Practice Guides June 1, 2019

The Four Elements

Sean Oakes

Who or what am I? Am I my body or my feelings—or something other than my body or feelings?

The question of how to relate to our own bodies and minds is at the heart of the path. In the instructions on The Foundations of Mindfulness, after establishing embodied presence through awareness of breathing, posture, and movement, we are invited into three meditations that deconstruct our habitual conceptions of the body: reflecting on anatomy, the elements, and the image of a decaying corpse. Building on each other, these meditations cultivate the insight into anattā (selflessness): “This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.” (MN 10)

In the meditation on anatomy, the body is explored as a collection of 32 parts, starting with the visible—head hair, body hair, nails, teeth, skin—and progressing through muscle, bones, organs, and fluids of many kinds. As we imagine our various parts separate from each other, the instruction is to see them as not attractive (asubha). This meditation is traditionally given to a new monastic since it supports their transition to celibacy. It helps us see that the attraction we feel for others’ bodies, and the ownership we feel toward our own, depends on the idea of the body being a single, cohesive thing—the home of the self. Seen as made up of parts, our attachment to the body begins to weaken.

The meditation on the four elements (dhātu) builds on this initial deconstruction by encouraging us to see the body as composed of the same material as everything else in nature. The heart of the reflection is that we can observe the elements internally (in the body) or externally (in the world around us), and see that they are the same. The resulting insight deepens the sense of disidentification established by the anatomy meditation. The four “elements” are named as though they are substances, but it is most useful to think of them as qualities we can perceive in the physical world.

The four elements

  1. Earth (pathavī)

  2. Water (āpo)

  3. Fire (tejo)

  4. Wind/Air (vāyo)

In the meditation on the elements as with the meditation on anatomical parts, the practitioner is encouraged to see their body as a collection of these impersonal natural qualities, likened to a butcher no longer seeing “cow” once the meat is cut up and displayed, but instead seeing “shoulder” or “flank” (MN 10). Seeing our bodies as composed of the same substances as everything around us, we cultivate the insight into selflessness as well as getting a glimpse into interdependence. We are inseparable from nature. The third meditation in the series drives the point home as the practitioner is encouraged to reflect on their own mortality by imagining a corpse in many stages of decay, the elements of the body literally returning to the environment.

The classical meditation on the elements is intended to challenge our identification with the body and cultivate insight around the unsatisfying (dukkha), impermanent (aniccā), and selfless (anattā) characteristics of the body. Like any meditation, this practice is not appropriate for everyone, and those with a history of trauma, or wounding around body image or self-love may be better supported by practicing mindfulness of the body in a way that supports embodiment, ease, and self-care. In the Insight tradition we often begin practice with the four elements in a way that doesn’t emphasize disidentification with the body, instead grounding into embodied presence by feeling the characteristic qualities of each element and understanding ourselves as interwoven with the natural world.

Each element is defined by a core quality, which can be felt directly in the body and in the world around us. In this way, the elements are more like four ways we sense the physical world—texture, liquidity, temperature, movement—or even four states that all matter can take: solid, liquid, plasma, gas. The qualities of the elements, and a deep exploration of the relationship between our bodies and the elements in the natural world around us, are discussed in The Greater Discourse on the Simile of the Elephant’s Footprint (MN 28).

Earth (pathavī)

The characteristic quality of the earth element (pathavī dhātu) is firmness, which we sense through texture, pressure, and resistance. In the body, earth is sensed as solidity, weight, and density. Reflecting on the quality of firmness inside and outside the body, the practitioner sees that this quality called “earth” is the same everywhere. Feeling our solidity, we deepen in groundedness, presence, and stability. Feeling our connection to the earth all around us, we know that we are of earth and inseparable from the earth.

Water (āpo)

The characteristic quality of the water element (āpo dhātu) is liquidity, which we sense as slipperiness and wetness, as well as cohesion, which we infer through observation. In the body, water is sensed in saliva, blood, mucus, and the various bodily fluids. Observing fluidity inside and outside the body, we feel our watery nature and see that we are like most of the animals and plants on our planet.

Water’s cohesive quality is harder to sense directly, but can be observed, as when we add liquid to a dry powder like flour or dirt and see how the water holds it together. In the corpse meditation, the loss of the water element in the body leads to it drying up and falling apart.

Fire (tejo)

The characteristic quality of the fire element (tejo dhātu) is heat, which we sense as temperature, both hot and cold. In the body, fire is present in sensations of warmth or coolness as we feel the difference between our body temperature and our environment, as well as in the actions of digestion and energy production.

Wind (vāyo)

The characteristic quality of the wind element (vāyo dhātu) is movement, which we sense as change. When we sense movement, we feel sensations indicating other elements, such as shifts in texture, weight, or temperature, as well as sensing how each moment is different from the last, which relies on memory. In the body, we can sense air itself as breath and other gasses moving in the body, but all bodily movement is the wind element, such as the abdomen rising and falling with the breath. This style of breath meditation is traditionally seen as a meditation on the wind element because abdominal movement is the object of mindfulness, rather than the breath itself.

Wind (vāyo) is also the word used to describe the energies that animate the body such as the “up-going winds,” “down-going winds,” and “winds that course through the limbs” (MN 28).

For each of the four elements, the meditation ends with the reflection that both the internal and external elements are simply that element, and “should be seen as it actually is with proper wisdom thus: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self’” (MN 28). As this reflection takes root, the heart becomes disenchanted with each element, ending attachment, and uprooting the delusion of ownership that leads to suffering.

The Six Elements

While the elements are generally presented in this list of four, in several places two more are added, making a list of six elements. To the basic four, which compose the entirety of the physical world, are added space (akasa) and consciousness (viññāna) (MN 140).

Space (akasa)

The element of space (akasa dhātu) is sensed as openness, or distance between things. In the body, space may be sensed inside any of its cavities—nose, ears, mouth—or as size, which we feel through proprioception. Sensing space, we become aware of proximity, position, distance, and volume. Like all of the elements, the insight reflection is to disidentify with any aspect of what we sense.

Consciousness (viññāna)

Consciousness is the quality of being aware of our sensations, feelings, and experiences. It is consciousness that feels the pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral tone (vedanā) in any experience, and the cognition that we know what we’re experiencing as it happens. The most challenging part of practicing with mindfulness of consciousness is not identifying with it. Consciousness can seem like the seat of the observing self, and our language reinforces this illusion when we conventionally say “I saw,” “I know,” or “I feel.” But consciousness is just as changeable, dependent on conditions, and impersonal as all the other elements.

The Elements & Samādhi

While the emphasis in many of the discourses on the four (or six) elements focuses on using them to attain insight into the impersonal nature of the body, each of them is also a powerful base for concentration and meditative immersion (jhāna). Earth, water, and fire all can be used as a physical object of meditation known as a kasiṇa, through which the mind is focused exclusively on the element. Wind—as movement—is the focus of walking meditation, as well as present in the inner energetic movement known as pīti (rapture). Space and consciousness are the first two qualities in the meditative sequence known as the “immaterial” (arūpa) jhānas, and can be stabilized as powerful meditative states in which perception of the body and the physical senses is subdued or absent.

The Elements & Liberation

As we can see throughout the instructions, the practice of mindfulness of the elements culminates in the insight into selflessness, or “not-self” (anattā). Seen with wisdom as simply expressions of the natural world, the elements become a lens for understanding who we really are—and what we are not.

In the great discourse, The Fruits of the Ascetic Life (DN 2), reflection on the selflessness of the elements and the body they form is the first turn away from concentration practice and toward insight, and the doorway to further liberation, known as the “Eight Knowledges.”

They understand: ‘This body of mine is physical. It’s made up of the four primary elements, produced by mother and father, built up from rice and porridge, liable to impermanence, to wearing away and erosion, to breaking up and destruction. And this consciousness of mine is attached to it, tied to it.’ (DN

In another moving discourse, the Buddha talks with a householder who had developed the power to visit the gods, and had traveled to higher and higher heaven realms seeking an answer to the question of “where … these four primary elements cease without anything left over, namely, the elements of earth, water, fire, and air” (DN 11). He gets all the way to the highest heaven, and the god Brahmā takes him aside to whisper that even he does not know, but can’t admit it in front of the other gods. Brahmā advises him to go to the Buddha who answers him, saying that the four great elements cease when the meditator rests in infinite consciousness, and then when even that ceases, full liberation is attained.

[The Buddha] This is how the question should be asked:
'Where do water and earth, fire and air find no footing?
Where do long and short, fine and coarse, beautiful and ugly;
where do name and form cease with nothing left over?’

And the answer to that is:
‘Infinite consciousness, invisible, radiant all-around—
that’s where water and earth, fire and air find no footing.
And that is where long and short, fine and coarse, beautiful and ugly;
that’s where name and form cease with nothing left over—
with the cessation of consciousness, that’s where they cease.’ (DN 11)

As with much of the Buddha’s teaching, a complex-sounding teaching comes down to letting go. As we release the grip of attachment—to the body, to feelings, and to identity—we find freedom right there. Meditation on the elements can be nourishing, grounding, and connective, and when the heart is ready to go further, can open to insight, letting go, and the end of suffering, nibbāna.

Sean Oakes

Sean Oakes

Guest Teacher

Sean Oakes, PhD, teaches Buddhism and Yoga focusing on the integration of meditation, trauma resolution, and social justice. He received teaching authorization from Jack Kornfield, and wrote his dissertation on extraordinary meditative states. His current research explores identity, ancestry, and rebirth, and working with the body in contemplative inquiry.