For the next five weeks at St. Peter’s, we will be reflecting on what are known as the Five Daily Recollections, also called Subjects for Contemplation.
This teaching comes straight out of the Buddhist canon, from what is called the Upajjhatthana Sutta. The sutta asks that we reflect on some hard realities of life, namely aging, illness, death, loss, and the consequences of our actions. This may seem a little grim and depressing — and maybe not the thing to be doing when one is actually down in the dumps — but those who think about these realities in the right way will find this practice very beneficial.
For instance, in my own experience, when my mother was still alive, I dreaded the thought of losing her. When I became acquainted with the teachings in the mid-1990s, this was one practice that I latched onto fairly quickly because it seemed so appropriate to helping condition a person to the inevitable realities we all face. After all, most of us outlive our parents. So I would from time to time consciously imagine what my life would be like if my mother wasn’t in it.
Even so, when she died, suddenly and unexpectedly in 2002, it came as a shock. I had pictured something a bit more gradual and that I would somehow be there when it happened. So when I got the call, from 2,000 kilometres away, grief overwhelmed me, even knocked me over. For instance, I remember being in a pharmacy to fill a prescription I would need before I flew out the next day and being completely unable to communicate with the pharmacist.
Given my state of shock, what good had it done me to have contemplated my mother’s death beforehand?
In fact, these contemplations do not necessarily protect us from the natural hurt, the natural grief, that arises from loss. The emotion of grief, in itself, does not seem to be the problem. It is our tendencies to attach to grief and to loss, to create stories about how terrible things are, or to numb ourselves to reality, that are problematic.
In my own case, because of my practice, I believe I was able to have just enough awareness to separate the raw grief I was feeling about losing my mother — and actually, some of that sadness had a certain sweetness to it — from the additional grief that my mind was needlessly generating. I could not stop the sense of intense loss that was my reality in the present moment, but I didn’t have to generate more suffering by adding to the story. And in fact it didn’t take long for me to regain a sense of equilibrium.
The Five Daily Recollections can be used as a skillful means for letting go of our attachment to having things to be the way we want them to be. Contemplating them helps us become more grounded in the reality of existence, in the “ten thousand joys and the ten thousand sorrows.” We see that “things are like this.” And we can rest in that reality, even when it’s hard.
Here are the Five Daily Recollections:
I am subject to aging, have not gone beyond aging.
I am subject to illness, have not gone beyond illness.
I am subject to death, have not gone beyond death.
I will grow different, separate from all that is dear and appealing to me.
I am the owner of my actions [karma], heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir.
To read the text on which the Five Recollections are based, go to Thanissarro Bikkhu’s website, Access to Insight: