Meditating is supposed to help you live in the moment, but I never thought that was a problem for me. I lived so much in the moment that I tried to make adulthood into something unknowable. Concepts of aging and time were stagnant in my mind. It wasn’t until I began meditating on the Buddhist truth of suffering that I came to know and accept my own pain.
For much of my life, the thought of living past my twenties was imponderable. From ages 12 to 19, I suffered from severe depression and self-medicated with drugs and alcohol. Completing college and starting a career in the sciences were the false goals that I repeated to others when asked about my career path. I had no real intention of doing any of these things. I rejected contemplating about my future.
There was a deep fear within me. I was caught in the idea that youth is the embodiment of success. I saw that beauty and charisma trumped any deeper respectable ethical values; this was reflected in nearly every piece of media that I consumed. My personal outlook began to mirror society’s, and I found myself grasping at all the things that I thought resembled youthful exuberance.
You only live once, I told myself. And I was “lucky” to have an iron stomach. At my worst, I could down two bottles of wine a night, and still adamantly claim––albeit with slurred speech––“I’m good.” Then ill health moved from my mind to my body, and I began to suffer the physical symptoms of alcohol addiction. One day I noticed my hands shaking. It was about four in the afternoon, and I had only been awake for a few hours. I realized I had the “shakes,” which happens when the body is not getting its anticipated supply of alcohol. Even through my cloudy, hungover brain, I realized that, for a 21-year-old, this was not normal, and I decided to stop drinking.
Around six years have passed since then, and I can now see that the deep sadness that drove me to intoxicants had its origins in two tragic events at age 12: Hurricane Katrina hitting my home state of Louisiana and the death of my beloved grandmother six months later. Before the storm, my family and I were forced to evacuate from where we lived, a town slightly north of New Orleans. Being out of school and away from home for several weeks was utterly disorienting, and by the time we returned, the hurricane and its aftermath had rendered the area around our home unrecognizable. My grandmother, who lived in a nursing home nearby, had always been my source of support and comfort. She had survived the storm, but her death soon after was like the levees breaking for my 12-year-old mind.
As a teenager, the reality of suffering demonstrated by these events seemed unfathomable. I felt the suffering of my home state. I felt the suffering from my family after my grandmother’s death. There’s a certain power in being able to articulate one’s feelings, and I didn’t have that power at the time. I was too young, perhaps, to understand this kind of hurt. I could not understand that aging and death were parts of existence, and my inability to accept these facts led to greater suffering. They led me to drinking. Ultimately, they led me to the Buddha’s teachings.
Today, as a monastic in my late 20s, the training of abstaining from intoxicants to support attentiveness in actions goes hand in hand. When I think about that time, I recall this particular gatha [verse], which Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh includes in his book Stepping into Freedom, a manual to Buddhist monastic training.
Whose hand is this
that has never died?
Has anyone been born?
Will anyone die?
Our loved ones are not the only ones who age, become sick, or die. This process has been happening since the beginning of time, and will continue into the future. When I look at my hands, I see my maternal ancestors. I have my mother’s hands, and she has the hands of her mother. My hands speak to the truth that we are our parents’ continuation—a skillful teaching on emptiness or not-self. Contrary to finding it ominous, I find comfort in knowing that I am not alone in experiencing these truths of life.
Practice: A Meditation on Suffering
Witnessing the aging, ill health, and death of three strangers were pivotal moments in the Buddha’s life. It was seeing an elderly person, a sick person, and someone who had just passed that lead him to leave princely life in his palace and begin a wandering journey for spiritual awakening. Meditating on the reality of suffering may inspire you to deepen your practice as well.
Buddhism has a plethora of meditations to practice. Noticing the breath, the body, and the thoughts that race across the mind are the most common meditation objects taught. The Buddha also recommended daily reflection on broader aspects of reality. The Five Remembrances is a contemplation taken from the Anguttara Nikaya (often translated as the “Book of Numbers,” as this collection of writing consists of many teachings outlined in lists).
Here is the translation from the Pali, as written by Thich Nhat Hanh:
1. I am subject to aging. There is no way to avoid aging.
2. I am subject to ill health. There is no way to avoid illness.
3. I am going to die. There is no way to avoid death.
4. Everyone and everything that I love will change, and I will be separated from them.
5. My only true possessions are my actions, and I cannot escape their consequences.
Not so sweet, but they are universal truths essential to one’s personal practice and growth. The text goes on to describe why someone should take up this contemplation, and each line is an antidote to a particular mental affliction. It goes to show that obsession with youth, beauty, health, and unreasonable longevity are not modern problems.
There are many ways to practice this meditation. You can start by writing or mentally repeating each phrase individually, then allowing any memories or feelings related to the phrase to arise—perhaps thoughts of a parent or grandparent. It is helpful to allow the mind to settle on the word, image, memory, or thought for at least several minutes. Since most of us are not accustomed to actively thinking about aging or dying in this way—it’s normal to experience feelings of aversion, pain, or fear in the mind, or tension in the body. Notice these feelings as they arise.
Bonus: Dialoguing with Physical Sensations
This meditation is body-based. It is not recommended for those who are experiencing severe PTSD symptoms or have insufficient rest or strength, or have not yet developed stability with a meditation object.
Finding a comfortable and quiet place, gently bring your attention to your breath. You can focus on the rise and fall of your stomach or the area around your nose.
After you’re more relaxed, bring your attention to an area of the body where you notice tension. The upper body and face are easy regions to notice.
Gently hold the tension-filled area with awareness, tenderness, and openness. Awareness helps to stabilize the mind in concentration while tenderness allows the body to relax. Openness is two-fold: the body will be more willing to share the root cause of the discomfort and by staying open, you allow whatever needs to be heard and acknowledged to present itself without judgment (also known as equanimity).
You might experience recent or forgotten memories of an event, repressed or muted emotions, or maybe just the physical relief of the body relaxing.
Remember to stay open and nonjudgmental to whatever you are experiencing, and return to the breath of the emotions you feel are overwhelming. You may also like to shift attention away from that specific area to a less active part of the body as well. Personal discernment is key.