Updated: Apr 20, 2020
When Buddhist teachers are asked to sum up the essence of their tradition in one word or phrase, the most common response is, “Everything changes.” In the set of teachings called the Four Reminders, or the Four Thoughts That Turn the Mind, this truth is on the list along with the fleeting preciousness of human life, the inexorability of cause and effect, and the inevitability of suffering in this conditioned existence we find ourselves in.
Buddhists contemplate these four basic truths over and over again to turn their minds toward them instead of dwelling in more habitual avoidance tactics. To paraphrase the contemplation on impermanence: “The life of beings is like a bubble/ Death comes without warning, this body will be a corpse/ At that time the truth will be my only support/ I must exert myself to realize this.”
One of my teachers called these four contemplations “the facts of life.” They’re not religious beliefs we have to take on faith; they’re just true. Our lives are enriched if we look straight at them.
The contemplation on death doesn’t just refer to personal death but to the impermanence of everything. Nothing lasts forever, as it is. From the moment we’re conceived until the moment we die, our bodies are growing and changing on every level. This is fine with us until we turn the corner into aging, and then there is a fearful sense of impending loss of health and life.
Seasons come and go, our loved ones and acquaintances depart, objects we love are broken, lost, or abandoned when we die. Even mountains and solar systems don’t last forever. And today we’re experiencing more personally how societies as we know them are temporary; whether they last for a generation, a few hundred years, or a few thousand years, they all will eventually change into something else before they disappear altogether, leaving at best some archeological mysteries which themselves will eventually dissolve.
This is the time we’re in now, a painful awakening to the inevitability of the loss of our world as we knew it. We privileged ones wrongly believed that we were secure in at least some things, like the ability to see our friends and relatives, go shopping, and live on our savings. Those of us with the luxury of safety, an internet connection, electricity and water, and enough money to at least survive for the time being can still, even with our deep feelings of sadness and loss, be complacent about the preciousness of these things. But we should stay alert, because everything changes.
In the midst of this, though, it’s obvious that human beings share a deep sense of connection and an inherent urge not only to survive but to be creative and connect with each other. Sometimes this gets covered over by greed, aggression, and other fear-base diseases, both personal and societal. But we can look for the goodness in ourselves and in each other, and realize more and more how disasters bind us together and remind us of our common humanity.
In this time of fearful sadness and uncertainty, you can contemplate what you have and what you do that brings you some energy and joy. You can be deliberately kind, which lifts you out of your negative story and reminds you of your own strength and power to help someone else feel better. You can think of the things and people you have and realize your good fortune and gratitude. You can turn your mind toward the eternal truth of human goodness.
This isn’t done to cover over the pain of change, but to shift attention from dwelling only on negativity. There is another story; there is more to reality than badness. And as Dr. Martin Luther King said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy." In this traumatic time, we can remember to celebrate the goodness of ourselves and our fellow sentient beings.
[Enjoy the French translation by Laurence Francville: https://www.laurencefrancqueville.com/limpermanence-et-lhomme-moderne/?fbclid=IwAR0X6-1uupV5qZXd2DCwWwFPSo1GTYHG_CUtC5r_SsNVjHlWOjKiOdqfgA4]