A short topic written for reading at a weekly Recovery Dharma meeting.
When the Buddha taught the four foundations of mindfulness, part of the way he instructed students to be mindful of the body was through the lens of the four elements: earth, water, fire, and air. These elements are not mystical and need not represent an archaic way of looking at substances. Instead, the four elements are qualities to look for when bringing awareness to sensations in the body. Let’s look at them.
The earth element represents the felt sense of hardness or softness, tension or loosening. For example, we can look to our bodies and notice hardness in the belly when an inhalation has filled it, and softness in the belly after exhalation. Similarly, these same sensations of hardness or softness can be seen as tension or loosening in the skin during various movements or positions of the body.
The water element represents the felt sense of wetness or dryness. It can also represent cohesion or dissolution, as when one adds water to flour to make dough or when something dry begins to crumble. We can look to our bodies and notice wetness in the form of sweat and dryness in the form of hair. Furthermore, we can contemplate the watery nature of the body and recognize that its wetness is what helps bind it together and keep it whole.
The fire element represents the felt sense of temperature. It is important to remember that the elements represent a spectrum of qualities, which means that fire is experienced as both heat and as cold. We can find these qualities all over the body; an individual breath may fluctuate between sensations of warmth and coolness, depending upon where our attention is focused.
Finally, the air element represents the felt sensation of motion. During seated meditation, this is most easily noticed through the changing sensations of breath, but it can also be noticed when air moves outside of the body and strikes the skin.
Again, monks, he reviews this same body, however it is placed, however disposed, as consisting of the element thus:’in this body there are the earth element, the water element, the fire element, and the air element’.SATIPATTHĀNA SUTTA, MAJJHIMA NIKAYA 10
So, how do we work with the elements during formal mindfulness meditation? One of the easier ways to start is by incorporating the elements into our mindfulness of breath meditation. As we breathe in and out with careful attention, we may simply note the varying sensations of breath as soft or hard, wet or dry, cool or warm, and moving or still. Every sensation in the body is complex and will be a combination of qualities… we don’t need to note them all!
Another good way to begin with elements meditation is to choose one element and look for it, and then choose another one, until we become familiar with each of them. The purpose of this practice is to become intimate with bare sensations and to know what it is truly like to have a body. Familiarity with bodily sensations allows for the development of other mindfulness practices, such as those of feeling tone and mind.