This is part of a Buddhist Six Element Meditation. If you haven’t been with me on this exploration of the elements, you’ll want to go back to the first one and proceed forward, taking your time with each one.
An elegant buck was standing in our driveway at dusk in a state of easeful stillness and contemplation, looking out at the valley below and the hills across the way. What was he contemplating? I imagined he was fully present with all his senses noting the quieting of birds, the shift of light, the cooling of the air. A sensory meditation of the deer kind?
The Buddha’s First Foundation of Mindfulness advises us to anchor our awareness in the body, all the sensations, and all the elements that form it. This is easy to do just by bringing your attention to the inside of your mouth. Notice the moisture of the water element, the warmth of the fire element, the solidity of the earth element in the surfaces, and the air element in the breath. Easy, peasy, right? A helpful practice for any time you’re feeling frazzled and need an anchor of awareness.
But the Buddha then asks us to recognize that This is not me. This is not mine. I am not this. And that thought is maybe not quite so easy, peasy. Right? Maybe some level of resistance rises up to ‘protect’ us from the very idea that this body we call ‘me’ is not separate from life, but a vital expression of it. There’s no erasure of being, just a shift in understanding it. A shift that enriches the experience of being alive.
In this exploration of the elements, the closer we have looked, the more we have seen that even the most solid-seeming elements are made up of atoms that are 99.999% empty. That’s hard to wrap our heads around because as we interact with the elements in our daily lives we experience them as tangible, so we assume they are solid. We function as a species by agreeing that we are solid and separate. We build lives and communities around this sense of separation. And that’s fine. We try to honor each other’s space and avoid collisions. But at the very same time, we can awaken to the understanding that there is no separate self. It might seem confusing, even alarming. Yet somehow comforting, too. None of us is alone. We’re all one.
Babies seem to know that at birth. They unlearn it to get along in this world of separation. They are taught to identify and name objects. To see themselves as separate beings with skin boundaries and personalities with qualities that are worthy and unworthy of favor. They are taught to be clear on what is theirs and what belongs to someone else. To grasp, cling, and claim ‘mine’. To adopt the habit of naming ‘other’ whomever their parents define in that way, purposefully or unconsciously. It all has to be carefully taught.
And we are so entrenched in this system that even when the science is clear that we and all life is composed mostly of empty space, we resist what we know to be true at the very core of being. I am you and you are me and we are all together.
While the spacious emptiness of the elements and ourselves may be difficult to grasp, the impermanent nature of the elements is a little easier for us to understand. Life keeps teaching us about impermanence.
I remember holding my baby granddaughter on a tour of the garden and pausing in front of a pale pink rose that captured her attention. As she gazed at it, enchanted, a petal fell off the flower. She gasped, burst into tears, and wept on my shoulder. Aw.
She was not yet fully aware of how many changes her own body was going through every day, as she grew in size and skills. All of our bodies are constantly changing along with everything else in the world. Yet we often feel resistance to the inevitable changes in our bodies, our lives, and the world around us. Unless the change brings an end to something we found unpleasant or introduces something we like. We’re fickle that way. Our relationship with impermanence dictates how much we suffer. Because it is wishing things to be different than they are or clinging to things as they are that causes us suffering.
As we come to understand the impermanent nature of all the elements, we can soften our reactions to the changes all around us, letting go of the harshness of our judgments of ourselves and others. Instead, we consciously cultivate compassion, generosity, kindness, wisdom, and deep understanding.
Having explored the earth, water, fire, air, and space elements, and learned the nature of impermanence, emptiness, and interconnection, we come to what the Buddha identified as the sixth element: consciousness.
You might wonder how consciousness can even be an element. I wonder, too! Could the Buddha’s reasoning in including it be that consciousness is in one sense a creator of the other elements? We ask if a tree falls in a forest without any ears to hear, would it make a sound? And the answer, if we understand the role of the ear in translating vibration into sound, is ‘no’.
But the absence of senses is not the same as the absence of consciousness. Many people live without sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch and are still conscious.
It’s our ability to attend sensation that is consciousness, to notice how sensations appear and disappear like bubbles on the surface of a pond during rain.
Most of us don’t pay attention to sensations. Being fully present in the moment to notice the taste of a meal, the touch of skin or fabric, the sound of bird song or crickets, the smell of fresh air, the sight of a leaf or a face, unencumbered with veils full of labels and opinions. Maybe we get so entangled in veils of thought we don’t hear what someone is saying or we arrive at a destination realizing we’ve been on autopilot. In all kinds of ways, we go unconscious. Meditation cultivates the compassionate awareness to become fully conscious.
But wouldn’t that make consciousness a quality to develop? Why did the Buddha consider it an element? It is the element that makes all the other elements known.
It is through quieting down and listening in that we discover the nature of an element. So, as with the first five elements in the previous posts, for a truly personalized experience of discovering for yourself the nature of what we are exploring, please take the time to experience the element of consciousness for yourself.
I hope you took the time to experience the guided meditation. Experience is more powerful than words to create a deeper understanding. Giving yourself the time to relax, release, open, and allow your own inner wisdom to be heard over the cacophony of opinions, judgments, and to do lists, is a gift worth more than anything else you might do in those few minutes!
To end, I offer two poems as invitations to release into this moment and to awaken to consciousness of the nature of being.
You know that little eddy
at the stream’s edge where it curls
and twigs and leaves all cluster
in a sodden clump of whorl?
You ran by every daybreak,
then began to pause and pant,
damp hands on thighs, hypnotized,
peering deep into the swirl.
Later at your desk you’d dream
of the magic of your shrine
You’d doodle lacy doilies
like a childhood valentine.
Then one misty morning run
you came round the bend to see
a tree toppled in the creek,
precious altar all undone.
Water danced a new-laid course,
flushed out the mystic eddy.
Leaves cast off from wee twig piers,
set free to drift downstream.
You followed the fleet at an
ambling pace, felt your muscles
melt, molecules intertwine
in dawn’s dappled light — divine.
the only evidence
of what you seek
is this moment
just as it is.
This moment is worthy
of the devotion
of all your senses.