Earth, water, fire and air aren't just for the Ancient Greeks...
This week's article is the third in a series on the Satipatthana Sutta, the early Buddhist discourse on four ways of establishing mindfulness. Check out the first article in the series if you missed it, because it provides an introduction to the discourse and puts the practices contained therein into context, as well as looking at the first few practices in the first section of the discourse, focused on mindfulness of the body. In the second Satipatthana article we continued working through the mindfulness of body section, looking at the deconstructive 'parts of the body' technique. This week we'll take that deconstruction further still, by looking at the Four Elements. (I've actually written about the Four Elements relatively recently, but this time we'll be looking at the original text, so hopefully you'll get a slightly different flavour from the material,) So buckle up, and let's get into it!
The Four Elements, as described in the discourse
Again, monks, one reviews this same body, however it is placed, however disposed, as consisting of elements thus: ‘in this body there are the earth element, the water element, the fire element, and the air element’.
That's it for the description of the core practice. Pretty simple! Basically, whatever's going on with the body, the practice is to regard it in terms of what are sometimes called the Four Great Elements - earth, water, fire and air. But what does that mean exactly?
The Four Great Elements are seen as the constituent aspects of physical reality in early Buddhism. Each represents a different quality:
Before we go further, it may be helpful for some readers to clear something up. If you're of a scientific bent, I'm not asking you to throw away your Periodic Table, and I'm not suggesting that a dry twig secretly 'contains fire' somehow, or that this can be demonstrated by setting it alight to 'release the fire element'. The types of 'elements' we're talking about here are not like carbon, copper and plutonium. Although the Pali word 'dhatu' is often translated as 'element', it also has the sense of 'aspect' or 'characteristic', and that's how we're being invited to look at reality here.
The point of this exercise is not to replace a modern scientific understanding of the types of atoms which form the physical structures of the universe. Rather, the purpose of this practice is to take the deconstructive process that we applied to the body last time, by looking at it in terms of its parts, and to go one step further - not even looking at identifiable parts of the body now, but breaking everything down into these four primal aspects of materiality: solidity, liquidity/cohesion, temperature and movement.
But why would we want to deconstruct our experience to such a primitive level of analysis?
Excellent question, thanks for asking.
Whenever we encounter something through one of our senses - sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch or thought - we tend to conceptualise it; that is, we form an idea about what we're sensing, often represented in shorthand in the form of a label ('chair'). Hanging off that label is a whole host of associations - for example, ideas about how the object can be used ('good for sitting, or possibly for fighting off a room of attackers if you're Jackie Chan'). Those associations may then bring up impulses to take certain actions ('let's sit down, that would be nice'), or trigger more thoughts ('y'know Jackie Chan really made some great movies back in the day, I ought to watch Rush Hour again'), and so our minds spin on and on into the process of mental proliferation - unless we've meditated enough to be able to let thoughts go when they arise rather than simply being swept away.
An interesting point about this process is that we tend to put a lot of credence in our thoughts very readily. In a sense, it seems to us that our concepts about reality actually are reality. It feels like we're seeing and hearing an objectively real world, and any sensible observer in the room with us would experience basically the same thing, doesn't it? In fact, when another person perceives something differently to us, it often comes as a surprise, and can even lead to arguments, unless we can 'agree to disagree'.
The power of deconstructive meditations like the four elements (and last time's parts of the body) is that they can show us the extent to which we're experiencing our conceptualisation of what's going on, rather than some objective Truth of the universe. In a nutshell, if we change the labels, we change our experience. This is because the labels, or concepts, are the building blocks of the stories we tell ourselves about what's going on, and if we change the labels, we change the building blocks, which means we ultimately change the story. I talked about this at length in my previous article on the Elements, so check out the section titled 'Change the label, change the story, change the experience' in that article if you'd like to read more.
For today's article, let's get back on to the discourse. Right after the description of the practice, the Buddha includes his inevitable simile, which clearly emphasises the deconstructive nature of what's being suggested.
The inevitable simile
Just as though a skilled butcher or [their] apprentice had killed a cow and was seated at a crossroads with it cut up into pieces; so too [one] reviews this same body.... (continue as above).
As my teacher Leigh likes to point out, this simile was evidently written at a period in Indian history before cows were considered sacred!
Unlike the simile of the bag of different types of rice from last time, this one is short and sweet. We have a butcher and an ex-cow, who for some reason are sitting at a crossroads (if you have any idea of the significance of the crossroads, please let me know!). But whereas in the previous simile we had a long list of distinct, identifiable contents, this simile simply says that the cow has been reduced to 'pieces'. The deconstruction has gone far enough that it's now difficult to say whether we're looking at a section of leg or whatever; we're simply seeing a heap of nameless bits. The most we can say is that the bits have some kind of size (extension) and solidity, some kind of moisture or cohesion, and so forth.
The refrain, and suggested avenues of exploration for this practice
Again, as before, we have the same 'refrain', the 'chorus'-like section that follows each practice in the discourse.
In this way, in regard to the body [one] abides contemplating the body internally … externally … both internally and externally. [One] abides contemplating the nature of arising … of passing away … of both arising and passing away in the body. Mindfulness that ‘there is a body’ is established in [oneself] to the extent necessary for bare knowledge and continuous mindfulness. And [one] abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world. That too is how in regard to the body [one] abides contemplating the body.
As with the body scan, you could look at 'internally' and 'externally' in terms of what you feel beneath the surface of the body versus what you feel on the surface.
However, it can also be very interesting to look at the Four Elements as they're found in the external world. Notice the solidity of the ground beneath your feet, the moisture in the air on a misty day, the temperature of the sun beating down, the movement of birds in the sky and fish in a river. Going outdoors is a great asset here; humans like to construct environments to live in which are comparatively safe, orderly and sterile compared to the vibrant chaos of nature.
Then, when you've got a sense of the Four Elements all around you, notice that the Elements in you are the same as the Elements around you. Both you and the world around you have aspects of solidity, liquidity, temperature and motion. We sometimes think of ourselves as very special, separate creatures, making a distinction being 'man-made' and 'natural', but at the level of the Elements we're totally continuous with nature, just as much a part of the natural world. Reflecting on the sameness of yourself and your surroundings can be a powerful way to dissolve the felt sense of separateness between yourself and everything else, and can be an interesting way to explore anatta, non-self/essencelessness, one of the Three Characteristics which form the core of many insight meditation techniques from the early Buddhist tradition.
The refrain also explicitly suggests another of the Three Characteristics, anicca, impermanence or inconstancy. We're invited to notice the experience of the Four Elements arising within the body and subsequently passing away - impermanence at work.
In the same vein, we can use the Four Elements to explore the third and final of the Three Characteristics, dukkha, unsatisfactoriness. One way is to notice that the Elements are often experienced as unsatisfactory - for example, maybe there's not quite enough Fire in your environment (i.e. you're too cold), or too much (too hot). Maybe your breakfast porridge doesn't have the right balance of Water element - it's too sticky, or too runny. And so on. It can be especially interesting to pair this one up with impermanence, and notice how even a balance that seemed pretty good at first rapidly loses its sheen; that refreshing breeze soon turns into an unpleasant, chilly draught.
We can also use the Elements to work with the dukkha in our experience, following the theme of 'change the label, change the story, change the experience' - again, I described that approach in some detail in my previous article on the Elements, so check that out if you're interested.
That's a lot of options!
Yes, it is. But that's OK - you don't need to do all of them right now! If one or more of these approaches sounds interesting, then great, but there's no obligation to try every single variation that I'm suggesting. If you were tempted to do that, I'll point out that these are just some of the variations that I've personally explored in my own practice - you can also find other teachers offering many more.
The point of these meditations is not really to try each approach once to get a tick in the box and be able to say that you've 'done' Four Elements. The point of all of these meditations is to provide methods by which you can explore reality, so that in the long run you'll develop insight into what's going on in your experience. Which method is best? The one that interests you enough to do it! Is it better to use one method, or several? Again, whatever holds your interest. There's definitely something to be said for a period of focus on a single technique rather than doing a new meditation every day - as the saying goes, it's better to dig one deep well rather than many shallow ones - but insight meditation can be a fun, creative exploration of reality, and that exploration can take many forms. If you're continuing to delve deeper and deeper into what's going on then it doesn't really matter whether you're using one technique or several; conversely, if you want to use your meditation practice to sit in a happy bubble disconnected from the world, never encountering anything that might trouble you, you can do that just as easily with your one favourite technique as you can by jumping around a dozen practices.
For me, exploring the unknown is what got me into this practice in the first place, and it remains my greatest joy, so I'm totally unapologetic in offering many ways to engage with today's topic, or indeed anything else. If you're more of a 'One True Technique' person, good for you. (Sometimes I wish I was - it would make life simpler.) On the other hand, if you're more naturally inclined to creative exploration, but feel that you need someone's permission before you can really dive in, then consider my permission granted - for whatever that's worth!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!