2021-06-24 Mindfulness of the Body (4 of 4) The Four Elements
9:38PM Jun 24, 2021
The topic for today will be introduced this way. Many years ago, I saw a poem. I do not remember all the pieces of the poem. It was very simple poem that said something like this: " If you are running, walk. If you are walking, stand. If you are standing, sit down. If you are sitting, lie down."
I think it went on. It was a progressive movement to get quieter and quieter – stiller and stiller – to less activity, less energy involved in doing and doing and doing. This could describe the movement of meditation. We are moving from a mind that is very active, busy, abstract, and thinking to letting the thinking mind, the abstraction mind, become quieter – not just quiet and calm, but become clearer and clearer.
There is a clarity of attention that goes completely together with no longer being so involved or caught up in the thinking world. Much of the stress that human beings experience might be attributed to the world around you – which has some truth to it.
But it is all processed through the world of our thoughts. Our thoughts get transformed into emotions. Emotions come back and feed the thoughts. There can be this complicated loop, a Möbius loop where we can never get out of thoughts, feelings and spinning.
But as we sit down to meditate, some of this stuff quiets down. Thinking about the future quiets down. We are just thinking about the present – thinking about the present in terms of me, myself, and mine. How I am feeling, my resentments, or dreams quiet down. We just get quieter and quieter in our mind. We realize we can give our mind a vacation, or a rest from the incessant ways in which we think and think and think.
I can remember lying on the grass someplace looking at the clouds drifting by, and feeling so content, happy and peaceful – just watching the patterns of the clouds as they move through the blue sky above me. After a while much of my daily life and concerns fell away. I was just there absorbed, involved in watching the changing patterns of clouds and the movement of it all until I was not even thinking there are clouds. There was just awareness of movement, color and shapes that were shifting and changing.
It was much more elemental and basic – the relief, the peace, the simplicity, the quiet of the mind that can do that. With a clarity of seeing, not numbed out, it just gets so peaceful. It was a wonderful break, a wonderful pause, a little vacation from being so caught up in things.
If we have that experience, then we can have a new appreciation for how the mind gets caught, how the mind gets preoccupied and spins out. If all we ever know is a busy mind, it feels normal. The stresses of it are taken for granted. They are not known. They are just normalized, we do not even know they are there.
But if we have this very strong, radical experience of things getting really quiet in the mind, then we can start taking more consideration and care for what the mind is doing. We would be getting a feeling for what freedom and peace is. It is not in chasing more thoughts – not by thinking better – but by quieting the thoughts. It is not to numb out or be disconnected to the world, but to have a different kind of intelligence operating that is not so centered in thinking.
It is in this context, that I would like to talk about this next to exercise of mindfulness of the four elements. This is very simple, maybe appropriately simple instructions, some of the simplest ones for mindfulness practice: "One considers, one contemplates this same body, however it is disposed, in whatever way the body is sitting, standing, walking – whatever way we are – as consisting of elements thus: in this body, there are the earth element, the water element, the fire element, and the air element."
This is supposed to be an ancient Indian idea that all physical matter is made up of four different elements, qualities, characteristics, or processes – earth, water, fire, and air. The Earth is the foundation for the oceans and the rivers. Then fires are the kitchen fires and campfires of the ancient world. Higher than that is the air. It goes from the most solid to the most ethereal or most light.
It applies to our body because it is aware of the raw basic sensations of the body, the physical sensations that make up our experience of the body. Not necessarily what the body is, but how from the inside out, we experience the body. It simplifies all possible experience we have into four categories – those of solidity, those of liquidity, those of temperature, and those of movement. Solidity is the earth element. Liquidity is the water element. Temperature is the fire element. Movement, the wind, is the air element.
There is not so much you have to remember or fit everything into these ideas of the four elements, but to understand the sensations they point to. To feel the solidity, the hardness, the softness, the weight, and the lightness of the body. To feel the temperature of the body, the cold and the heat. To feel the movements of the body, the movements of the chest and the diaphragms as we breathe, the blood coursing through us or the movements of the heart and whatever it might be.
The water element is all the things that are fluid and sticky. It is what creates stickiness. I associate it with the muscles being tense. Other people might have different associations to the elements. As the muscles get tight and sometimes sticky, we can unstick them. Sometimes you have to massage your muscles a lot to get them to unstick. Saliva, when we swallow, is definitely fluid.
The idea is to drop into the raw, fundamental, simplicity of the body, like you are looking at the clouds and letting everything else go. Trusting, sensing this very basic aspect of human life – the sensing of the body. To get concentrated, to get quiet requires letting go of the complicated world of thoughts and ideas, and to get more attuned to the world of our sensations. As we do that the mind gets quieter and quieter, stiller and stiller.
There are two great benefits of this. One is that the mind gets quieter. We have a whole different vantage point to be wise about the thinking mind and not be lost in it. The other advantage is that as we get more deeply absorbed in a concentrated way into this world of just basic flow of sensations – the kaleidoscope, the river of sensations that move through us, all the different sensations that come and go – we less and less hold them together, and relate to them as abstractions.
The idea that there is a hand is true enough. It is a bit of an abstraction compared to just the sensations of the hand. Close your eyes and feel just the sensations as they are buzzing, glowing, pulsing and tingling. The idea of a hand falls away because that is a concept we overlay on the hand. Just being with the sensations of it, we find that it lends itself to the mind letting go. Even holding in a subtle way to the idea of hand is an attachment. It is holding on to something that is not needed in deep meditation.
This idea of dropping into the elemental sensations, the raw foundation from which we build so much of our lives and get concentrated – the simplicity of the elemental qualities of our physical body – is a very key aspect of vipassana practice. It allows us to see the changing nature of phenomena. The impermanent, inconstant nature – and that leads to freedom.
So, may you spend time in the garden of your body with the basic foundational ingredients from which we build so much of our complicated life. Maybe stop for a while from eating processed food. Rather, start with the elemental ingredients, and just feel and sense their rawness, eating raw vegetables, raw food – and our days are full of nutrients.
May the raw, elemental sensations of your body nourish you with some of the best nutrients that we can have. So thank you very much.