This is the second of three articles on applying the principle of anatta, non-self, to our dharma practice. The articles support the next few sessions of the SBA Practice Circle, which meets via online video conferencing at 8 pm Central on the second and fourth Sundays of each month. If you’d like to come experience non-self with us, check out the Practice Circle page to learn how you can join us.
Our bodies are key to our sense of self. Even though we witness growth and aging over time, our principal sense is that we’re walking around in the same body we were in 10 years ago, sealed off in our skins, me in here, the world out there.
We feel this way even though we know it’s not so. Our bodies replace every cell in about seven years. We continually draw our substance from our environment and just as continually return it. Every atomic particle of our bodies circulates, not just through the biosphere, but has been circulating through the universe since the Big Bang. What appears to be “me” is only a momentary expression of energy and matter, space and time.
Element meditation helps us reflect on the fact that these bodies are not solid persisting possessions of ours but impermanent processes intimately interconnected with their environment. I suppose one could use “elements” in the scientific sense, and if someone comes up with a meditation method that employs the periodic table, I invite you to share it with us! At Practice Circle, we’ll use a traditional form that employs a classical understanding of the elements. There are earth, air, fire and water, of course. The traditional elements meditation adds two more. One is space. It may seem strange to think of space as an element, but without it, there would be no place to exist, no movement, and no change. Even more unlike our Western sense of elements is consciousness. It’s useful here because it so intimately defines our sense of self, and seems sealed in our heads; but as with the other “elements”, a little observation reveals that consciousness is an interactive process between sense organs and their objects, constantly changing, something that flows through us but is not “self”.
To practice element meditation, begin with some minutes of your preferred method to relax your body and calm your mind. Then, begin your element meditation by bringing your attention to your breath, the element of Air as classically conceived. Observe how air flows in to nourish the body, and out to remove gasses we don’t need, returning them again to the world. You might reflect on how plants make oxygen in their bodies, and offer it to us; we take it in, transmute it in our cells, and offer back the carbon dioxide the plants need to breathe. Observe the impermanence of each breath, and how breathing makes the body permeable so the outside world touches us deep inside. Finally, reflect that this exchange occurs on its own, by itself, even when we are unconscious. Rather than “me breathing”, it’s more like the breath is breathing me.
Next, consider the solid places in your body: your bones resting against the ground and against each other, the minerals of your teeth and nails, the weight and density of your flesh. Observe how these earth elements of your body are held and supported by the Earth, and reflect on how the minerals in your teeth and bones were once minerals in the earth, and will be again. Even though they seem the most solid part of us, they too are constantly changing as they absorb and return their substance to the world. What is sitting here is just a moment in that exchange – even our bones don’t belong to us, and are not ourselves.
Next, note the moisture in your body, in your mouth and your eyes; see if you can sense your blood and the fluid in your gut. Notice how you can feel the evaporation of moisture from your eyes and your lips as the water you took in from the world is now returning itself. Reflect on the great movement of the water cycle through the environment, through the storm clouds, the rain and snow, the rivers and oceans, and the great underground aquafers, and that the water in your body now was in all of those places at one time or another, and when you release it it will return to them.
Again, not mine, not me.
We can experience the fire element as heat and energy in our body. Where does your body feel warm, and where is it cool? Reflecting that all sensation is the result of electrochemical transfers of energy throughout the body, sense that energy wherever it feels most distinct, perhaps as tingling in your hands or skin, or sensations inside the body moving and changing. See if you can feel the heat of your body as it radiates into the air around you. Does this feeling change what you perceive to be where you end and the air begins?
Next, sense the space that is holding your body. Notice how it is possible to extend your awareness into the space around you, to hear and feel into the emptiness. Sense the freedom of the body expanding and contracting in space as you breathe. Now sense the space in the body – the mouth, nose and sinuses, the trachea and the lungs, the throat, esophagus and stomach, the gut. And sense how the space outside joins the space inside.
The last “element” is consciousness. Notice how awareness also seems to extend into the emptiness around you. What are you conscious of? The body’s density and the pressure of sitting? The touch of clothing and air on your skin? Sounds near and far? Scents? Various sensations in the body? The sensation of emotions? The “sound” of mental events unfolding in your brain? Take time to explore all of these perceptions carefully. Where is that feeling? What is its size and shape? Where is the sound located – in the room, in your ear, in your mind? What does the voice of your thoughts sound like? Is there any part of your consciousness that is not resulting from perception? Finally, can you find your “self” among anything you are conscious of?
To finish the practice, let go of everything and just allow your body and mind to rest in the moment. Do you notice any changes in the way you perceive the self?
We’ll share a guided element meditation at Practice Circle on Sunday, April 27 at 8 pm. CDST. We welcome you to join us!