First Foundation of Mindfulness: Elements

The Buddha taught about the elements of the body: earth, air, fire and water. As we develop a sensory awareness of physical nature, we can enhance that awareness by noticing these four elements as they show themselves in our experience.

As we walk we can feel the earthy mass and weight of our body succumbing to the gravitational pull of the earth.

As we breathe we can feel the air nature of our body, how the largest proportion of our body is in fact oxygen (65%).So we can breathe  in that sense of aliveness and connection with the air around us.

We can experience the element of fire as we exert energy and burn calories, as we note the temperature of our body, both internally and on our skin. Our neurons fire an elaborate electrical system in our body. And our hormones have a potentially fiery component, creating a burning sense of urgency and passion.

We experience water in our being — saliva, sweat, a full bladder. Or we notice a lack of water in thirst or skin dryness. We take in liquids and emit them. We know we would not survive long without water. Dehydration is death. Water is life. We are liquid beings.

In focusing on the elemental nature of our body, the Buddha has added another effective way for us to sense into the body in order to be anchored in the present moment. Try noticing one or the other of the various elements as you go about your day. You will probably find yourself being present, grounded and able to see more clearly the reality of whatever is going on within you and around you.

But the focus on elements also has the potential to bring us home to an awareness of the body as an intrinsic part of all nature. Looking at the science of elements — not just the Buddha’s four overriding elements but the whole periodic table — we find that everything, including our body, is made up of all the same elements, but in varying amounts.* For example, while the core of the earth is iron and other heavy metals, the earth’s crust has many of the same elements as the human body.

In our group discussion one meditator mentioned the fact that everything is mostly space at a microscopic level, which creates an even greater sense of commonality. And then we talked about how if you are working with a photo on the computer and you zoom in very close to the edge of any object in the photo, the edge disappears. It makes you really question the reality of the edges that we take for granted! Am I really in a skin container? Skin is protective but also permeable. It is in a constant state of shedding and regenerating, so that it becomes a part of the atmosphere and the ground we walk on.

When we begin to look at the reality of our physical nature, we can let go of that self-imposed sense of separation, as if we are alien intruders in the natural world, an invasive species. Those of us who love nature may find it difficult to see the nature in ourselves or in others of our species. And those who accept the inherited culturally promoted idea that nature is just a pile of useful resources for human use are at an even greater disconnect from understanding the reality of not just inter-reliance but inter-being. We are all one!

This collective sense of alienation from others of our species and the rest of nature is the direct cause of the abuse of each other, other animals, plant life and the earth itself. So this meditation on the elements allows us to recognize that we are all family here. We can relax into a sense of unitive ease. We can be kind. We can be cooperative. We can take the needs of all beings into consideration. It is a very powerful meditation well worth incorporating into our practice and into our daily lives.

Still not feeling it? I have come up with a couple of analogies we can play with to help remind ourselves that we are all made up of the same stuff.

I always like cooking analogies so here’s one to consider:
Just as a fully stocked kitchen can provide an amazing variety of meals, we can think of the universe as a full pantry of elements where anything can happen. And it did! Here we all are — humans and millions of other species of animals, plants, and all manner of rocks, and then all the ‘man-made’ objects created out of combining the elements found in nature.

Another analogy:
Imagine a huge set of Lego blocks — the basic blocks, none of the fancy pre-fab stuff. Now imagine them infinitely smaller, so small we couldn’t even see them in the microscope. They are subatomic blocks.

Now imagine that we are all Lego constructions. I am a Lego woman, living in a Lego house with my Lego husband. We drive in our Lego car to the Lego store, take walks in the Lego forest, and enjoy the company of our Lego family and friends.

We could live our lives without thinking about our Lego nature, and most of us do. That’s why it throws us every time some Lego construct comes apart and gets repurposed as something else. We are shocked because we thought this version of Legoland, this version of ourselves, our family and friends and where we live, was permanent. We thought these were solid structures! They are not! They are all made up of subatomic building blocks of life!  

If we have some part of our awareness knowing this is Legoland, then we understand the nature of the universe we live in. We see that we are all one in the sense that we are all made of the exact same stuff — maybe you’ve got more blue Legos in your make-up and I’ve got more red, but we’re all Legos. Everything is Legos.

The fundamental building blocks of the universe come together and fall apart with regularity. The world is full of cycles and seasons. The only constant is change!

If we are distressed with how things fall apart, then we can take comfort in the unitive nature of it all — that we are not and never have been separate. That we have always been and will always exist, at least at the subatomic level, just not in this particular Lego shape. We are in and of the universe, we are stardust, we are expressions of the sun itself, the earth itself. We are never alone, no matter how isolated we may feel at any given moment.

So these experiential exercises we undertake — sensing into the physical nature of our being — are meant to help alleviate the suffering that we cause ourselves when we engage in erroneous thinking. When we believe in permanence, we suffer because we are shocked, maybe even horrified, when things fall apart. The erroneous thinking that we are each of us encapsulated and separate also causes us to suffer. The separation we perceive is just a conceptual convenience for making our way in the physical world. We are not separate! There is no separation!

These realizations that we come to are awakenings to the reality of life. This is insight meditation and the whole purpose is to foster our own insights into the nature of reality.
The Buddha encouraged his followers to find out the truth for themselves. He did not want people to simply accept what he said as truth and parrot it to others. This is a tradition that continually sends us back to ourselves, to our own experience to discover the truth. This is a truth that is based not in books but in our bodies, in our tuning in to our senses to access full awareness in this present moment.

So as you listen or read a dharma talk, don’t take it as the whole of an answer. Think of it like going to the safe deposit vault at the bank. The teller, just like the teacher, has one key. You have the other, the one that makes it possible for you to not just receive the dharma, but to experience it for yourself.

So what does your key look like? It consists of wise intention and wise effort in your meditation practice. The insights rise of their own accord when you give yourself the time, space and silence to experience them.

If in reading on you find this is not sitting right with you, just notice it. Maybe it’s not time for this. We each need to notice and honor our own cycles and rhythms. We need to be autodidactic in the way we learn, following the wisdom within. This is not a linear exploration but something much more organic.

So how does this sit with you? What does it bring up? Give yourself some time to practice sensing in. Then give yourself some time in silence to notice your thoughts and feelings. This is your exploration.


*Elements of the human body:
Oxygen (65%)
Carbon (18%)
Hydrogen (10%)
Nitrogen (3%)
Calcium (1.5%)
Phosphorus (1.0%)
Potassium (0.35%)
Sulfur (0.25%)
Sodium (0.15%)
Magnesium (0.05%)
Copper, Zinc, Selenium, Molybdenum, Fluorine, Chlorine, Iodine, Manganese, Cobalt, Iron (0.70%)
Lithium, Strontium, Aluminum, Silicon, Lead, Vanadium, Arsenic, Bromine (trace amounts)

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