2021-01-17 Mindfulness of Breathing 11 Earth, Water, Fire and Air
6:41PM Jan 17, 2021
For this Sunday morning talk a little bit what I have in mind is continuing the theme of the 7am in the morning talks on mindfulness of breathing. And we've come to that part of the series of mindfulness breathing, to emphasize being aware of the body as we breathe. And this wonderful body, challenging body, is a very important locus, place, for mindfulness practice. And the question of how to have a deep relationship with this body, or full relationship to it is very important for Vipassanā practice. Especially the tradition of Vipassanā that I trained in, and many of the Western teachers trained in – – – what's called the Mahāsī technique – was very much a body practice, in that it focuses on what's called the "four elements." It was awareness, mindfulness, of the four elements within us in our experience. The four elements can also mean the qualities, four qualities, four dimensions. I like to think of them as sensations.
It's a sensation, meditation. It's an element meditation we're doing. Classically in Vipassanā, one of the ways of really going deep in this practice, is to tune into the sensations of our experience. And that works as a very wonderful alternative to excessively focusing on the concepts and the ideas of our life, the stories of our life, and even the concepts and ideas of our body – to drop the stories, the ideas, the judgments that we have, and put all those aside, and be infinitely forgiving, infinitely accepting of our direct, immediate sensory experience – without any overlay of, "It should be different," or "I need to be different," or "Something's wrong with me, because I'm somehow this way or that way with my body." These are all stories and concepts.
To drop down into really feeling the directness and immediacy of the body in itself – or like I like to say, "the body's own experience of itself." Not the experience that's mediated through a thick layer of concepts and ideas. But the, the, the experience of the body that's comes through sensing – the felt sense of sensations, the way that sensations are experienced in the body.
The classic way of talking about this in Buddhism is to call it a four elements meditation. And those four elements are earth, water, fire, and air. And so it's kind of an ancient kind of idea that the basic building blocks of experience, of the world is: earth, water, fire, and air. And kind of I find it kind of delightful, and somewhat profound, this idea that the building blocks of the world are found in us. So as we tune into these qualities in ourselves, there's a resonance, or an association, that we're also tuning into the deep natural elements of this world that we live in.
There's a kind of a wonderful sense of mutuality, or interconnectedness, or residence, or continuity between ourselves and the world we live in – the natural world that we are part of. It doesn't take a lot of reflection to think that you know, the physical body that we have is completely made up of recycled materials. The atoms that our body is built from have come together and formed all kinds of different things over time – and shaped, dissolved, and reformed... There was a time I think all of it was just helium, back in the beginning of the universe, perhaps. As the universe was created and formed, all kinds of things started to, you know. These atoms have had a long journey through this cosmos to us, to here.
When we die, our atoms and elements within us don't just disappear, but they'll take new shapes after us. And so we're the recipient of all this material that the natural world has given us – that's made us possible. And then we die, we give it back in a sense, and it becomes something else in this receiving and giving of our lives.
The four elements in meditation – the general way that we understand this is that they're not the actual elements like objects or atoms, but rather, they are qualities of sensations – the ways in which we feel or sense things. The quality of warmth is the fire element. The qualities of hardness and stability are the earth element. The quality of fluidity that we might feel inside of us are the water element. And the qualities of lifting, extension, and stretching are said to be the air element. Exactly what the correlation between each of these four elements and our personal sensations that we experience is a bit arbitrary, a bit personal.
I was a bit confused when I used to study this, because different teachers seem to explain these four elements in different ways. To exactly make a correlation between the elements and our sensations – trying to fit everything into this – is a bit hard. It's not so much that we have to get it right. But rather, it's the principle that we're really tuning into these sensations. And in doing so, developing concentration, developing depth, and developing the freedom that comes when we temporarily separate or free ourselves from living in concepts, in stories, in thoughts about the future, in self.
Especially all kinds of ways of orienting ourselves to the world around the concept and the feeling of a sense of a self – me myself in mine. In many situations, it's appropriate enough to have those kinds of thoughts and ideas – but to only have those ideas is to limit our life dramatically. It's very valuable to have breakfast, lunch or dinner, to have meals. But you don't want to sit and have a meal 24 hours a day. It's good to have them occasionally, but not constantly. So it's good to have thoughts of self, and ideas, and concepts periodically. But it's really nice not to have it be constantly. And part of the function of meditation is one of those ways that we can get a vacation from ourselves – from "me, myself and mine" thoughts. It creates a very different perspective and orientation for living our lives.
If we're only seeing through the lens of me, myself, and mine – What's in it for me? What's happening to me? What's right about me? What's wrong with me? What am I going to get? What happened to me yesterday? All this stuff, all these stories.
Rather, to have that part of the mind become peaceful, calm, and settled. And one of the ways to do that is to have a deep trusting awareness of the experience of the body – to settle into this. Now, it might seem to the uninitiated, this is maybe a boring thing to do, or somehow a diminishing of our life to reduce our experience just to the sensations of our body. But a number of things can happen. One is we're freeing ourselves from all these thoughts and ideas, which often limit us already. It actually frees us from them, and our experience is more expansive, more freeing, or relaxing. And it allows the relaxation and the concentration to deepen and deepen. And it becomes a fuller, fuller deeper experience of life when we don't have the surface thoughts that kind of keep us on the surface.
So the four elements. The earth element is said to be sensations of hardness, heaviness, solidity – and its function is to support us. It's that which supports us The earth is a support for us. All of us, in one way or the other are supported by the earth – standing on it, sitting on it in some way. It's most represented, I think, by the idea of the Buddha meditating. Classically, the Buddha, when he was sitting under the Bodhi tree to be enlightened, was sitting directly on the ground. He had some grass that he had gathered to create a little bit of a seat for himself. It wasn't straight on the dirt, perhaps, but it was pretty much like sitting on the ground. He often would teach under a tree sitting on the ground. He died lying on the ground between two trees. That's how he died. This idea of feeling the support, feeling connected, feeling grounded on the earth must have been pretty natural for the Buddha at his time, and for many people at his time. They lived so close to the earth. Here, I'm in a building, and I'm not literally touching the the earth, but I feel the support of the earth. But it comes through the building, the foundation of the building, and the floor. How very different to live in touch with the ground! Even to walk barefoot on the soil is such a great thing to do.
The function of the earth element is as a support, a foundation. And, and to really touch that earth foundation – touch that foundation that holds and supports us. The solidity of the torso, the solidity of the body, the the hip bones, and the sitting bones against your seat, if you're sitting. The feet against the ground. The way that the lower torso supports the upper torso. The way that the shoulders support the neck, and the neck supports the head. All that has to do with the earth element – of solidity, hardness, and the strength that's supporting it. And it's possible to feel all this.
And in feeling that foundation, that support – it's possible then to relax more. Its support for relaxing. We don't have to do all the work of supporting ourselves. We can begin trusting and allowing something within to support us.
An image of the earth that's very powerful in Buddhism, is that when w the Buddha – having doubts about the appropriateness of becoming enlightened, or being challenged that he wasn't appropriate – reached his hand forward over the knee (like he is in the statue here behind me). You see his fingers reaching down towards the earth. And he's going to touch the earth. We don't actually know. Did he just touch it? Or is he about to touch it? And when he touched it, he called on the earth to be his witness, for his right or appropriateness of becoming enlightened, becoming free.
And this there's so many doubts we have about Is it okay to be free? Is it okay to meditate? Is it okay to really release all the attachments and the holdings that we have and connections we have in certain way to other people and responsibilities? Is it okay? And how do we know it's okay? And the Buddha then reach forward and touched the earth. And the earth back then was considered almost to be a deity, the Earth Mother or a being in itself. And touching the earth, the earth responded – and affirmed that it was okay for him to be enlightened.
So the same thing if we could really trust and entrust ourselves to that foundation that the body provides us, and to feel that's that foundation. Often tension that we carry, and fear we carry can be an upwelling, lifting up, and lifting away from the earth, kind of fighting it, or trying to get away from it or something. And this idea of trusting that earth element within us – the foundation, the support we receive.
The water element has to do with the sense of fluidity, and also cohesion. They say the function of the water element is to intensify our experience, or to to hold it together – holding things together. And the ancient analogy is that dry flour just falls apart as you lift it up and throw it to the wind, it scatters. But when mix it with water, the water makes it cohesive, and the flour particles stick together. So the idea that water is that which holds things together, in the ancient kind of physics they had. Sense of cohesion.
In our own experience, the water element can be a sense of fluidity, the flow – anything that's seems like it's flowing. It's a little bit different than movement. It is a movement, but a certain kind of movement of flowing. You can get a sense of flowing vibrations or energies through the body. Or sometimes you can feel the flow of the blood through the body. Or you can feel the flow of the saliva in the mouth, as you swallow as you move around the saliva in your mouth. Snot – the flow of snot. All these senses of flowing. And then cohesion holding it together.
I think that sense of cohesion is also felt that as we breathe in, and the torso expands, what holds it together is the cohesive forces of the cells atoms, whatever's there holding us so we don't just fall apart. Something's holding us together – the bag of skin we have around us. So that feeling of cohesion, of being held together and in place, is the water element.
They say that the fire element is temperature, especially warmth and heat. So when we feel heat, we're feeling the fire element. One of the functions of heat, the fire element, is to soften things. Like cooking things, and they get soft. Being in a sauna, and the body softens. It also has a function – maybe with the softening – of aging. The heat is what ages us. The activity of a life, the functioning of everything that we do – all the biochemical, physical functionings that are active produce heat in the body. In the ancient world, it was said that's also the function of aging – to mellow, soften, and age things. When you feel the warmth in your body, or the temperature in your body, that's said to be the fire element.
And then the air element is has to do with a different kind of movement than the fluidity of water. It has to do with movement where there's pushing, lifting, or a sense of extension. When you blow into a balloon, that balloon blows up and extends and stretches. If you blow on a dandelion flower, and the little white puffs lift up in the air, it's the air element, the wind element of the air, that's lifting and pushing it up.
They say that the air element comes into play as we breathe. There's a lifting that goes on – the lift in expanding the chest. When we walk, there's a kind of pushing little bit as with the foot swings, swings forward, perhaps, at anything that's transporting, I think it's conveying anything that's that's making motion happen is said to be the air element. So any movement we were experiencing, a common thing is to associate that with the air element.
There are two more elements that make it more interesting, this whole thing. As we start feeling the depth of our sensations – really feeling them carefully and tuning into them – we also start feeling space, the space element. And around us there's space – lots of space. Some in some rooms are small, some rooms are big step outside there's more space. And space makes a difference. If space changes how we relate to things and how we are towards things. If we're in a small elevator that could hold comfortably four people – but there are 12 or 15 people in the elevator – we're not going to feel very generous, or safe, or comfortable, or loving towards people who are just trying to breathe and survive.
But once there's much more space, there's breathing room. There's space to feel, space to be safe, space to kind of move about and be free. And, and that sense of space can also be internal. With the eyes closed, there's a marvelous way in which we start feeling space between the sensations.
One of the great delights, for me, is this infinite vast space that I feel in my torso, in my mind, and kind of within. The deeper I go on meditation, the more space there seems to be. Sometimes I have a feeling like I'm looking into deep space, when I'm looking into a feeling – into my body. And there's a feeling, a sensation of much more space than there actually is.
If you ever have a chance to look inside of a corpse, it's pretty packed in there – all the organs and everything. It doesn't seem like a lot of space. But we can feel space. And that space makes so much possible.
The space that is there – when one sensation goes away, and it's not there anymore, that absence is kind of a space. And space, absence, is closely connected to freedom – closely connected to not being oppressed, or caught. The final element, they say, or quality is space.
Sometimes there's considered to be four elements or qualities, sometimes six. When there are six, the sixth is consciousness itself. Consciousness is an amazing thing. It's its own quality, its own characteristic, its own thing. Exactly what consciousness is, I don't think anybody really knows. There are lots of definitions, theories, and trends about what consciousness actually is. But whatever it is, it's kind of a miracle, an amazing thing.
In terms of this wonderful world we live in – that we're supported by the earth, by the life giving water, by the air, by the warmth that the sun provides. All these four elements are essential for our lives. Space is essential for our lives – to move around, and take care of things. And consciousness is essential for our lives. In fact, we don't experience any of these sensations without some degree of consciousness.
When we die, consciousness is no longer in the body. And then if the body is touched, there are no sensations. The body gets warm when it goes into cremation, but it doesn't feel the warmth – there are no sensations anymore. No nerves alive to signal – no pain or pleasure, or anything. And so every sensation we feel is a symptom of being alive. And there's consciousness – awareness of it.
But what is this amazing world we live in, that we can be conscious of? There's this wonderful idea a little bit for some of us a little bit, turns the mind or stops the mind. Is this simple? often said, idea, that question, "When a tree falls in the forest, is there a sound if no one is there?" There's no sentient being there that has ears to hear? Is there a sound? There are certainly waves. The airwaves have been formed in a certain kind of way. But does that mean that there's a sound there? And I think generally, people say no, there's no sound. The sound only happens when those air waves, hit the eardrums, and vibrate them and start them start motion the processes that lead to hearing.
To say it in a different way, "If there is a beautiful, colorful sunset, but there's no one to see it, is it beautiful?" Is that display of color, even there? Do we need to have sentient beings with eyes, who can take in the color, and process it – and then form it in the mind so that we appreciate it? Maybe there is no color.
If we look at a plant, or any object that has a color – it's this funny thing, where the object actually doesn't have color. The color we see, the color we see is the light waves that are being bounced off the object – the light of particular frequencies that get absorbed, we don't see. What we see are the ones that bounce off it. In fact, maybe we could almost say that we never see the color of an object. We just see all the color that it's not.
And so hundreds of billions of times before there was sentient beings in this world, planet of ours, I bet there were all kinds of what we would call colorful sunsets – beautiful sunsets – awe-inspiring sunsets over the ocean, for example. But there was no one to see them. No consciousness to experience it. Was it really a beautiful sunset, then? Maybe beauty is partly a product of this interaction between the world and ourselves.
And there's intimacy. There's a co creation. There's a way in which you we are part of the natural world – that the natural world then experiences itself in a unique way. For human beings, we experience the world differently than bats. Or from hummingbirds, or insects. Everyone has their own way, and their own wavelengths of light that they can see – ways in which they experience. It's a different world that we all live in.
But that world is cocreated. We see it in a way. So to meditate on the on the elements, and to see them as elements – not just see them as solidity, hardness, softness, extension, movement, fluidity, warmth, and coolness. But to call them elements – the earth element, the water element, the fire element. An element is a representative or symbolic way of stating, "We are an intimate part of this natural world – part of this world. We're an extension of it, or an outgrowth of it, or a part intimate part of it, or particular manifestation of it – as is this consciousness of ours."
And to sit in appreciation – to feel all this, sense all this and experience it. Not just think of ourselves as part of the part of the world – but experience ourselves as part of this world. To appreciate it, to allow this consciousness that we've been given to take in – for whatever reason that's been given us – the capacity to take in the beauty of this world. The beauty of a flower, the beauty of the blue sky here today, the beauty of the snow, the beauty of the rain, the beauty of the ocean, beauty of the night sky. We have some reason we can do that.
And to not spend our time lost in concepts, ideas, stories, preoccupation. Not get lost in the computer and the websites that take us down rabbit holes. But to really be able to experience the depth of this life here – to settle in, quiet – and feel the earth elements, the consciousness element, the space element. And to feel the beauty of it, and the freedom that's possible – is not a withdrawal from the world. It's actually entering into it more deeply. So that we can care for it more. So that we can live freely in it.
And that our care is an expression of freedom, not an obligation of freedom. That it's a way of touching in – not only to our capacity to see beauty, but to our capacity to love. Our capacity to care, our capacity to see each other as fellow, as family. We all share the same elements.
In those elements, there's no difference between us. We're all families of sentient life on this earth. And to see each other that way is one of the potentials when we drop all the stories and concepts – and can really let our hearts resonate with the world around us. So the four elements.
May you appreciate how deeply these basic natural elements can be found in you, as the qualities of sensations. And as you settle into it and feel that, maybe you can feel some greater depth and inspiration and awe to be alive and to live on this planet. Thank you.