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.

The self as a river

Extract from Chapter 9: The Water Element

The most striking thing about the Water Element is its quality of flowing. It’s because of this characteristic that I too think of Water as being the archetype of all the other elements. The Earth element does flow, to be sure. It flows in a literal sense, as with landslides or the movement of tectonic plates—but these movements are either rare enough that they spring to mind infrequently, or happen on timescales that are remote from our day-to-day experience. We generally expect mountains to remain where they are, and the ground beneath our feet to provide a reliable support. Fire (energy) and Air also flow, but these aren’t directly visible in the way that the flow of water is. On the other hand it’s part of my everyday experience to perceive water flowing. I see water flowing from the sky, flowing along the river that passes by my house, flowing from faucets, and flowing down drains. I hear the trickle of urine on my periodic trips to the bathroom. I can feel the blood pumping in my arteries and the saliva sloshing in my mouth. This ready familiarity means that the flow of water becomes a metaphor for the other elements that compose our bodies. As the Buddha once said: “Just as a mountain stream, coming from afar, swiftly flowing, carrying along much flotsam, will not stand still for a moment, an instant, a second, but will rush on, swirl and flow forward; even so … is human life like a mountain stream.”

Woman in waterfall

When I meditate upon the various elements entering this human form, swirling around, and passing out again, it is in fact the image of a river that most often comes to mind. Sometimes I imagine that I’m sitting next to a six-foot-long stretch of river that represents my self—my body, feelings, thoughts, and memories. I sit on the bank, watching the waters flow by in this length of river that represents what is myself, me, and mine. As I watch the waters roll by I’m forced to recognize that what constitutes this me is forever changing. What I’ve just identified as “me” is now gone, and has been replaced. This is disconcerting, and I begin to realize more and more that I constantly grasp after a kind of self-definition and try to delimit of the self, as if I fear that I will be lost in the flow of the elements. The grasping becomes more conscious, the identification obvious. Yet as I continue to reflect on the transitory nature of the elements as they pass through my form, I realize that grasping is futile. One may as well try to hold on to flowing water as to claim the elements as one’s own, or as oneself. The moment of identification is followed so closely by the moment of dis-identification that they are essentially the same moment, and the moment of grasping becomes the moment of letting go. I find myself experiencing a sense of ease, less compelled to try to grasp the ungraspable. I begin to feel liberated.

Sometimes the image is different. I imagine that I sit before a waterfall. The sheet of water is like a cinema screen, and on it is projected a photograph or movie of my body. I can see myself, and yet there is nothing static within the image. What makes up the representation of myself, what constitutes the substance, what is apparently “contained” within the image I see of myself, is not a thing but a flow, an endlessly changing current, an ever-moving wall of water. In no two moments am I the same person, because the waterfall is not the same waterfall. As with the image of the river, the contents of the form are forever being replaced. There is an appearance of substantiality—of something static—but there is no essence. And again, sitting with this image, as I continue to observe the transitoriness of my self, I have a sense that there’s nothing to grasp. Indeed I begin to sense there’s no one to do any grasping, since it’s my self that is empty of substance.

In the beginning…

Extract from Chapter 8: The Earth Element

Where did this body begin, and was there anything at the beginning that I could call me or mine?

There’s no mention of conception in the traditional outlines of the practice, but since the body begins there, that’s where I tend to start my reflections. In my meditation practice I recollect that my life began with the fusion of an egg from my mother with a sperm from my father. I share with most people the reluctance to consider in any detail the conjugal activities of my parents, and so in this particular exercise of the imagination I find it useful to indulge in a little vague generality. So there is an egg and a sperm, floating, as it were, in the mid-air of my imagination. Sperm and eggs are of course delivery vehicles for your parents’ DNA. Not that it’s your parents’ DNA, not yours. In fact your parents’ DNA was not theirs either. They both got their DNA from their parents, and so on and so on back in time until the first common ancestor of all life. DNA perforce flows through time’s river, or it ceases to exist. Like everything else in the body, our DNA is not owned, but only borrowed. We can look at the provenance of DNA from another angle as well. The atoms that constitute your DNA are borrowed from the outside world. Your DNA is doubly other, coming from your parental lineage and from food ingested by your progenitors.

human conception

I reflect that neither the sperm nor the egg was me. One was clearly part of my mother’s body, while the other was likewise just one of the roughly 100 trillion cells constituting my father’s body at that moment in his life. Now, I can regard the product of the fusion of these two “not-me” cells as being, in some way, “me,” but the knowledge that the parts were not-me rather undermines the notion of their sum being “me.” Everything that made up that first “me” cell was borrowed. I have the sense, reflecting on this, of a disconcerting absence of “me” at the moment of my creation. I’d like to think that there was a “me” created, but considering that “I” was made from stuff that was entirely “not me” I experience the same dizzying sense of insubstantiality that arose in Chapter 1, when we considered the possibility of another sperm having met the mother’s egg.

Next I witness, in the mind’s eye, the growth and development of this single-celled, half-mother/half-father/not-me entity, in a series of mental snapshots and time-lapse movies taking me right up to the present day. In my reflections on the Earth element, I’m not concerned with visualizing the specifics of the entire process of embryogenesis—one doesn’t need a degree in embryology to reflect on it—but in a general sense I call to mind that the following process took place in my life: conception was followed by cell-division and the development of an embryo, which becomes a fetus, and then a baby. This growth was possible because of the borrowing of the Earth element from the outside world. The embryo at first got nutrition by absorbing secretions from the uterus, and dumped waste products into my mother’s uterine cavity, but later it grew by absorbing nutrition through the placenta. And what I absorbed from my mother was in turn what she had borrowed. The flesh and other products of animals, crops that have grown in fields, and fruits that have been cultivated in orchards were all funneled through my mother’s body to feed “me.” That which is other (food) flowed through that which is other (my mother) into the body, which—remembering that the embryo began as a cell from each of my parents—is also other. When we look closely, it seems that there is no “me” to be found in the Earth element constituting the developing embryo: “Now the internal Earth element and the external element are simply Earth element. And that should be seen as it actually is…”

We can visualize ourselves being born and growing to the point where we ingest food ourselves. Rather than being channeled through the mother’s body, food now flows directly into the body, being chewed, digested, and assimilated. We can imagine this process of growth, with its attendant flow and absorption of the Earth element, taking place right up to the present moment, right up to the form that is reading this book. In my meditation I picture this flow of the Earth element. I call to mind fields and animals, seeing the Earth element in the form of food flow from fields, along roads, into factories and stores, into my home, and into my body. The Earth element flows like a river, and I am just one eddy amongst its countless currents. This is another opportunity to experience humility and gratitude. How many countless people have been involved in growing, transporting, processing, and selling the food we have eaten over an entire lifetime? How many lives of plants and animals have helped sustain our small eddy? We can think of this and give thanks.

Why do we think we have unchanging selves?

Extract from Chapter 1: The Self I Don’t Believe In

There are several reasons, I believe, why it seems natural for us to assume that the self is static and permanent when in fact it is not. The first of these is that we’re simply not very good at detecting change. Imagine this: you walk into a university building to be interviewed as part of a psychology experiment. At the reception desk a young man takes the consent form that you hand to him, and tells you you’ll need to receive an information packet and then go to another room to be questioned. He ducks behind the counter, picks up the packet, hands it to you, and gives you directions. It’s just an ordinary encounter. Nothing unusual. You glance at the information you’ve been handed and go on your way. The bizarre thing is that the person who ducked beneath the counter and the person who stood up to hand you the form were different people! They looked completely unlike each other. They were different heights, had different hairstyles, and wore different clothing in different colors. They spoke in different voices. And you didn’t notice—or at least the vast majority of people don’t notice. This was a psychology experiment that was carried out by Dan Simons and Christopher Chabris at Harvard University.

In an earlier experiment, Simons had another experimenter stop passers-by on a university campus to ask for directions. In the middle of the exchange, two men carrying a door would rudely walk between the two people. Afterwards, the passers-by were asked if they’d noticed anything unusual. Half did not notice that the person they’d been talking to had been switched for another person who had a different appearance, build, and voice, and who was wearing different clothes. That’s a lot of change not to see. But these experiments, which illustrate what’s called “change blindness,” have been repeated in many different forms, and change blindness is our default method of perception, or of non-perception.

There are web sites you can visit that give you the opportunity to test your ability to notice change. Typically, two photographs alternate, with a brief moment of blankness between them. There are what you might expect to be obvious differences between the two photographs—in a scene of an aircraft at an airport, for example, a building has been photoshopped from one version of the image—but it can take many, many attempts to see the change. Once you see the change, it seems obvious. But right up until the point where the difference comes to your attention, you’d swear the two photographs were identical. And remember, unlike in the college campus studies mentioned above, you know that changes are taking place and you’re actively looking for them. The change is there, and it almost seems as if our brains resist seeing it.

A large part of the explanation for change blindness is due to the fact that the brain can only deal with so much information at one time. In the reception area where the participants largely failed to notice one receptionist being replaced by another, there was a lot going on. There was furniture. There were signs, the sound of the air conditioning, the exchange of pieces of paper, verbal instructions to process, textures and colors on every surface, smells—and of course part of your brain is already taken up with thinking about things like, “Am I on time? Will I enjoy this interview? When will I get paid? Did he say the waiting room was the second door on the left or on the right? I wish I’d been listening more closely. I never pay attention.” The average person can only keep around seven things in conscious awareness at one time, and only about four things in visual short term memory. We’re so busy selecting the few things that are absolutely crucial to the task we’re involved in that there’s not much attention left for other things—like noticing that the person staffing the reception desk is now taller, dressed in different clothes, and has different facial features. The most famous change blindness experiment involved showing a video of a basketball game. Participants were asked to count how many times one team’s members passed the ball to each other. The participants were so busily involved in this task that they failed to notice someone in a gorilla costume walk slowly across the basketball court, right between the players! This experiment highlights more than any other the limited processing capability of the human brain.

The point here is that if we don’t even notice that a person we’ve been talking to has been replaced by someone else, or can’t notice a missing building as we repeatedly switch back and forth between two photographs, how are we going to notice that our selves are changing? Just as we look at two different receptionists, one after another, and think they are the same person because we detect no change, so we see different “selves” emerging one after another within ourselves, and assume that this is the same person. Even though there has been change, we assume that the self is unchanging. Moment by moment, our perceptions, thoughts, moods, and emotions are changing, reconfiguring, and creating a new self. Continue the process of change—accompanied by change blindness—for years or decades, and we start to assume that there has in fact been no change, or that the change has been purely superficial. Thus we may think that there is an unchanging core to ourselves that has experienced the changes to our perceptions, thoughts, emotions, etc.

The breathing earth

Extract from Chapter 11: The Air Element

There is a sense in which the Earth does literally breathe. As Antoine de Saint Exupéry said in his classic work of children’s fiction, The Little Prince, “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” Imagination, as we’ve seen, can help us to visualize what is invisible to our physical senses, but sometimes to see the essential you need satellites and supercomputers. Scientists from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, using data from the Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-view Sensor (SeaWiFS) satellite, have made visible the planet’s respiratory cycle by imaging the extent of photosynthesis in both the oceans and over land. The work of photosynthesis is visualized as bands of color, pulsating in rhythm with the seasons. The resulting images provide a stunning view of the earth breathing, showing the expansion and contraction of photosynthesis over a period of years and allowing us to appreciate the Earth as a living organism.

I look again and again with wonder upon these animations, where dry data representing millions of measurements are translated into beautiful bands of shifting color over the oceans and the land. I see something that resembles a breathing child. The southern hemisphere is like the child’s belly, while the northern is like the chest. The flowing patterns in each hemisphere differ, but move synchronously, one rising as the other falls. I feel a sense of tenderness and a powerful desire to protect this small sphere. These animations take us beyond the capabilities of our unaided senses, allowing us to see patterns too subtle and taking place on too long a timescale for even an astronaut in space to discern them with the naked eye. And watching these images, there comes a sense of belonging. If the earth is seen as a breathing organism, then you and I are the cells in its body.

In losing my sense of myself as a separate being, I find myself to be something grander. I find myself to be part of a living global system of miraculous complexity, where water becomes air, where air becomes living creature, where living creature becomes rock, where rock again becomes air. I find myself to be part of an astonishingly complex web of mutual dependencies powerful enough to shape the destiny of an entire planet, powerful enough to create an atmosphere and separate—as the god Enlil did—heaven and earth. I find that I am Gaia, and Oceanus, and Enlil. In losing my self of myself as separate I am not diminished, but augmented. I am augmented physically—seeing myself as part of a greater whole—and also filled with an expansive sense of wonder, and appreciation, and compassion.

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.