The Buddha’s five remembrances, as translated here by Thich Nhat Hanh, can seem grim. The obvious question is, “Why think about things I can’t avoid anyway? Why not just ignore these uncomfortable realities and enjoy life while I can?” But the five remembrances were not designed to make us feel bad. They were designed to help us reach a higher level of consciousness by casting our illusions aside. We will discuss some of the psychological benefits of meditating upon the five remembrances after listing them.
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. (Translation by Thich Nhat Hanh)
I have been thinking about the horror of human mortality a lot lately and about possible therapeutic routes to help people find relief without resorting to the promise of eternal life after death. How can we find peace, hope, and meaning in our lives when faced with the proposition of nothingness, the obliteration of our consciousness when we die?
The five remembrances spurred an interesting idea for me. Here are two questions. Would you rather not have been born at all? Would you rather have been born an organism other than human, not aware of its existential situation? If the answers are no, then implicit in the bargain is the acceptance of growing old, getting sick, eventually losing everyone and everything near and dear to you, and dying. These are inescapable parts of our natures as human beings and without them we would be something other than human. If you made the bargain to be human then you accept what a human is.
Another existential reason to contemplate our mortality once in a while, a reason we have written about in many other places, is that conscious realization of how short life really is makes us consider every moment precious and significant. Our lives take on fuller dimensions and they become more meaningful, not less meaningful, as we realize how little time we have. We try harder to make them special while we have the chance. We stop caring about the trivialities and focus on love, our relationships, and our productive work, on the things that really matter to us.
I love the last 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.’ Our actions, the impressions we make upon others and the world, are what remain of us when we have passed away. They are the ripples that carry on across the lake long after we have made our splash. When we think in this way, we start to worry more about the type of splash we are making, inevitably leading to more fulfilling life choices.
Yes, the five remembrances are grim, and no, it’s not fun thinking about our own demise. But it’s worth it. Taking the time to contemplate our transient natures helps us use the time we do have on this earth wisely.