Ignorance, or avidya, is a root cause of suffering, according to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra (II.5). But the ignorance Patanjali refers to is less a lack of knowledge than an almost willful ignoring of reality. Today we call it denial. For instance, we may intellectually know that all things change, yet we desperately deny this truth&mdash:a denial that leads to anxiety, fear, and confusion.
At a past lecture, I led a group of interfaith seminarians in the contemplation of the Five Remembrances, Buddha’s teaching on impermanence, aging, health, change, and death. Afterward, one of the students asked, “Isn’t this just negative thinking?” On the contrary, the Five Remembrances is what the Buddha offers to awaken you from denial, to cultivate gratitude and appreciation for the life you’ve been given, and to teach you about nonattachment and equanimity.
If you think of it this way, the meditation is not a bleak, depressing list of things you’ll lose, but a reminder of the wonder and miracle of life as it is—perfect and whole, lacking nothing. When you accept impermanence as more than a philosophical concept, you can see the truth of it as it manifests itself in your mind, your body, your environment, and your relationships, and you no longer take anything for granted.
Once you accept the reality of impermanence, you begin to realize that grasping and clinging are suffering, as well as the causes of suffering, and with that realization you can let go and celebrate life. The problem is not that things change, but that you try to live as if they don’t.
FREE YOUR MIND
To work with the Five Remembrances (see chart, end of article), it helps to memorize and repeat them daily. Say them slowly and let the words seep in, without analyzing or interpreting them or your experience. Just notice your reactions. Let them rest until they shift and pass away—as all things do, being impermanent. Stay with your breath and observe the sensations under all your thinking. You may experience huge relief as the energy you’ve spent denying and hiding from the truth is liberated to move freely through your body.
Some remembrances are easier to accept than others. For me, it’s easier to consider that I’m growing older and will die, than it is that I have the potential for ill health. I have a strong constitution and am rarely ill; I always believed that if my practice were “good” enough, I wouldn’t get sick. So, on those rare days when I was ill, I often reproached myself for being sick and was a pretty cranky person to be around. But with the help of the Second Remembrance, I’m more accepting of illness and can now feel a profound sense of ease and even gratitude (for my usual good health) beneath it.
Another way of practicing the Five Remembrances is through something Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh calls hugging meditation. When your partner or children leave for work or school, hug each other for three full breaths, and remind yourself of the Fourth Remembrance: “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.” If you’re having a disagreement with someone, remind yourself, before getting swept away by heated emotions, of the Fifth Remembrance: “My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.” None of this means you should be passive or reluctant to advocate your views. Instead the meditation helps you respond more skillfully with awareness of how things truly are rather than from conditioned reactions.
You can also get used to the concept of impermanence by listing things that have changed in your life over the past month or two. Perhaps a difficult posture has become easier, or an easy posture is now challenging. Perhaps a problem with a family member has resolved or grown more complicated. You’ll be hard-pressed to find something that hasn’t changed!
STEP INTO THE PRESENT
Again, facing the truth of impermanence shouldn’t depress you; it should free you to be fully present. It should help you realize that the freedom and inner peace you seek are already here. When you really see that all things change, your grasping and clinging fade under the bright light of awareness, like the stains in a white cloth bleached by the sun.
If nonattachment sounds cold and unappealing, you may be mistaking it for indifference. It’s the experience of attachment, based on the denial of ceaseless change, that is lifeless. Life without change is a contradiction in terms. When you’re attached to something, you want it to stay the same forever. This attempt to “freeze-dry” elements of your life squeezes the vitality out of them. The practice of nonattachment allows you to enjoy life wholeheartedly in its very passing.
Through your attachments you create mental manacles that bind you to the limited view that life is your life, your body, your lover, your family, your possessions. As your insight into impermanence deepens you start to see the truth of the “no-separate-self.” When you can extend beyond the limits you’ve created you see that your life is not really “yours” but all of life itself manifesting through you.
As the Buddha tells us: “When one perceives impermanence, the perception of no-self is established. With the perception of no-self, the conceit of ‘I’ is eliminated, and this is nirvana here and now.”
The Five Remembrances
I like this version of the Buddha’s Five Remembrances, offered by Thich Nhat Hanh in The Plum Village Chanting Book.
I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.
I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
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.
My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.