Impermanence and the Five Remembrances

Spring was a while ago in Michigan and summers usually arrive here in full force, but I want the season to change slowly. It moves too fast. From one day to the next, morning to evening, there are changes in the trees, the flowers, and the grass.  Everything sprouts—too fast and then in the fall the colors change too fast.  I want it to slow down so I can really take it in, enjoy it more.

We had a lot of rain this past spring which is typical for spring and fall in Michigan.  I think of it as greening up the land, bringing it back to life after a long, hard winter, and soaking the land with water in preparation for a long dormant period.  A long, last drink.

 I can’t hold back time. I can’t slow it down.  But I want to.  Life is coming back to the land so fast.  I want to enjoy it all—every bit of it.

If that isn’t an example of impermanence and wanting, I don’t know what is!  

It reminds me of the 5 Remembrances.  It’s been decades since I first heard about them. They encompass all of life.  I tried to memorize the 5, but there was always one that I couldn’t recall no matter how hard I tried.  I remembered the rest, but #4 hung me up.  Here’s one description: 

  1. I am subject to aging.  There is no way to avoid aging.
  2. I am subject to ill health.  There is no way to avoid illness.
  3. I am going to die.  There is no way to avoid death. 
  4. This is one I couldn’t remember. The last part was my greatest fear.  Everyone and everything that I love will change and I will be separated from them.  Phew.  They will die or I will. Either way, I’ll be faced with grief and loss.  That’s a tough one for me.
  5. My only true possessions are my actions and I cannot escape their consequences. I’ve heard it also as, “My actions are the ground upon which I stand,” which I think is a little clearer.

The first three are in the story where the Buddha met a sick person, an old person, and saw a dead person on the road after leaving his palace.

The Buddha told his disciples to contemplate these 5, wrestle with the feelings that come, and eventually stop seeing them as enemies. Make friends with them.

Pema Chodron said, “our suffering is based so much on our fear of impermanence.  It is the essence of everything.” She adds that people have no respect for impermanence.  Impermanence is one of the crucial teachings of the Buddha. Do you think there is anything in your life that is permanent?

These 5 Remembrances are found in the Upajjhatthana Sutra (in the Anguttara Nikaya).  Thich Nhat Hanh said that even though they sound depressing, we “shouldn’t suppress this reality but should acknowledge our frailty and impermanence.” Our vulnerability.

Statements like these are often made to sound as if it’s easy but really it’s a long process, a lifelong process.

Which one is the hardest for you to take in? To remember?  What happens when you contemplate any one of these?  Have your feelings changed over time?

Accepting the notion of losing everyone and everything as an an abstract concept is different than when I think of someone in particular—one of my children, a grandchild, or one special person.  That makes it more real and scary and difficult to contemplate.

As I sat with these, I saw a churning, fast river in my mind’s eye, winding its way to the horizon. There were cliffs on either side of the river slowly rising higher into the air, at an angle away from the river. There were beautiful colors of dark purple, yellow, red, and orange on the cliffs surrounding the river. But what I noticed most of all was how fast the river was moving.  It was bubbling, foaming, and roaring.  

Here it was, time. I can’t stop time; I can’t stop the river.  I feel myself wanting to or at least to slow it way down. A futile attempt, I know.  I don’t even know how I would stop time but I want to because it’s so beautiful and I want to savor every new sprout of leafor flower, every bit of color.

What would it feel like to let myself be in the river and go as fast as the river wants? Just float along.  Could I relax and feel the river?  Is there excitement there too? Not just fear? 

Pema Chodron encourages us to step into the flow of experience of impermanence.  Seeing one thing arise and then disappear as if it’s gone forever.  We certainly can see it in our meditation and in reflection.  We can see how we have or have not stepped into the flow of experience, how and when we hold onto some things and avoid others.

In my walks in nature, I can see the flow of experience more clearly because every step is new, someplace I’ve never gone before, or at least not today.  Every line of sight is different, nature is constantly moving, shifting. What do you think about this?

Photo by he zhu on Unsplash

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