4 Spiritual Reminders That Will Make Your Life Better
Over the last year, my Buddhist community has been upended due to allegations of abuse, which were recently confirmed by an independent investigation.
Given all the deception and lies, I felt unsure whether I could trust the teachings I had come to reply upon. Some of the teachings had been twisted to emphasize unquestioning faith. Before I lost my trust for spiritual teachers entirely, I studied teachings from other traditions for a while. But as it turns out, those teachers or their communities were also mired in abuse, in one way or another.
That set me back. But I’m a spiritual person at heart, I cannot give up on my spiritual path. And while I connect with teachings from different traditions, I continue to resonate most strongly with Buddhism. Not that Buddhism is one thing, it’s not. It has multiple forms that share some philosophical commonalities, but also have marked differences.
The Buddha said not accept his teachings on faith alone, but to examine them for yourself to determine what is or isn’t true.
But often we fail to do this because we feel a strong connection to a teacher, the teachings, or a community. So we adopt everything that goes along with the program, so to speak, without critical examination.
Given what’s happened, I need to go back and reexamine the teachings I’ve received with a critical eye, just as the Buddha advised. I’d like to share my investigations with you because the Buddhist teachings have helped me tremendously. They might help you too, but you need to decide for yourself.
I want to start with a series of brief contemplations, called “The Four Thoughts,” which I reflect upon daily. These Four Thoughts, sometimes called the Four Reminders, encourage us to turn the mind towards the truth, to see things as they really are. They are:
“Joyful to have such a human birth, difficult to find, free and well favored.
But death is real, comes without warning. This body will be a corpse.
Unalterable are the laws of karma; cause and effect cannot be escaped.
Samsara is an ocean of suffering, unendurable, and unbearable intense.”
Now let’s look at them one by one.
Precious Human Life
The First Thought: “Joyful to have such a human birth, difficult to find, free and well favored.”
In the Buddhist tradition, the chances of obtaining a human birth are considered extremely rare. You could be born in any of the six realms of existence, but whether these are actual places or psychological states is debatable. Aside from the human realm, the animal realm is one you will know for certain.
The analogy of a blind sea turtle and a golden yoke are used to illustrate this point. The sea turtle lives at the bottom of the ocean and only surfaces once every hundred years. The golden yoke, like a life ring, floats around the ocean at the mercy of the wind and the waves.
What are the chances of the blind sea turtle emerging from the water at precisely the right time and place to put her head through the golden yoke? Very unlikely, right?
Furthermore, a human birth isn’t considered precious unless all the right conditions come together for you to meet and follow an authentic spiritual path. Otherwise, you may only seek material gain and be buffeted about by endless emotional drama, neither of which lead you to liberation from suffering.
So what are the chances of gaining a human birth and it being a precious one as well?
With more than 7 billion people on the planet this reasoning might sound ridiculous. I imagine there were far few people in the world many hundreds of years ago, when this contemplation came about. But even 7 billion would be a relatively small number in comparison to the number of insects in the world.
In other words, there might be many more possibilities of being born again as an insect rather than a human. And while most of us aren’t used to thinking about reincarnation, what if it were true?
Although the metaphor might seem ancient and the idea of being reborn as an insect absurd, I don’t have to accept the specifics or even believe in reincarnation to be inspired by the First Thought, which reminds me that human life is precious.
The First Thought prompts me to examine whether I’m putting my time to good use or wasting it a bit too much on the frivolous and unnecessary. What will really matter when this life comes to an end? Will I have used this precious life well or will I die with regrets?
“Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?”
The Second Thought: “But death is real, comes without warning. This body will be a corpse.”
Would anyone disagree with the Second Thought? I’m sure not, but you might find it morbid to contemplate impermanence and death. And so you might avoid this topic altogether.
But what if contemplation on mortality helped you get your priorities straight and live a better life? Wouldn’t it be worth it to contemplate the Second Thought?
Aside from getting my priorities right, the Second Thought helps me cut through negative thinking, which although tempting, only brings drama, disappointment, and despair.
I don’t want to be caught in anger, jealousy, greed, stupidity, or desire (or any of their hundreds of progeny) at the moment of death. If I feed these kinds of afflictive emotions now, no doubt the same habit will continue as death approaches. And in future lives, if they exist.
If instead, I cultivate mindfulness, awareness, love, and compassion, these will be the companions that escort me into the great unknown.
“The birth of man is the birth of his sorrow. The longer he lives, the more stupid he becomes, because his anxiety to avoid unavoidable death becomes more and more acute. What bitterness! He lives for what is always out of reach! His thirst for survival in the future makes him incapable of living in the present.”
The Law of Cause and Effect (Karma)
The Third Thought: “Unalterable are the laws of karma; cause and effect cannot be escaped.”
Karma does not mean predestination or fate. The word “karma” means action and includes both the pregnant power within an action and the results that occur once an action has been undertaken.
In short, karma means that our thoughts, words, and actions have consequences. However, the results of karma often do not appear immediately. They may not occur until years later, at the end of your life, or in your next life.
Once karma has been created it can never be destroyed until it ripens into a result. You cannot escape karma, you will reap what you sow.
Because we’re all interrelated, karma is highly complex. It’s said, karma can only be fully understood by an enlightened being.
So how can we know the truth of karma then? When you look around, sometimes it seems that good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people. Does karma make sense? Does it really exist?
I don’t know for certain. But I can observe times when an action brings an immediate result. You project your anger onto someone else and a full-on argument ensues. Or, conversely, you put yourself in the other person’s shoes to understand their perspective, choose your words carefully, and find an opening is created for reconciliation.
Since I’m in a later stage of my life, I can also see how frivolous actions taken in my earlier years may have lead to some of the outcomes I’m experiencing now - I did ‘that’ and now ‘that’ is happening to me. It’s impossible to know for certain, maybe it’s just how life randomly unfolds, but maybe it’s the results of my prior actions.
I see and feel the power of thoughts, words, and actions, which makes me entertain the possibility that karma is true, even though its effects may not be seen until years later.
While I may not know for certain whether karma operates the universe, I like this reminder that my thoughts, words, and actions have consequences. It prompts me to live in integrity.
“Do not overlook tiny negative actions merely because they are small; however small a spark may be, it can burn down a haystack as big as a mountain. Do not overlook tiny good actions, thinking they are of no benefit; even tiny drops of water in the end will fill a huge vessel.” - The Buddha
Grasping Brings Suffering
The Fourth Thought: “Samsara is an ocean of suffering, unendurable, and unbearable intense.”
Traditionally, samsara is defined as the conditioned cycle of life and death characterized by suffering. Suffering comes about because of the way we live, focused on what we believe to be an inherently existing self (it’s all about “me”) and reality, and the way this keeps us spinning in distressing emotions, grasping after the ungraspable, and living in the past or future instead of the present moment.
We all want to believe life is good, so it might be hard to accept that it’s riddled with suffering. And samsara refers to how we relate to life, even more so than to the ups and downs of life itself.
Even so, if you take a good look, you’ll see that in the human realm, suffering and happiness constantly alternate. No one experiences a constant state of happiness. When you try to hold onto to happiness, you only feel pain because your circumstances will indeed change again.
According to Buddhism, it’s possible to bring about the cessation of suffering - yes, the permanent end of suffering. This involves persistently training the mind to see things as they really are - without inherent existence - and at the same time, learning to notice and let go of afflictive emotions.
Every time we notice a negative emotion arise in our mind or heart and chose to lean into it, feel it in our body, and allow it to dissolve rather than act on it or project it upon another, we are proving that the cessation of suffering is possible.
The Fourth Thought reminds me that I have a choice in every moment: to choose suffering or to choose peace.
It’s not easy to choose peace because we have a long-held habit of choosing suffering, though sometimes it might be in the guise of happiness. But every time you let go of afflictive emotions, you build your capacity to do so again. Eventually that can lead to the permanent cessation of suffering.
The Four Thoughts: Useful Guides
Some aspects of the Four Thoughts may seem antiquated and archaic. I may not be able to verify every proposition in the Fourth Thoughts. But their essential messages ring true to me.
These daily reminders lead me towards peace, compassion, and wisdom. I see them as precious guiding means in the spirit of this advice from Thich Nhat Hanh:
“Do not be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist systems of thought are guiding means; they are not absolute truth."
As to spiritual teachers, I know there are many honorable ones, but I’m not ready to follow another quite yet. If they cross my path and seem trustworthy, I will listen to their teachings because I need a regular dose of spiritual nourishment. But I won’t naively become a devotee once again, without carefully checking the qualities of a potential teacher for a very long time.
Your Turn: What do you think of the 4 Thoughts? Would you find them to be helpful guiding principles in your life? Let me know in the comments. I would love to hear your thoughts.
Thank you for your presence, I know your time is precious! Don’t forget to sign up for Wild Arisings, my twice monthly letters from the heart filled with insights, inspiration, and ideas to help you connect with and live from your truest self.