When I was six, a Native American woman visited my kindergarten class. She sat with us in a circle and talked about her tribe and its customs. Then, with no doubt off the top of her head, she bestowed upon each child an Indian name. The boys got strong monikers like Soaring Eagle. The girls got princess names. Princess Moon, and the like. But when she got to me she said “You are Rabbit’s Foot.” Not Princess Rabbit’s Foot. Just plain, Rabbit’s Foot.
I looked at the little girl next to me, who had been dubbed Princess Spring Flowers and wondered what she had that I didn’t have. Whatever the mysterious quality was, I thought to myself, “Not everyone can be a princess.” And indeed, growing up, I wasn’t a princess. My father never once called me his “princess.” At kindergarten, the popular girls….the ones with the black patent leather shoes….never let me sit with them, no matter what I wore. This pattern repeated itself through high school and college as well.
Not being a princess freed me to believe that it is possible for ordinary people to achieve extraordinary things. For me, the difference between an “ordinary” and an “extraordinary” person is not the title a person might have (like Princess), but what that person does to make the world a better place for us all.
I don’t know why people choose to do what they do. When I was a kid I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, but I knew what I didn’t want to do. I didn’t want to grow up, have 2.2 kids, get married. And I certainly didn’t think about being a nun or an activist. I didn’t even really know what it meant to be either.
Growing up, I ended up defending my older brother a lot for various reasons, and I often think that is what started me on my path to whatever I am today.
When my dear Teacher Sudharma approached with the idea of trying to create a campaign and a village for children rescued from the sex/human trafficking underground, we were just three people in a monastery office in 2005. I had more than a few ideas about how to begin the campaign, but what if nobody cared? What if nobody responded? I knew the only way to answer those questions was to accept the challenge.
I’ve learned that, if I have any power as an individual, it’s because I work with other individuals around the world. We are ordinary people… Dr. Ole-Jørgen Edna from Norway, Jemma from Armenia, Paul from Canada, Kosal from Cambodia, Haboubba from Lebanon, Diana from Colombia, Margaret from Uganda and many more…who have worked together to bring about extraordinary change. The Upaśānti Village campaign is not just about the children and the traffickers….it’s about the power of individuals to work with governments in a different way.
I believe in both my right and my responsibility to work to create a world that doesn’t glorify violence and war, but where we seek different solutions to our common problems. I believe that these days, daring to voice your opinion, daring to find out information from a variety of sources can be an act of courage.
I know that in environments of uncertainty, fear, and hunger, the human being is dwarfed and shaped without his being aware of it, just as the plant struggling under a stone does not know its own condition. Only when the stone is removed can it spring up freely into the light. But the power to spring up is inherent, and only death puts an end to it.
I take heart in a promising fact that the world contains food supplies sufficient for the entire earth population. Our knowledge of medical science is already sufficient to improve the health of the whole human race. Our resources and education, if administered on a world scale, can lift the intelligence of the race. All that remains is to discover how to administer upon a world scale, the benefits which some of us already have. In other words, to return to my simile, the stone must be rolled away. This too can be done, as a sufficient number of human beings come to have faith in themselves and in each other.
I know that holding such beliefs and speaking them publicly is not always easy or comfortable or popular….particularly in the post-9/11 world. But I believe that life isn’t a popularity contest. I really don’t care what people say about me….and people have said plenty! For me, it’s about trying to do the right thing….even when nobody else is looking.
I believe worrying about the problems plaguing our planet without taking steps to confront them is irrelevant. The only thing that changes this world is action.
Most people tend to get caught up in going to college, then getting a job, buying a house and paying the mortgage. Somehow, I’ve had the desire….and the drive…..to do things a bit differently.
Several years ago, I told my friend and inspiration, Summer, the story of my kindergarten Indian naming. She grinned and pointed out something wonderful. “Rabbit’s Foot means good luck. That’s way better than being a princess.”
I believe that words are easy….the truth is told in the actions we take. If enough ordinary people back up the common desire for a better world with action, I believe we can, in fact, accomplish extraordinary things.
Mindfulness is paying attention to real time reality. This can seem like such a small thing…..and it is. It is a state of attention that is as natural and soft and wordless as our peripheral vision. Yet mindfulness also means to remember…what? Mindfulness pulls us back to a greater living reality, reminding us that life is more than our own repetitive thoughts or fears or desires. Rooted in the present tense, world of the body rather than the thoughts, the strangely named “mindfulness” delivers us from the hellish centrifugal force of our own egos.
My dear Teacher Sudharma once said: “Deeply buried in the mind, there lies a mental mechanism which accepts what the mind perceives as beautiful and pleasant experiences and rejects those experiences which are perceived as ugly and painful. This mechanism gives rise to…things like greed, lust, hatred, aversion, and jealousy. We choose to avoid these hindrances, not because they are evil in the normal sense of the word, but because they are compulsive.”
Most of us know the pull of compulsions…..from the siren call of the refrigerator and that last piece of homemade whatever….or the thought or worry that keeps repeating…..the memory that shadows our lives. Mindfulness saves us by gently, gently, gently pulling us back into the world of the living, the world of new possibilities. But here’s the thing. Mindfulness is so gentle in its action, so subtle and inclusive by nature, that it needs the help of concentration (samadhi). In meditation, concentration on an object like the breath is a tool that keeps the sensitive attention of mindfulness anchored. The catch is that mindfulness brings meaning and understanding to what we see….without mindful awareness, concentration can become narrow and driven…compulsive.
Strangely, as I was pondering these things on Sunday, I managed to lock myself out of the library here in monastery. All my belongings were inside….keys, phone, books, everything. And just when everything was going so well, when I seemed to be flowing along so…mindfully….the locked door closed behind me and there I stood….locked out. After the first rude shock of it, after the momentary impulse to become desperate and panicked, I went for a walk. I found myself thinking “I’m locked out, I’m locked out…and variants including “I can’t believe this happened to me! Why now?” As I walked, the beautiful colors of the changing leaves and the cool air or some unnamable combination of both, called me to remember that I am here. On the Earth. In that moment, I realized I wasn’t just locked out….I was locked in my own tiny skull, oblivious to the life around me. I shifted the focus of my concentration from the mantra “Locked Out” to the sensation of walking and breathing….the awareness of being alive on this beautiful Earth. When I returned to the library, the door was unlocked.
Mindfulness is like walking through an open door.
This morning I had a very interesting conversation with one of my students. She was determined to convince me that at some point in time, people will live forever under the conventions of modern technology and science. Her family has recently gone through a rough patch with family members passing on from old age and illness. Not easy, I’m the first to understand this. But it surprised me that her response to the situation came with her comfort being found in “things”….including plastic surgery to “reverse the signs of aging”. It dawned on me that she is now coming face to face with her own mortality and she is strongly averting her entire being from the idea.
It’s not a light topic, and one that we mostly cover withing monastery only because it’s difficult to swallow for most secular students who choose not to advance their practice enough to acknowledge death as a visceral reality.
As my Teachers have always taught in monastery, one of the best ways to prepare for death is to acknowledge that we really are going to die. Living in the moment. Buddhist scholar Tog Den Won Po Chongtul Rinpoche says, “Recognizing mortality means we are willing to see what is true. Seeing what is true is grounding. It brings us into the present. . . .” We all know that we’re going to die, but we don’t know it in our guts. If we did, we would practice as if our hair were on fire. One way to swallow the bitter truth of mortality and impermanence…..and get it into our guts…..is to chew on the four reminders.
The four reminders, or the four thoughts that turn the mind, are an important preparation for death because they turn the mind from constantly looking outward to finally looking within. These reminders, also called the four reversals, were composed by Padmasambhava, the master who brought Buddhism from India to Tibet. They can be viewed as representing the trips Prince Siddhartha took outside his palace that eventually transformed him into the Buddha. During these trips, Siddhartha encountered old age, sickness, and death, and developed the renunciation that turned his mind away from the distractions and deceptions of the outer world and in toward silence and truth.
As a meditation instructor, I often prescribe the four reminders as the best remedy to get students who have stalled on the path back on track. As with mindfulness itself, the four reminders provide another way to work with distraction. They bring the key instruction from The Tibetan Book of the Dead…..“do not be distracted”…..to a more comprehensive level. The four reminders show us that it’s not just momentary distraction that’s problematic but distraction at the level of an entire life. If we’re not reminded, we can waste our whole life.
My Teacher, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, has presented them to me in this way:
FIRST Contemplate the preciousness of being so free and well favored. This is difficult to gain and easy to lose. Now I must do something meaningful.
SECOND The whole world and its inhabitants are impermanent. In particular, the life of beings is like a bubble. Death comes without warning; this body will be a corpse. At that time the dharma will be my only help. I must practice it with exertion.
THIRD When death comes, I will be helpless. Because I create karma, I must abandon evil deeds and always devote myself to virtuous actions. Thinking this, every day I will examine myself.
FOURTH The homes, friends, wealth, and comforts of samsara are the constant torment of the three sufferings, just like a feast before the executioner leads you to your death. I must cut desire and attachment, and attain enlightenment through exertion.
How long should we contemplate these reminders? Until our mind turns. Until we give up hope for samsara (the worldly cycle of birth and death), and realize the folly of finding happiness outside.
Most of us spend our lives looking out at the world, chasing after thoughts and things. We’re distracted by all kinds of objects and rarely look into the mind that is the ultimate source of these objects. If we turn our mind and look in the right direction, however, we will find our way to a good life…..and a good death. Instead of being carried along with the external constructs of mind, we finally examine the internal blueprints of mind itself.
It’s often said that the preliminaries are more important than the main practice. The significance of these four reminders, as a preliminary practice, cannot be overstated. His Holiness said that if we could truly take them to heart, 50 percent of the path to enlightenment would be complete. These contemplations develop revulsion to conditioned appearances, point out their utter futility, and cause awareness to prefer itself rather than outwardly appearing objects. They turn the mind away from substitute gratifications and direct it toward authentic gratification…..which can only be found within.
The four thoughts remind us of the preciousness of this human life; that we are going to die; that karma follows us everywhere; and that samsara is a waste of time that only perpetuates suffering. Memorize them. They will reframe your life, focus your mind, and advise you in everything you do. As Dr. Samuel Johnson, the author of the first English dictionary, said: “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
What would you do if you had six months to live? What would you cut out of your life? What would you do if you had one month, one week, one day? The Indian master Atisha said, “If you do not contemplate death in the morning, the morning is wasted. If you do not contemplate death in the afternoon, the afternoon is wasted. If you do not contemplate death in the evening, the evening is wasted.” The four reminders remove the waste.
We see others dying all around us but somehow feel entitled to an exemption. In the Hindu epic Mahabharata, the sage Yudhishthira is asked, “Of all things in life, what is the most amazing?” He answers, “That a man, seeing others die all around him, never thinks he will die.” If we acknowledge death and use it as an advisor, however, it will prioritize our life, ignite our renunciation, and spur our meditation. The Buddha said: “Of all footprints, that of the elephant is the deepest and most supreme. Of all contemplations, that of impermanence is the deepest and most supreme.”
Bring these supreme reminders into your life and realize that life is like a candle flame in the wind. The essence of spiritual practice is remembrance, whether it’s remembering to come back to the present moment or recalling the truth of impermanence. One of the marks of an advanced student is that he or she finally realizes that today could be the day. Realizing impermanence is what makes them advance. For most of us, however, we essentially spend our lives moving deck chairs around on the Titanic. No matter how we position ourselves…..no matter how comfortable we try to get…..it’s all going down.
These teachings exhort us not to “spend” our lives, which most of us do…..literally and figuratively. Reinvest. Take the precious opportunity that has been given to you, and do not waste your life. The four thoughts that turn the mind, turn it from reckless spending to wise investing. We spend so much effort investing in our future. We invest in IRAs, 401(k)s, pension plans, and retirement portfolios. Spiritual advisors exhort us to invest in our much more important bardo (post-death) retirement plan. That’s our real future.
Don’t worry so much about social security. Finance your karmic security instead. Invest in your future lives now. Investing so much in this life is like checking into a hotel for a few days and redecorating the room: what’s the point? B. Alan Wallace says, “In light of death, our mundane desires are seen for what they are. If our desires for wealth, luxury, good food, praise, reputation, affection, and acceptance by other people, and so forth are worth nothing in the face of death, then that is precisely their ultimate value.”
On a personal note, understanding impermanence has been the greatest gift in my study and practice of the teachings on death. I’m thickheaded, but I finally get it: I am going to die…..and it could be today. My life has been completely restructured because I now believe it. The rugged truth of impermanence has simplified my life, shown me what is important, and inspired me to really practice. Sogyal Rinpoche says in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying: “Ask yourself these two questions: Do I remember at every moment that I am dying, and that everyone and everything else is, and so treat all beings at all times with compassion? Has my understanding of death and impermanence become so keen and so urgent that I am devoting every second to the pursuit of enlightenment? If you can answer “yes” to both of these, then you really understand impermanence.”
These reminders may seem like a morbid preoccupation with death, but that is only because of our extreme aversion to dying. For most of us, death is the final defeat. As Jack LaLanne, the fitness and diet guru, once said, “I can’t afford to die. It would wreck my image.” We live in denial of death, and suffer in direct proportion to this denial when death occurs. The four reminders remind us of the uncompromising truth of reality, and prepare us to face it.
The four reminders, joined with mindfulness meditation, instill a strength of mind that benefits both self and other. His Holiness once said to me: “The strength of shamatha (mindfulness meditation) is that our mind is slow enough and stable enough to bring in the reality, to really see it. Then when someone we know is dying, we aren’t so shaken up. We may be sad, in the sense of feeling compassion, but we have thoroughly incorporated the notion of death to the point that it has profoundly affected our life. That is known as strength of mind.”
That stability naturally radiates to stabilize the mind of the dying person, which helps them when everything is being blown away.
Dying people are sometimes jealous of those still alive. “Why do I have to die when everyone else keeps on living? It’s so unfair. Why me?” At that point they need to remember that those left behind are not returning to a party that lasts till infinity. Those left behind are returning to a challenging life that is filled with endless dissatisfaction and suffering. As you are dying, remember that it’s just a matter of time before everyone else joins you, just as you are about to join the billions of others who have already left this life for another one. Those left behind are a minority.
And he who dies with the most toys still dies.