In learning to experience deep peace in the face of impermanence, we need to consider not just our inner experience, as I did yesterday, but our very lives, and the lives of those around us. Life is short; we all face loss.
These things aren’t really different from what I was discussing yesterday, since it’s our inner feelings about changes in the world that we largely have to deal with, but the same situations can be looked at from different perspectives. When we’re actually experiencing loss, instability, and change, we can work on accepting the the feelings that arise with equanimity. But we can also prepare ourselves philosophically for painful changes that may happen in the future by reflecting on their inevitability. And this is a technique that the Buddha encouraged.
In the Pāli canon there is a set of five remembrances that help us to recollect that change, loss, and death are not unusual events, but are woven into the very fabric of existence.
These remembrances are:
- I am sure to become old; I cannot avoid ageing.
- I am sure to become ill; I cannot avoid illness.
- I am sure to die; I cannot avoid death.
- I must be separated and parted from all that is dear and beloved to me.
- I am the owner of my actions, heir of my actions, actions are the womb (from which I have sprung), actions are my relations, actions are my protection. Whatever actions I do, good or bad, of these I shall become their heir.
These five reflections are then placed in a more universal context, so that the first one, for example, becomes:
I am not the only one who is subject to old age, not exempt from old age. All beings that come and go, that pass away and undergo rebirth, are subject to old age; none are exempt from old age.
All five reflections are seen in this universal light; all beings are subject not only to old age, but to illness, death, and to separation. And all beings are owners of their actions (karma).
And these, the Buddha said, are remembrances “that should often be reflected upon by a woman or a man, by a householder or one gone forth.” In other words we should all be thinking about this — frequently.
If we do, it does a number of things.
- We’re better prepared for change that might otherwise throw us off-balance. When we’re forewarned, change is disarmed.
- We take change less personally. Often even getting old is taken as a personal affront: as if it’s an error. Surely this wasn’t supposed to happen! But of course it’s a universal fact. When we’re young we may look at the elderly and feel a degree of contempt, as if their age was a sign they’d failed. Actually, the fact they’re around is a sign they’ve succeeded, in a way; as they say, getting old is no fun, but it beats the alternative.
- We realize we’re not being singled out. Everyone experiences loss. Everyone gets sick. Everyone is going to end up dying. These things are not some judgement the universe is meting out on us as some kind of punishment. All things are of the nature to decay and pass away.
- We feel more sympathy for others. We’re all in it together. Just as I age and grow sick, so do others. The elderly and the chronically sick are simply experiencing now what I am going to experience in the future. Since we’re all equal in this regard, I don’t have to psychically distance myself from others’ suffering. Having compassion for them now, I’m more likely to be able to accept my own suffering when old age, sickness and death strike.
- We’re challenged to take responsibility. The Buddha’s saying: “Life is short: you’re responsible for what you do with it. Now what?” When we consider our own mortality, life becomes more precious, and it becomes more important to live meaningfully and with compassion.
As a result of all this reflection, our minds become more deeply imbued with peace. We live in peace, able to be equanimous in the face of difficulties. But this is all upekkha in a more everyday sense of “bearing difficulty non-reactively,” which is not upekkha as a brahmavihara. Where upekkha as a brahmavihara steps in is where we compassionately and lovingly wish that all beings come to terms with impermanence, that all beings be able to develop calm, and peace, that all beings awaken from the dream that impermanence bypass us.
This is the dream of denial and delusion and clinging:
To beings subject to aging there comes the desire: ‘O might we not be subject to aging, and aging not come to us…’ To beings subject to disease there comes the desire: ‘O might we not be subject to disease and disease not come to us…’ To beings subject to death there comes the desire: ‘O might we not be subject to death and death not come to us…’
Resisting impermanence in this way simply increases our suffering. Not only do we have to face loss and change, but we have to face the disappointment of our clinging coming to nothing. Accepting impermanence helps us to experience peace; and when we wish that others too accept impermanence and experience peace, that is the brahmavihara of upekkha.
May all beings be free from delusion and clinging. May all beings accept impermanence. May all beings awaken. May all beings live in peace.
PS. You can see all our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.