The Upajjhatthana Sutta (“Subjects for Contemplation“) is a Buddhist discourse (Pali: sutta; Skt.: sutra) famous for its inclusion of five remembrances, five facts regarding life’s fragility and our true inheritance. The discourse advises that these facts are to be reflected upon often by all.
According to this discourse, contemplation of these facts leads to the abandonment of destructive attachments and actions and to the cultivation of factors necessary for Enlightenment. According to the Ariyapariyesana Sutta (Discourse on the Noble Quest) MN 26, the first three remembrances are the very insights that led Gautama Buddha to renounce his royal household status and become an ascetic after experiencing strong feelings of spiritual urgency (saṃvega).
I’m currently preparing a teaching talk that I am slated to give at our local sangha, Be Here Now, next week on the topic of impermanence, where I plan on breaking down each of the Five Remembrances and offering tools to work with so that they can become a practice, rather than a mere list of words floating in the ether.
It’s easy to encounter these remembrances (listed in the above image) and feel overwhelmed by them or experience a varying degree of fear, sorrow and/or anxiety about them. It’s very common to have feelings of aversion arise, as in: “Yeah, yeah, I know all that, but I don’t want to think about it right now.” We may want to plug our ears or just bury our heads in the sand and forget all about them. But the Buddha advised: “These are the five facts that one should reflect on often, whether one is a woman or a man, lay or ordained.”
When the Five Remembrances are turned into a reflective practice they have the capacity to awaken us to the beauty and wonder of life available in the present moment. In remembering and understanding these five inherit parts of life we become free to enjoy the very here and now, just as it is, because we know everything and everyone are subject to change, and that to take life for granted is a waste of the precious time we are afforded.
Here are some of the ways I practice with the remembrances in order to bring them more fully into my daily life:
I am of the nature to grow old. For this one I practice to observe the signs of aging, both in myself and in others. In taking special notice of the physical and mental changes that accompany aging I am careful to simply observe, without judgement or criticism or tacking on an additional story line. The more I practice not turning away from the indicators of aging such as: increasing wrinkles, decreasing metabolism, memory capacity, graying hair, added aches and pains, limitations, and so on, the better I get at being able to see and embrace growing older as simply part of what it means to be human. I can only imagine being like so many others who try to cover up or ignore their own process of aging only to be inevitably confronted one day in the future with what they’ve tried so hard to avoid: that the face in the mirror is now closer to death than it is to youth. I imagine these are the same people who get close to the end of life and wonder where all the time has gone, suddenly realizing that so much of that time had been spent wastefully trying to fight against what was happening and taking for granted everything they had.
PRACTICE: Be an observer of aging.
I am of the nature to have ill health. In order to better understand the nature of having ill health I find it helpful to focus on developing gratitude for my current level of functioning and abilities. The stronger my sense of gratitude is for my body, the health I am afforded, and all the things I am able to do because of my physical state of being the more I’m able to not get embittered whenever I’m taken out of commission by a cold or the flu or an unexpected injury. When I take my health and physical abilities for granted I quickly get frustrated and impatient when I suddenly find myself laid up in bed with a sickness or struggling with bodily pain. I’ve found that the more I connect with the various parts of my body and send them gratitude the more support and care I give myself when I’m not feeling well. When my practice of gratitude is strong, even when I’m sick or in pain, I can always find and appreciate the parts of me that are still functioning well and feeling good, which helps to keep my disposition better balanced in the reality of how “this too shall pass.”
PRACTICE: Connect and send gratitude to your body for the health and abilities it has (even when it’s limited).
I am of the nature to die. When I think of our commonly shared fear of dying a humorous, and poignant, analogy comes to mind. On my old school Nintendo NES system (which I still have and use by the way) my favorite game growing up was Super Mario Brothers 3. In one of the castles you have to beat in the game there’s a section where you’re confronted with a ghost that floats around. In short, if you don’t learn the little trick that goes along with the ghost it will assuredly take you out, rendering it impossible to continue further in the game. The trick is that you have to face the ghost. If you try to run away from it, turning your player’s back to it, the ghost follows after you – and since there’s no way to kill the ghost it will eventually be victorious in its quest to overpower you. But if you turn and face the ghost it stops advancing towards you. So as you’re moving through the castle you have to maneuver around by continuing to face the ghost, as much as possible, in order to conquer that level. In taking a lesson from old school Nintendo ghosts, when we face our fears, whatever they might be, rather than turning away from them, we are afforded the opportunity to triumph over that in which we’ve given power over us.
But how do practice facing our fears? One of the things I’ve done is gotten involved as a volunteer with hospice. One of my motivations for having signed up for the volunteer training years ago was because I knew it would give me the chance to begin working with my aversion to death and dying. Through the years of visiting people on hospice care I’ve learned how to understand and get in touch with the nature of this process of life and how it’s not something to be feared or worried about or shunned. By embracing the discomfort associated with death and confronting it head on I’ve been able to transform my energy around it. Another thing I do to help me continue facing the inevitability of dying is to occasionally read obituaries, which helps me to connect with my own sense of mortality through those that have passed away and the loved ones they’ve left behind.
PRACTICE: Find ways to stay in personal contact with the process of death and dying.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. One of the things I do in practicing with this remembrance is to, once in a while, give something away that I really don’t want to. In giving something special or sentimental away it helps me to detach from my belongings and more fully appreciate the things that I do have. Similar to what I spoke about for ill health I also find that when I strengthen my gratitude for all the stuff I have it allows me to develop a clearer sense for how nothing lasts forever. For instance, both my car and my laptop are in the same boat where when they fire up each day I count myself as lucky because they’re both old and in various states of disrepair. I’m quite aware that any day might be their last, so I cherish the time I have with them because they’re both very important in my life and the time will come when they will no longer remain functioning.
In regards to working with the nature of change when it comes to other beings I often reflect on those who are closest to me. On a regular basis I contemplate the passing away of my two cats, who are brothers and will turn 12 this spring, and I also contemplate the passing away of my husband Mike. So sometimes when one of the cats comes up on my lap or I approach one of them lounging around the house I’ll say, out loud to them, something like, “One day you won’t be around and that will be sad.” In those moments I’m connecting with their eventual death that will happen. When my husband leaves the house for work in the morning I’ll sometimes think to myself, “This might be the last I’ll see him.” We never know when our last encounter with someone will be. It’s important to mention here that I don’t dwell in these reflective times longer than I’m able to keep my balance with them. I’ve found that short, regular, ongoing encounters with this practice benefits me more than contemplating the process of death of those closest to me for long periods of time, which can create feelings of deep sorrow, fear, and/or anxiety. I also practice preparing myself for my stepson Jaden’s transition to be out on his own. He’s 16 and a sophomore in high school and he’ll soon be getting on to a new chapter which entails a certain amount of separation from myself and his dad and our household. Changes are already taking place and I practice to notice and embrace those changes rather than trying to hold onto some version of him from the past or an old version of our relationship.
PRACTICES: Appreciate the stuff you have. Contemplate, in small doses, the separation from those whom you love.
My actions are my only true belongings. We can get into trouble when we start thinking that certain things we do don’t make any difference or have impact. But the truth is, everything we do or don’t do makes a difference. There is no such thing as an insignificant act. Developing a close relationship with the Five Mindfulness Trainings is the best way I know to practice with this last remembrance. When the trainings are cultivated in our daily life they have the capacity to teach us how to fully understand the nature of interbeing, which lies at the heart of this remembrance. When we truly see how everything and everyone are connected and interwoven together we will come to appreciate how our actions really are the ground on which we stand.
PRACTICE: Cultivate the Five Mindfulness Trainings in your daily life.
As this has become a longer post that I had anticipated it being I was going to simply end after going through the last remembrance. However, since I’ve probably lost most readers by now anyway, due to sheer volume of words, I might as well wrap up as I am intending to in my talk :)
When we practice to live well in this moment we are practicing to live well in the next moment automatically. This is the foundation of working with these remembrances. When we know how to live well we will know how to age well, to be sick well, to die well, to let go well. Another very large tool that we can pick up and utilize in regards to the remembrances is developing a regular sitting meditation practice. Sitting meditation helps us to strengthen our ability to become a mindful observer, which is a necessary component in learning how to better flow with life as it’s unfolding, as opposed to stewing in constant judgement, complaining, criticizing, and continually wishing for people, things, and situations to be different than they are. Sitting meditation teaches us how to embrace life rather than fight against it. And our quality of life really comes down to whether we’re embracing or fighting the nature of change.
In beginning a regular sitting meditation practice I like to encourage folks to start small. The regularity with which we sit is more important than the length of time that we do it. I often suggest sitting for 5 days a week, Monday through Friday, for 5 minutes a day. Start there and see what happens. If you stick with it, chances are, you’ll gradually want to increase your time. Perhaps over the course of a few months, or a year, you can slowly increase your time from 5 minutes to 8, then 10, then 15, then 20.
When we have an accurate and deep understanding of the nature of life and how aging, illness, death, loss, and change are part of its orchestration our gratitude and sense of connection will be greatly strengthened. Life becomes something to be held in reverence and wonder because we know that we have a limited and undisclosed amount of time to Be Here Now. The fruit of reciting, contemplating, and practicing with the Five Remembrances is that we stop taking life for granted – we stop taking our loved ones for granted – we stop taking our health and abilities for granted – and we stop taking this precious moment for granted.