2022-02-11 Satipaṭṭhāna (28) The Four Elements Perspective
3:56PM Feb 11, 2022
Maybe today can function as another introduction to the topic of what is classically called "the four elements" – the four dhātu(s) in Pali. These are aspects of our felt experience that can be seen to be associated with elements of the physical world around us. I think the four elements practice can have very profound meanings and associations owing to that connection to the world.
I prefer to translate the word dhātu as "properties", because, to me, "elements" implies some kind of molecule, or something very essential or elemental. The word "element" does not have to mean that of course, but I prefer "property," because this points to a property "of" something – as in the properties of our body and of the sensations we are experiencing.
There are four, and they are always listed in a particular order: earth, water, fire and air. The reason for that order is that, in the ancient Indian cosmology, there is a belief that the earth is on the bottom, and then the water floats on the earth. Above that, there is the heat and the fires that flare up into the air. And then there is the air. There is a progression.
Doing this meditation on the four elements or properties means using a very different lens – taking a different perspective on our direct experience than that which many of us normally live in, which is that of concepts and ideas. For example, I have this big bell here. I can just think about it as a bell, and what a great bell it is. And remember who gave it to us, and how wonderful it was to receive this gift. How we have used it for so many years, and the different places and ways we have used it. I can be in that world – in the mind of memory, thoughts, and ideas.
Or I can change the lens of my experience to not be in the ideas, the history, the memory, and what this proves about IMC – that it is a really worthy meditation center because it has a good bell. Instead, I can just feel its weight, its smoothness, its temperature. It feels cool to touch right now, with my warm hands. I can feel some smoothness in it, and also there are little indentations on the sides that I can feel. It is fun to let my hands rub across the indentations as they come and go.
I can get into the sensations, independent of it being a bell. The bell-ness of it does not need to be relevant. I can close my eyes and just be with the sensations. It does not have to be a bell. It could it be something very different.
So, the different lenses and perspectives we can have. Think of them maybe as different magnifications that we use. An image I particularly like is I remember my sons had a little kids' book that, when you turned the pages, showed a picture of the same location at different magnitudes of focus. I think they went by magnitudes of 10. Sometimes they started with the universe and came closer and closer. Then you saw the earth, and then a little town, then the lawn, then the grass, then the cells, and then you saw the atoms. Depending on what magnification you use, you see different things.
Imagine, for example, if there was a satellite video you could watch and zoom in on the neighborhood you grew up in. It would be fascinating to see: "Oh, it's changed. That house is no longer there, but that house has not changed at all. There is a tree I used to climb in. There is the house of my neighbor who was so unjust. I know I broke his window when I threw my baseball through it, but he never returned it – my favorite baseball! And there is the neighbor who used to give us cookies, and we always felt so safe playing in the tree in front of that person's yard. I have come so far in my life since then. (Or I haven't come anywhere in my life since then, and all my problems derive from that time.)"
All these ideas come into play at a certain magnification. But if we drop in to just the tree we used to play in, a whole different set of thoughts come up. But then, if we go closer – into just a leaf, and beyond the leaf to the cells, beyond the cells to the atoms, beyond the atoms into the subatomic particles – suddenly there is all this space and vastness between all the particles. It is amazing – like looking into the great night sky in the amazing size of the universe.
Depending on the magnification, we have a different relationship to what is going on. If we are always at the magnification level where it is all about me, myself and mine – my ideas, my history, what was done to me, what was not done to me, what I should do – it can be tiring, exhausting.This tends to be a place where there is a lot of attachment and stress. It can be a labyrinth.
This level can also be, in Buddhist terms, a cycle of stress, where the very attempt to resolve it and get out of it on that level of practice – that level of magnification – just spins the wheels more and more. Then we do more and more, and it is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It is as if we are always trying to make things better and to solve things, but as long as our effort is based on ideas of me, myself and mine, there probably is no real solution or final happiness.
But one way to find real change is to change the magnification level – to change the lens through which we see our experience. This is not an easy thing to do, because our attachments keep us in a certain magnification level – the level of thoughts, histories, and ideas.
We are training ourselves to begin letting go of that lens – not dismissing or abandoning it – so that we are not so attached to it, and we can see in a fresh way. We can learn to be free. We can connect ourselves at a different magnification level that reveals a different level of experience – and different processes that are much more freeing and liberating. Much more helpful for experiencing something vast, free, and liberating. Really getting down into the particle level of the atoms, "Wow, this is amazing!"
The four element meditation is a shift of magnification – the shift to a different lens of experience. It is very important to understand this is not a dismissal of other magnification levels. Rather, for many of us, it is an expansion of the lenses we can use, so we are not always stuck in one magnification level – so we have the ability to go between different lenses.
When it is helpful, we can go into the element level. There is a lot of wisdom to be discovered here. There is also a fair amount of healing, because some of the stresses that we apply to our system limit the healing abilities of our body and mind. Once we drop into the elemental level of properties of sensations, there is a freeing of stress. Our whole physical and mental system can operate much more harmoniously. It is remarkable what can start happening then.
So, to shift our attention to the the sensation level. This is really a sensation meditation – sensory awareness that we do.
In the vipassana practice that was taught to many of us – the Mahasi practice, from the teacher Mahasi Sayadaw – the instructions were to experience the movements of the belly as we were breathing. People thought it that meant breath meditation. But in fact, the emphasis was not on the breathing. The emphasis was on the sensations that come into play as the body breathes. To feel all the sensations that come into play, and get closer and more intimate. To get into the magnification level where we are just there with the sensations. We are not there with the ideas, concepts, stories around them.
It can be quite relaxing and easeful to drop all the stories and just be with the sensations as they come and go. This is really the core aspect of vipassana practice. So the four elements meditation is very central to this tradition, although not always explicitly.
For a few days we will explore the four elements and sensations and how to work with them. Hopefully, you will be able to appreciate this particular lens or magnification level of our experience, and will find some fascination, delight, and maybe even some freedom in it. Thank you very much.