Reflecting on the Fire Element

Extract from Chapter 10: The Fire Element

In the context of the meditation practice, we become aware of any heat and movement in the body. When I’m sitting, I notice the warmth of the body, which is most obvious under my clothing and where different parts of the body are in contact with each other. I also feel the warmth of the out-breath compared to the coolness of the in-breath. The very movement of the body as we breathe is an aspect of the fire element, since breathing is a biological process; the movement of the breath is metabolic energy in action. Similarly, I can feel the beating of the heart and the living pulse of blood in my extremities. I pay attention to the aliveness of my muscles, the sense of energy on alert, awaiting the instructions that will initiate movement. In my hands in particular I can feel a tingling sensation like electricity, especially if my hands are in contact with each other.


On a more imaginative level, I can call to mind the sparks of electricity flowing along nerve fibers and jumping across synapses, and fields of electrical energy pulsing in the brain. I can see in my mind’s eye the combustion taking place in the tiny mitochondria: the furnaces within each of the trillions of cells in my body. I can be aware that there are stores of chemical energy in the body in the form of fats and carbohydrates. I can visualize the digestive processes taking place in the gut: the secretion of acid and enzymes, the oozing of bile into the intestines, propulsive waves of peristaltic contraction massaging digesta along the gut. I can imagine the never-ending repair processes: specialized cells degrading and rebuilding the bones, the constant regeneration of cells throughout the body, and the processes taking place within the cells as membranes and organelles are repaired and replaced. There are enzymes hard at work even within your cells’ nuclei, repairing strands of DNA that have been shattered by radiation and chemical damage. This is the Fire Element within the body—the organization of energy to build and maintain the human form.

These reflections, incidentally, don’t need to be cold and clinical; a healthy dose of appreciation and wonder is both desirable and beneficial. To observe this living body is to be aware of the most complex known structure in the universe. Just this brain alone has 100 billion neurons, and these neurons are supported and maintained by ten times that number of glial cells, whose functions are still being uncovered. Each neuron is connected to 10,000 others, forming an unbelievably complex network of living tissue. A gray, gelatinous mass of fat and protein that can sense, think, and feel: how amazing this is! And that’s just the brain. The body as a whole is phenomenally complex, buzzing with electrical and chemical activity. This is something to be noted not in a cold and objective way, but with relish, wonder, and with an appreciation of marvels.

Casting the mind outside, I recall the various forms of energy in the rest of the world: the energy upon which life ultimately depends. Typically I tend to begin (and I invite you to join me) by calling to mind those forms of energy that are closest at hand and directly perceptible. As I write this chapter I’m sitting in the guesthouse of an orphanage in Ethiopia, where I’m adopting a baby boy. I appreciate the light penetrating my eyes. I appreciate the warmth in the space around me—the warmth in the air, heat radiating from the sun, re-radiating from the courtyard outside. I notice the sounds of living beings. A bluebottle makes liquid thudding sounds as it bumps repeatedly against the window. I hear the barking of dogs, the singing of birds, the voices of people (including my nine-month-old son, babbling and wriggling on the bed beside me). Further afield, I sense the ecosystems around me: the peppers and false bananas growing in tiny city gardens just outside my window, the trees that shade this hot and dusty city, and the eucalyptus forests that blanket the surrounding hills. The Fire Element is embodied in innumerable living beings beyond my direct perception: the millions of people in this city and billions more around the world, uncountable living creatures both large and small, down to the tiniest single-celled organisms, the plants that blanket the earth and drift near the surface of the seas. There are even living organisms penetrating the rocks of the Earth itself. So far organisms have been found thriving at depths of 3.5 kilometers (over two miles) and they probably go much deeper.

I notice the roar of Addis Ababa’s traffic and the drone of a distant aircraft coming in to land at Bole Airport. I hear the whir of my laptop’s fans and feel the heat from its battery as electricity flows through its complex circuits. I can hear the buzz of a generator from a local business (the power outage that struck early this morning is a common occurrence and the local bars and restaurants are well-prepared). All these are the perceptible signs of the external Fire Element. I’m also mindful that there is gas hissing along pipes in the kitchen downstairs, that usually (although not today) there is energy flowing in electrical wiring around me, that despite the power outage there is still heat in the water-tank in the bathroom. There is chemical energy stored in foodstuffs in the guesthouse—the guavas and bananas in the fruit bowl, the lentils, vegetables, and rice that our Ethiopian cook is preparing for lunch, the many other fresh, dried, and canned goods in the kitchen cupboards.

Imaginatively, I connect with the hot rocks convulsing in the depths of the earth below me, with the heat and light streaming from the sun, making our planet habitable. I recall lightning crackling, the sun-driven breezes, running water, and the never-ending swell of the distant oceans. Just to the north is the Gulf of Arabia and some of the world’s largest oil reserves: these are the fossilized remains of the sunlight of eons past. These are all forms of the Fire Element outside my body.

Having embraced in my mind the Fire Element within and without my body, I see the essential unity of the two, recalling the ways in which the Fire Element flows into the body, and then out again. The Fire Element is one, indivisible except in my mind. Right now, my body is absorbing the heat of the sun’s rays. Later I plan to have a brief shower in the dwindling supply hot water that remains in our bathroom’s immersion tank. The energy in that water will warm my skin, being carried by my bloodstream to all parts of my body. I’m probably still digesting last night’s dinner: injera (a sour pancake made from a grain called teff), and various lentil, bean, and vegetable dishes, and my stomach is still breaking down the guava I just snacked on. My body is absorbing and redistributing the heat of the Ethiopian coffee (espresso-strong, just the way I like it) I sipped a few minutes ago. All this is the Fire Element entering my body.

And in every moment, the Fire Element is flowing out of my body. Although my eyes are not equipped to see them, there are clouds of warm air billowing from my body, and streams of body-temperature gas cascading every few seconds from my airways, mixing with the cooler air of the room. Heat radiates from my body, warming my surroundings. When I move, I can feel the warmth where I’ve been sitting: more heat that has left the body. It’s because all of this energy is pouring out of me that I have to constantly replenish the Fire Element.

In this reflection we sense that life itself is a flow of energy, that the metabolic energy animating the other elements is itself borrowed from the outside world. This heat and movement—this life—that I sense within myself is not me, not mine, not my self. I am not this. It’s only by letting go of the Fire Element, by letting it flow through us, that we can live. Although in reality there’s no question of “letting” the Fire Element flow through us: we can’t but do otherwise. We can’t hold onto “our” energy. It’s not “my” life. Life itself is flow, and the energy of life cannot be grasped or possessed.

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