Mindfulness of the elements

These are notes from Joseph Goldstein’s book Mindfulness, the second half of Chapter 9, Mindfulness of activities.

The elements

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.’

The four basic qualities of matter—earth, water, fire and air
In modern science we might use the more familiar terms of:

  • Solid
  • Liquid
  • Plasma
  • Gas

In our ordinary way of perceiving things, the four material states are a useful way of describing our subjective felt sense of the body and the physical world.

It is also possible through the attainment of a jhana, a high degree of concentrated absorption, to experience the body on extremely subtle levels far beyond our usual level of perceptions.   The four elements can be used in this subtle perception.
It would be interesting if a modern scientist were able to compare our contemporary way of describing the smallest particles of matter with these meditative perceptions.

  • Earth element
    • Solidity
      • Stiffness, hardness or softness
  • Water element
    • The qualities of cohesion and fluidity
    • Like water turns flour into dough
    • It is what holds all the other elements together
    • Its not seen separately
  • Fire element
    • Temperature – hot and cold
    • Or lightness in the body
    • Fire functions in different ways
      • It is how something is warmed.
      • It is how things age
      • In excessive heat, it burns things up
      • Digestive heat,  the heat of the “stomach fire”
        • In Asian medicine there are three fires in the body
        • Ancestral fire, reproduction and heredity
        • Digestive fire – heating and using food
        • Heart fire – the warmth of our emotions
  • The air element
    • Causes movement in the body
    • The feeling of extension, expanding, distending.
    • Also the feeling of pressure
    • For example, in meditation, regarding the rise and fall of the abdomen is contemplating the movement of the air element.

Contemplation of the Elements

There are many exercises in different traditions to contemplate the elements.
Joseph Goldstein suggests to be mindful of them generally

We can undertake the contemplation of the elements in different ways,
Each one leading us to direct insight into the three characteristics

  • Dukkha, dissatisfaction
  • Impermanence, constant change
  • No centralized self, no-self

Understanding the three characteristics in turn leads to freeing the mind from clinging.

In meditation, we move from the concept of body as a solid thing to the awareness of the body as a changing energy field.  We are moving through the elements. On this level, the sense of the body as being something solid and substantial disappears.

When we lift the foot, the lightness that we feel in the foot and leg is the fire element.
When we’re pushing the foot forward and feeling movement and pressure, we are feeling the air element.
When placing the foot on the ground and feel the hardness or softness, we are feeling the earth element.

In our everyday notion of the body, we might say, “I feel my leg”.  But there is no sensation called “leg”.  Rather what we feel are certain sensations, like pressure, heaviness, and lightness, and then we create an image or concept: “leg”.

In mindful precision, we illuminate the body as the interplay of these four elements.

As we free ourselves from the concept of “body” and increasingly experience the direct felt sense of it, the mind becomes less prone to attachment and to the desire, aversion, and conceit that come from it.