The Buddha woke up sitting at the base of the Bodhi tree, his hand touching the earth as his witness and support. As he began to teach, he instructed his monastics to go find a place “in the wilderness” or “at the foot of a tree” to pursue their practice. The Vassa retreats of Theravada practitioners align with the rainy season, and the poems of the early Buddhist nuns and monks are resplendent in their relationship with and delight in the natural world. Wherever we look in the dharma, it’s clear that the teachings of the Buddha are innately connected to nature as a resource for our own awakening. But how can we bring this connection with the natural world into our practice today, especially when so many of us lack access to wild nature?

For many, our introduction to the path happened indoors at classes or sitting groups held in larger urban centers, divorced from the green spaces we tend to think of as nature. Our daily practice might include the cacophony of car alarms, noisy neighbors, garbage trucks, or ambulances. As the pandemic took root, countless people also discovered the dharma online, connecting to sanghas through their computers or phone screens. These dharma doors are beautiful and life-changing. I have a particular respect today for the online offerings that have become a respite for those who are sick, disabled, or immunocompromised and find themselves all but excluded from many in-person dharma gatherings. These spaces are essential to a vibrant and inclusive dharma. But as the format and locations of our practice evolves, how can we retain the connection to nature that is an essential part of Buddhist practice?

One possible answer lies in the Satipatthana Sutta. In his instructions for establishing mindfulness in this sutta, the Buddha offers a practice of meditation on the elements—earth, water, air, fire—that can be explored and discovered in our own bodies just as they can be known in a forest, ocean, or desert. Establishing a meditation practice where we become intimate with the elements offers us a way to connect to the presence of nature within ourselves, seeing over time that we are nature, not something separate from it. This can offer many benefits, from a deeper sense of embodiment and presence to an understanding of impermanence, interconnectedness, and how vital it is to care for our planet in the midst of climate change.  

An Elements Practice 

An elements practice can be done anywhere—whether you are in a densely populated city or camping in a national forest. To begin, find a comfortable posture sitting, standing, or lying down, where you can remain alert and access a felt sense of your own body. From here, begin to connect to the elements one by one. This can be a creative, imaginative practice and you are encouraged to make it your own.

Earth: Begin by connecting with the earth element. Just like an ancient mountain, the earth element in the body is that which is solid, heavy, hard, stable, structured, or grounded. Our bones, teeth, and nails are all easy places to access the earth element in the body. You may wish to begin by envisioning a tall mountain or a large, sturdy tree. Notice the qualities that it has—its strength, connection to the earth, its solidity. Then turn toward your body. Begin at your feet, and work your way up all the way to the top of your head, scanning for the ways you experience the earth element in your own body. Feel the weight of gravity in your limbs. Notice the structure and form that your bones provide. Run your tongue over your teeth and feel their hardness. The bones in our body are composed of many of the same minerals and elements found in the skull of a buffalo, the shell of a crab, the stone we find walking in the forest. The earth element within us isn’t separate from the earth element outside of us. 

Water: Beginning with the top of your head and working your way down to your feet, start to explore the water element present in the body. Water is fluid and wet, like the moisture in your eyes, the saliva in your mouth, or the liquid in your digestive organs. But it also creates a type of cohesion or wholeness in the body. Our skin, organs, and every cell is made up of a majority of water. Even the marrow of our bones holds water. Notice as you scan the body where you can connect with the water element in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. You might call to mind the fact that all the water in your body today at some point has been inside a cloud, an ocean, a blade of grass, or the belly of an animal. Allow yourself to feel the water element in the body and remember that while this water is with you today, it will continue to travel and move throughout the earth beyond your lifetime. This water that makes up 60 percent of your being is simply a visitor.

Fire: As we continue in the elements meditation, we begin to be able to access more and more subtlety and nuance. Arriving at the fire element, start at your feet and work your way up as you notice temperature—warm or cool—present in the body. The fire element is present in the heat of the sun, and is received by the earth, plants, and animals, including you. Our metabolic processes, our ability to regulate temperature, and the nourishment we take into our body through food is all touched by the fire element. As you scan the body, allow yourself to notice heat and cold. In our climate-controlled lives we don’t experience as much variation in temperature and almost automatically associate temperature changes with a sense of vulnerability or discomfort that needs to be fixed. You might notice, particularly if you are feeling too warm or too cold, that aversion or desire begins to flare up, along with stories, planning, and more. What would it be like to momentarily drop your preferences and simply feel the fluctuation of temperature in the body? This is one of the teachings of the fire element.

Air: As we reach the air element, we find ourselves returning to familiar territory for many meditators. Allowing yourself to scan the body from the top of your head down to your feet, you will notice old friends: air touching the nostrils and moving into the throat, the rise and fall of the chest and belly, the subtle movement of the whole body breathing. The air element is present whenever we meditate with the breath, but it is also present in the rustle of leaves in the wind, the displacement of air as a deer darts across a field, and the sound of birdsong coming from the robin in the yard. As we begin to sense the air element in our bodies, we can tend to the places where the breath is felt, as well as the places where we sense any kind of internal motion or movement. You may find that it is particularly supportive to envision the air element entering your body through each inhalation, and leaving through each exhalation. As you do this, can you tell where the air element outside of you ends and the air element inside of you begins? You may notice that when you pay attention, it is very hard to discern which part of this air belongs to you, and what belongs to the trees and grasses you share it with. 

Closing your practice: As you reach the end of this practice, simply allow yourself some time to rest in what you have experienced, taking in the sensations, insights, or emotions that may have come up. Remembering your own connection to nature, you may also want to dedicate the merits of your practice to the many plants, animals, and beings who need our care and protection. 

The elements practice is simply one entry point into deepening our relationship to nature and dharma. Whether you’re a seasoned hiker or your idea of getting outdoors is a patio table at the local cafe, this practice can be yours. Nature is everywhere, and you are a part of it. As you explore new ways to bring the natural world into your meditation, you may also want to do this with the support of a community, especially if nature-based practice feels new and unfamiliar to you. There are many incredible resources available if you would like to go deeper in your exploration of dharma and nature— from wilderness meditation retreats at places like Vallecitos Mountain Retreat Center and Rocky Mountain EcoDharma, to groups offering both online and in-person practice like Awake in the Wild, One Earth Sangha, and many more.

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