(a guide for experienced meditators)

Here is a PDF of the practice from Kamalashila’s book.

The Basic Method

First, do whatever is necessary to establish a continuously calm, open and emotionally positive state of mind.  Then, within that state of shamatha, connect with each of the elements in turn, using the directions: 1. Earth 2. Water 3. Fire 4. Wind or ‘air’ (movement or displacement) 5. Space 6. Awareness

Enter each of the six elements by first recalling the element’s particular quality in the world outside you (for example, the hard ‘earth’ quality found in trees and mountains, or manifested in other beings).  Then, experience directly how that manifests in you.  

Earth is a quality of the skin, teeth, body tissue etc. Take attention to one or more such aspects – say the bones – and experience whatever sensations and feelings show themselves.  Look at the feelings aroused both by direct physical contact and from the emotions and thoughts that come from thinking of ‘my bones’.

Then, once you’ve established your interest in this inner experience of the element, inquire into whether this quality, e.g. earth, is really occurring in the way we conventionally expect, i.e. in terms of ‘me’ or ‘mine’.  (The question might be: in what sense are these bones really mine?)

Finally, seeing eventually that such descriptions do not really hold, let go the assumption of self or ownership and rest freely in a true experience of the element.  

So as an overview, do this: (1) establish shamatha (2) connect deeply with each element outside (3) connect with each element inside (4) experience your ego identification with each element (5) let go and rest in the natural state of anatman, beyond self grasping.

That is the essence of the practice: simply do that.

For this fully to make sense though, you’ll need to explore it personally and understand some finer points.  So for example, here in more detail is a way you might apply this sequence to the earth element. 

1. Using your memory and imagination, consider the qualities of the earth element as you know it outside in the world.  Try to get a tangible feeling for the hard, resistant quality of trees, rocks, the earth itself, buildings and other people.    

2. Then experience the same element in your own body and mind.  For example, feel the earth element in your bones, skin, flesh, hair, nails and teeth.  Notice that their quality of relative hardness, resistance and extension is identical to the earth element outside.  

3. As you compare inner and outer experience in this way, perhaps alternating between them, experience the actual felt earth-quality; avoid sticking only to ideas about it.  Initially it will be necessary to use ideas and memories to evoke a tangible, felt experience, but persist despite any sense of remoteness and rest in felt experience as much as possible. Generally, notice the tendency to project ideas and responses on to plain experience.  Learn to ‘get out of the way’ of these habits, allowing the character of ‘earth’ to emerge in its own way without interference.

4. Now engage with the subtle insight aspect of the practice by recollecting how this element is never ‘me’ or ‘mine.’ Notice, for example, how every time you feel these earth qualities in your body – feel for example your bones and flesh – there is some element of self grasping, some desire somehow to hold on to it.  The semi-conscious assumption is that ‘this is me’, or ‘that’s my skin, my hair’, or ‘that is in me, it is part of me’.   On deeper inspection, we will realise that this is just a conventional way of looking at things.  Our body is not really something we own at all.  Indeed, we have almost no control over it; it is more like something we have ended up with.  It just appeared when we were conceived and born, it then grew in its own way and it will dissolve when it is time to die.  The entire process is happening outside our choice.  

5. So let go the element, free of self grasping.  Realise ‘you’ never had ‘it’ in the first place.  Let ownership go and rest in the actual experience more profoundly.  Allow the element earth simply to be, in its own nature, as it always has been.  Letting go will lead to fresh discoveries.  

Here are examples of all six elements at stages 1. and 2., as you compare them as external and internal experiences.  

Earth: See how your body is solid, like the earth.  Consider that you are also sitting on solidness, with solidity all around.  Standing around you somewhere are the branching forms of plants and trees.  Out there are hills, buildings, roadways and beings large and small.  In your mind’s eye, feel this great universal earth element extending boundlessly out into space and turning endlessly inward in micro-space.  

Experience the solidity deeply: really feel its quality.  Feel that you are the mountain and the tree.  In your own bones, skin, hair and teeth, feel everything that in your body is relatively hard.  See how even your softness is relatively hard; it is still somewhat resistant, still surfaced, still textured.  Recognise it all, feel it all, as that same earth which stands around you.  Explore the amazing diversity of these outer and inner earth forms.  Wonder at how basic they are to life.  Recall how completely for granted we take them.  

Water:  Remember all the ways in which water manifests in the world.  To connect with its special liquid quality use your memory of oceans, streams, puddles, pools, fountains, falls and rain.  Then feel that you are no different.  Feel in your own body the flow of the water element: the pulsing heart, watering eyes, the secretions of saliva, urine and perspiration.  Reflect on how the extraordinary properties of these liquids support our existence.  

Fire: Outside, we know the quality of fire primarily from the light and heat of the sun.  It is the element of temperature and includes cold as well as heat, so its quality can be felt in the coolness of the water’s flow as well as the rising warmth of the mountainside.  Inside, you can feel how the body’s temperature, inside the heart and belly, as essentially the same as the burning sun rays, the bright warmth of flame and the heat of our hearth at home.  

Wind: Outside, consider the wind rushing through the valley.  The wind element is every movement happening throughout the vastness of space.  It consists of every tiny displacement anywhere in the entire planet, in the oceans and in the air.  It is the endless agitation of all life.  Inside your body, it is the tiny channelling of subtle energies and the immediate rush of natural processes like breathing.  

Space: Get a sense of the space element out in the world.  Feel its special quality, the accommodation, the roominess; how space may simultaneously contain and be contained.  Recall how space itself is boundless, that this great element is utterly endless, containing every star and galaxy.  And then, going inside, recall how our body is just one more shape contained within that, a continually changing shape.  

Awareness: First notice the element of awareness out in the world, in the many forms of others’ awareness.  The billions of aware humans are a mere segment of the vastness of nonhuman life, all of it possessing some kind of awareness and responsiveness.  Then ‘inside’, as it were, in our individual experience, it’s a good idea to clarify what awareness is. Since our awareness is a medium we ‘swim’ in all the time, we tend strongly to identify with it as ‘me’. However, take a look, what in our experience does it consist of?

Awareness is firstly the consciousness of outer sense objects that creates an external world: visual impressions, sounds, odours, tastes and touches. Then there is consciousness of inner mental objects such as ideas, perceptions and memories. The element of awareness (vijñāna-dhātu), is that which perceives objects in all these ways.

Each of these six elements then needs to be considered as to how this quality is never ‘me’ or ‘mine,’ i.e. that it is not something that can ever truly be identified with. Once that is seen, the obvious next stage is feeling the ways we habitually identify in each particular case, and letting those tendencies go.

Deepening the practice

Let us say that you have managed to find a situation in which you can get down to some sustained meditation on the six elements. You are ready for this; you know the method and already have quite a bit of experience of it. You have also come to understand from experience what is involved in maintaining a basis for dharma practice.  You know how to put your practice back together whenever circumstances cause it to  collapse.  You often reflect on the Dharma.  Practising foundational meditation methods like mindfulness of breathing and metta-bhavana have become second nature to you. Because you have that basis you are experiencing an unprecedented level of positive mental states in your life.  At least that’s generally so; you certainly know what it means to experience that.  You understand that off-days (when you hardly seem to experience any positive mental states) are unavoidable in an imperfectly lived life in an imperfect world.  You can find ways to cope with the highs and lows of your mind and avoid making things worse!  This is how experienced practitioners keep their Dharma practice alive. 

Now you feel that you could take the six elements practice deeper. Perhaps you have put aside a whole month for retreat and gone somewhere alone, or with others, where you can practise undisturbed.  Or maybe you are currently living such a simple, regular life at home that you know you will be able to sustain several sessions of meditation daily. If you really apply yourself in one of these situations, meditation practice will deepen.  The first situation is the more straightforward: just take some time off and get away on retreat.  The second sounds ideal, and some fortunate people are in a position to make it work, but it requires firm discipline and confidence in the practice to keep it up over weeks and months. 

Here I will discuss various points related to practising in circumstances like these, when  the meditation is deepening day by day.   The practice naturally introduces various reflections which I shall discuss.  Apart from these I don’t intend to go into points of theory, but offer advice relating to what typically happens as you engage with the elements and try to bring them alive in experience.  Certain issues, like the one which follows, may have arisen when you first started the six element practice.  

Connection and disconnection from experience 

It might be that you are simply unable to connect to the meditation.  It certainly isn’t that you don’t want to do it.  You are deeply inspired by what it promises. However your enthusiasm collapses when you actually get down to sitting.  The fascination you had previously felt for exploring ‘earth’ fades and you end up thinking about something else, dreaming, dull and sleepy.  

This could simply be your lack of shamatha.  However there is a special obstruction to progress in the elements meditation: the alienation I mentioned earlier.  Most people in the modern world are not well connected to the experience of their own bodies and the physical world around them.  Organic, natural things hardly feature at all in most people’s lives. Life is typically clean and neat, taking place in orderly rectangular rooms and consisting of familiar life-components: equipment, personality issues, skills, travel, planning, acquisition, tactical avoidance of certain circumstances and attempts to make particular things happen.  We aren’t normally outside, subject to the changeability of weather (unless perhaps we live in a temperate, sunny climate like California).  Our experience of the outside world is as controlled as it possibly can be. So unless we are an artist, a poet, perhaps a scientist (or maybe we’re on holiday) we won’t be spending much time dwelling on particular colours and textures, or on nuances of sound as they form spontaneously in nature.  Yet earth, water, fire and wind are precisely that immediacy of experience.  Cut off from the elemental world, it is not surprising we sometimes find it harder to sustain an interest in the meditation.  We need to take enough time somehow to instil a subtle, aesthetic appreciation of the physical world, perhaps in a similar way to indigenous peoples.  

Meditation can help here.  Whenever one develops a sustained meditation and dharma practice one naturally finds oneself observing, hearing, and feeling the environment, even when that is a harsh and garish city landscape. Then we appreciate the truth that nature rules. That the sky overarches the townscape with sun and stars; we actually see the trees, gardens and parks, and green grass or mosses subverting the straightness through cracks in the pavement.  If we are meditating in the countryside, green nature will be overwhelmingly present, but I am saying that some of that all important sensitivity to nature also comes about when we give a substantial amount of time to meditation at home.  It comes about because with a deeper experience we experience ourselves more as natural entities comparable, perhaps, to a forest or an unfamiliar animal in the wild.  The whole experience of life is so much more open that elemental reality is easily made manifest to us.  

Connect with mettā

For making a connection In meditation itself, I find metta useful for linking in at each stage.  I mean finding the loving kindness in your heart with regard to manifestations of earth, water, and the other elements. If you’ve never stumbled upon this method yourself this may seem a strange idea, like being asked to love an abstraction.  But the elements in the practice are never abstractions.  The basis to be re-established again and again is what is directly experienced in its felt, non abstract nature.  Shrug off abstract, generalising thinking and seek what is specific, direct, concrete and tangible.  The elements, so far as we are concerned, refer to the particular elemental experiences that we are having right now, not to a range of experiences we could potentially be having. This is so even when later on we use symbolic forms of the elements.   

Each particular elemental experience is something you can love, if you take your mind to it.  Personally, when I take the time to look, I love the way the wind blows and water glides.  To appreciate the qualities of things rather than the bald facts unfreezes my imagination, which is normally stuck in preconceptions, into the changing, impermanent truth of things.  I appreciate the way flames flicker, rush and radiate warmness.  In general, I enjoy the way the elements move: I love cloud filaments swirling and dissolving, the way twigs branch out, leaves emerge, bark patterns display, how bodies grow and wrinkle.  The patterns of natural life are beautiful.  I take pleasure in the way owls shriek, leaves rustle, rain patters, and the seas roar.  It’s not just me – we all do.  This sensibility is already part of us, an unselfconscious love that has little to do with our emotional needs, whims or fancies.  It is not fond attachment either, unless we let it go that way.  It’s something simple, direct and clean with a kind of awe in it.  When we are able to open up and look, the response of love comes spontaneously and naturally, fresh and new each time – and it nourishes the lover, so it can be cultivated just as we can develop love for another person.  

So this is one suggested way to engage with the meditation.  Each element offers various natural formations we can appreciate in an aesthetic or straightforwardly loving way.  My stiff back, for example, is an elemental formation I can aspire to hold with loving awareness. In that way you can appreciate each and every formation of earth, water, fire, and wind that arises in experience.  

Taking this approach also engages our potential for attachment.  What we enjoy we want to keep. Noticing attachment is important in the later stages of meditation when we identify what it is we need to let go of.  That letting go cannot take place effectively unless we have previously connected with the element concerned.  One can hardly let go something one does not experience.  

When we are out of touch with elemental experience there is a distinct danger of doing the practice merely in our heads, so that we may believe we have let something go, but all that has been let go is an idea, or a very weak experience of the elements.  

Sometimes such mistakes only become clear when on retreat and practising with a good teacher.  Some degree of contact with a teacher is essential.  Referring to a book is good for clarifying the method, and may give us useful ideas and approaches. Reading may even act as a mirror for our experience and trigger a kind of feedback – but it cannot listen to your account of today’s meditation practice.  

Connect with the body

Direct experience’ of each element means we feel it in the body.  One good way to establish body awareness is to take your attention through each area, noticing the many kinds of sensation.  You can use the breathing to bring more awareness to the sensations.  It can also be combined with metta as in the method just described. 

As you move through the body, learn to recognise the elemental aspects that reside in each sensation. In the first stage of meditating on Earth, explore the sensations of resistance; then in the second recognise the sense of cohesion, flow or holding together as Water; then for Fire, notice warmth or cold; for Wind, observe all the movement going on in the body. Don’t try terribly hard to apply these elemental labels – the skill will arise naturally as you go. 

Continue with the space and awareness elements the same way.  For space, look out for particular sensations that give you a feeling of space in the body, that inform you that one sensation is happening in a different place to another, or that your heart is in your chest.  When you get to the element of awareness, simply notice that you are aware of body sensations.  This turns the practice somewhat on its head: all along, these sensations have been taking place in awareness.  So looking now at each physical experience in that light, feel the changing way awareness itself is experienced.  Some people find it confusing that we experience experience, but that’s not the only strange thing about it!  For now, ignore any logical or philosophical problems you see and simply notice, recognise and appreciate the specific qualities of awareness as they come and go. 

Move through the body as evenly as you can.  Be precise but not too slow.  Don’t rush either, but keep moving.  As a general rule avoid dwelling long on the parts that interest you and briefly on those which seem dull or obscure.  When you notice there doesn’t seem to be much sensation in a particular area, do slow down a bit and wait for something to emerge; don’t skip it.  On the other hand there’s a danger of getting stuck in an area like that, so remember to keep moving on.  Move gently and evenly.  

Body scan – top down

You can direct attention through the body top-down or bottom-up.  With the top-down method, start with the sensation of breath at the nose or at the navel and take whatever time you need to establish a fine, steady, single concentration at your chosen point.   Then take that quality of attention up to the crown of the head and from there gradually scan down through both the outside and the inside of the entire body.  Take your time.  There are various ways you can do it: try staying a while at the top of head, then going down the front via the forehead, eyebrows, and the entire face including the chin, then to the temples, ears and sides of the head.  Then go right inside the ears, eyes, nose and mouth.  Inside the head, experience the front, sides and back of the brain.   Then feel your way down the back of the head. Experience the neck and the throat. 

I am just directing you to each area in a general way; within each area you’ll find a infinite array of detail.   Within each micro-area look, listen and feel whatever sensations are arising precisely in that spot, and experience their elemental qualities.  

You may be familiar with relaxation methods which scan the body in a similar way.  The aim here is not so much to relax, but to experience each portion of the body just as you find it.  You do need to be mentally relaxed to do it, and bringing awareness to the body also relaxes it.  However the priority here is awareness rather than relaxation.  Instead of relaxing each new area, you experience how it is.  If it is tense, experience precisely how that is without trying to change it.  In fact your attention will probably have a relaxing effect anyway.  That’s fine.  Let it change as it wishes and experience that.  This non-interference is really quite a skill, but it is very valuable and will come with practice.  

The attention to all this changing detail needs to be gentle and receptive.  Our awareness needs to be open so that we experience the sensations fully and their elemental quality is revealed.   That ability to be open is enhanced if the concentration is coloured with metta, as described just now. 

From the neck, move around the shoulders and then down, part by part, to the upper arms. Then go along (and inside) the elbows, forearms, wrists, backs of the hands, fingers, thumbs and finally the palms of the hands. 

From the palms move back up to the chest and shoulders.  From there scan down the whole trunk, inside and outside.  First go down the front, sides and insides of the chest and abdomen.  Then when you get to the back, move down the spine from the base of the skull right down to the tailbone. 

From there, scan the waist and the hips,  then your pelvis,  bottom, thighs, knees, feet, ankles, tops of the feet, all the toes finally resting at the soles of your feet. 

Then from the soles come up to the top of the head and begin scanning down again.   

To summarise: Start with one-pointed attention at the nose or navel.  Move to the top of the head, scanning down through to the neck; then the shoulders and arms to the palms; then the surface and contents of chest and abdomen; then down the entire spine; then through the waist, pelvis and legs to the soles.  Then repeat. 

Body scan – Bottom up

Start with the earth.  You are sitting, let’s say, with your bottom on a chair, or on a cushion that is on the ground.  So feel that first.  Feel the two sitting bones, the ischial tuberosities that make closest contact.  Then feel the sensations in the buttocks, extending from there into the legs and the whole lower part of the body.  Then take attention up, part by part, through the abdomen and chest, the shoulders and arms, neck and head.  

In the Satipatthana Sutta the Buddha lists body parts according to the first two elements: earth is head-hairs, body-hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, bone-marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, diaphragm, spleen, lungs, intestines, mesentery. Water he lists as: contents of the stomach, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, spittle, snot, oil of the joints, urine.  This is obviously not an exhaustive list of qualities but a way to get into the experience.  

Clarify the Object of the Practice

I shall concentrate my mind in meditation, constantly on the proper object, dragging it from false paths           (Shantideva, Bodhicaryavatara)

Having established a solid, even connection with our body experience, it will help at this stage to clarify again what the object of the practice is.  Simply becoming aware of physical and mental sensation is the basis of the practice. But we are also aiming to experience that as it really is, noticing our identification of it as me or mine, and letting go that identification.  

What more precisely are we trying to focus on, see through and let go?  Is it the ideas we have associated with the sensations, or mental images or memories aroused by it?  Or are we to let go the sensations themselves?  Is the meditation object something we are supposed to imagine, or is it something already in our experience that we need to pinpoint?  

It can seem to us that the object changes at different points in the practice.  Let us take the case of the earth element. At the beginning when considering the element outside we arouse mental representations – various abstract thoughts and feelings, as well as mental images of things like trees, rocks, roads and buildings.  At this point, as with any meditation that uses imagination, it is important not to get scattered by whatever material is associated with the images you are calling up.  You need to remain faithful to the overall purpose of the practice, which at this initial stage is to get a general feel for the element concerned.  The intention of the instruction to ‘recall the earth element outside in the form of trees etc.’ is to get your imagination involved with the specific quality of earth.  

By imagination, just to digress for a moment, I don’t mean what is imaginary or images that come about through fantasy.  I always mean using our faculty of imagination in relation to reality, which employs the deeper, more creative part of our mind.  It is something we use all the time; you are using it now to understand what I am saying.  It is one of the means we use to grasp and understand our world, though there is more to it. ‘Getting the imagination working on the earth quality’ means exploring more deeply what you already know of earth, bringing alive your understanding and immediate awareness of it.  

So the idea is not to drift along with distracted, associative thinking.  Thoughts of that kind will probably be aroused but don’t let them bother you. They need not be a problem if you can let them move on in the natural way.  However if you have developed a set habit of getting caught up in the associations you won’t be able to do that, and it is time to stop and refresh the practice.  Take your time, and have a clear look at what you actually do in the practice. 

But what is the object supposed to be?  The correct object you need to discover, throughout this and every stage of the six element practice, is the specific elemental quality: in this case Earth.  So you need to get down to that in your current experience.  How are you, in fact, experiencing earth?  The hard objects we all know in the world outside, and inside us bones, teeth and the like, express the earth quality.  But they are not the quality itself.  They are intermediate objects of practice, signposts that point out where you need to go.  

I’ve been emphasising that the true object, the actual earth quality, is in whatever sensation is arising.  It’ll get a little more complex than that in a moment, but right now sensation is what you need to look for. Usually in the practice earth is some experience of resistance or relative hardness sensed as some nuance of bodily touch sensation.  With your eyes open you also see earth in the variety of surfaces, the relatively hard or soft boundaries between different objects.  Smell, taste and hearing also indicate the softness and hardness of boundary between odours, flavours and sounds as well as giving extra perspective to the way we assess texture in the objects we feel and see.  We also assess the earth quality using the mind sense.  In the end experiencing ‘earth’ in its fullness involves an extremely complex and subtle sensibility. 

We tend to think it obvious that we experience something so basic as hardness.  However looking closer at specific instances, you will see that at least some of those experiences happen as ideas in your head.  Even consider for a moment if it could it all be ideas – for in what manner, for example, are you experiencing the texture of this book’s cover and pages, or of the screen it is displayed on?  Are you experiencing it directly and consciously, all the time? Has the sensation become somehow assumed, taken for granted?  Indeed, did you notice the texture at all, at any point?  It is not that we should notice such a thing, necessarily, but it’s useful to ask how much sense activity throughout the day you really experience. I think you will find that it’s surprisingly little.  It is amazing how much experience is conceptual rather than direct.  No doubt it’s partly due to our maturity: we have become so well accustomed to most of the activities that occupy our lives that the interest we’re able to take in such an everyday experience as sitting down and holding a book in our hands has shrunk practically to zero.  We do it automatically, like driving a car, and in that way a million different physical activities happen more or less conceptually, ‘in our heads’.   

So accepting that we are very concept-bound for this meditation one can only start where one is, one has to use a concept of the earth element in the practice.  The reflection might go something like this: ‘Since my bones consist of earth just like the earth outside, as though they’re on a temporary loan while life lasts, I will accept that I must give them back.  They’re impermanent, so now I let them go.’  This reflection employs a sequence of concepts.  We reflect about the idea of the earth quality, the idea that my bones have this earth quality, the idea of death and the idea of the earth quality in my body dissolving at death.   Ideas are no problem, and anyway our ego-identification, hopes and fears are as bound up with concepts as they are with realities.  But we are trying to get into an experience of the real elemental qualities.  If you notice when you are using concepts, they can then be used to point towards the deeper experiences which are the true object of the meditation.  

Faith and Confidence

This clarification of the object of the practice can usefully be repeated now and again.  But don’t think you have to get it perfectly right before you can continue.  Simply clarify the object so you can engage more with the practice, and move on.  You need to get the right touch.  There will be a middle way between your particular extremes – perhaps between heady over-analysis and careless indifference to how you are doing things.  Remember you can’t know precisely what will be needed, and you can’t know exactly what to expect.  There is a kind of play that is required.  It’s certainly important to question your approaches in meditation, but balance that with faith and confidence.  Plant your new seed, water it and trust that it will grow; don’t keep pulling it up to check that the roots are still OK.  You have clarified your overall orientation on the Buddhist path, so on the whole, you can simply trust that it’s enough to meditate in the good conditions you are now in.  There are many processes of mind that we can’t see, and to a very large extent we cannot control what happens.  What does, is a considerable mystery.  The most important thing is keep alive our faith in the overall process of Awakening.  Then we can trust that to keep us facing more or less in the right direction.  Faith is what does it all, in the end.  A while back I mentioned love (in the sense of metta) as a way to concentrate on the elements.  That love can also include this faith in one’s own process of awakening.