One translation of the Pali word for mindfulness (sati) is memory or recollection. The five remembrances from the Upajjhatthana Sutta of the Tipitaka (a collection of texts forming the doctrinal foundation of Theravada Buddhism from which modern mindfulness practices emerged) are facts we can reflect upon regularly to help us overcome confusion, attachment, and harmful thought, speech and action. They are inescapable truths about life that we often ignore or try to forget:
- I am subject to growing old. I cannot avoid aging.
- I am subject to ill health. I cannot avoid sickness.
- I am subject to dying. I cannot avoid death.
- I will eventually be separated from everything I hold dear.
- I am owner of and heir to my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.
The first four remembrances remind us of impermanence and the suffering that comes from attachment and aversion. We come to understand that life is fleeting, we cannot avoid all painful experiences, and any happiness we try to grasp through striving after or clinging to the external will eventually change or end, resulting in dissatisfaction. Through this understanding, we begin to realize that it is only in cultivating certain internal factors that true and lasting happiness may arise.
The fifth remembrance reminds us of the importance of living in congruence with our highest values. The harmful actions we commit, even if they don’t come directly back like a boomerang to haunt us, ultimately impact our internal experience. We become what we practice, strengthening the neural pathways and habit patterns associated with our behavioral tendencies. Do harm and marinate in anger, greed, jealousy, doubt or fear. Do good and cultivate an internal environment of compassion, kindness, courage, patience and peace.
It is also helpful to reflect upon the fact that all people are subject to these experiences. This is our common humanity and a great equalizer. It is through this knowledge of our interconnection that we see the ultimate happiness of one depends upon the happiness of all. How can we be truly happy when we know others are suffering? And as the saying goes, “Hurting people hurt people.” We cannot completely escape the harmful consequences of others unskillful actions that ripple out and touch us. Understanding this motivates us to act for the benefit of all beings including ourselves.
When we remember these truths frequently, we are more prepared for change and we accept it as inevitable, impersonal, and universal. This cultivates equanimity (calm amidst difficulty), increases compassion for self and others, and causes us take more responsibility for what we think, say and do.
There is only one mistake you are making:
you take the inner for the outer and outer for the inner.
What is in you, you take to be outside you
and what is outside, you take to be in you.
The mind and feelings are external,
but you take them to be intimate.
You believe the world to be objective,
while it is entirely a projection of your psyche.
That is the basic confusion . . .
– Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, I Am That