there is human DNA. You’re mostly virus, a viral hybrid, which is kind of an odd thought. So you start realizing that a lot of stuff that’s at your core isn’t even human. You start looking at the body, and science can give us a much better idea of how solid matter flows through the body.

There were some interesting experiments done about how long various tissues lasted. And it was based on the fact that in the 1950s and 1960s there were a lot of above-ground nuclear tests, and the plus of radiation that came out from the nuclear tests caused the formation of carbon 14, which is a mildly radioactive, heavier isotope of carbon. Now that quickly got absorbed into living beings, producing a kind of time stamp. And it became possible to look at the turnover of carbon 14 in the human body and get a sense of how long different tissues lasted, so you find, for example that the tissues on your skin only last a few days, and the gut lining similarly. Your bones last for several years. Even your bones, which you think of as being solid and permanent, are in continuous process of change. There are cells in your bones and their only function is to break down your bones. Your bones are continually dissolving from within. Fortunately there are also some cells in your bones and their function is to build up your bone tissue again. So your bones are continually in this process of dissolving away and being rebuilt. So what you think of as being something solid is actually a process that’s continually changing all the time.

So sometimes science can illuminate processes that the Buddha was already probably familiar with in some way. Sometimes it’s a bit of things you never could have imagined, for example, that our cells in our body aren’t actually ours in a number of different senses. If you do a count of all the cells in your body 90 percent of them are bacterial. So 90 percent nonhuman, which is kind of strange to think about; 90 percent of the cells are protozoa. But they’re really very important. They’re living in our skin. They produce the oils that cover our skin. We’ve never really evolved to do that because we’ve never needed to because we’ve got these bacteria. We give them a home and they’re useful for us.

When we eat food the digestion is carried out by bacteria. There are compounds that we can’t actually digest ourselves, so the bacteria dissolve them for us. There are various chemicals the body needs that are produced by bacteria. So we’re not even biochemically complete as human beings. We can’t exist in biochemical isolation from things that are not human.

Tami Simon: Now the 10 percent of me that is human, what is that made of?

Bodhipaksa: That in itself is made of nonhuman stuff, ultimately The 10 percent is your body, your cell count that is human is all your brain cells and gut cells and your skin cells, etc., but ultimately none of that from the perspective of the six-element practice is human because where did your skin come from? Well, it was that sandwich you ate a few weeks ago and the curry you had a few weeks before that. All those meals you’ve been eating is where your skin comes from and that was not you, it was stuff that came from the outside world.

So ultimately none of you is human. But it’s very interesting to see things that are so obviously not human within you and not just within you, but a functioning part of you. Some people have suggested that all the bacteria within us should be regarded as an organ in its own right because it performs complex functions that are intimately tied in with the function of the body. I talked about digestion for example, but our immune responses are conditioned and partly controlled by these bacteria. Things like fat metabolism and sugar metabolism are also moderated by these bacteria. Bacteria-producing chemicals that are affecting the whole biochemistry of the body. Again becoming aware of things shifts us away from that sense that we have of being separate and in some way special.

Tami Simon: You talked about there being six elements and I can understand this process of investigation following along the lines you’ve been sharing with us related to fire, water, air, and space, but when you get to consciousness it seems like the approach might be a little different. What do you mean by consciousness being an element?

Bodhipaksa: Well, that’s kind of interesting, isn’t it? What is consciousness? Nobody actually really knows what consciousness is. There’s no really adequate definition. In fact I don’t think you can really define what consciousness is because it’s its own thing. When scientists try to define consciousness they’re looking at activity within the brain. But activity within the brain is not the same as an experience. The experience of tasting an orange is the taste, color and smell of an orange and those are things that exist within consciousness, but you can’t see those things in the brain. You can see activities in the brain, which correlate to the experience, tasting and smelling and seeing and holding an orange. But there’s a world of different between the bioelectrical activity in the brain and that actual experience. So we can’t really define what consciousness is.

But the way that the practice is described, the consciousness element is a little bit different. What we’re doing is we’re realizing that again there’s a flow, but it’s a flow of perceptions, feelings, emotions, and thoughts and we’re observing that flow of these components of consciousness. And we’re observing them flowing, coming from nowhere. Appearing briefly and passing away again. So we’re observing the transience, the flowing riverlike nature of those aspects of consciousness.

The practice traditionally doesn’t include the same contemplation of inner and outer.
With each of the other elements what you’re doing you’re becoming aware of the element outside yourself of water. You’re becoming aware of the water element within you and how the water element within you is derived from the water element outside and how it’s passing back into the water outside. So you’re becoming aware of this entire process of flow. And there isn’t that outside-inside perspective as it’s described in the practice classically, but I found it’s actually a useful perspective to bring into the practice. To become aware, for example, of all the different aspects of ourselves that are conditioned by other people and our relationships with other people.

So very basic things like language, so if your weren’t exposed to language as a young child you’d never actually get to the stage of communicating linguistically. You’d never be able to learn any language whatsoever. There’s a narrow window or period around a year or fifteen months. If you don’t hear language in that period the language centers in your brain just don’t develop at all. So our ability to be able to think linguistically and communicate verbally that’s all depends upon other people.

All the ideas, culture, the music, thoughts, insights, traditions, religious practices some from outside ourselves. All the things we regard as being part of us and important parts of our identity mostly come from outside. That’s another way of thinking about the flow of the consciousness element and realizing, again, we can’t exist as separate entities and we’re not separate.

Tami Simon: So you’re saying that traditionally the practice of the six elements did not consider this outside-inside?

Bodhipaksa: No, traditionally it didn’t consider the outside-inside thing. That’s something I brought into my own practice and I’m writing about at the moment in the book. I have to say I depart from tradition when I think it’s useful. I tend to be quite pragmatic in my approach to meditation.

Tami Simon: Sounds good to me. That’s very interesting about the consciousness component, as you’re saying, considering it from the outside and the inside. This identification with our consciousness, even though we don’t know what it is, we still think we’re something like that.

Bodhipaksa: Yeah, yeah, we do. There’s some level on which we tend to assume there’s something fixed and static and separate about us and it’s a natural thought and attitude to have, but it’s very, very limiting. It ends up causing us suffering and it ends up preventing us from experiencing a great degree of happiness than we have at the moment.

Tami Simon: Well, I love this idea of living as a river and I’m wondering how that type of awareness and recognition comes into your daily challenges. I know you have a young child—two young children, right?

Bodhipaksa: Yes, we adopted two young children from Ethiopia.

Tami Simon: Does this river concept help at all in the parenting world?

Bodhipaksa: It does actually help me. My daughter who’s almost three is out of the stage of the terrible twos and she’s not as bad as a lot of children. She has a complete meltdown from time to time, lying on the floor, drumming her hands and feet against the floorboards and screaming at the top of her lungs when you want her to do something that she doesn’t want to do. I find it really interesting to realize that this is just a flow, again, of events that are happening. It’s very easy to think of it as she’s being bad. There’s a she there and she’s doing this thing and she is bad and she’s doing it to me, and I take it personally and I get annoyed by it because I want her to do it and she’s not doing it. And it all gets horribly messy. I find it much easier to have a looser sense of her as an evolving being, almost like a river, but of these current of her being coming into consciousness—sometimes for the first time.

It’s very, very interesting watching a child growing up because you start off very, very simple. Basically pretty damned happy, almost like you’d think of as an enlightened person. Certainly of just being aware of the world in a raw, nonconceptual way and being pretty happy unless they’re hungry or their in pain. And then the craving starts coming in. the clinging starts coming in after about a year. Up to a year my children didn’t complain If you took anything away from them it was okay, the toy was there, the toy was not there, and they just babble away. And once craving starts kicking in so does ill will and anger and all that kind of stuff. I’m happy to say neither of my children has exhibited any kind of hatred yet. That’s still to come.

So these emotions are kind of coming into being, and what is that like for the first time to start experiencing frustration, for example. You’ve got to learn to handle that. And looking at my daughter more and more as being this evolving being who’s dealing with the upwelling of stuff that has never been there before, and it’s not personal even for her. She doesn’t understand what’s going on, and it’s not something that she is doing. It’s almost happening to her. It’s not something that she’s doing to me. It’s not really about her, it’s the evolution of her consciousness. I’m finding that it’s easier and easier these days just to take her temper tantrums and surround them by a field of compassion, because I realize the magnitude of what she’s going through at the moment. And rather than setting myself in opposition to her just kind of embracing her and comforting her as she’s going through this transitional process.

The other day she had one of these meltdowns. She hadn’t napped all day. It was time to take her to bed. She was hyper, didn’t want to go to bed and I very gently kept saying, “Maya, Maya, you’ve got to go to bed. And I had to pick her up. I don’t like forcing her physically to do something unless it’s absolutely necessary. But I had to pick her up to take her up to bed, and she was kicking me and pinching, etc., and it was like none of this is personal, and it was easy to have that perspective. Being pinched by a three-year-old, it hurts. It’s not pleasant, but you don’t have to take it personally.

Tami Simon: So you’re not taking it personally, meaning it’s not about you, but you’re thinking that she’s meaning it in terms of her own personhood?

Bodhipaksa: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. It’s not personal about her. It’s not personal about me, either.

Tami Simon: You know it’s interesting. I wonder if it’s ever worth taking any thing personally.

Bodhipaksa: I don’t think it is. I don’t think anything is personal. I think that’s a slogan for life, is that nothing’s personal. And it comes back to what I was talking about earlier, where people all have the basic desire to be happy, but they have strategies that will often make them unhappy and in the process of making them unhappy they’ll also make other people unhappy as well. So it’s the strategy that’s at fault. It’s not the underlying deeper concern that that person has. So in a way, nothing’s personal.

Tami Simon: Well, let’s take an everyday example. Somebody says something critical about you online, or worse there’s some kind of embarrassment that just seems terrible.

Bodhipaksa: Okay, well I can give you an example. Not too long ago this woman was writing about some of the work I do in prisons, and it so happened that according to what she wrote, the person who murdered her eighty-three-year-old grandfather was in the prison that I teach meditation and Buddhism in. She made this enormous attack on me, criticizing everything about me. I wasn’t really a Buddhist and if I was really compassionate I’d be working with the victims, not the people who perpetrated them. The people who were in prison weren’t really human and that whole kind of thing.

when you see where that comes from, if she lost her grandfather, it would be painful thinking dealing with the re sources that she has available, which might not be particularly well-developed resources. So her best resource that she can find is anger, hatred and resentment, and it’s a strategy for trying to deal with the pain that she’s got. So when I responded to her. I responded with that perspective in mind—that she was a suffering being expressing her suffering in a way that wasn’t really going to help her or help others. I was trying not to hammer that too much, but just to point out some of the realities of what I’m doing, for example, people who are in prison are going to get out. If they get out do you want them to become more aware and more compassionate or do you want them to come out more embittered and more hostile? Because those are choices we make in our punitive system.

Tami Simon: So do you think it’s a reasonable recommendation that if someone finds themselves taking something personally that that’s a good moment to pause and inquire?

Bodhipaksa: I think when you find that you’re taking something personally, the first thing that I do is become aware of the pain that I’m experiencing or become aware of the underlying need that’s not being met. So for example I’m driving along, somebody cuts me off. They drive way too close to me. There’s a surge of anger that comes up. Then I’ll think, what’s the root of anger? Well, okay, fear. That person passed way to close to me and I had a fence that’s not a safe distance and that invisible boundary becomes transgressed. I experience fear and suffering. My sense of security has been lost. And if I acknowledge that sense of fear, pain, insecurity, the anger vanishes. So to not take something personally start looking a little bit deeper at what’s going on with yourself and empathize as well as notice what’s going on with the pain and suffering, but you have to become aware of it empathetically. Then everything changes.

Tami Simon: You know, finally, Bodhipaksa, our program is called “Insights at the Edge,” and I’m wondering—this has been a deep inquiry for you, the whole writing of the book on the Six Elements Practice—what is your own edge in all of this, in writing this book and the work that you’re doing now?

Bodhipaksa: Well, the book is my edge, really. It’s the inquiry into the nature of the self. Are you asking what effects this has had on me? It has had quite a strong effect on me. A few weeks ago I lost my sense of having a self, which was a most interesting development, quite unexpected.

I was putting my daughter to bed and I think that’s significant because I’ve been having this perspective for some time now of not regarding her actions as being something personal to her or that I should take personally. And as I was watching her beginning to drift off to sleep, suddenly I realized I didn’t have a self. My sense of my self was just a continuous process of change, becoming aware of my mind and body, I was just aware of continuously evolving process of changing causes and conditions, different thoughts, feelings, sensations coming into being and passing away. I didn’t have any sense of there being anything permanent there or any kind of substrata. And that was awareness has been with me ever since to varying degrees and sometimes it’s like—imagine if you won the lottery, you’d be bouncing up and down every fifteen minutes saying, “Wow I’ve won the lottery!” and then after a while it becomes part of your experience. Day fifteen it’s like, “Yeah, I won the lottery didn’t I?” and then you don’t think about it for a while. So it’s been a bit like that. It was something that I was just watching with amazement for the first week or so, and then after that it’s faded into a kind of background awareness, and whenever I bring my attention to my experience I realize that it’s continually changing; that there’s nothing permanent there. It’s almost like I have a new self every couple of seconds. It’s like watching a kaleidoscope turning. There’s always a picture there, but it’s only there momentarily. It’s instantly replaced by a new picture and that at the moment is my experience of myself of it being a kaleidoscope.

Tami Simon: So, previously, something in you was more solid and firm and now it’s more changing and fluid?

Bodhipaksa: I think it’s not so much that what’s there has changed. It’s my perception of what’s there has changed. I think I’ve always been a kaleidoscope of changing sense impressions and thoughts and feelings, etc., but there’s been an assumption of permanent and there’s something there that’s unchanging. So I think what’s happened is not that what’s there has changed, but my assumptions about it have changes. The way I look at it has changed.

Tami Simon: Wonderful. Thank you, Bodhipaksa. Living as a river, I like it.

Bodhipaksa: You’re very welcome. I enjoyed the chat. Well, maybe that’s a title for the book.

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