Maintain Awareness of the Basics

Practice of the Week
Maintain Awareness of the Basics:
The Truths of Life, Death, Actions, and Suffering

Category: SLOGANS TO LIVE BY: These are for everyone. Carry these reminders at all times. These practices don't require setting aside a separate substantial chunk of time -- but they will slow you down a bit (and that's a good thing.) Resolve to get stronger at living by these maxims, day by day. Sometimes make one of them the focus of your daily journaling.

If you really take these points seriously, if you think about them long enough and hard enough to see how true they really are, it will change your outlook on life, and you will have found the motivation to begin again.

1. The rarity and preciousness of human life

There are more than seven billion human beings on planet Earth, and this seems like a lot. But maybe not. Earth also contains many other living creatures. For instance, every human body is host to trillions of living beings -- various kinds of bacteria, mites, and other microscopic creatures that are, in their time and space scale, just as alive and just as vivid as we are in ours. There are also many other larger creatures we can see and relate to. The number of ants alone, in their various species, is incomparably larger than seven billion, not to mention all the other sorts of insects and other animals that exist in the air and water and on land. You would have to pick over trillions upon trillions of living creatures before you would find one that was human. And this calculation only involves the planet Earth, this tiny water-and soil-laced planet spinning around a small star within a vast universe. Human life is not only, as we would all agree anyway, precious and sacred and not to be taken lightly; it is also, in the grand scheme of things, unbelievably rare.

Having received this rare and precious gift, how is it that up to now you haven't thought about the best and highest way of fulfilling your human purpose, you haven't resolved to go beyond your self-centeredness and self-concern so that you can begin to manifest wisdom and compassion -- or whatever you consider to be the highest of human purposes? Considering deeply the preciousness of human life, you feel inspired to begin to do something more with your life.

The next three points are also awesome, but less pleasant to think about.

2. The absolute inevitability of death

Most of us somehow believe that we are the sole exception to the otherwise universal rule that all living creatures die. If asked we will answer that yes, we do understand that we will die, but in our heart of hearts, in our thoughts and feelings, we don't really believe it.

Check yourself sometime during the day and ask yourself honestly whether right now, in this moment, you truly believe that you are going to die. The likelihood is that you would have to answer no. At that moment, you do not really believe it, you feel as if you are here and are always going to be here.

Yet the reality of death is the most important factor of every moment of our lives, because it is thanks to death that we can cross over from one moment to the next. If this moment doesn't die, totally disappearing, we can't have the next moment. So loss and death are facts of life every moment. But one day one of those moments will not be succeeded by another moment of your experience.

One of the disturbing things about this moment is that you never know when it will come. Most of us believe we don't have to worry about this moment because death comes in old age, and since we are not now so old, it's not a problem for us. But death doesn't come only in old age; it comes at any age, and nobody knows when. And even if it were to come in old age, old age comes much more quickly than you thought it would: you were young, you blinked your eyes, thirty or forty years flew by, and now you are no longer young. How did that happen all of a sudden?

Time -- as it is lived and experienced -- speeds up with age and the accumulation of experience. This means that if you are thirty, your life is much more than a third gone: it is maybe 80 percent gone. If you are fifty, it is 95 percent gone. There's not nearly as much time left as you thought there was.

This is a serious problem, and it's a problem now, not later. We ought to recognize that we are in an urgent situation. We have much less time left than we thought, and we have no idea when our lives will end, so it is important that right now we turn our attention to what really matters, that we don't waste time.

3. The awesome and indelible power of our actions

Each of our actions produces a result. Every action, both large and small -- all of our thoughts, words, and deeds -- have consequences. We may never know the measure of those consequences though they are extensive and powerful. Every moment so far in our lives, we have been affecting the world in some subtle yet real way; every moment, we have been participating in creating the world that now exists for ourselves and others. Everything in our lives is important. Everything matters. There are no trivial throwaway moments.

Most of us think of ourselves as rather inconsequential people. We don't take our own power very seriously. Maybe we think the people we read about in newspapers are important, but we are not important. But this is not so. The actions, thoughts, and words of each of us are important. All of us together are making the world. So we have to ask ourselves: "How am I living? What kind of actions am I taking? Am I a force for good in the world or am I just another person doing nothing to help and therefore making things worse?"

If we ask these questions seriously, we will have to conclude that we can do much, much better and that we have to do better -- that there is no excuse not to and that to do better is an urgent necessity.

4. The inescapability of suffering

Although we don't like to think about it, sorrow and suffering are inevitable in any human life, even a happy one. There's the suffering of loss, of disappointment, of disrespect; the suffering of physical pain, illness, old age; the suffering of broken relationships, of wanting something badly and not being able to have it, or not wanting something and being stuck with it. There's the inevitable suffering of painful, afflictive emotions, like jealousy, grief, anger, hatred, confusion, anguish -- all kinds of emotions that cause suffering. These things are part of life. No one can avoid suffering.

Given that this is so, how can we not take our lives in hand and make a serious effort to develop wisdom, compassion, and resilience? How can we not prepare our minds and hearts for the inevitable suffering that we are going to be facing?

We have insurance for our car or home because we know we need to protect ourselves from the possibility of accident and loss. We go to the doctor because we know our health requires protection. Why then would we not think to guard and strengthen our mind and heart to cope with the suffering that certainly will be coming in some measure at some time? How can we have been so foolish as to have ignored this necessity for so long?


To think long and hard on these four points, first read about them. Second, read about them again and again. Third, write them down and think about them. Fourth, journal about them. Fifth, continue to bring them up in your meditation practice or other times set aside for personal reflection.

Thinking long and hard on these four points will cause you to appreciate the seriousness of our condition and recognize that we have to live as seriously as we possibly can in response to the gift and the problem that is our life.

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