Reality meets us most obviously in its earthiness. We live in a subjective sea of sensation, emotion, and cognition, but the solidity of things seems more real than that. The earth under my feet. The substance of my thighs. Your hand holding mine. All these feel tangible and—at least temporarily—dependable.
The ‘earth’ element refers to this feature of reality, the way it feels solid and reliable. The material stuff of the world seems more ‘real’ than our interior, subjective flow. Although the latter is the only part of reality we contact directly, the former seems more stable and—unlike subjective experience—can be shared and agreed upon with others. The reliability of solid stuff has served civilization well, enabling us to develop science and technology.
In our bodies, solidity is most evident in the skeleton, and to explore the earth element we’ll focus on our bones. Made as they are of calcium crystals, they are kin to limestone and the hard shells of sea creatures, from which—over eons—limestone forms.
But the skeleton isn’t simply a crystal, it’s also alive, which means it grows over short time frames and evolves over long ones. In the course of a human life, our bones begin as soft, rapidly growing forms, flexible like new shoots. Throughout life, different cell types work together, with some cells creating bone structure, others breaking it down, and yet others ensuring ongoing skeletal health. Bone matures and hardens in adolescence, and after that it remains durable and resilient for much of adult life. But as living mammalian tissue, it accumulates marks of age over time. Late in life, bones lose density and may grow brittle. Arthritic conditions grow more common. Much of the frailty of advanced age comes from skeletal changes which, although limiting, are natural consequences of living.
Bones are long-lasting things, and skeletons record evolutionary changes over geological time. In a thousand years, only my teeth and bones will remain, if any part of this body is left at all. Yet those hard bits will say a lot about me. In them will be evidence of neck arthritis that reflect injuries and occupational stresses, foot distortions due to ill-fitting footwear, and two healed fractures in my right arm. If a future anthropologist examines my bony remains, she’ll learn something of my lifestyle. A skeleton is a history.
Humanity learned about evolution by examining the fossil record, which—first and foremost—is a record of skeletons. We can trace our evolutionary path from fishlike skeletons, through the frames of low-slung amphibious creatures, through faster moving quadrupeds, and thence to early primates with their forward-facing eyes and dextrous forepaws. Skeletal evolution continued with the dawn of the ape family and the emergence of its hominid members, who share large cranial vaults.
The skeleton reveals our long kinship with Life on earth and the planet itself. By feeling its solid and rooted aliveness, we know we belong here, in our earthly biosphere.
To feel the earthiness of the body is to feel substantial, formidable, and consequential. It’s a necessary counterweight to the surge of emotions and the winds of thought. It’s reassuring to feel strength in our legs, fullness in belly and pelvis, shelter in ribcage and skull. The earth element, abundant in the body, roots us on the planet and in our lives.
Is it just me, or do others also need reminders of their substantiality? Much of the time I feel flighty, turbulent, and untethered, yet I am stabilized by the heft of my muscles, organs, and bones. The stuff of my body proves I’m not just a swirl of feelings and imaginings. I am a tangible piece of the cosmos.
The mind is a flighty thing, and the body beckons it to earth. It’s salutary to heed that call. It’s healthy to remember we are material and biological, even if we may be more than that. The mind seems mysterious and ‘spiritual’, more free and magical than matter, and perhaps in some ways it is. But it depends on the fleshy brain to exist in its current form, so in that sense—at least—it’s a material phenomenon.
Some spiritual traditions view material embodiment as a gross, unfortunate condition. But as moderns, we needn’t see it that way. Thanks to scientific technologies, we understand biological matter in ways the ancients never could. We know much more about the body’s complexity and subtlety. We see beyond its large-scale features, beyond its meat, mucus, and decay. Cells communicate through vast and intricate webs of chemical, electrical, and mechanical signals. In the depths of bio-matter, the thrum of quantum mechanical activity defies comprehension. And across all scales there is resilience and generativity.
To be biological is to bring a planet to Life, wield the power of stars, and weave reality into being. It is creative and necessary, like love.
This meditation will highlight the solidity, rootedness, and aliveness of bodily substance, in particular of flesh and bone.
Begin in a comfortable posture that strikes a balance between rigidity and slouching. Aim for noble, attentive ease. Tune into the breath as you experience it in the middle upper chest, a hands width or so below the notch in the breastbone below the throat.
Feel the gentle rise and fall of the breastbone with every inhalation and exhalation. Depending on the breathing pattern, this movement might be obvious or very subtle. Either way, tune into it, attend to it, and investigate. Feel any emotion active in the area. Is there a sense of tenderness, vulnerability, fear, or sorrow? If so, meet it kindly, as you would a child or animal who needed support.
Bring a hand to this region, and press your fingers gently into the breastbone. Feel its solidity. You may notice areas tender to the touch, but also notice the firmness of the bone. There is protection here. This region of the breastbone is broad and protective. The body, in its biological wisdom, has evolved to shield the vulnerable interior. For people who are strongly sensitive or empathic, it can be helpful to get in touch with this protective aspect of the body. As it is vulnerable, so too it is tough. Feel the courage of this solidity that holds its position regardless of fear, sorrow, and pain. You are this courage as much as you are the tenderness that feels the world.
The ribcage, like the entire skeleton, evolved over hundreds of millions of years. The earliest complex animals arose 500 million years ago. Those old ones were wormlike sea creatures with digestive tubes running down the middle and a simple linear nervous system. Early fish evolved from them, elaborating skeletons moved by powerful muscle groups, which allowed swifter, more precise movement. Millions of years later, our ancestors found themselves in environments where spending time on land improved species survival, which led to limb development. The ribcage was recruited to help draw air into newly evolved lungs. From there, the animals grew increasingly adept at moving through terrestrial environments. In our lineage, dextrous hands developed that enabled arboreal lifestyles, which set the stage for bipedal locomotion. Once upright, our apelike ancestors began using tools, which—along with complex social groups—gave advantages to those with larger skulls that held larger brains. The human lineage was thus born.
All of this history is in our skeleton: the bones moved by muscle, the ribcage holding lungs, the dextrous hands, the large skull. Feel this ancient record of life that is your bony structure. Your powerful legs, your upright spine, your protective ribcage, the clever hands, the spacious skull. Eons of evolution are recorded right here in this body that is home to mind and all experience. Feel that remarkable fact. Is it too much to call it a miracle?
And notice this: within all this bone and flesh, there is a pervasive feeling of Life. Without making any effort to describe what you feel, notice every sensation in the bone, joints, muscle, and organs that informs you of your own aliveness. Common ones are warmth, fullness, tingling, vibration, movement, pleasure, pain, and presence. Feel the Life within this earthy and earthly body, this organism that’s made from the earth, depends on the earth, and is part of the earth.
As you conclude this exploration of the body’s earth element, take in—all at once—the solidity, rootedness, and aliveness of your frame. Since you were born it has been giving you shape, movement, and breath. Offer it a note of admiration and gratitude.
Then increase the pace of your breathing for a moment and prepare to tune into whatever comes next.