Each of these five reflections can be a meditation in itself.
Now, based on what line of reasoning should one often reflect that ‘I am subject to aging, have not gone beyond aging’? There are beings who are intoxicated with a [typical] youth’s intoxication with youth. Because of that intoxication with youth, they conduct themselves in a bad way in body… in speech… and in mind. But when they often reflect on that fact, that youth’s intoxication with youth will either be entirely abandoned or grow weaker…
We may not think of ourselves as being “intoxicated” with youth, but most of us are to some extent, and this causes us suffering. Few of us haven’t at some point looked in the mirror, seen the signs of aging, and felt a sense almost of personal failure. It’s as if we think that because we’re getting older something is wrong.
And we probably remember (or recognize, if we are younger) that sense of superiority we experienced when we compared the vigor and wellbeing of our youthful state to those who are older and less able, as if youth was an achievement rather than something that had been thrust upon us.
Those are all signs of intoxication with youth.
So we need to reflect — in meditation and outside of meditation, whether we are younger or showing signs of age — that all are subject to old age.
Now, based on what line of reasoning should one often reflect that ‘I am subject to illness, have not gone beyond illness’? There are beings who are intoxicated with a [typical] healthy person’s intoxication with health. Because of that intoxication with health, they conduct themselves in a bad way in body… in speech… and in mind. But when they often reflect on that fact, that healthy person’s intoxication with health will either be entirely abandoned or grow weaker…
I think that with regard to the word “intoxication” here we could more think in terms of “taking for granted.”
We tend to take good health for granted, and we think it’s a betrayal of fate when we get ill. Often, especially in the West, we assume that health is some kind of “right” or even an inherent quality that we possess. So we feel free to eat junk food and not exercise and think that somehow we’re special and that we can get away with these actions.
And sometimes those who do pursue a healthy diet and who exercise regularly do so in a rather neurotic and desperate way — as if those actions offer some kind of magical protection from ill-health. But the very desperation involved in acting this way can itself bring on ill health. Worrying about your health makes you unhealthy!
Ill health is unavoidable. It comes to us all. It’s not a sign of failure or punishment, but simply something that happens. This doesn’t mean that we should be fatalistic about ill-health. It’s wise to set up a lifestyle that supports a healthy body and mind. But we shouldn’t become intoxicated with the idea that swallowing pills or eating food that boasts health-claims on the packaging will magically offer protection.
Now, based on what line of reasoning should one often reflect that ‘I am subject to death, have not gone beyond death’? There are beings who are intoxicated with a [typical] living person’s intoxication with life. Because of that intoxication with life, they conduct themselves in a bad way in body… in speech… and in mind. But when they often reflect on that fact, that living person’s intoxication with life will either be entirely abandoned or grow weaker…
Of course we all “know” that we’re going to die, but at the same time we don’t really “know” this. In other words we have an intellectual understanding of the fact, but we don’t grasp it on a more experiential level. It’s often only when we have a brush with death or when someone we know dies that it comes home to us that death is not only inevitable but also unpredictable.
When we’re close to death we often have a shift of perspective. Around the time of a funeral we may experience a much stronger sense of appreciation for those we’re close too. Aren’t we lucky we have them? Aren’t we lucky we’re here to be able to appreciate them, that they’re here for us to appreciate? Life is full of appreciation and love. And then we forget and things go back to gray-normal.
Reflecting on our own and others’ impermanence can help to make that sense of appreciation more of a part of daily life. And we can do this both inside and outside of our meditation practice. We can do it in the metta bhavana (development of lovingkindness) practice, where we can experience the preciousness of the connections that we have with others. One careless step while crossing the road, one cosmic ray ripping apart a strand of DNA, and they, or we, may be gone.
Now, based on what line of reasoning should one often reflect that ‘I will grow different, separate from all that is dear and appealing to me’? There are beings who feel desire and passion for the things they find dear and appealing. Because of that passion, they conduct themselves in a bad way in body… in speech… and in mind. But when they often reflect on that fact, that desire and passion for the things they find dear and appealing will either be entirely abandoned or grow weaker…
Everything arises and passes. Things arise and pass. People arise and pass. Relationships arise and pass.
Unless we recognize this, we suffer. Things change, and we find ourselves torn apart inside.
The text here is not advocating that we should not care. It’s talking about a different way of caring — a way that is non-attached. The problem is that we’re often attached to things and to other people. We see our happiness as depending upon them, and so we don’t want them to change. When they do change (a car gets scratched, an iPod breaks down, a child goes off to college, a spouse wants to go away on retreat for a week) we feel threatened and insecure.
Meditating and reflecting upon the universality of change can help free us up from our attachments. Paradoxically, this can help us to love and appreciate others more. We can concentrate more on the wonderful growth that a child will experience at college than on our personal loss of contact with them. We can appreciate and rejoice in the benefits that a spouse will experience on retreat rather than mourning the inconvenience and difficulty of having them away for a week.
Now, based on what line of reasoning should one often reflect that ‘I am the owner of my actions (kamma), heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir’? There are beings who conduct themselves in a bad way in body… in speech… and in mind. But when they often reflect on that fact, that bad conduct in body, speech, and mind will either be entirely abandoned or grow weaker…
We’re responsible for our own actions, and we inherit the consequences of our actions. Buddhist practice teaches that actions based on delusion, attachment, and ill will lead to suffering for ourselves. Other people will probably suffer from those kinds of actions as well, of course. We call these kinds of actions “unskillful” rather than “wrong” or “evil.”
On the other hand the more our actions are based on mindful awareness, lovingkindness, and equanimity, the more we will experience well-being and happiness. Acting in this way is known as “skillfulness.”
The thrust of this sutta is that it becomes increasingly natural to act skillfully (i.e. acting on the basis of equanimity, lovingkindness, and mindful awareness) the more we contemplate our own and others’ impermanence. Life is short, relationships are fragile and precious. Let’s make the most of what we have.
Now, a disciple of the noble ones considers this: ‘I am not the only one subject to aging, who has not gone beyond aging. To the extent that there are beings — past and future, passing away and re-arising — all beings are subject to aging, have not gone beyond aging.’ When he or she often reflects on this, the [factors of the] path take birth. He or she sticks with that path, develops it, cultivates it. As he or she sticks with that path, develops it and cultivates it, the fetters are abandoned, the obsessions destroyed.
We don’t of course stop with reflecting on our own impermanence, but consider that impermanence affects everyone. And it’s not made very explicit in this sutta, but this can lead to a powerful sense of compassion for others. We look at others suffering as a result of their own unskillful actions — their unskilled attempts to deal with their own pain — and instead of judging them we feel compassionate empathy with them.
This sutta contains five reflections that the Buddha suggested should be cultivated by all spiritual practitioners. These are reflections that we can call to mind in meditation — especially in lovingkindness meditation — but we can also bring them into our everyday life.
Every time we experience a tug of attachment or the fires of anger starting to flare up, we can reflect that life is short and that all beings are destined to grow old and die. And we can then take a more compassionate view of them, and support their underlying drives for wholeness and happiness.