Love the Elements
The earth, the ground beneath our feet, the earth that supports us
Sunlight, fire in all its forms, the warmth of life
Water, rivers, rain, the oceans, lakes, the blood flowing in your veins
Air, breezes, the breath flowing in and out of your body all day and night
Space - that friendly, open, spacious arena in which to express life, that vastness embracing us
Every day, find a way to love an element, appreciate it, savor it, drink in nourishment from it, bond with that element. Notice it with wonder.
Think of meditation as a process of opening up your senses to the mystery and beauty of the world around us and within us.
Play with the Elements
Baptism in the Elemental Elixirs
Each of the elements is a different kind of elixir, and offers its own gift of healing. These element are not those mapped out by physics. The elements we are considering here are the phenomenological elements, the ones you encounter directly with your senses as you taste, smell, move through, feel and look at life. No microscopes are needed. We are talking about luscious, raw experience.
If you were to go to an alternative healer, a Tibetan doctor, an Ayurvedic physician, an acupuncturist, they might diagnose you and tell you that you are low on this element or that. They might prescribe herbs, a diet and a meditation to balance your elements.
What I suggest you explore in this section are your cravings for each element. Get familiar with them, become intimate with them, get used to receiving their gifts. Work your way through the Obstacles of awkwardness, fear, and over-reliance on one element. You may find that as you give yourself a more versatile diet of elements, your physical health becomes stronger. In essence, in these meditations you are giving your body’s self-balancing instincts a chance to play in the fields of gravitation, vibration, air, the fires of life, and water.
Many meditation techniques are combinations of the senses and the elements – pay attention to the sensations of the air as it flows though you. Listen to the sound of a mantra and the feeling of its vibrations in your body as it comes and goes and fades away into the silence. Perceive the light that shines on the subtlest level and drink the elixir of it. Visualize yourself sitting with Buddha or Christ and breathe in rhythm with him. Each meditation tradition specializes in certain combinations of elements, senses and instincts. In that sense, any particular meditation school is like a restaurant specializing in one style of cooking.
Meditation is sometimes taught as an imaginal journey in which you go to your favorite spot on earth, or the most beautiful place you can imagine, and be there with all your senses. The key is to give yourself permission to enter that visualization with all your senses and let it be utterly alluring, so you want to go there. The Elixir is the particular combination of senses and elements that makes you feel restored. Right now, can you feel in yourself a craving to be somewhere else? What would that place be like?
Take a breath and let your mind wander and conjure a location so perfect that you would hardly want to ever close your eyes. It could be a river, a desert, a mountain, the ocean shore, an island, and you could be by yourself or with people.
If you are at the ocean shore, for example, you could look out over the aquamarine water to the horizon, enjoying the rhythm of the waves and feeling the fresh breeze touching your body, as you inhale the vitality-giving air. Feel the warmth of the sun on your skin as you listen to the shhhhhhhhh sound of the foam gushing and ebbing on the sand. Turn around and you will find a brook flowing from the mountain, and the water of this stream has magical healing properties. You dip your hands into the water and drink, and it fills you with a wonderful electric feeling, like the best champagne.
Imagery such as this works well – particularly on tape, and when you like the speaker’s voice, because meditation is so much about the subtle, interior use of the senses anyway. What happens when you do such a guided imagery over and over is that you build a pathway to that place, and you don’t need the whole intricate visualization any more. You close your eyes, take a few breaths in the same appreciative manner you would on that beach, and you are there.
You can see from the way that you relate to the imaginal world that it involves both the senses – seeing and hearing and smelling and tasting and feeling – and the elements of fire (the sun or stars), water (a river or ocean or lake), earth (the sand or mountains or ground), air (the wind and the air as it enters your body as breath) and space (the sense of being uncrowded, of openness stretching out to the far horizon). The Elixir is a unique combination of these elements, designed by your deep spirit, to renew you, restore you, and give you the strength to continue.
In meditation, you are not simply resting, as in resting inside of breath or sound. You also are taking nourishment from the sound and the silence, from the air, from the inner world of light. As you breathe out the outgoing air carries away the old thoughts, and as you let go emotionally it is as if your old feelings sink into the earth to be recycled. Letting meditation become a place that meets your needs for healing means getting to know each of the senses and each of the elements, and then letting your spontaneous impulses play in that field. The combinations are endless, which is why people keep meditating for years, a lifetime, without tiring of it.
In order to get started with the elements, or if you have been meditating for awhile, you may want to baptize yourself in each element in your own way. You can do this with a few seconds of reverie, or you can make up more elaborate rituals for yourself.
When you begin meditation, you can create your own rituals of beginning. In the past, when sailors would set off on a voyage, they would commend their souls to God. The priest may have a mass for the men, and offer a blessing. When they launch ships, it is traditional to break a bottle of champagne on the bow. An offering to the gods.
What, for you, is an appropriate ritual of beginning this adventure? You could go in the outer world and confer with a priest, rabbi, imam, therapist, or guide of some kind. I am going to be starting meditation and would like your blessing.
I know people who go to nature when they undertake a practice. They spend an afternoon or a day or several days in the desert, mountains, ocean, or forest, communing with nature. And there are people whose connection to God is so strong they need not go anywhere outside or confer with another person – they simply rest in prayer and know from the inside.
In the following explorations, you are invited to get intimate with the elements and the gifts they have to give you. Each is an element of the classical healing meditations, used the world over. Explore them, get familiar with them, so that you recognize them when they emerge in the form of cravings, fears or vast experiences while meditating.
All the elements interpenetrate each other and nuance each other. For example, when you are surrendering to gravity, letting your body sink into the Earth, space may seem to open up, and the Earth may seem radiant and warm at its core. A Sun in the center, the radiant heart of the Earth. You can breathe with this sun.
The elements are part of the instincts. You can be nourished by earth energy, sunlight and the smell of food in the air as well as by food. Being out in nature with lots of space around you can feel restful and safe.
Notice what you have a craving for, a joy in, what you feel at home with andcan rest in. You want to be able in meditation to rest, feed, play, hunt, explore, mate, to your heart’s content. When you find an element you love, make love to it, revel in it, be massaged by it. Bring all the instincts you know to each element.
You will have a tropism for each element – a sense that you need it for energy or nourishment. Get to know each one over time. Select three of these to do now, then move on. Come back and explore all of them at your own pace.
Just three minutes of being in the vibration of an element is enough. You want to let your body get comfortable, settle in. you are inviting yourself to be at home in the elements, play with them, explore, hunt for your favorite ways. Feed, hunt, rest, play with each element.
The earth is the ground we are standing or sitting on. Being aware of our relationship with the earth is the foundation for spiritual practice.
Earthiness is the quality of embracing all life’s functions and being uninhibited and natural. In instinctive meditation you are seeking to bring an earthy enjoyment of life over into your meditative experience. When you combine elements, sensory qualities and instincts that suit your nature, you have come up with a hearty stew of a meditation technique. There are earthy smells, tastes, and ways of moving.
When you walk, feel your feet touching the earth as a lover, kissing, caressing. Pay attention to your legs and notice the way your bones absorb Your bones are designed to hold you up by resting in their own structure. The bones are made strong by gravity, by moving appropriately in the earth’s gravitational field. With each step, the small stress of walking tells the bones to make themselves stronger. Astronauts lose 1% of their bone for every month in zero gravity.
The earth calls us through gravity. Gravity is the name we give to the attraction matter has for itself, and we are called to the center of the earth. That is the gravitational center when you are on earth.
When you sit in meditation, let gravity pull you into the chair and relax into gravity. Gravity is a massage, pulling some parts of you down, aligning you. You have a gravitational sense, the vestibular sense or inner ear, that continually tells you your relationship with gravity and combines in the brain with information from the eyes and joints.
Be aware of sitting on the earth. Find out what the directions are, north, south, east, west, if you do not know. Look at a photograph from space of where you are. Be aware of the world under your butt.
Put your attention in your tailbone and notice what you can sense there. Be aware of the horizon, the earth curving away.
Gravity is a total paradox. When you let yourself sink into the earth, after awhile you will feel yourself flying, levitating. Surrendering to gravity teaches relaxation and levity.
You can breathe with gravity, rest in it, play with it, be massaged by it, and excrete into it. When you are utterly relaxed and let go in meditation, it is as if the unwanted old stuff, old woes, sink into the earth.
Sit still except for the head, and from the neck make small motions of about a half inch, lean to the left, lean to the right. Lean forward and lean back. By noticing the interaction of your body and gravity in this way, you learn what up is, what’s up. Gravity will teach you how to sit upright, because you can tell by the weight whenever your body is out of alignment.
Sit upright and move just your neck, very slightly. Move your head in a tiny orbit – no more than an inch, slowly. You will find a speed that is delicious. Get a circle going so it continues of itself. Allow the speed to slow, so that you can’t tell whether you are moving or not. This is the vestibular sense in combination with the motion sense. Close your eyes and lean forward from the hips and oscillate from side to side, exploring slow motion. Movements such as these can be a bridge into and out of meditation. The sensations are usually fleeting and subtle, but over time you will learn to track them, learn from them, be entertained by them.
Stand and move about very slowly in any manner that pleases you, and notice where your center of gravity is. Simply inquire into yourself as you explore movement and notice where your attention goes if you ask yourself, “Where is my center of gravity?” Lean forward from the hips and undulate your pelvis. Sense around in your pelvis and navel and note what you experience. Keep coming back to this simple exploration again and again, a few minutes a day. Then sit again, or rather, let gravity pull you toward the earth and enjoy the feeling.
Just because something is invisible and apparently weightless, does not mean it is insubstantial. Air is matter, and it is attracted by gravity to surround the Earth. That’s why it does not flow away, for it is air’s nature to expand to permeate everything so that the pressure is equal everywhere. Air always does its best to make sure you can breathe, it even permeates the ocean so the fish can breathe through their gills. The nature of air is to circulate, and when we engage with air, unconsciously or consciously, it’s about circulation.
Always salute the air when you meditate, for it is the stuff of the breath of life. Air is always there and asks for nothing, an is always amazed when human beings awaken from their slumber long enough to be in gratitude. There are innumerable form of breath meditation and pranayama, yet there is nothing greater than to breath with conscious gratitude. Air teaches you to be light-hearted and breezy and to realize the insubstantiality of things. Air refuses to get bogged down with anything which pretends to be too heavy – the air element dismisses it with an airy wave.
The transparency of air teaches us about the transparency of matter. Air does not resist being penetrated by light – that’s what clear means. When it’s clear you can see a light on a distant mountain. When you are in the air element during meditation, you may feel simultaneously that you are matter, and yet the light of being can easily pass though you. You can see the light of your soul, or the light of the chakras, or the flickering, firefly-like light of thousands of thoughts shimmering against the background of space.
Air is penetrating in an extraordinarily gentle way that you can trust. If you follow in your mind what happens when you breathe in, you will find that air goes everywhere in your body and penetrates every living cell.
Go sit on a mountain, hill, the shore of the ocean, or wherever you can find the wind. Or else in your meditation imagine you are there. Bathe in the wind and let it caress you. Let the wind blow away your cares. Be groomed by the wind, loved by the wind. Listen to the wind.
If you find a heavy place, a heavy feeling in your body during meditation, just be with it for awhile as it is. Then begin to be aware also of the lightness of air, the exquisite touch of air, the way air gently penetrates everything, and the charming rhythm of the air. These ethereal yet fleshly qualities may be a soothing balm for that heavy place. Let these qualities “be present” in the vicinity of the heaviness, so that at last when that part of you sighs, on its next breath it can breathe in this balm.
Lie on your back and gaze upward into the immense circle of the sky. If it is day accept that you are living in an ocean of air that goes up for miles. If it is night and you can see the stars, appreciate them for generating air, oxygen and helium, and breathing it out into space.
I like to drink a cup of air at the beginning of meditation. I move my arms in circular slow motion out to my sides, then curving around in front gathering air-stuff, the magnetism in air, then I bring it in toward my nose and inhale, as if breathing in or drinking in an elixir. It’s a move I adapted from Tai Chi, a Chinese form of movement meditation.
All your senses inform you about the air flowing in and out of your body 16 times a minute or so. You can smell the air, taste it, feel its temperature, feel its motion, and when you breathe out you can sense how its temperature has risen by 10 degrees and it is moistened by its passage. The action of breathing, the rhythmic pumping of the lungs, can be felt throughout the body. All this infinitely changing sensory texture is why people can meditate on breath for years and be led ever deeper into appreciating life’s mysteries.
Benjamin Franklin was famous for taking air baths. Find your own favorite ways of relating to air, your own treats you can indulge in.
One way of exploring air during meditation is to have a very faint pleasant smell, so faint you can hardly tell it is there, in the room with you when you are meditating. From time to time during your meditation, come to your sense of smell and inhale, and notice if you can detect the smell. I like to meditate in the early morning hours before dawn. Outside the house are various kinds of flowering plants that open and close and different times. As I am meditating, the night-blooming jasmine fades into other scents.
During meditation or at any time when you are breathing, realize you are feeding on the air. Then realize you are learning from it – have you ever smelled fire, or that something was burning? Air is always informing you. So if you do not smell a fire, that is a pretty good indication that the house isn’t on fire, and you can therefore keep on meditating.
Space is the element in which all the other elements play. It is the element in which all the other elements live and move and have their being. Space may seem empty but it is not; there is always a subtle texture to space somehow. Space is empty but it is full of something and fertile. Besides just giving space for things to happen in, space is friendly.
Become aware of the space around your body. How good it is to have all that space between you and the walls, the roof, other objects, between your abode and the next. Notice that you have preferences for space. You might like your home to be further away from someone else’s, but would you want to be 1000 miles from the next home?
Going to an spacious area can be a huge relief, but some people are scared of it at first, because they can sense their boundaries changing. When you walk up a hill or mountain and come to a vista, there is a feeling of expansion of the heart, a sense of “Ahhhhhhh.” If you stand at a tourist vista point, you can hear people say “Ahhhh” all day.
Become aware of some space inside your body. As you breathe, feel how it is the space in your nose that allows the air to flow. Open your mouth and feel around with your tongue. The space in your mouth, down your throat, into you belly, is what allows you to eat.
Become aware of the space within your rib cage. Your upper torso has a large amount of space, called your lungs, that allow for air to flow in and out.
When you are meditating, you may feel certain areas of your body may call out to have more space. If there is congestion, if your breathing is restricted in any way, that part of the body will be asking for more space so that the compression can release into expansiveness and flow. There are millions of little signals like this you will get from your body during meditation, if you live in civilization. People who live alone in the mountains or forest do not experience this Threshold when they meditate. But if you live around people or in a city you may come to realize you are holding yourself too small and need to let yourself inhabit more space.
In each moment of meditation, have it as a possibility that you can melt into space, that any part of your body can melt, dissolve, become infinite.
Structural issues, for example chronic tightness in the chest, may interfere with the ability to breathe freely during meditation. It is though there is not enough room for your heart. So emotionally you feel there is not enough room for all there is in your heart.
If you breathe with the feeling of alternating compression and expansion, and invite the restricted areas to play around with their tight holding and expand. That’s all you can do, invite the area, gently, to let go.
Be aware of your whole body, and how much space it inhabits, how much space there is around, and then as that spaciousness, visit with an area of your body that feels restricted, whether it be your chest, your face, your head, throat.
If your head feels congested, too many thoughts, held too tightly, meditate on space, the space between things, the space between thoughts, atoms, or leaves on a tree.
If you look at the Earth from space, you see that it has a tremendous amount of space around it, and it requires that much – that’s the appropriate distance from the Sun and the other planets
There is a delightful phenomenon that often propagates through earth, air, and space. It has the quality of waves, and takes the form of sound, vibration, resonance, pulsation, and harmony. I feel this phenomenon deserves its own status as an Element as far as meditation is concerned.
When we are hearing sounds in the outer world, we often do not process them as vibration; we interpret their meaning. Sometimes we turn up the music and feel it vibrating our bodies.
Some people sense this quality of life and drink deeply of it. They move in it, breathe with it and we call them vibrant personalities.
During meditation, we free up attention from the need to respond to the meaning of our thoughts. The habit of tracking meaning is strong, so we often get involved in this, but again and again we invite ourselves to simply enjoy thoughts and emotions as vibrations and waves propagating through the body.
All sounds talk about the play of space, matter, compression and expansion, because that is how they are made; when we talk or sing we breathe out and shape the breath to carry sound waves
When we meditate on sound, there are an infinite number of directions to go. You can listen to the waves within the sound, the up and down of it, you can feel the rhythm of a sound, the resonance as it touches your internal structures, you can listen to the way the sound comes on and then fades into the silence between thoughts. All of this is there to be observed and enjoyed when you listen to the simplest sound inside yourself during meditation.
Sound that you make audibly are breath that is shaped by vibration. Sound that is heard internally, as when you are listening to the thought of the sound AH, are a subtle vibration also. There are infinite nuances of a these sound-thoughts. The main things is to enjoy yourself and develop your taste for sound. Play with sound, bathe in it, be massaged by it, purified by it, groomed by the sound. Eat or drink of sound. Let sound be nourishing to your soul.
If meditation were purely mechanical, then the instructions would be so simple: the four-step procedure, then pick a sound. I have found through in-depth interviews with mantra meditators that when you begin doing it by rote, mechanically, it sometimes stays there in that mode, year after year after year, just a hypnotic drone. I was astounded when I started interviewing TM teachers, yogis, and other meditators who worked with mantras and found out that they just dutifully repeated their mantra over and over without letting it change, become jazz or disappear into the sacred silence.
When you engage your aesthetic sense, your love of music, vibration, rhythm, right from the beginning of your practice, then you allow this richness to guide you and inform you all the way.
During meditation, you will often feel spacious as you relax, and if you for example follow a sound into the silence, you may feel as if you disappear into space. You don’t actually disappear, your boundaries just expand. Many beginners I have worked with drop immediately into spaciousness and have moments of pure peace, pure inner silence and blissful repose. Then they open their eyes a minute later and are afraid of how transparent and permeable they feel. I am not solid any more! Quite a few people actually stop there and don’t come back.
Explore the sounds, the vowels and consonants of any language you choose while in meditation. Be alert to which ones are nourishing, soothing, stimulating, restful or sexual. You can discover this for yourself by playing with the sounds, aeiou, and sometimes y, and also mmmm, nnn, shh, Ttttt, and every other consonant.
Make a gentle sound of Ahhhhhhh out loud. Do that for a minute now if you want. Then whisper it. Then close your mouth and make the sound so that it vibrates your mouth, tongue, and lips. That is vibration and resonance. Now think the sound Ahhhh in your mind, without feeling it in your vocal chords. Let it be a thought
I often suggest to people that they explore the vowel sounds of their native tongue, or any language they know, and just roll them around and develop a taste for them, so to speak. When people are exploring their preferences for vibration, for sound, in meditation, they tend to choose
Once you pick the central sound, you can add a consonant or another vowel at the beginning or end.
If you like AH, you could explore also BAH, JAH, DAH, MA.
If you like AM, you could explore GAM, LAM, KAM, RAM, SAM, JAM.
With OH, you can add almost anything, BO, KO, MO, LO, SO, and on.
EEE can be combined with any of the others .
It takes usually about 5 minutes for a person, just playing around, to begin to develop a taste for this sound or that. You use these sounds all the time if you speak, or think, in just about any human language. But unless you are a DOO-WAP singer (you sing backup in a band, just going OOH- YEAH) or a yogi, you may not have ever awakened your sense of preference for sound, as you have for foods, music, and movies.
It is well worth your while to explore sound and then go to the classical mantras. You will appreciate how utterly rich they are. The names of God in any religion, are so incredible if you are really listening to resonance, that you could happily sit in a room for years just listening.
Play with, rest in, explore, feed on these sounds. Your sensibility will evolve.
As you get used to the resonance, over time the sound will at times come from everywhere in your body. As you sit there, it is as if you are within Allah, within God. God is vibrating in me.
When I was a TM teacher, each time a new person would learn, in the first session, I would sing in Sanskrit for about 5 minutes, a beautiful hymn. The TM puja sounds a bit like soft Gregorian chanting, and there is an AH and an MMMmmmm sound in almost every word. The student didn’t have to do anything, but there was nothing else to do but listen. And I think this, along with their superb teaching material, was one element of the high success rate of the TM program, which was about 50% when I was involved. A year later, about half of those who went through the 7-step training program of about 12 hours, were still meditating every day.
What you can do on your own is listen to any of the world’s great chanting or chorale music. It is hard to think of a culture that does not have beautiful chanting somewhere. Expose yourself to music, then savor the feelings that build in your body.
Put a chair between the speakers of your stereo and listen. Breathe with the chanting. Lie down on a sofa. Ask a friend who has a stereo. Go to concerts, churches. Ask a friend who knows chanting if they would chant for you. Bathe in the sound and then let there be silence and savor what happens afterwards.
There are universes of natural sounds you can bathe in, drink in, be massaged by. The sound of oceans, rivers, waves, and the wind through the trees.
“God is singing into my soul the song of life.”