Reflections on Impermanence and Mortality. Part II – The Five Remembrances

This is the second blog in a series of blog posts that are my varied reflections on impermanence and mortality.

Disclaimer: This blog series attempts to elaborate on many aspects of human mortality as elaborated in Buddhist teachings. The goals of these teachings are to cultivate an appreciation for the present moment as well as to cultivate kindness and compassion for all living beings as we all possess the same nature.

The Five Remembrances are a set of teachings in Buddhism that are meant to help practitioners reflect on the impermanence of life and cultivate an appreciation for the present moment. These short, simple but extremely profound teachings are often recited during meditation or contemplation practice. They are recommended for monks as well as for lay people. It is recommended that we recite them daily in a very gentle and kind manner. Furthermore; it is recommended that we practice them both internally and externally, meaning that we consider ourselves as well as others as subjects for this practice. These reflections are a support for our awakening when we make peace with them. They are explained below.

Remembrance # 1: I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.

The only way to escape growing old is to die younger. Most of us prefer not to take that route. What is important is the attitude. To what extent do we accept the fact of growing old? Can we welcome it and embrace it?

A lot can come up with these reflections. We will do well to accept the truth of this remembrance as it can free up a lot of energy. It is recommended that we do this practice both internally and externally. We do this externally by considering the aging of everyone around us.

This remembrance overcomes the conceit of youth, energy and vitality.

Remembrance # 2: I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape having ill health.

It is a miracle that our bodies function as they do, despite their complexities and despite how we abuse them. This remembrance is particularly profound for us to acknowledge in post-COVID era. It helps us realize feelings of shared humanity. In this remembrance, ill health also includes injuries that we sustain from time to time, some of them serious and some of them not so serious.

General complaints surrounding ill health include going to a doctor, paying huge medical bills, taking medicines, restricting our diet, exercising, undergoing surgeries, therapies for physical and behavioral health. Do we accept ill health? Does our happiness depend on having good health or can we experience happiness and joy just because we are alive and breathing?

This remembrance overcomes the conceit of good health and the feeling of being invincible.

Remembrance # 3: I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.

This remembrance focuses explicitly on our own mortality. This is more challenging than the first two remembrances. In many ways, we experience aging and sickness but we do not have a first-hand experience of our own death. We may have experiences of other people dying. It is really challenging for the ego to contemplate its own ending. However, accepting or facing our own mortality has many benefits. It supports us to live more freely. It allows us to see the preciousness of life right here, right now. It is a great practice in and of itself for waking up.

Other traditions also feature death explicitly in their teachings. For example; Carlos Castaneda was a Peruvian-born anthropologist and shamanic practitioner. His teachings were based on his personal experiences with an Yaqui Indian shaman by the name of Don Juan Matus.

Carlos had said “Death is the only wise advisor that we have. Whenever you feel, as you always do, that everything is going wrong and you’re about to be annihilated, turn to your death and ask if that is so. Your death will tell you that you’re wrong; that nothing really matters outside its touch. Your death will tell you, ‘I haven’t touched you yet.'” His perspective was that death is an essential part of life and that by embracing it, we can overcome fear and live with a sense of clarity and purpose. Within the context of Buddhist teachings, this third remembrance overcomes the conceit of being alive and the deluded notion that we will never die.

Remembrance # 4: All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.

This remembrance can be more impactful than the other three, even more than the reflection on death. It focuses on life’s unexpected events where we end up losing our loved ones as well as our possessions. It focuses on change and separation. The intention for this remembrance is to have a sense of nonattachment to all things while living and enjoying life without a constant fear of separation.

This remembrance overcomes the conceit of taking others for granted. It weakens and overcomes the lust for materiality while giving our hearts a sense of generosity.

Remembrance # 5: My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.

This remembrance brings forth very good news. It is about karma, the law which dictates how events unfold. Whatever kind of seed is planted, a similar kind of fruit will sprout. This remembrance refers to actions of the body, speech and mind. In the end; when we lose everything, the only possessions we will have left are the consequences of our actions.

It empowers us to be responsible for our thoughts and actions. It empowers us to cultivate kindness and compassion towards ourselves and to all living beings. In a very fitting way, this remembrance allows us to deal skillfully with the first four somber remembrances.

It is recommended that we practice these remembrances on a regular basis by saying them aloud or by quietly reflecting on them. It is only a matter of time when they produce a certain kind of stillness and a sense of peace. While reflecting on them, it is advisable that we quiet our minds and then gently drop these remembrances in, one by one. The goal is for us to observe the ripples that generate in our minds in a simar way that we can observe the ripples formed on water in a still lake after we drop a stone in it.

In my next blog post, I will talk about the advantages and benefits gained by performing this practice on a regular basis.

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