six elements

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

Rainer Maria Rilke

To 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 own 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.

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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.

Imagination helps us to see truths that our unaided senses cannot detect.

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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Overcoming “change blindness”

Would you like to see the world in a new way? A way that’s more authentic and satisfying? A way that taps into your infinite potential and helps others to realize theirs?

Eirik Solheim has put together an impressive time-lapse movie of a woodland scene that compresses an entire year into 40 seconds of footage. This kind of presentation helps us to see the world in a different, and in some respects more real, way.

The human mind and senses are not good at perceiving change. You look at a cloud once, and then again ten minutes later, and you think it’s the same cloud. Actually the entire shape and size of the cloud may have changed, but you simply don’t notice.

There are of course much more dramatic examples of this phenomenon, which is called “change blindness.” This YouTube link wil show you that 75% of people don’t notice when in the middle of a conversation the person they are talking to is replaced with a completely different person. And this second link will give you a chance to see how hard it is to observe change happening right in front of your eyes.

Now check out the Solheim video and see what change looks like sped up.

When watching the sped-up version of reality the mind becomes focused on the change that we usually tend not to notice because it’s happening on too slow a timescale for us to register or because we simply don’t pay attention.

Imagination and insight

I love this kind of presentation of reality and often find myself looking at the world (in my imagination, of course) in this way. The Six Element Practice, for example, is an insight meditation practice in which we reflect on impermanence and interconnectedness. We become aware of the body — not just those parts we can directly sense but the whole physical body as perceived in the imagination, right down to the internal organs and bone marrow — and sense each of the elements in turn: earth (solid matter), water (anything liquid), fire (the energy of metabolism), air (anything gaseous), space (the form that the physical elements take), and the consciousness that perceives those other elements.

In the case of the four physical elements of earth, water, fire and air, we not only notice the element within the body but we imaginatively connect with it in the outside world, reflecting that all the elements within the body come from outside. Not only do they come from outside, but they are in the process — right now — of returning to the outside world. The “self” is not a thing but a flow. In our imagination we actually see all this happening. When contemplating the earth element, for example, we see crops growing from the soil, we see those crops flowing into factories and stores, and into our bodies, and then back into the outside world as we defecate, shed skin cells and hair, and as we burn glucose in our cells. I see all this happening in a sped-up, compressed form, rather as in Eirik Solheim’s beautiful video. The body is no longer a static thing but is a fluid process.

To Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand and Eternity in an hour (or less)

On one arts retreat I was co-leading (I taught the meditation, someone else was teaching the arty stuff) we were asked to go and connect with the landscape, and to choose one object that we could bring inside that expressed that connection. The retreat was in a beautiful glen in the Scottish highlands, and I stood on a spit of land where a river flowed into the loch (the very spit you see below). I found myself seeing the land as it once was, covered in a sheets of ice thousands of feet thick. I saw the ice melting, the loch forming surrounded by rock scraped bare, the flowing river dumping gravel and rocks, inch by inch building the very spit I was standing on as stones fell out of the flow and were deposited in a spreading fan. I saw trees rise and fall in the blink of an eye, wave after wave of them. I watched changes of ten millennia unfold before me in the space of a minute or two, until we reached the present moment in which I stood.

We’re often confined by the senses that we have. To us five minutes can seem like a long time. To a mountain a thousand years is a brief moment. Its only in our imaginations that we can perceive the world on different timescales, and come to see that the events of our lives are just flickers on a screen. Using our imagination in this way can reveal things in their impermanence, which means that we’re seeing them in a truer way than we usually do, where we fail to appreciate the reality of change.

In the Six Element Practice we free ourselves from the prison of our limited senses. We look at the body and we see a clear demarcation between self and other. Our skin marks the boundary between what’s inner and what’s outer. Yet in the practice we see that what’s “us” is made entirely of stuff that’s not us, and that this borrowed stuff is merely passing through. To realize that is to get much closer to reality.

Imagination allows us, as Blake put it:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

Seeing all beings as Buddhas

We tend to see ourselves as “things” — as relatively unchanging entities. We see others the same way. Sometimes as part of my practice I remind myself of the immense change that a person can go through by repeating a phrase from a Zen poem: “All beings are, from the very beginning, Buddhas.” I take that like in this instance to indicate that even if someone is acting in a way that I don’t like and that I label as cruel or stupid, that person has the capacity to be a Buddha. If I relate to that person purely on the basis of who he or she is right now, I won’t encourage the emergence of their potential Buddhahood.

Relating to someone on the basis of how we see them right now is like seeing Solheim’s video reduced to a single frame. It’s a static way of seeing things. We’re disconnected from the reality of change. But imagine if we could consistently see that person not as a thing but as a process — if you could, at least in our imaginations — see that person evolving towards wisdom and compassion. How might that change both them and us?

When I manage to relate to another person as a potential Buddha — as a changing, evolving being who has the capacity for wisdom and compassion, I’m more likely to relate to them in a way that helps them grow into their potential. And I think it helps me grow into my own potential as well.

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Learning to let go

Photo by Robson Hatsukami Morgan on Unsplash

2500 years ago the Buddha taught a beautiful meditation to help us appreciate ourselves as part of an ever-evolving interconnected universe. The practice is called the Six Elements.

But why do this practice?

One reason is that having a narrow sense of ourselves – seeing ourselves as fundamentally different from and separate from what’s around us – leads to selfishness and unhappiness, and polarization, while recognizing that we’re part of a greater whole is nourishing, strengthening, and leads to healing.

By letting go of the delusion of separateness we become identified with something greater than ourselves. Another reason is that much of our suffering comes from trying to hold onto things that are impermanent and therefore inherently ungraspable; anyone who’s had the disappointing experience of seeing wrinkles or gray hair appear will know something about this, although there’s no limit to what we want to hold onto: goals, ideas, status, material objects, and even other people.

We can’t hold on to these things, but we try, and so we end up experiencing suffering.

This meditation – the Six Element Practice – involves looking at various aspects of the body and mind and seeing how these parts of “our” selves arise from outside (“not us”), and how they continually return to the outside, and consequently never really are ours. The meditation is known as the Five Element Practice because it’s structured around an early Indian conception of the world being made up of the four physical elements of Earth, Water, Fire, and Air, along with the nonmaterial element, Consciousness.

So how do we do this practice? Perhaps you’ll get a flavor of the practice through reading these notes, and if you want to take the Six Element practice further, read through them again, pausing after each sentence or few sentences and letting the words sink into the depths of your heart.

Preparation

First we sit comfortably but upright, with a sense of dignity. We then take a few calming, deep breaths to help center the mind and to connect with the body, and we follow the breath until thoughts have begun to settle at least a little.

Earth

Then we call to mind the Earth element, everything that is solid and resistant, outside of ourselves: bricks and mortar, mountains, rocks, pebbles, soil, wood, concrete. We don’t think about these things but simply call them to mind as images.

Then we bring to mind the same Earth element within us. We experience the solidity and weight of the body, recalling whatever in the body is solid and resistant: bones, teeth, nails, hair, and tissues.

We normally think of these as being ours, as being ourselves, but here we recollect how everything of the Earth element that is within us comes from outside and returns to the outside. Our bodies started as a sperm and an egg from our parents, who are not us. That first cell grew as it absorbed nutrients from the world outside us, just as we now have to take in the Earth element in the form of food.

And the earth element within us is constantly returning to the outside world. We shed hairs and skin cells, and we go to the bathroom. And of course when we die we’ll have to finally let go of everything that is solid within ourselves. So the Earth element is simply flowing through us during our lives. It’s borrowed, but never owned. And we can reflect that this body never was “us.” It never was “ours.”

Water

Then we call to mind the Water element in the world: seas and lakes, streams and rivers, dewdrops and raindrops.

Then as with the Earth element we call to mind the Water element within us: saliva and blood, synovial fluid and lymph, tears and sweat, and liquid filling and surrounding every cell in the body. And we recognize that all of this Water within the body, that we think of as “us,” and “ours” – as “ourselves” – is in reality simply borrowed for a while from the outside world. We can’t hold onto it. It’s not us. It never was us.

Fire

The Fire element outside of us is the raw physical energy in the universe, from the nuclear combustion in the heart of the sun to the glow of a burning ember, from the molten core of our planet to the crackle of lightning in storm clouds. T

he Fire element within us is everything energetic. We can experience the heat of the body, and call to mind the myriad chemical combustions taking place at the cellular level, and sparks of electricity in the muscles, nerves, and brain. And all of the energy within us is borrowed. We feed the body by taking in the sun as plants or flesh. We warm ourselves in the rays of the sun, whether directly or through fossil fuels that grew in the sunlight of ages past. All of “our” energy is really not ours at all. It’s not us. It’s not ourselves.

Air

The Air element is represented around us by the atmosphere: winds and clouds, and breezes felt against the skin and heard moving through trees and grasses. And the air element is continually entering and leaving the body as we breathe in and out. Air enters, oxygen dissolves in the bloodstream, is taken to cells to provide energy, and then carbon dioxide is exhaled.

Our oxygen comes from trees and other plants, and our exhalations go to feed those same plants. We can’t hold onto the Air element any more than we can hold onto any of the others. In fact we can only live by letting go, never by holding on. The Air element is just borrowed and isn’t ours, isn’t us.

Space

One approach to reflecting on the space element is to think about the shape your body makes and how you get attached to that. By “shape” I mean the precise image of yourself that you see in the mirror — how we look.

I don’t know about you, but when I look in the mirror I’m often surprised — even disappointed — by the image staring back at me. I expect myself to look younger, better-looking. I’m attached to how I looked a few years ago and somehow feel betrayed that how I look has changed. Of course a few years ago I had the same experience.

So call to mind the image you see of yourself in the mirror. Not the idealized image, but how you actually look. And notice how you identify with that, or how you find yourself clinging to some image of how you’d like yourself to look.

And then reflect on how you looked when you were five years younger, ten years younger, when you were ten, five, one year old, a new-born baby. Reflect on how you might look in five, ten, twenty years.

And realize that change happens. The precise volume of space that your body occupies is always changing, and you can’t stop that process of change from happening. So you can’t hold on to the space element.

Consciousness

We may not think of consciousness as being an element in the same way as the physical elements, and in fact it’s not. It’s what allows us to know those other elements, and in fact we could say that consciousness is the four elements knowing themselves. In this stage of the practice we notice – and reflect upon – the way in which sensations, thoughts, images, and emotions come into being, persist for a little while, and then vanish into the void. None of these things is permanent, and all are simply passing through us in the same way that the Earth, Water, Fire, and Air elements are flowing through us. So these “elements of consciousness” are not intrinsic to us, are not a fixed part of us, and are not us.

So there is nothing we can hold onto and nothing, ultimately, to do any holding. We may ask then, what are we? This is a question that, in this meditation, we consider experientially rather than through discursive thought. Rather than try to work out an answer in logical terms we simply ask the question, and sit, and listen patiently for the heart’s response. When I’ve done this practice the answer I get is a sense that we are transparent; that we are the universe become aware of itself; that we are nothing more than conscious, divine energy; that the mind is inherently pure, luminous, wise and loving; and that we are finally coming to know our true nature. And having done this we simply continue to sit in order to enjoy the fruits of the practice, until we feel ready to move on.

I’d encourage you too to do this practice, not as an intellectual exercise but as an experiential exercise in letting go, so that you also can begin to connect with the divine energy and infinite love that is the eternal and essential core of your being. To live is to let go, and in order to live fully we must learn to let go fully and to embrace the flow that is the universe.

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Albert Einstein: “A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe’ —a part limited in time and space”

“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe’ —a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts, and feelings, as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

In the Buddhist meditation called the Six Element Practice, we reflect in turn on each of the six elements—the four physical elements of Earth, Water, Fire, and Air—plus Space and Consciousness.

In each case we reflect on the presence of the element within our being: for example, with Earth we note the presence of bone, tissue, teeth, hair, etc.

We then reflect on the element outside of ourselves; in this case we consider rocks, stones, earth, buildings, plants, the bodies of other beings, etc.

Then we note how everything that is in us that pertains to the element under consideration came from the element outside.

Originally our body started as the fusion of one cell from our mother and another from our father—neither of whom was us. Then our body grew as our mother passed on nutrients that she’d ingested from the outside world. Again, those nutrients weren’t us. Later, we ate on our own, but still everything that went into building up the body was and is merely borrowed from the outside world.

Finally, for each element we recollect that everything in us that is that element is constantly returning to the outside world. Our muscles and other tissues, and even our bones, are constantly dissolving and being rebuilt (which is why your muscles and bones waste away through inactivity). We lose hairs, shed skin cells, and have to make regular trips to the bathroom to rid ourselves of waste. All of this returns to the world outside us and to the wider element. And when we die, we stop even trying to hold on. Everything that was “us” returns to the wider element.

This practice is completely liberating. It frees us from the “prison,” as Einstein called it, of the delusion that we are separate from the universe. We come to realize instead that we are nothing but interrelatedness, that we exist only in relation to the world, including other people, and that we have no separate existence in any real sense. We are completely and inseparably connected on a physical, mental, and emotional level with other beings.

The six element practice gives us a realization of this truth—a realization that goes far beyond the intellectual—and other Buddhist practices such as the Brahmaviharas help to ignite the emotions of relationship that follow from this insight into interconnectedness, widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature.

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It’s elementary (News.com.au)

Meditation focusing on the elements is practised in traditions as diverse as Buddhism, Taoist meditation, Quigong and Ayurveda.

If you think Earth, Wind and Fire had a pretty good run of disco hits in the 70s, well, you’d be right. But learning about the elements can bring more than a funky beat to your daily life, says Laeticia Valverde. You just need to learn how to connect to them.You could say we have some sort of connection with the elements every day: walking on the earth, breathing the air, having our way lit by the sun, and, of course, drinking water to sustain ourselves. What generations before have recognised is that focusing on the elements has a lot to do with reconnecting to the earth, your spirituality and opening up a world of wonder. Connecting with the elements is an ancient tradition – one that has spanned many cultures and practices.

But unless we’re conscious of this link, we can feel disconnected. Which is where meditation comes in. Meditation focusing on the elements is practised in traditions as diverse as Buddhism, Taoist meditation, Quigong and Ayurveda and is central to many pagan traditions such as Wicca. Many people baulk at the thought of meditation, but it’s simply being able to focus the mind. Regular meditation can bring about clarity to our minds and our lives. Paul Majewski from Meditation Solutions in Melbourne says there are two skills involved in meditating: focus and awareness. “It’s about the quality of attention; it doesn’t have to be mysterious or difficult. By slowing down with meditation we give ourselves a chance to recover and literally come to oursenses.” Swami Vimal Ratna from Satyananda Yoga in Rocklyn, Victoria, believes that “the elements are fundamental to who we are. Connecting with the elements is a necessary process that finetunes our balance with ourselves and nature.” The elements provide an essential purification role, says Swami Ratna. “By focusing on the elements for a time we’re getting rid of the rubbish at a certain level, coming into harmony with our environment and creating a richer, more vital environment around us.” Try meditating on the elements once each week over the next month. Then take the time to relax and try to allow the knowledge that comes to you during your meditation to process and filter through your life.

Down-to-Earth
Get grounded and start with an Earth meditation. Clear the area of any clutter, switch on the answering machine and make sure nobody is able to disturb you.

Because earth represents our physical needs, start off with a relaxing bath, or a shower, with a sprinkling of essential oils (in the bath, or the base of the shower). Dry off and dress in loose, comfortable clothing and settle yourself comfortably on the floor. Then light a green or white candle to represent earth.

Gaze into the flame and think about your physical needs. Are there any aspects that you should address? Are there areas where you overindulge, or perhaps neglect? This could be eating, drinking or even our need to be nurtured, touched and loved.

Visualise yourself having a sufficient amount of everything. Not too little, not too much – just enough to fulfil your needs. Reflect on what you need to change, and how you’re going to accomplish it. Take a deep breath and feel the earth’s power enter your body, rising from the ground through your feet and right through your body. Snuff out the candle and relax.

Over the next week think about what steps you can take to address the issues raised in your meditation. Can you look to eat to just below a level you’d consider full? Can you try to drink two litres of water a day and have three alcoholfree days per week? What about your need to be nurtured, how can you address that? Can you start by showing more affection to your loved ones?

Breath of fresh air
Open up all the windows and doors and allow a fresh breeze to cleanse your home and yourself. Light a lavender or light a blue candle to represent air. Sit in a comfortable position and focus on your mental needs, your communication issues and ideas. Air boosts creativity so consider the areas in which you need more inspiration. It’s time to explore your beliefs, attitudes and values.

Be conscious of your breathing. Hold your hands over your stomach and take a deep breath through your nostrils, feeling the air slowly fill your lungs and expand your rib cage. Hold for a second and then consciously exhale through your mouth, allowing all the air to drain completely from your lungs. Breathe mindfully, focusing on the fresh air coming in and going out of your lungs. Snuff out your candle and think about how you can expand your creativity and boost your mental power.

What can you read, eat, think or do to help improve your mental function and clarity?

Light my fire
Fire is all about passion, but not sexual passion, rather anything that stirs your soul and gets your blood boiling. Settle yourself in your room facing south and light a red or gold candle. Consider all the passion you have bottled up inside. What is it you really want?

What have you always wanted to do and what has held you back? It’s time to banish all that negativity and conservatism preventing you from realising your dreams and ignite your passion.

Gaze into the flame and feel its warmth spreading through your body, igniting your passion.

Visualise yourself accomplishing your most fervent desire. What will it take to allow you to realise your dreams? What steps are you going to take to ensure it becomes a reality?

Water baby
Water represents our emotions – anger, jealousy, happiness, doubt and so on. Take a deep bath with a handful of sea salt sprinkled in the water. Feel yourself enveloped in its comforting warmth. Dry off and locate west in your room and settle yourself comfortably.

Light an aqua or deep blue candle and consider any repressed emotions that have been holding you back. Consider your emotional needs; do you stifle them to please others? How can you learn to respect your own emotional needs? How can you enhance your insight and compassion to help you express your emotions in a healthy way? Think of what makes you happy, what can you do each day that makes you feel joyful and fulfilled?

Sense of spirit
Spirit is often neglected, as so few of us address our spiritual needs. But spirituality is about more than just our relationship with a higher being. Spirit involves how we interact with family, friends, co-workers, neighbours and anyone close to us.

Light a white candle and Reflect on your relationship with the people who cross your path each day. How can you enhance their life in one simple way when you meet? What do these people bring to your life? Also consider your relationship with a higher being – can spirituality bring something special to your life? Consider the choices that you can make and what differences they can make to the way you live your life.

Make a conscious effort to reconnect with spirit each day. When you wake up go to the window, open the curtains wide and take in the view. Breathe in the air, look at the plants growing in the earth and take note of how the sun is shining on your part of the world – and enjoy.

[via News.com.au: Original source no longer available]
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