Continuing with some thoughts on the Five Remembrances in post 202:
For any concept to truly influence our worldview and how we live, it must go beyond the idea stage and be integrated into our very being. So it is with the Remembrances. We begin by trying to be mindful of them throughout our day, trying on the concepts and (per the Buddha’s instructions), testing them in the laboratory of our own experience. Gradually we see evidence of all five. We also begin to increase our understanding of the subtler aspects, including our aversion and fear.
It can take many years of practice to overcome aversion and fear, particularly to the big D (Death happens to others, not to me). Once I was practicing on retreat with a woman who I’d judge to be in her 70s at the time. She was utterly terrified of dying and her fear and aversion were palpable. In the Buddha’s time, his practice was to send his monks to the charnal grounds to spend time contemplating the dead in various stages of decomposition. In his wisdom, the Buddha understood that feeding aversion only makes it grow from a tiny cloud to a towering thunderhead. He understood well that the best way to overcome fear and aversion is to turn and face it full on. The allegory of Mara’s legions on the night of his awakening speaks to sitting still in the face of horrible and scary sights and sounds and simply being with them–without being overwhelmed by them.
In our culture, it is difficult to find examples of death to contemplate. We know (at least intellectually) that people, pets, and all we cherish changes form and eventually dies or disappears. We don’t like to think about the fact that no matter what we do to keep our bodies young, fit and beautiful, sooner or later, they age and die. We try to preserve bodies through embalming and other methods for….what?….future use? In Tibet, it was considered a final act of compassion to allow ones body to be consumed by other beings…. Interestingly, in Latin cultures among others, the idea of death as a natural continuum of life is more evident and prevalent in their cultural practices than in ours (for an example, see this about eating sugar skulls and the Día de los Muertos – Day of the Dead).
Ultimately, if we truly want to grow in our purification practice, we have to come to terms with the recollection, “I am of the nature to die. Death is unavoidable.” To do that, we have to go beyond concept to an appreciation of aging and death as part of the natural order of things. Instead of avoidance and fear, we welcome them because they make us viscerally understand how precious a birth is and that we have only a limited amount of time to be here in this form.
One of my teachers talks all the time about “practicing as though your hair were on fire.” I didn’t understand this at first and I am still working with this concept in practice. What it suggests is the urgency to make the best use of our time here, particularly in working with subtle defilements like aversions that are deeply buried–it takes time for them to reveal themselves so they can be known. As they rise to awareness and we meet them, with practice, over time, they dissipate like smoke. What eventually replaces the aversion and the anxiety is a sense of ease, a relaxation, a lightness that comes every time we evolve beyond fear to deep acceptance.
Acceptance is not just puny agreement; it means a profound shift in ones state of being. The bedrock of who you think you are shakes and shifts and the tectonic plates move. You learn, for real, that there is nothing solid to attach to–even your “Self.” And there is no solid “I” that says “I’m ok with that.” Although you are…..