The six element practice

Extract from Chapter 2: An Encounter in the Workshop

The Six Element Practice is a systematic analysis of the self. The reflection looks at the self in terms of:

  1. The Earth Element, or everything solid within the body,
  2. The Water Element, or all that is liquid within the body,
  3. The Fire Element, or the energy that allows for metabolism,
  4. The Air Element, or everything internal that is gaseous,
  5. The Space Element, or the form constituted by the physical elements (you can think of this as your appearance)
  6. The Consciousness Element, or the emergent property that arises from the other elements, by which they become conscious of themselves.

You’ll recognize the first four of these elements as the classical elements, which were used as an organizing principle from Ancient Greece to the European Renaissance. Aristotle modified the Greek four element system by adding a fifth element called aether, which roughly corresponds to space. Aether is the “substance” that the heavens and heavenly bodies were made out of, and, incidentally, it was the last of the classical elements to go to its conceptual grave, being widely accepted in science until its existence was disproved by an elegant experiment carried out by Albert Michelson and Edward Morley in 1887. The classical element model was modified by Arabic and European philosophers and scientists, but of course it turned out to be inadequate and was replaced by the more elegant and flexible model of the chemical elements that we know today.

One might wonder, what can be the purpose of reflecting on a primitive scientific model that has long been superseded? The answer is simply that Gautama was not making scientific claims about the nature of the self. He was not particularly interested in investigating the chemical structure of the body or of the world. The Six Elements merely provided a handy way of analyzing the mind and body in order to appreciate the essential truth of impermanence. By seeing how each of the elements flowed, and how each of the elements has its origin in that which is “not self,” we can begin to undermine our notions of separateness and permanence. In essence, we could do that just as well by substituting Earth, Water, Fire, and Air with the contemporary chemical elements (plus energy), appreciating how each flows through the body. However, since there are about ninety naturally occurring elements, the meditation practice would be rather long.

While the later Buddhist tradition tended to see the classical elements not as physical realities but as qualities of experience (Earth is resistance, Water is fluidity, Fire is temperature, and Air is mobility) there’s no hint of this in the discourse or elsewhere in Gautama’s teachings that I know of. The examples chosen to illustrate the elements in the earliest stratum of Buddhist teachings describe them in terms of simple physical realities, with Earth being that which is solid, Water being anything liquid, etc. The Elements were seen as being interpenetrating, so that a solid log, for example, contained not just Earth but also the other three classical elements: it can emit Air and Water if heated, for example, and when it becomes very hot it can release its latent Fire.

With each of the five physical elements Earth through Space (Consciousness takes a different approach) there’s a pattern of investigation we go through. This pattern of investigation helps us understand how nothing that constitutes the self belongs to us in any real way, and thus can’t constitute a static and separate entity. After all, how can “I” be made entirely of stuff that is “not me”?

Here’s a brief example of how I approach the Earth Element within the traditional form of the reflection: First we bring the Earth Element within the body—everything solid—to mind. We then reflect on everything solid in the outside world. We consider that whatever is solid within the body comes from the outside world and will return (and is presently returning) to that outside world. We visualize this, and thus see the Earth Element as flowing relentlessly through the body. We realize that there is in reality no “me” earth element and no “other” earth element; there’s just one Earth Element. We come to see the earth element as “borrowed” from the outside world. We don’t own it. We simply identify with it as being “me” and “mine” during the brief time it is passing through this human form. Lastly, having connected with the flowing nature of the earth element, seeing it as being more like a river than a static thing—something that can’t be owned or held onto—we reflect, “This is not me. This is not mine. I am not this.” We begin to let go of the act of identifying with the element.

We repeat this pattern of reflections with each of the subsequent elements in turn, with the exception of the consciousness element, where the emphasis is rather different. Traditionally, the emphasis with the reflection on Consciousness is not on the element coming from the external world and returning to the external world, but simply on realizing how our experience is a flow of events—such as sensations, feelings, and thoughts—arising and passing away. It is this flow of events that constitutes what we call consciousness. Consciousness is not seen as being something separate that “has” experiences. Consciousness is the activity of experiencing.

The Six Element reflection is designed to challenge the notion of the self being separate and static. The reflection encourages us to see:

  • That everything that we identify with as being ourselves in fact comes from outside of ourselves, so that the “self” is made up of stuff that was originally “not self,”
  • That everything we identify with as being ourselves will eventually no longer be part of ourselves,
  • That everything we identify with as being ourselves isn’t really a part of ourselves even when we think it is,
  • And that in fact there’s no physical support for the separate or permanent self we like to believe we have.

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