Unveiling :: Sensing the earth element

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In this Unveiling Series, we are cultivating the ability to see beyond the veils that entangle our attention and blind us to the joy of being fully present in this moment just as it is, whatever is going on in our lives. 

So far we have focused on understanding the metaphor of veils. Now, in this post, I offer a guided meditation that helps us cultivate the ability to see through our veils and even let them drift away. Through this traditional Buddhist Insight meditation practice, we will discover that we have the capacity to be fully present and understand the nature of being.

The Elements

When I lead my class in meditation, I sometimes draw attention to the inside of the mouth, noticing each of the elements: the earth element in the solid surfaces of teeth, tongue, and roof of the mouth; the water element in the moisture in the mouth; the fire element in the warmth in the mouth; and the air element in the breath. Students find this very helpful to let go of thinking, thinking and stay present with sensation. But this is just a taste 😉 of a full-blown traditional Buddhist exploration of the elements. And anchoring awareness is just one of the benefits of this practice.

Focusing on the elements offers us a deep understanding of the true nature of reality: ever-changing, insubstantial, and intrinsically interconnected. For those new to Buddhism, this might ring some alarm bells. I don’t want things to change! (Until I desperately do want things to change!) I don’t want to be reminded that this body and everything else in my life is subtly and sometimes suddenly falling apart! And I want to maintain my distance from the rest of the world! (Except for chosen people and pets.) This “I, me, mine” is, well, mine! And I like it that way!

This is not a practice that threatens you, only one that alleviates the suffering caused by constantly feeling the need to fortify the fortress of a separate-seeming self and believing that happiness can be had by holding on tight. The practice does help to soften and dissolve the blinding veils of belief that cause endless suffering.

This traditional meditation on the elements is usually saved for retreats where there is sufficient time to explore each one. But since few retreats are being offered, I decided the next best thing would be to explore one element at a time, beginning with the earth element. This guided meditation activates the senses and the imagination. So set aside some quiet time, take a seated position, and let’s explore!


We so often hold ourselves apart, decorated in veils of identity, when there is no separation. This body we call ‘me’ made of the same stuff. Much of it is earth elements, and just like all the other earth elements, it is subject to change. Our veils of resistance to the nature of impermanence only blind us from the beauty of this truth, trying to convince us that we and all we care about are uniquely permanent. My students had interesting responses to this experience. I would love to hear yours. Please comment below.

I will end with a poem I wrote years ago:

Ode to Japanese Maple in College Courtyard

My hand upon your trunk, a kindred hum,
Earthy greetings rise from your roots

Sunny salutations as your leaves
flutter brushing cheek and inner arm

My roaming hands stroke your limbs
The rough on rough of kindred skin

I rub the rounds of your old wounds
and feel guilt for all my pruning

curse my need to impose my sense
of order on those whose nature

is to grow in symbiotic celebration
of earth and light and rain

Get lost in excuses: This is not my tree
These wounds are not my doing

You interrupt me quizzically:
Who is this ‘my’ this ‘you’ this ‘tree?’

Words throw up fences, cages
make no sense, can’t engage us

I reach my arm along a limb
My side aligns to sink within

I breathe out, you breathe in
You breathe out, I breathe in

Know only this: we are kin.

— Stephanie Noble

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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