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.
Some time ago, I wrote about practice as a way of return, of recollection, of remembering…..coming down out of our thoughts and memories and dreams, to the experience of being in a living, breathing body, here and now. I wrote about how this movement of return can feel like a last resort, something we turn to when all our thinking and distractions fail.
This week the universe taught me a deeper lesson. On Sunday, I taught a meditation workshop in the morning in celebration of the International Day of Peace that is sponsored by the United Nations. Afterwards, a group of about 55 people made their way into Manhattan for a tour of the U.N. and an enjoyable day in NYC. A wonderful big group turned out and we were even able to see part of The People’s Climate March where almost 400,000 people came together in peace to shine a spotlight on environmental issues ahead of the U.N. Climate Summit that began today. Afterwards, the energy was so powerful and exciting that I practically sprinted to Grand Central Station. I was so happy! I felt so blessed to be able to share the wonderful art of meditation, the art of return, to a big, diverse group of people. I felt with life and in perfect agreement with it.
I took my seat on Metro North, began to search for my book in my Nun’s bag and I realized I had been pickpocketed! The envelope with all the money that had come to me in that beautiful spirit of dana (generosity) was gone! In an instant I felt bereft. The city had been beautiful and full of light and now it was all in darkness…..hurt, battled with rage and even embarrassment. Years ago, my cousin had been pick pocketed and she shouted on a subway after she discovered she was robbed: “I’m a life long New Yorker! I was born here!” As though only tourists deserve to be robbed.
Then hurt and self-pity took over. All that effort….I had planned to use the dana to support the apple picking event that is held with a local orphanage…only to have the dana snatched from me! I began to tell myself about how unfair it was, how cursed I was….WAIT…what was I saying to myself? The awareness seeped in that I had been teaching all day….all week….just about most of my adult life….about the way spiritual practice allows you to be with life as it arises, about the way it allows you to find a freedom and happiness that isn’t welded to what is happening.
Practice opens up the space between stimulus and response….from the minute level of stimulus that is constantly streaming in (car horns, sirens, indigestion), to the macro level of robberies, floods, Academy Award nominations or bad reviews. The movement of return, of recollection, of breathing and sensation helps us remember that we have a choice. I realized that I couldn’t change what happened….life is quite surprising, in spite of our best efforts. Yet, I didn’t have to go into a story about it. I could choose not to believe I was cursed or assign blame or any of the rest of it. I did not have to make an identity out of it. I could simply relate to it as something that happened. Before it happened, I had been soaring along, with life. Was I not still with life?
Whoosh….in flowed a vibrancy and light and freedom. I saw that things happen.
I once had the strangely unique experience of having my monastic badges, driver’s license and malas stolen during a retreat in monastery. Reporting the theft to a State Trooper so I could get a new driver’s license, I mused to him that what was so strange was that the theft happened at a place where nothing bad ever happened. He looked at me as if I had just dropped in from Mars. Good and bad things happen everywhere. Life goes up and down. The gift of spiritual practice is that our deeper peace and happiness, our sense of connectedness to a greater whole, doesn’t depend on what happens. It gives us a capacity to open to a deeper truth, a greater whole.
Later on Sunday evening, I looked up the word “bereft,” and discovered that it comes from a root that literally means to be robbed or have something snatched from you….not just money or property but deeper qualities like dignity, freedom, happiness. This is what injustice feels like, I realized. This is what many beings feel every day. Bereft. I also realized that the feeling among the group of us….the feeling of mutual dana or generosity…..could not be stolen. This is not hippy delusion….if we are a little bit more free inside, we can see more.
When something shocking or upsetting happens, when loss or blame….or wild good fortune happens….where do you turn? If you are like me, there are favorite stories you can slip into like old sweaters, cozy but ugly…..stories about being unlucky or unloved or cursed. And what is it like to not to put on the sweater of failure? What would it be like to dwell in the space between praise and blame, stimulus and response. To listen to the silence instead of the old stories?