I began a weekly sitting meditation class during my freshman year of college. I’d love to tell you I was instantly hooked, but I wasn’t. I have difficulty focusing even on things that excite me, so trying to focus on a repeated count of ten and my breath without moving for twenty minutes was anything but easy. For a while, I felt like meditating simply wasn’t possible for me.
I was anxious and my thoughts were clouded. Freshman year was both difficult and exciting, as I think most people can attest to. I was taking little time for myself, constantly pinballing back and forth between classes, social engagements, activities and group projects. Sitting for twenty minutes initially seemed like a waste of my time. It was easier to float along and disconnect from myself, never taking the time to brake and assess my well-being.
I got it eventually, once I really dedicated myself to meditating correctly (our meditation leader would hate reading that – he always said there was no correct way to meditate), but it certainly took time and a conscious commitment to self improvement. There was, however, something that resonated with me immediately.
Each day before we rang the bell, started the timer and began trying to focus on the sensation of our breath, we would read a set of truths from the Buddhist tradition called “The Five Remembrances.” The version we’d say goes like this:
I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.
I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
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.
My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.
I remember the words unsettling me at first. It isn’t pleasant to think about growing old, being sick, dying and being separated from everything you love and on top of that, being unable to control any of it. When you look at it from that bare-bones perspective, it’s pretty dark.
But I love it for several reasons, one of them being because it is inherently unsettling to think of one’s mortality. It’s easy to pretend that none of those things mentioned exist and to live like we’re invincible. Many young people do. It takes a lot of courage to accept the things above as true.
However unnerving to think about everything the teaching lists, there’s something very calming about it. Because there’s nothing we can do to control or escape any of these things, we shouldn’t spend too much time worrying about them. Worrying is a waste of energy.
It also teaches about being present. These things will all happen and they are all unpleasant to experience. But for now, we must appreciate our current state and the people we love who are with us. We know that these things will all happen in the future and we accept them, and through this acceptance are able to greater appreciate all we do have.
There are several instances in my life when “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.” has provided great comfort. It’s always very difficult for me to adjust to new stages in my life, to people leaving or fading out of my life and having to redefine what my life looks like as it naturally evolves. The Five Remembrances reminds me that the changes in my life are normal and everyone is of the nature to evolve and grow which sometimes means they move on. This is all okay. It’s simply what happens.
The final piece of the passage seems to deviate from the rest. Whereas the first few sentences focus on how the positive things in our lives are transient, the last places an emphasis on action. It gives you back some of the control you’ve relinquished by being a mortal human being. It says you will suffer and the good things will go away and there’s nothing you can do about any of that but there are some things you can control.
You can control who you are, and your actions are what ultimately define you. My actions are my only belongings, it reads. We often think about ourselves in terms of what we have or what we’ve achieved. Who we truly are lies in what we do and the impact our choices make. Everything else is transient and will someday lose value.
I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. The consequences of your actions, whether positive or negative, always materialize in some way. Whether a small action, like smiling at someone at the grocery store or a large action, like dedicating your life to charity work, the repercussions of your actions will be felt whether visibly or invisibly.
My actions are the ground upon which I stand. This reiterates the sentiment in a powerful way. Not only are your actions the only things that belong to you, they are what makes you who you are. Your actions advocate for you (or against you) more than flashy possessions, trophies, and social status ever could.
It’s easy to get caught up in the things in life that don’t truly matter. I try to recall the Five Remembrances every day in an effort to stay grounded, present and positive. As they’ve helped me through so many difficult times in my life, they provide a reminder that some things are inescapable but that we fully own our actions, so we always have control over who we are.