Is the rainbow more beautiful than a bouquet of flowers? We tend to hold our attention more on the rainbow than a flower – is this because we know that the rainbow could disappear at any moment, whereas you can walk by the beautiful flower again?
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali writes that ignorance, or avidya, is one of the root causes of suffering. The ignorance Patanjali refers to is less a lack of knowledge and more to do with a denying of reality. We may intellectually know that all things change, yet we desperately deny this truth.
Contemplation of the Five Remembrances, Buddha’s teaching on impermanence, aging, health, change, and death offers to awaken us from denial and to cultivate gratitude and appreciation for life. When we think of it this way, this 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. When we accept impermanence as more than a philosophical concept, we can see the truth of it as it manifests itself in our minds, bodies, environments, and relationships, and you will be much less likely to take anything for granted.
The Five Remembrances Meditation
1. I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
2. I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.
3. I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
4. 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.
5. My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.
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 we try to live as if they don’t.
Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh invites us to hug our loved ones 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.” Do this each time your partner or children leave for work or school. 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 meditation helps you respond more skillfully with awareness.
The truth of impermanence shouldn’t depress you; it should free you to be fully present. When you really see that all things change, your grasping and clinging fade under the bright light of awareness.
“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 Buddha