Week 11: The Four Elements:

Last week, Joseph spoke of Mindfulness of Activities. Much of the talk addressed the elements of clear comprehension and its value. The Sutta then goes on to a contemplation of the parts of the body and an explanation for the “balanced approach” to this practice. We now proceed to:

Earth, Water, Air and Fire

We recently witnessed the elements whirling in our landscape:  rain water, lightning fire, and blowing winds, liquefied earth, changing the hills, boulders, structures into rivers of mud and debris careening downward.

In the first of three sections of his talk, Joseph asks us to notice the four elements, these forces within our bodies, offering us ways to do so:


Earth:     Matter, solidity, stiffness, softness, hardness. Touch it.

Water:    Fluidity, cohesion.  When water is added to flour: dough

Fire:        Heat, fever, lightness, heaviness, digesting, ripening, aging. Chiles

Air:         That which causes / facilitates movement, distension, pressure.
               Sinus, gas, locomotion: lifting of leg; moving; landing.

I call this “google in,” a microscopic imagining into minute body processes, a small and slow examining. In “google in” reality, we are in the realm of “relative” truth. Dualism lives here: We are / we exist in relation to other, hence “relative” reality, relative truth.  We’ll get to “google out” in section 2.


Section 1 Questions:

What small, internal body changes (processes) are you mindful of? Mouth  watering, dryness, smells, the sensations before a cough, a sneeze, a need to urinate or defecate. What sensations do you feel?

Do you think the four elements actually exist in our bodies’ cellular being? Our cells, nuclei, protons, neurons, are they made of matter (earth), liquid (water), fire (electricity, synapses), movement (air)?  

Are we humans and the landscape similarly changing cell clusters? We see it in a storming landscape, a mudslide, a surf surge. Can we notice it  internally, when our interiority is not a storming landscape of illness or emotional turmoil?

In the second section of the dharma talk, Joseph suggests that the contemplation of the four elements leads us to understand relative (dualistic) and ultimate (non-dualistc) reality. He elaborates beyond instructing us to be mindful of “relative” reality at the microscopic level into our bodily functions. He asks us to be aware of the dance, the “play” of the four elements internally. Now his instruction shifts our gaze from microscopic to telescopic awareness as he asks us to recognize “ultimate” (non-dualistic) reality or “emptiness.”

I call this “google out,” the telescopic imagining of reality in which all boundaries dissolve.  Here we enter, (glimpse by glimpse, say the Tibetans) awareness of non-duality. Existence and non-existence are one. The awkward word for this in English is “emptiness.” From emptiness, Joseph says, “we create out of the unmanifest (emptiness) the drama (manifestation) of our lives.” (Minutes 36-39 in the talk).


Section 2 Questions:

How might the practice of breath meditation help us experience the play between relative and ultimate reality? In breath, relative; out breath, ultimate.

Might hearing the bell chime do this?

In Section 3:

Joseph concludes by saying, “mature spiritual practice sees / experiences the unity of relative and ultimate realities. He suggests the Brama Vihara practices are a way to address at the conceptual level relative reality (loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity for ourselves and all others). He offers a piece of cautionary advice: Go slowly, we must proceed with humility, without the conceit of “I am,” as we wander in all this. We need to look for, plant and nurture seeds of understanding.

Joseph warns us not to take ultimate reality for the only reality; our task is to experience, to hold the knowledge of both ultimate (emptiness, non-dualism, at one-ness) and relative (the reality of the ten thousand things which is dualistic) realities.  

Section 3 Questions:

What do Joseph’s cautionary comments on patience and conceit mean?

How are we susceptible to losing (loosening?) humility in this practice?



Notice how many times a day “I am” arises in comparison with others: “I am” less than, “I am” more than, “I am”…fill in the blanks.

Notice when I do something such as brushing my teeth, getting out of a car; getting out of a shower, a swimming pool; going out a door; getting off a bike….” All are “conceptual” noticings. Now notice if I can simply name the sensation(s) happening in the body as I act.