All human beings should try to learn before they die what they are running from, and to, and why. ~ James Thurber
We know we’re mortal, but we don’t really think about it. Some might even say that many of us are in denial. What does denial of our own mortality look like? One hallmark is a preoccupation with things that don’t matter -- materialism, appearances, holding grudges, seeking praise or mindless pleasures. Another sign may be a sense of injustice and shock about the death, or impending death, of those you know -- even though an average of 151,600 people die each day.
Why does death offend us when it is everyone’s shared fate? Why do we believe the timing of it is so important? Perhaps it is because we believe we are entitled to a life according to plan, even though, again, we can see all around us that no one lives a life free of chaos and randomness.
There are some benefits to contemplating our mortality. According to this Eastern Washington University and Hofstra University study, found those who contemplate death are more grateful about life and the things they have.
Tibetan Buddhist tradition also believes these reflections offer us a better and more fulfilling life. Called the Four Reminders, meditation on these life realities serves to turn the mind to a more cosmic perspective.
Here is a summary of the The Four Reminders and what they can teach us:
Reminder One: Life is Precious
While at first glance this may seem to be about holding on to what you have, it is actually an acknowledgement of blessings and a nod to the miraculous reality that is life. You’re on a planet that sustains life embedded as a speck within a galaxy that is one of one hundred billion galaxies in the observable universe. Think that over for a moment.
Next consider the time in which you live and the resources and opportunities you have. If you are not struggling to eat, running from war, and have basic health and mental capabilities, then your gratitude journal is already full for the day before you even begin to add loved ones and sunshine into the mix.
Reminder Two: Everything Ends
It’s all impermanent. Every single thing you love and treasure will turn back to dust and earth eventually -- your beliefs will become irrelevant, you body gone, your house crumbled, your loved ones dead and your existence erased. Even the most famous among us will not stay in the collective memory of humanity forever. Now consider that you KNOW this on an essential level and yet you act, every day, as if you’ll live for years and years. How many of us waste copious amounts of time and energy on things that are irrelevant?
Reminder Three: Karma or Cause & Effect
According to Gaia theory, “organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings to form synergistic self-regulating, complex system that helps to maintain and perpetuate the conditions for life on the planet.” The example often given is that a butterfly wing may spin a hurricane into motion.
On a personal level, this means you have no idea the effect you have on the world around you, but everything you do has consequences, even if you never see them. Understanding this, should call us to be intentional with what we do and say. Because each of these things influences the world and our own lives in unknown and potentially significant ways moving forward.
Reminder Four: Samsara or Stop Reacting to Everything
Your body aches, you’re growing older, your loved ones are sad and sick. All of this is unavoidable. Take that in for a minute. Suffering is unavoidable. Now certainly you can bring more suffering upon yourself by your actions, (see Reminder Three), but the suffering embedded within the human condition is a constant -- simply because everything is impermanent (See Reminder Two).
What can be done? Nothing can be done with the circumstances of life itself. The only thing that can be “done” is the shift in perspective within to cultivate well being aside from circumstance. As a perceivable action, this means we need to stop reacting emotionally to every hardship that comes our way. This is possible if one has a higher up, more cosmic perspective.
If you’ve spent time in the morning considering the real miracle of your healthy existence, which, due to its impermanent nature, may be snuffed out today, will you really be upset that someone ate the apple you left in the work fridge?
We’ll leave you with this great Faulkner quote about life and death from his book, As I Lay Dying: “I can remember how when I was young I believed death to be a phenomenon of the body; now I know it to be merely a function of the mind — and that of the minds who suffer the bereavement. The nihilists say it is the end; the fundamentalists, the beginning; when in reality it is no more than a single tenant or family moving out of a tenement or a town.”