The Four Mind Changers

A new post from Janet Taylor of the Temple Buddhist Center. She and I find it interesting that our minds often run along the same routes. This is a companion piece to my recent post, “Looking at Death, Living Life.”

Buddhist teachings often sound extremely negative because there is all this talk about suffering and getting sick and dying. That does sound pretty grim. Don’t we all just want to be happy? Most of us try to ignore death and dying, staying as far away as possible until we are confronted with the harsh reality of life. There is only one cause of death that everyone suffers from. The cause of death in all cases is birth.

Every one of us who has been born, by the very nature of living, are going to die. (Except allegedly all this vampire stuff out these days, but that’s another story…) The Buddhist teachings are shouting at us in order to save us from misery—Don’t sleepwalk through life! Wake up to that fact and decide how you shall live your life purposely and fully.

A well-known Buddhist meditation is this simple phrase: Since death alone is certain and the time of death uncertain, what should I do?

Looking at life in this raw state of reality can cause us to wake up. Once we see these things more clearly, we can start to live our lives more fully present. It is cliché to talk about the person who is sleepwalking through their life to suddenly be given a fatal diagnosis, and then find the happiness and peace that they were looking for all along.

Do we need a fatal diagnosis to wake up? If so, then know right now that being born is a fatal diagnosis. Knowing that, what should we do? Stephen Batchelor has an excellent chapter on this meditation in his book, Buddhism without Beliefs.

Another tool for our awakening is called the four mind-changers or four reflections to turn our minds toward the Dharma, or the truth of our being. There’s a wonderful commentary on these teachings in the book by Joseph Goldstein entitled, One Dharma, if you’d like to learn more.

The first reflection encourages us to contemplate the preciousness of our human birth. We all often take being alive for granted. Imagine all the activities and events that had to take place or not take place for each of us to be here in this very moment. Human beings are somewhat fragile, and living isn’t always easy. We each have had our own challenges, issues in our lives that we have grappled with. Each of us navigated through all the dangers and pitfalls of our lives to arrive at this moment right now. So, to experience the this incredible point of awareness is quite miraculous.

We don’t know what tomorrow will bring. We don’t know for sure what will happen this afternoon. By contemplating this fact, we can pour ourselves wholeheartedly into this moment. This is another paradox in Buddhism. To live life fully, we must recognize how easy it is to not live. This first reflection is telling us to not take so much for granted, to wake up with gratitude to this experience of life in all its complexity.

The second mind-changer or reflection is challenging us to wake up from this dreamlike state of pretending that anything is permanent. As most of us experience, western culture is often about accumulating things, accumulating experiences and even accumulating people. We check off the list of things and activities and people we “need” to be happy, and to be a certain way, but to also stay whatever way it is that we like them to be. We try to control our lives so things can stay fun and cushy. But no matter how much we try, we cannot make things stay the same.

A child once told Thich Nhat Hanh how grateful she was that things change. Otherwise, she would never grow up! So, we are asked to try loosening up, not trying to force everything and everyone to be just the way we think we want it or them to be. With this reflection, we are practicing accepting the ever-changing-ness of life. It doesn’t mean that Buddhists don’t do anything productive. It means we act from knowing that everything is impermanent and knowing that deep happiness will NEVER come from external things, activities or people.

“We’ve enclosed ourselves in a relatively small space by thinking. It binds us in, and we’re not aware that we’re living in a tiny, cluttered room. BUT With the practice of mindful awareness and quiet reflection, it’s as if the walls of the room are torn down, and you realize there’s a sky out there.” – Larry Rosenberg, The Art of Doing Nothing (Tricycle Magazine, Spring 1998)

There is tremendous power seeing things and actions and people with fresh eyes, adding compassion and wisdom to each situation instead of a checklist for improvement. This is critically important to the way we view our own bodies, our own lives. Many of us are constantly trying to get things just right. Get a new haircut, find the perfect dress. Instead this reflection is encouraging us to waking up each morning and first focus on full awareness, instead of the to-do list. This idea seems like the polar opposite of what we have been taught to do, but it’s been proven to work a heck of a lot better than the method of accumulation and looking for external happiness. 

How do we look at each situation with curiosity and non-judgment? Our lives will continue to change and morph and become something entirely different, whether we want to or not. The joy of the journey is determined in whether we ride the waves of uncertainty, or grasp at everything with tight white knuckles.

The third reflection is that everything we do has consequences. In Hinduism, the belief is that karma is unrelenting; if this then that, there’s nothing you can do to “save” yourself from unskillful past actions. But Buddha turned this idea of karma on its head. His taught that yes, there is the law of cause and effect, but it is far more helpful to focus on what we are doing right now in this moment, than to worry about what we did ten years ago. How can we be more kind and more generous and more grateful and wiser right now? There is this element of grace that exists in Buddhism. The idea is that we can wake up at any momentand begin increasing the compassion and wisdom in our lives.

The fourth reflection is about how labeling things as good, bad or irrelevant is causing us suffering, If we don’t try something new, we will continue to get the same suffering. If we focus on what we’re afraid of, on what we don’t want, then we will have no time to learn from all the new experiences in our lives happening moment to-moment.

This reflection is encouraging us to see what truly is and work with it. Sometimes suffering may seem too harsh a word, but even that vague sense of dissatisfaction is robbing you of joy. Don’t live your life settling for good enough when it comes to experiencing joy and happiness. True happiness will always depend on what is within us, not what is happening to us. Aldous Huxley said that the measure of man is not what happens to him, but what he does with what happens to him.

So, this last reflection on curiosity and non-judgment is about fully experience “not knowing”. What if it was okay to not know, but to keep asking the question with an open heart? What if the answers that we are seeking are there in the silence of each moment? What if admitting that we don’t know and sitting in silence with that was the best way to find the best answer. The Buddha taught that not knowing frees us to find new answers. We can rest with the idea of “I don’t know”.

So, the four mind changers/reflections are:

  •  The preciousness of our human birth
  • The contemplation of impermanence
  • The law of cause and effect
  • The fact that craving, aversion and ignorance causes suffering and will never bring us complete happiness

 These four reflections are powerful tools to support us in transforming our sense of living, to infuse deep happiness into life, regardless of our external circumstances:

Purpose of this teaching is to see with fresh eyes, to hear with fresh ears, to taste, to smell, to feel the warmth of the breeze on your skin, as if for the first time. This week, imagine that you are experiencing some activity for the very first time. Imagine that you truly don’t know, and see how that changes the experience.

4 thoughts on “The Four Mind Changers

  1. I really like the idea of living your life expecting surprises.
    Like yesterday, as I returned from the grocery-hunt, I was gifted with the sight of a Baltimore Oriole and an American Goldfinch in my urban backyard!
    Now that may not thrill some folks as much as it did me, but I have worked hard to establish a wildlife habitat in my city yard and those brightly colored birds felt like silk prayer flags flying in my cityscape.
    A sort of feathered Tah-Dah!

  2. the thing i want from life and death is for that last moment to think wow! that was great! and then there’s the feeling of heaven and hell. i snapped my upper arm once. on the way to the hospital i thought of all the things i had done wrong to deserve this. that’s when i realized GOD doesn’t judge. there is no need to. you know what you did, or didn’t do, and you can’t lie to yourself. so live like you want to remember it!

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