This is a picture of a sand mandala, a traditional Tibetan Buddhist symbol of transience. Tibetan Buddhist monks perform a ritual of meticulously creating beautiful intricate mandalas from colored sand, which they subsequently ceremonially destroy, symbolically representing and reminding us of the doctrinal Buddhist belief that impermanence is the quintessential quality of our lives.
My favorite haunt as a child was the Carnegie Natural History Museum and Library in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh, known to natives simply as “The Museum.” It was a few blocks from my parents’ house and by the age of eight I could walk there by myself. In Pittsburgh in the 60s there was no charge for admission to this world class museum, and I could freely wander amidst the cavernous dinosaur halls, through displays of fossils and dioramas of extinct animals like saber tooth tigers and mastadons en route to the library. The Museum was a dark, massive stone complex built in the 1890s by industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. It occupied an entire city block. In those days the stone was still black from the smoke of the steel mills. Carved into the facade above the grand entrances were the words, “Free to the People.”
Twenty-five years later, during my psychiatric training, I worked with an elderly supervisor, Dr. Margaret Brenmann-Gibson, a recipient of a McArthur genius award, and an outspoken psychologist and peace activist. Dr. Brenman-Gibson told me that if she was in charge of the world, she would decree that the words “Things Change” be carved into the stone facades of all public buildings.”Things Change” instead of “Free to the People” would also have had the added merit of actually being true, as The Museum now charges a hefty entrance fee.
One of my father’s favorite quotes was from Goethe’s Faust, “Oh Augenblick verweile doch, du bist so schon.” “Oh moment linger longer, you are so beautiful”. But the moments will not linger longer. Everything is constantly changing, and as much as we wish to hold onto our youth, our health, our children, parents and friends, the way things were, it’s not to be. It is our resistance and denial of this reality that according to the Buddha, is the root cause of our suffering.
The Five Remembrances are the Buddha’s teaching on impermanence, aging, health, change and death. The Vietnamese Monk Thich Nhat Hahn has a lovely version of them that he prescribes to his acolytes to meditate upon daily in order to decrease fear and promote acceptance of reality.
I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.
I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.
The recitation of the 5 Remembrances is not intended as a depressing litany, to which the only reasonable response would be despair. To the contrary, the purpose is to encourage us to drink deeply of the present moment and to be fully conscious of our experience. They remind us to acknowledge that life is inherently hard and that our actions have karmic consequences that we take with us when we die.
Last night my three teenage children and I ate supper together in the kitchen. The kids were bantering about school, teasing each other, and as I listened I was filled with both gratitude and sadness. I was aware that before I know it, one by one they will go off to college, and this ordinary but precious moment will belong to days gone by, like the dinosaurs, fossils, saber tooth tigers and mastadons at The Museum. I drank in the poignant pleasure of the present moment, of having all three of them with me around the table. It is the biggest challenge to let the children go, to allow them to grow up and have their own lives where I am no longer at the center. It’s the natural order of things, and of course what I want, at the same time that my heart is breaking. My mind turned to the 4th of the 5 Remembrances, and I felt soothed as helped me in the process of accepting the inevitable universal human experience of loss, separation and change.