Four contemplations that can change your life

There are those moments in life that change everything. That help us find meaning, joy and compassion. Among other things, for me this has been a book – Sophie’s world – and feeling deeply moved the first time I heard about Tibetan refugees & the exile of the Dalai Lama. Recently a former student of mine shared with me that being send home from a schooltrip after misbehaving had made him question what really matters. For others it could be a movie they have watched, a teaching they have heard or a person they have met.

In some ways all these moments are based on chance. For the right thing, to appear to us at the right moment, and taken by us a true sign to change – we are lucky if this happens even once in our lives. As a teenager I often watched, together with a dear friend, the tv-show Joan of Arcadia. In this series the girl Joan promises God to follow His ways. He appears to her in various forms – as a young kid, homeless person, elderly lady or passerby. However, she does not always recognize Him directly. She finds herself in all kinds of struggle, till she does – and following His suggestions she see the larger situation and is able to change it for the better. 

The series was based on Catholic faith. Tough I was raised as such, I did not feel Christian in any way. Neither did I start to follow one of the other Abrahamic religions – Judaism & Islam. Nonetheless, I loved the show. The entire idea of being reminded somehow about who we are, and what is the positive thing to do, appealed to me. In a sense I still felt there is something more to the world than what it appears to be, which has made me appreciate the Abrahamic religions up to this day. Later in life I encountered this idea of ‘reminders’ once again when I started to follow a buddhist path. These are the so-called ‘common foundations’. Also known as ‘the four thoughts that turn the mind away from suffering’ (samsara) and towards practicing the buddhist teachings (dharma). 

Message in chalk on pathway at Greenlake, Seattle

It is intriguing that all spiritual traditions seem to have messages in their teachings to help one find their way in life. In Abrahamic religions ‘signs’ are given that are meant to ‘find’, ‘discover’ or ‘connect’ with the divine. The oldest religion in the world, Hinduism, holds that we can learn to see that everything around us reflects our ‘true self’ (Ātman) – indistinct from the ‘supreme spirit’ (Brahman). Clearly there are differences between the traditions, but this notion of ‘being reminded’ might very well point in the same direction: towards a meaningful life in which we experience joy and develop compassion for ourselves & others. 

Another common element seems to be that often we need to suffer tremendously, before we realise that it is time to change our life & society. This can be a pandemic, like with COVID-19, a natural disaster, an economic depression, a war, or some other kind of crisis. For some, this realisation comes too late. Why wait? 

Using the four contemplations in analytical meditation
Whenever I read the four thoughts or contemplations that turn the mind to the dharma I notice some discomfort. A sense of urgency. As if they are pushing me in a particular direction. Which, I guess, is precisely the reason why they are also known as the four reminders. So, what are these common foundations and how can we use them? 

It is helpful to start with the second part of this question. Though just reading them quickly might still have some power, they also soon disappear into thin air. You hardly feel the words. Therefore, they are often practiced in the form of ‘analytical meditation’. This means we use them as an object to reflect upon. This way of contemplating helps us to investigate ourselves and the surrounding world. 

To further their power, it is helpful to do some mindfulness-practice beforehand. Take a few deep breaths for example. Relax. And just follow your breath for a few minutes as it flows naturally. Once you read the words, try not to think too hard or get lost in all kinds of critical analysis. Rather, just let them go through your mind and observe what kind of thoughts & feelings arise. Pay especially attention on what you experience. Let the words sink in. Be open & curious about the way they affect you. Once you have read the common foundations, you can let them go and return to another moment of mindfulness-practice. You can use this method in the same way for any piece of text, a phrase or even one word like ‘God’ or ‘Truth’. 

Message in chalk on pathway at Greenlake, Seattle

Now, what are the four reminders or common foundations? We can find different formulations in the various buddhist traditions. Below is the version as presented by the buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.1These are taken from the website of Andrew Holecek. This wording and his discussion of the four reminders can be found here: https://www.andrewholecek.com/the-four-reminders/. Though the wording below has a long history and we can, thus, trust in its power, at a certain point you might find it helpful to formulate them in your own way. After the more ‘traditional’ version, I will present one I recently put to paper myself. Notice that there are all kinds of buddhist concepts, like ‘impermanence’, that are pointed to. If you are not familiar with those (yet), do not be distracted by them and think you need to figure that out first. Just say them with a sense of openness and curiosity. If you like, you can always do some study later. But really, you do not have to. In some way they are just words. At this point, it is the meaning behind them and your experience that matters most. 

So, after some mindfulness-practice, read each reminder carefully. Take some time, a couple of minutes, before you move on to the next one. Again, once you start reading them, pay attention to your mind and what you experience. At the end, just relax a moment and pay either attention (again) to your breath or just rest openly and see how they affected you. Are you ready?

  1. Contemplate the preciousness of being so free and well favored. This is difficult to gain, easy to lose, now I must do something meaningful.
  2. The whole world and its inhabitants are impermanent. In particular, the life of beings is like a bubble. Death comes without warning, this body will be a corpse. At that time the dharma will be my only help. I must practice it with exertion.
  3. When death comes, I will be helpless. Because I create karma, I must abandon evil deeds and always devote myself to virtuous actions. Thinking this, every day I will examine myself.
  4. The homes, friends, wealth, and comforts of samsara are the constant torment of the three sufferings. Just like a feast before the executioner leads you to your death, I must cut desire and attachment, and attain enlightenment through exertion.

Now, just relax a moment. As said, pay either attention (again) to your breath or just rest openly and see how this exercise has affected you. How are things now

If you found the above wording helpful, just continue to use this. Make sure you do this exercise with this version at least three times. Each time with a curiosity and openness – as if you have not seen them before. After that, you can perhaps formulate your version, which can really help to make them ‘your own’. You can also use the version below, that I wrote. 

  1. The next moment is uncertain. It is foolish to wait. Now I must do something meaningful. 
  2. Life is ever-changing. Death is always near. Make sure you are ready. 
  3. Examine what you think, say and do. It all leaves traces. Act compassionate without limit. 
  4. Cut through all illusions. Leap into the unknown. For the benefit of all beings. 
Message in chalk on pathway at Greenlake, Seattle

If you like to have a little bit more context and other possible translations, you can start with the way they are presented by the Nalanda Translation Committee, which you can find here. Once more, do not get lost in the wording. Certainly do not just believe these reminders. In his book Rebel Buddha, the buddhist teacher Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche reminds the reader of one of the most important teachings given by the historical Buddha, Siddhārtha Gautama. Responding to the question what to believe, the Buddha gave the following advice: 

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. 
Do not believe in anything because it is spoken and rumored by many. 
Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. 
Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. 
Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. 
But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it. 

Taking them to heart
I have no doubt that in other traditions we can find contemplations to keep in mind at all times if we want to live a free and meaningful life. To build a society in which we take care of each other. I happen to be most familiar with the buddhist tradition and have found the four ‘common foundations’ very powerful. One does not need to be a buddhist to experience this. Whatever tradition we practice, or whether we consider ourselves secular, agnostic or what have you. These four contemplations from the buddhist tradition can be of benefit to everyone. If one finds them not helpful, you can forget about them. 

Before doing something else today, you might want to look back at the pictures with the messages in chalk. I recently wrote these on the walking path at Greenlake in Seattle. These are also the four reminders. Can you recognise that? I have the impression they remind us of truths that are not necessarily buddhist, or belonging to any other religion for that matter. The traditional categorisation and phrasing is just the way they have been presented in buddhism for centuries. But their meaning is universal. I have therefore phrased them in such a way that they can appeal to everyone, buddhists and non-buddhist alike. Wishing that they can be of benefit. 

At the moment of writing, we live in a time in which the COVID-19 pandemic is presenting us with a lot of challenges. Seemingly underlining or emphasising the truth of these reminders. As I said in the beginning, the chances that we will dedicate our life to find meaning, joy and compassion are not that big. We can easily slip back again in habits and patterns in our lives that in fact cause suffering and do not bring happiness. 

These ‘truths’, like God in Joan of Arcadia, is always there. The question is whether we see it. Or Him. Or, if you prefer, Her. Once we do, it is important that we, as the Buddha advised, live up to them. That we really take them to heart. Otherwise they are just phrases. Ink on paper. Or digits on our screen. Nothing really changes. Neither should we wait for this change to happen. Sometimes we have this idea a miracle needs to happen or it can wait till tomorrow. But if there is one thing all contemplations point to: there really is no time to waste. So, let’s start now. This very moment. For the benefit of ourselves, and all sentient beings. 

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