I first learned the reflection on the Six Elements thirteen years ago, on a four-month retreat in the mountains of southern Spain. It was my first introduction to insight meditation, and although at times since then the practice has given rise to uncomfortable experiences, it has more often brought a sense of lightness, freedom, and expansiveness as well as a greater sense of connectedness to the world.
The Six Element practice—a profound contemplation on interconnectedness, impermanence, and insubstantiality—is one of the most significant insight practices in the Pali canon. The Buddha recommended it as a way of “not neglecting wisdom,” and taught it as a technique for developing equanimity and cultivating meditative absorption, or jhana. In the Six Element practice, we contemplate in turn earth, water, fire, air, space, and consciousness, noting how each element is an ever-changing process rather than a static thing.
One of the most striking features of this practice is the thorough way in which it deconstructs our experience. By contemplating every aspect of our physical and mental being, we begin to understand its true nature. In classic insight meditation, we notice the impermanence and insubstantiality of sensations, thoughts, and feelings. We do that in this practice, too, but we also develop a literally visceral sense of the body’s impermanence and insubstantiality by contemplating the various processes by which its elements come into being and pass away. The Six Element practice is highly analytical, but it’s also intensely poetic, bringing us into contact with the reality of our interconnectedness with the world. It is experiential, focusing on our present-moment experience, and it is imaginative, encouraging us to envision ourselves as part of a wider process of change and flow.
This isn’t a meditation I do every day, although it frequently becomes the cornerstone of my practice while I’m on retreat. It’s not a practice that I teach to complete beginners, as I believe that the Six Element practice needs both a reasonable grounding in tranquility practice (samatha) and a healthy sense of emotional positivity. Most often I teach it on retreat, to students who have at least a few months of solid practice behind them.
Simply reading this article will give you no more than a faint flavor of the practice. If you want to experience it more strongly, read through it again, pausing frequently and giving yourself time to turn the words into felt experiences. I do most of my meditation, including this practice, with my eyes closed. You may wish to do the same. As with any sitting practice, we need to find a posture that’s comfortable yet dignified, and that allows the chest to be open so that we can remain alert and focused.
Usually I spend a few minutes cultivating lovingkindness (metta) before launching into the practice. I’ll contact my heart, see how I’m feeling, and encourage a sense of acceptance for whatever emotions happen to be present at that time. Then I’ll wish myself well by repeating phrases such as “May I be well. May I be happy. May I be at peace,” before taking that well-wishing into the world, sensing that my lovingkindness is radiating outward. Although the Six Element practice is often affirming, it can also be challenging, and it’s best to be in at least a minimally positive state of mind before we start reflecting in depth on our own impermanence.
First we call to mind the earth element within ourselves. The earth element is everything solid and resistant, everything that gives us form. Notice first of all those aspects of the body that you can directly experience: the physical presence and weight of the body, the feeling of the sitting bones pressing into the cushion or bench, the hands resting on the lap, the knees on the floor, the teeth. Simply notice these experiences of solidness.
Besides noticing our immediate sensations, we enter into an imaginative exploration of the whole of the body. Even though we can’t experience all these objects directly, in sutta 140 of the Majjhima Nikaya the Buddha encourages his students to call to mind the flesh, sinews, bones, bone marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, diaphragm, and every other conceivable solid matter in the body, including the feces in our intestines. Rather than starting trains of thought about the various organs of the body, discursively talking to ourselves about our anatomy, we can think more in terms of visualizing the organs, or simply knowing that they are there and that they’re composed of solid matter.
Having reflected on the earth element within, we now call to mind the earth element externally—everything that is solid and resistant outside of ourselves—starting with the floor upon which we sit, then expanding outward to recall buildings, vehicles, roads, mountains, rocks, pebbles, soil, the bodies of other beings, trees, wild plants, and crops growing in fields. Again, we don’t aim to start trains of thought, but simply aim to evoke memories in the form of sensory impressions, letting images, sounds, and tactile sensations come into consciousness, and mindfully experiencing them.
Then we reflect that everything solid within the body and everything solid externally is the same earth element. There’s really no “me” earth element or “other” earth element—it’s all the same stuff. We normally think of our form, our body, as being us, 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.
Being of a scientific bent—and I think the Buddha was, too—I often call to mind the process of conception. My body started with the creation of one cell from the fusion of a sperm and an egg from my parents, who are not me. The fertilized ovum divided and grew into an embryo as it absorbed nutrients from the world outside—from my mother’s bloodstream, but ultimately from the plants and animals she ate. Those foodstuffs weren’t me, either. And from that point on in my life, every molecule that has contributed to the earth element in this body similarly has come from outside. We can visualize the flow of the earth element from fields and soil into the body, and know that there’s not a single molecule of solid matter within this body that is self-originated. It’s all borrowed.
And we have to give it back. In fact, we are giving it back, every moment of our lives. The earth element within us is returning to the outside world, right now. We shed hairs and skin cells, and we go to the bathroom and defecate. We visualize all this in the practice. Solid matter is combusting within the body and being exhaled. Even our bones, which we may think of as the most solid and enduring part of the body, are involved in a continuous process of dissolving and rebuilding. There are cells in your body that have no other function than to dissolve the surrounding bone, while other cells are involved in building it back up again. Even your bones are processes rather than things.
So the earth element within is borrowed, and it’s always returning to the outside world, flowing through us like a river. And as we recollect the earth element flowing in this way, we can reflect: “This is not me, not mine, I am not this.” There’s not even any question of “letting go.” The earth element never was “us.” It never was “ours.” We never were holding on to it, because how can we cling to something that’s flowing?
The earth element provides the paradigm for the remaining physical elements, which are all treated in the same way—recollecting the element within us, recollecting the element outside of us, reflecting that everything that is “us” is really just borrowed from the outside world and constantly returning to it, and finally noting, as we contemplate the element flowing through us that this is not me, not mine, that I am not this.
We started with the grossest element, and we will progress through the rest—water, fire, air, space, and consciousness—in order of increasing subtlety. So now we call to mind the water element within the body—that which is liquid. Starting with those manifestations that we can directly experience, we feel saliva in the mouth, mucus, the pulse of the blood, sweat, the feeling of moisture in the outbreath, the pressure of urine in the bladder. Then we move on to those things we can only experience more imaginatively: lymph, fat, synovial fluid in the joints, cerebrospinal fluid, and all the liquid that permeates and surrounds every cell in the body. Even though you can’t experience these things directly, you can know they’re there.
Then we contemplate the water element outside of ourselves: calling to mind the oceans and rivers and streams, the water that permeates the soil, the rain and clouds, the water inside plants and animals. We see, hear, and feel these things as we recall our experience of them. Then we recognize that all of the water within the body, which we think of as us, and ours, as ourselves, is in reality simply borrowed for a while from the outside world, that it’s quite literally flowing through us, and that we don’t own it. There is only one water element—there’s no “me” water and there’s no “other” water. And so we reflect: “This is not me. This is not mine. I am not this.”
The Buddha defined the fire element as “that by which one is warmed, ages, and is consumed, and that by which what is eaten . . . gets completely digested.” In other words, the fire element within is metabolism. It’s our energy. So sitting in meditation, we can experience the heat of the body, feeling the cooler air we inhale contrast with the warmth of the air as it leaves the body, feeling the heart pumping, and calling to mind the myriad chemical combustions taking place at the cellular level, sparks of electricity in the muscles, nerves, and brain. And knowing that all of this energy is borrowed from the fire element outside of us.
The fire element outside is the raw physical energy in the universe, from the nuclear fusion in the sun to the warmth of a cup of coffee, from the molten core of our planet to the chemical energy stored in our food as fat, sugars, and proteins. We feed the body by taking in the sun’s energy stored in plants or flesh. We warm ourselves in the rays of the sun, either directly or through burning fossil fuels that grew in the sunlight of ages past. And we have to keep replenishing the body’s fuel, because the fire element is forever leaving: radiating from our skin, wafting away on our exhaled air, lost in the warmth of our feces and urine. And so the fire element, like earth and water, simply flows through us, unstoppable. We observe and reflect on this. And as we observe the energy within the body, we can be aware that it’s actually another river—a river of energy—passing through this form, that it’s really not ours at all. “This is not me. This is not mine. I am not this.”
As soon as we call to mind the air element within the body—the air in our lungs and other body cavities, even the gases dissolved in our blood—we’re immediately aware of the breathing, aware that air is flowing rhythmically in and out of the body. So almost simultaneously we recall the air element outside of us—the air surrounding us and touching the skin in this very moment, the winds and clouds and breezes that we hear and see moving branches and grasses. We’re taking in and giving out this element right now. Right now, the air element is entering and leaving the body. Right now, air is entering, oxygen is dissolving in the bloodstream, being taken to cells to provide energy, and carbon dioxide is being exhaled.
Where’s the boundary between inner air and outer air? There is only one air element, and what’s within us is simply borrowed for a few moments. We can’t hold on to the air element any more than we can hold on to any of the others. In fact we can only live by letting go, never by holding on. To hold on is to die. And so we reflect that the air element, like the other physical elements, is not me, not mine, that I am not this.
I’m no longer separate and small, but an intimate part of the vast cycle of the elements.
By this point in the practice I usually sense in a very immediate way the impermanent, transient nature of the body. I have a heightened appreciation that what I normally assume to be a relatively fixed and solid physical form is actually a dynamic process. I often find myself thinking that to watch the elements flow through this body is rather akin to sitting by a river. I can watch the water pass “my” stretch of the riverbank, and I say “that’s me, that’s me,” but in every moment of claiming, of grasping, what I’m trying to cling to flows inexorably past. Clinging is futile and painful. Letting go is to recognize how things are. Letting go is to be free and open.
There’s a sense of curiosity, wonder, and openness. The world is more alive. I’m less attached to my physical form, and my sense of identification has expanded outward: everything that has ever passed through my body—the solid matter, air, water, and energy—is now “out there” in the form of fields, clouds, forests, and soil. In a way, those things are all me. And because this very body is made of these same things, I am them. Having this direct sense of interconnectedness is enlivening and empowering. I’m no longer separate and small, but an intimate part of the vast cycle of the elements.
Space is a strange and different element. It’s just there. We can’t see it, we can’t touch it, we can’t say how far it extends. We can’t even say what, if anything, it’s made of. According to Einstein, it expands and contracts depending on what velocity we’re moving at, and it gets bent out of shape by the presence of solid matter. That’s all very hard for me to get my brain around, conditioned as it is to think in a paltry three dimensions. But there is one thing that my deluded mind “knows” about space, which is that there’s space that’s “me” and there’s space that’s “not me.” Cut to Einstein, in one of his less mathematical and more religious moments:
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 very basic distinction—or delusion—of there being an inner world and an outer world is so fundamental that we rarely question it. This stage of the Six Element practice gives us an opportunity to question that assumption. So first of all, as we’re sitting with our eyes closed in meditation, can we feel any sharp division between “me space” and “not-me space”? I’ve noticed that without the “optical delusion” of there being a delineation between inner and outer, the body loses its sense of having fixed boundaries. The hands no longer have five fingers; they have become just a mass of interwoven sensations—tingling, warmth, pressure. The whole body becomes a fuzzy ball of energy. That passing car I hear: Is the sound inside me or outside? The sound waves are happening in the air outside, but all hearing takes place in the brain, which is inside. The assumptions begin to show cracks.
Even if the boundaries of my space are fuzzy, I still have some space I can claim as my own, right? Well, maybe not. Even when I’m sitting absolutely still, I’m moving. The planet is spinning on its axis and revolving around the sun, the whole solar system is swinging around the galactic core, and the galaxy itself is rushing away from every other galaxy at an incomprehensible velocity. So although I think there’s a “me space,” I’m never actually in the same space for two consecutive moments.
Space isn’t really divided into “me space” and “not-me space.” It’s all one space, and it flows through us. Space is just borrowed. We can’t own it.
It isn’t obvious that consciousness is an element like the physical elements or even space. Perhaps even more so than with space, we can’t even say what consciousness is. But somehow in the evolution of the material universe life has arisen, and in the evolution of life consciousness has come into being. Perhaps we could say that consciousness is the other elements knowing themselves.
The Buddha introduces the element in this way: “Then there remains only consciousness, bright and purified.” It’s just possible that he was referring here to mind’s intrinsically empty nature, or he may simply have meant that the mind has been brightened and purified by letting go of grasping after the other five elements. In any event, we’ve started to realize at this stage of the practice that there’s nothing we can grasp hold of and so our mind now turns its attention to itself: the grasper.
We can only live by letting go, never by holding on.
In this stage of the practice we notice—and reflect upon—the way in which sensations, thoughts, images, emotions, and habitual patterns come into being, persist for a while, and then vanish into emptiness. None of them is permanent, and all are simply passing through us in the same way that the earth, water, fire, air, and space elements are flowing through our physical form. So these “elements of consciousness” are not intrinsic to us, are not a fixed part of us, and are not us. Just as there is nothing we can grasp, there is no one, ultimately, to do any grasping.
When feelings of fear or discomfort arise in the practice, as they sometimes do, we treat them in just this way, experiencing the feelings in a nonattached way, surrounding them with mindfulness and lovingkindness, and realizing that they are not ultimately a part of us.
Having explained that the contents of consciousness—pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral—arise and pass and cannot be clung to, “there remains,” in the words of the sutta, “only equanimity, purified and bright, malleable, wieldy, and radiant.”
This is the equanimity that comes from letting go, from ceasing to identify with our experience. It’s the equanimity that comes from not getting caught up in our inner dramas, from not reacting to unpleasant feelings with aversion and by not responding to pleasant feelings with grasping. It’s the equanimity of acceptance. Through the Six Element practice, we come to the insight that we’re not the physical elements, nor the space that contains them, nor again the consciousness that knows those things. So we may well ask, what exactly are we? This is a question that, in this meditation, we can consider experientially rather than through discursive thought. Rather than try to work out an answer in logical terms, we simply ask the question, and sit, and listen patiently for the heart’s intuitive response.
Sometimes what arises is a sense that we are the universe become aware of itself; that we are nothing more than conscious, living energy; that the mind is inherently pure, luminous, wise, and loving; and that we are beginning to know our intrinsic nature, which is emptiness.
Whatever arises from our reflections, we simply continue to sit and to experience the fruits of the practice, until we feel ready to move on. I’d encourage you once again to engage with this practice as an experiential exercise in letting go. To live is to let go, and in order to live fully we must learn to let go fully and to embrace the flow that is the universe.
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