Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Middle Path

“Let me tell you about the middle path. Dressing in rough and dirty garments, letting your hair grow matted, abstaining from eating any meat or fish, does not cleanse the one who is deluded. Mortifying the flesh through excessive hardship does not lead to a triumph over the senses. All self-inflicted suffering is useless as long as the feeling of self is dominant.

You should lose your clinging involvement with yourself and then eat and drink naturally, according to the needs of your body. Clinging attachment to your appetites – whether by deprivation or indulgence – can lead to slavery, but satisfying the needs of daily life is not wrong. Indeed, to keep a body in good health is skillful, for it supports the mind in staying strong and clear.

This is the middle path.”

--- The Buddha from “Discourse One”

The Buddha had lived a life of indulgence before setting off to become a yogin. And then after six years of extreme austerities, on the verge of collapse, if not death, he decided to bathe and eat, build up his strength and stamina and eventually broke through to full awakening. And from the first teachings of what became a 40-year teaching career, he taught the middle path, and ever since, this moniker has become synonymous with Buddhism.

The Emaciated Buddha after years of extreme tapas

Even to this day, there are yogins in India practicing the extreme forms of renunciation, but what the Buddha is reminding us, whether we abstain from or indulge in our appetites, though it looks very different, there is the same fixation on the self. And it is this fixation that traps us in the round of dukkha (dissatisfaction, stress, suffering, pain).

In another teaching from later in his career, he had a student who had been a veena player. The veena is a lute-like stringed instrument, and the Buddha, consummate teacher that he was, addressed Sona’s experience as a musician to teach him the middle path of practice. He must have noticed Sona sitting in meditation either in a collapsed, overly loose way or in what zen teachers refer to as the “stone Buddha,” sitting rigidly and overly stridently effortful. The Buddha asked:

“Sona, what happens when you tighten the strings of the veena?”
Sona replied, “The pitch increases.”
“And if you continue to tighten the string?” the Buddha asked.
“Then eventually the string will snap,” replied Sona.
“And what happens when you loosen the strings?” the Buddha continued.
“The pitch decreases,” Sona answered.
“And again, if you continue to loosen the strings?” asked the Buddha.
“Then the string will become so slack that it won’t make any sound” Sona replied.
“Then how do you make the strings sound harmoniously? the Buddha responded.
“By making them not too tight and not too loose” said Sona.
“And that is how you should practice meditation” the Buddha pointed out.

Now, raised as we are on fairly tales, many who hear this story assume that once one is not too tight, not too loose, we live “happily ever after” as if “not too tight, not too loose” was a permanent state of being. But any string player will tell you, that “not too tight, not too loose” is always a relationship to circumstances. If you tune in a room that is 70-degrees F and 30% humidity, and then move into a room that is 85-degrees and 75% humidity, you are going to have to retune!

We are always having to make adjustments to ever-changing circumstances. There is no such thing as balance so much as we are continually balancing. It is a dynamic process and relationship and to maintain this relationship requires vigilant mindfulness.

This is important to understand because otherwise the “middle path” may be misunderstood as equivocal, but it is properly understood as “upright, centered, and neutral.” The middle path requires us to investigate and penetrate life’s circumstances with as unbiased an attitude as possible (which is where a metacognitive aspect comes into mindfulness practice; we need to learn about and be alert to biases such as the confirmation bias in order to compensate and correct for it). In order to see clearly so that we can respond skillfully and wholesomely to life’s ever-changing conditions, we need to position ourselves in a stable, neutral, upright, unbiased attitude. Those of you familiar with the definition of yoga-asana may see some similarities here! From this stable, yet relaxed grounded position, we can investigate our situation from various angles, analyze what we discover (uncover), understand clearly (clear comprehension, as the satipatthana has it) and find a creative and skillful response. In this way, we can liberate ourselves from our conditioned, biased reactivity and move toward the skillful response.

The middle path represents the distinct perspective and way of Buddhist practice more common to humanism than to other religions. Buddhism lays great emphasis on human thought and action and their relationship to the environment, society and culture. It is concerned with the relationship between the changing conditions of the environment, society and culture and the thoughts and actions of the individual and groups and the relationship between these thoughts and actions and their consequences. It is an investigation into causality.

Through this investigation, the Buddha came to offer two main characteristics of the middle path: the teaching of Dependent Origination and the Noble Eightfold Path. Dependent Origination shows the process of causality, how phenomena and situations arise and pass away based upon myriad causes and conditions. The Noble Eightfold Path shows the way of practice as a response to Dependent Origination.

"The Tathagatha avoids the two extremes
and talks about the Middle Path.
When this is, that is; with the arising of this, that arises.
Through ignorance volitional actions or karmic formations are conditioned.
Through birth, decay, death, lamentation, pain are conditioned.
When this is not, that is not; with the ceasing of this, that ceases.
Through the complete cessation of ignorance, volitional activities or karmic formations cease. 
Through the cessation of birth, death, decay, sorrow, cease."
(Samyuktagama, Chapter 12)

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

"But isn't all yoga mindful?"

This has been asked of me -- usually rhetorically -- by students over the years more than once. And of course, I agree... all yoga should be practiced mindfully. Sadly, given today's commodified and mainstreamed practice of yoga as a "workout" or exercise regimen, we cannot simply assume that mindfulness is present in all venues.

But that aside, there is still a difference between yoga practiced mindfully and Mindfulness Yoga. Especially when what is being described as yoga is actually asana practice.

There's an old story about two zen students on retreat wondering if the roshi will allow them to smoke while on retreat. They decide to separately ask the roshi during dokusan. A bit later, one of the students notices the other one sitting in the garden smoking a cigarette. The student goes up to him and whispers, "Why are you smoking? The roshi told me I couldn't smoke." The smoking student asks, "What did you ask the roshi?" The other student responds, "I asked if I could meditate while smoking." "Well," the smoking student answers, "I asked if I could smoke while meditating."

Hopefully, anyone engaging in asana practice, if they understand the purpose of yoga, is doing it mindfully. That is to say, as they move into trikonasana, for instance, they are doing so mindfully, paying attention to what and how they are doing the posture. But as you can see, to say one is doing the asana mindfully is putting emphasis on the asana; mindfully is an adjective describing how one is engaged with the posture.

With Mindfulness Yoga, as the proper noun evidences, the emphasis is on the practice and cultivation of mindfulness through the vehicle of the posture. In mindful yoga, one is practicing asana mindfully; in Mindfulness Yoga one is practicing mindfulness in the posture. 

Further, for me, what I coined Mindfulness Yoga is a form or approach to asana practice (including pranayama) based upon the buddha's instructions given in the satipatthana-sutta and the anapanasati-sutta. In Mindfulness Yoga, whether we are practicing slow-movement, restorative, yin or vinyasa-flow, the foundation for practice is the practice of sati, which is the word translated as "mindfulness." 

And to be absolutely clear, with the mainstreaming of "mindfulness," much of the practice of sati has been left behind: mindfulness is not the same as "bare attention." That is to say, it is not "paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally," as Jon Kabat-Zinn has famously popularized it.

Yes, mindfulness includes and is based upon such an orientation to the present moment: we observe what is happening purposefully, and without judgment or reactivity. But that is only to enable us to see clearly -- to have 'clear comprehension' of the present moment. If we judge or react, we are no longer seeing clearly, but rather through the filter of our reactivity.

But, we do this in order to then seen clearly the causes and conditions for the present moment in order to discern what and how we should respond. If the present moment is positive and wholesome, (which is a judgement, after all) then we are determined to continue nurturing the causes and conditions that led to the present moment. However, if the present moment sucks, if is is filled with duhkha and unwholesomeness, then we respond in such a way to cut off the causes and conditions and to not repeat them in the future.

Thus, the full practice of mindfulness is not atomistically looking at the present moment, but is doing so while remembering (the actual root of the word sati) what led to its arising. The practice of sati is relational, requiring memory and discernment as we move from conditioned reactivity to creative response. If one is living only in the present moment, there is no relationship possible. Relationship requires memory. Ask anyone who has a family member suffering from Alzheimer's if you doubt that.

So, with Mindfulness Practice as I teach it, we follow the various practices outlined in the two suttas I referred to above which includes observing and investigating breathing, the positions and activities of the body, the various parts and elements of the body, and the ultimate state of the body; whether the feelings arising are pleasant, unpleasant or neutral and whether arising physiologically or psychologically; all mental activity; and the fundamental categories of the buddhadharma.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Friendship With The Lovely...

"Ananda said: 'Friendship with what is lovely, association with what is lovely, intimacy with what is lovely -- that is half of the dharma practitioner's life.'

The buddha replied: "Oh, don't say that, Ananda. It is the whole of the dharma practitioner's life. One so fortunate with what is lovely will develop a skillful way of being, a thinking that no longer grasps at what is illusory, an aim that is concerned and ready, a contemplation that is unentangled and free. Association with what is lovely is the whole of the dharma-practitioner's life.'"
--- Samyutta Nikaya

I remember that though I had been interested in buddha-dharma for years, and had been practicing (mostly alone, but occasionally I'd sit with one group or another), I refrained from joining any sangha. And when a group of friends and I began to sit together in my apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn, we jokingly said we were a group of "non-joiners." 

And yet, over time, despite my skeptical suspicions of group-think, and seeing how easy it was for such cultish dynamics to form, I have also come to see just how necessary "association with the lovely" is. 

Of course, humans being human, no community could or should expect to be free of tensions, conflict and disharmony. What makes a community a sangha and not just a group of people, is that each participant takes responsibility for their own reactions as well as for speaking up when s/he witnesses a dharma friend saying or doing something that seems harmful and using such conflict and tension for the general purpose of all members of the communities awakening.

Most importantly, perhaps, is that each participant in a sangha, rather then turning to others when upset with another member of the community, addresses that member directly, whether alone or in the company of another member as witness. And when some offense is brought to a member's attention, that member practices restraint of defensiveness, offers deep listening, and enters into the co-practice of restoration.

While there is no need to formalize this practice, the "Peace Treaty" created by the Plum Village community offers some guidelines for how sangha members can work with conflict. Of course, there is a caveat: I have seen the teaching of 'right speech' and 'deep listening' used in such a way as to create the tendency toward self-censorship, as well as the marginalization of dissenting opinion. Each and every sangha member must feel they can indeed speak up and out and be heard. The sangha must be willing to be changed by what comes out of any conflict.

This indeed is intimacy with the lovely -- though it may not always be pretty!

Sunday, October 22, 2017

What Do We Know?

"Ananda said to the buddha: 'I think there has never been a teacher as great as you, nor will there ever be one as great in the future!'

The buddha asked Ananda: 'Have you known all the buddhas of the past?'

'No, honored one,' responded Ananda.

'But you are able to know all the buddhas of the future, then?' asked the buddha.

'No, honored one,' Ananda repeated.

'Then I suppose you know my awakened mind completely?' the buddha asked.

'No, honored one. I do not even know your mind completely,' Ananda admitted.

'Then how can you make such a bold statement as that I am the greatest teacher that ever was or will be? It is much better to talk of what you know than to speculate foolishly,' the buddha told Ananda."

This exchange from the Majjhima Nikaya it a good one to keep in mind when we find ourselves so sure of our perceptions and opinions. We often seem so sure of ourselves when we impute motivations to others; and we can pontificate on the subjects we have very little experience in as if we have the deepest insight into them. This passage reminds us to be a bit more humble in regards to the confidence we hold for our perceptions and opinions.

The fourth precept includes this understanding, not to speak of things of which we are not sure, but there are actually very few things of which we are sure! Ananda says he does not know the buddha's mind completely, but truly, there is no one among us who can say we know our own mind completely! Both neuro-science and cognitive science shows us that much of what we do and think we think is guided by the unconscious and pre-conscious mind to which we have no access. We do things and then confabulate reasons. Perhaps only children, who openly admit they do not know why they've done something when asked why they've done it are completely honest. Bodhidharma, when asked by Emperor Wu, "Who are you?" responded "I don't know." 

If we too can remember that we often do not know, perhaps we can stay more intimate with our experience, maintaining an ardent sense of curiosity while holding a relaxed grasp on our perceptions and opinions? But we do love to speculate, don't we? Perhaps this exchange can help us remember to speculate wisely, rather than foolishly assert things to be that we truly have little to no idea about!

"Appropriate thinking" is the second of the 8-limbs of the buddha's eight-fold path. One actual practice to support appropriate thinking is to ask oneself: "Am I sure?" when we find ourselves asserting something as fact. And when we catch ourselves indulging in the idea gossip of speculation, we can stop ourselves and kindly ask ourselves: "What are you doing?" Finally, when we see we've given sway to foolish speculation -- especially as to the motivations of other's behavior, we can say to ourselves, "Hello habit energy!" 

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Four Reminders: Training in the Preliminaries

The first slogan of lojong is itself the first of the Seven Points of Mind Training: “First, train in the preliminaries.” This is often taken to refer to the foundational practice of shamatha-vipashyana. Additionally, there are other ways this may be thought and approached and it is important to do so in order to stoke our motivation for practice!
The first way one can approach this slogan is to consider “the preliminaries” as everything difficult that has happened in your life up to now. The heartbreaks, the disappointments, the illnesses, the losses and all such past and/or present difficulties are the preliminaries for you. Whatever nature they may be, we can use them to push ourselves deeper into both a re-appraisal of our practice and strengthen our resolve to dig deeper into practice.
Now, the difference between just coping with these difficulties and “training” has to do with how we view and relate to them. If we are serious about training, we need to own them. When we take precepts, part of the ceremony is Atonement or, as my teacher, Samu Sunim would say, “at-one-ment,” where we take responsibility for our karma. This “responsibility” isn’t to imply that you caused your difficulty (though you may have) or are to “blame” for it. Even if you are a victim and through no fault of your own, you are suffering or have suffered, taking responsibility means owning that it happened, owning it as the present stuff of your life. It’s what you are going to work with. Training in the preliminaries in this sense means not wallowing in your troubles, but rather to stop moaning and feeling self-pity and recognizing that — like it or not — this is your life and you are the one that must work with it as the very field of practice. 
Ways of doing this obviously include how you take your seat in sitting meditation, steadfastly refusing to spin out into fantasy, justification, and resentment, but also with therapy or couseling, journaling, sangha sharing, artistic endeavors and any other forms of reflective exercise. It’s about creating a pause, taking the backward step and acknowledging that the old way doesn’t work; that a new way of being in the world is called for. When I was growing up in NYC, every pizzeria had take-out boxes that said: “You’ve tried the rest; now try the best.” That’s kind of how I sometimes feel about this; I’ve tried to ignore or suppress and that didn’t work. Now there’s dharma.
A traditional way to deepen one’s motivation as a way of training in the preliminaries is to reflect upon four key points sometimes referred to in the Tibetan traditions as four reminders. I wrote a piece at my other blog, Zen Naturalism, that was somewhat critical of the way some other teachers approach the practice. As a naturalist, I reject the more transcendental, world-denying aspects of their approach. The following owes much to Norman Fischer's treatment in his book on Lojong, Training In Compassion.
The Four Reminders
1. The rarity and preciousness of human life. Human life is understood as the “realm” best suited for awakening. With seven billion people populating the world, and a projected increase in up to two billion more this century, human life may not seem so rare, but we have to consider that each of our bodies has trillions of life forms living within and upon them! Along with these trillions (multiplied by seven billion) are the microbial life found on every centimeter of the planet, all the insects and animals. So, when one considers just how many living beings there actually are, you can understand how rare it is to be born human.
And to top that all off, how rare and precious to have evolved to have a mind and consciousness with which we can experience identity, value, abstract thought and conceptualization, and aesthetic appreciation! The idea is if we deeply ponder this understanding of the rarity and preciousness of human life, we will be inspired to do something truly meaningful with our life: awaken in order to live fully, intimately. This first reminder can be pleasant and awesome to think about. The second reminder, well… maybe not so much…
2. The absolute inevitability of death. The hero of the Mahabharata says that the most amazing thing in the world is that people, seeing others dying all around them, think that death has nothing to do with them! Yes, I’m sure all of those reading this know they are mortal and will in fact die. And, yet if we’re honest, we’ll have to admit that in the deepest depths of the heart we somehow don’t really believe it; death just seems so remote.
Perhaps the most unnerving thing about the fact of our death is that we don’t know when it’s going to happen to us! Again, most of us, if we do contemplate our mortality, imagine ourselves dying of old age. For years, whenever I contemplated my death, I saw myself as an old, old, man. Yet, we know and see all-too-much evidence that death happens to people at every stage of their life. Thousands of children die each day from starvation alone! After a serious car accident last year that I am lucky to have survived, I contemplate more fully the reality that I can die at my current age as well.
As we age, time — which is always experienced subjectively — speeds up. What seems an eternity to a child, a month, passes so swiftly once we’re thirty, forty, fifty and older, that it seems we can actually feel time passing! This is happening now: “time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.” That is why contemplation of time enters into our practice at the beginning of the day with the Gatha of Awakening and the Gatha of Encouragement and at the of the day with the Evening Gatha . The inevitability of death and the swiftness of passing time are the second reminder designed to get us motivated to live fully awakening lives.
3. The awesome and indelible power of our actions. This is what is meant by the fifth of the Five Remembrances that ends: “There is no way to escape the consequences of my actions.” And this goes for all actions of the body, speech, and mind. And chances are we will never (can never) know the full measure of the consequences of our actions, though they may have extensive and significant impact on ourselves and others.
It can be eye-opening, humbling, and perhaps a bit overwhelming to consider that in every moment of our lives, we actually effect the world in both subtle and not so subtle ways. With this understanding, we can come to see that we are all collaborators in creating the world that we and all beings live within and as. This means: everything matters. There are no trivial, throwaway moments. This is not a dress rehearsal; it’s the play itself!
Contemplating this reminder, we can ask ourselves “How am I living? What kind of actions have I been taking and what kind of actions would I like to take? Am I contributing to the benefit of the world or am I making things worse through either action or inaction?” If we truly engage with such questions, we may find ourselves motivated to be more conscious and awaken through our actions in the world.
4. The inescapability of suffering. Sorrow, pain and suffering are inevitable in every human life, even the happiest ones. The buddha enumerated the variety of ways we suffer: We suffer loss, disappointment, disrespect, physical pain, illness, old age, broken relationships, wanting something so badly and not being able to have it, not wanting something and finding ourselves stuck with it. And then there’s the suffering of afflictive emotions such as jealousy, envy, grief, hatred, confusion, fear, anxiety, and a host of others too numerous to list! All this suffering is simply a part of life, not an accident or punishment. Given that this is so, what can we do to cultivate wisdom, compassion and resilience? Can we see ways to cultivate the conditions that can support us and prepare our minds and hearts for the pain we are sure to encounter? 
It’s not a matter of if but rather of when life will strike us with something painful, and the reflection on this certainty is designed to deepen our motivation to practice in order to prepare for such contingencies. We have insurance on our cars and hopefully health insurance for our bodies, but what about guarding and strengthening our hearts and minds in order to not merely cope, but perhaps flourish even in the full catastrophe we will find ourselves in from time to time?
These reflections are meant to create the energy of motivation, causing us to appreciate the seriousness of the human condition: “Great is the matter of birth and death!” They are meant to motivate us to live a life of awakening so that we can meet the gift and challenge that is our life, here and now. This is all training in the preliminaries, and you can see that we are never to stop practicing so.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Beginner's Mind? I Don't Think So...

I’ve long felt contrary around the famous quote from Suzuki Roshi, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities but in the expert’s mind there are few.” It sounds snappy, it’s a great sound-bite and on the surface it seems to be make sense and be true, but it’s facile, simplistic and most of the time untrue, and when it is true, only superficially so. Most of the time, beginners don’t know or understand enough about the topic at hand to actually have much in their mind in terms of possibilities. Just imagine someone with no understanding of particle physics: what could they possibly imagine as a possibility if they know nothing? But experts who do know and understand can imagine things a beginner cannot even begin to comprehend. Or imagine a beginner approaching her first lesson in saxophone. She will be lucky if she gets any sound at all, and if she does it may sound more like a wet fart than anything. She’d be at a loss to imagine the possibilities (Circular breathing? Voicing? Extended harmonics? Listen to a performance of Colin Stetson to see the possibilities a virtuoso/expert can bring forth).  And in those cases where it’s true that a beginner may hold many possibilities, we then have to ask how many of them are actually possible? How many of them are efficient and workable?

Researchers have studied expertise and found some interesting things. One is that it takes about ten years of practice to reach expert-level proficiency in any field or activity. It takes so long because one needs to develop the ability to anticipate problems, which it turns out, is not the result of simply having knowledge of a given field, but of structured knowledge. An example comes from the rarefied world of international tennis competition. The best ones don’t merely react to what their opponents are serving, but are capable of anticipating where the ball will go before the opponent even hits it! This is an acquired intuitive skill, made possible because the brain has seen enough similar situations, that it can extract patterns and thus predict where the ball is most likely to go from the anticipated angle of impact on the opponent’s racket.

Even more telling, Cindy Hmelo-Silver and Merav Green Pfeffer have investigated the difference between superficial and structural knowledge in the case of people’s understanding of aquaria. Children, “naïve” adults (such as myself, having no real interest in the subject), and two types of experts: biologists with a specialzation in ecology and aquaria hobbyists were compared. As one would expect, children and naïve adults evidenced a very simplistic understanding of the workings of an aquarium, and – tellingly, in light of Suzuki Roshi’s famous quote – often resorted to one type of causal explanation and failed to appreciate the intricacies of the system. Experts were greatly appreciative of the systemic functioning of an aquarium and could describe multiple causal pathways affecting the enclosed ecosystem.

Further, what’s really interesting is that the researchers found that the two types of experts differed quite dramatically in the kind of knowledge of aquaria they had built. Biologists explained the functioning of the aquaria as microcosms of natural ecosystems at an abstract-theoretical level. Hobbyists understood their aquaria around the practical issues of filtering systems, feeding systems, and anything that played an active role in keeping the aquarium functioning well and the fish healthy. Thus, along with evidence that there is a profound difference between naïve and expert knowledge, there is evidence that there is more than one way to be an expert! These differences among experts have less to do with any intrinsic properties of the system (though they do play some role) than the particular kinds of interest that different individuals have in that system.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Contemplating Impermanence

This is the first time I've posted the same post to both of my blogs. It just seems appropriate....

There are many passages where “the buddha” encourages the contemplation of the inexorable reality of change: impermanence. One such practice is the contemplation on the decomposition of a corpse while reflecting on the fact that this too will be the fate of your body. Another is called “the five remembrances.” The first three, briefly, are that you, I, and all beings are of the nature to age, experience illness, and die and that there is no way to avoid these realities. The fourth reminds us that everything we treasure and all whom we love are of the nature to change and there is no way to avoid being separated from them. And the fifth states that we are the heirs of our actions and there is no way to avoid the consequences of our actions.

One practice that the Tibetan tradition offers, "the four reminders," also called "the four reversals" as in the four thoughts that turn the mind, are often presented in such a way that the world-denying and escapist metaphysical tenets of some Tibetan Buddhisms become clear. As Andrew Holecek writes in his article on the four reminders in the Winter, 2013 Tricycle: “These contemplations develop revulsion to conditioned appearances, point out the their utter futility, and cause awareness to prefer itself rather than outwardly appearing objects. They turn the mind away from substitute gratifications and direct it toward authentic gratification – which can only be found within.”

Among other things, this notion that awareness might “prefer itself rather than outwardly appearing objects” posits awareness as yet another subtle atman despite the rejection of atman by “the buddha.” Awareness arises in relation to some phenomena; positing an awareness independent of all causes and conditions is no different than positing a soul/self/atman! I find it striking that so many contemporary buddhists have such a difficult time seeing this! Also, common to some forms of Tibetan Buddhism is an idealism that can become a form of solipsism that seems to be rearing it’s ugly face here in the disparagement of “outwardly appearing objects.” Research on happiness seems to suggest that happiness comes from both within and without and that learning the proper balanced ratio is what is necessary; not to discount one or the other.

That this life only has value in terms of the “afterlife” is made overtly clear when he adds: “Don’t worry so much about social security. Finance your karmic security instead. Invest in your future lives now. Investing so much in this life is like checking into a hotel for a few days and redecorating the room; what’s the point?” This emphasis on “reincarnation” which is only seen in Tibetan Buddhism (yes other forms of buddhism teach rebirth, not the same thing and equally wrong when taken as the rebirth of some atomistic entity, one even as nebulous as a specific ‘stream of consciousness’) is another aspect of this life-denying tendency and is very selfish. Taken literally, this statement equating life to time spent in a hotel, and thus there being no point in redecorating it, could lead one to wonder why we should bother to confront structural forms of oppression, catastrophic climate change, or systemic economic inequities; if this life is no more than a hotel, what’s the point? 

Holecek quotes B. Alan Wallace: “In light of death, our mundane desires are seen for what they are. If our desires are for wealth, luxury, good food, praise, reputation, affection, and acceptance by other people, and so forth are worth nothing in the face of death, then that is precisely their ultimate value.”

Now, I practice the five remembrances regularly, and emphasize to my students that we should never forget impermanence. The “gatha of encouragement,” which begins our daily practice, reminds us: “Great is the matter of birth and death. Impermanence permeates us. Be awake each moment. Do not squander your life.” But as a naturalist, this isn’t a practice designed to create revulsion for this life, it isn’t a mere “investment in future lives” (other than the metaphorical “lives” we live throughout this one life that we know exists and the equally important lives of those who will come after, as our actions now will definitely impact them) but it’s a practice to awaken us from our complacency; indeed it can be seen as a fierce compassionate shattering of the placid denial we too easily fall prey to, taking this life for granted. And no mistake, that can be a brutal awakening!

To me, though I agree desire for "wealth, luxury and praise" hold little value and may derail our attention from what is of real value, it’s sad that Wallace feels affection and the human need for relationship is “ultimately worthless,” literally “worth nothing” just because we all die! It is the fact that we will die, that we will be separated from all we love that makes my time with my loved ones so very precious; so precious that I don’t want to take one moment with them for granted. Ideally. And through this contemplation, who "loved ones" are becomes vast and ever more inclusive. And that’s why constant contemplation and remembrance of impermanence is important and can be so thoroughly a “turning of the mind,” because the default seems to lull me – us – into a kind of somnolent, zombie-like walking through life. Beyond this, I think it’s intellectually and morally dishonest because I somewhat doubt Wallace, and those who teach this life-denying perspective actually live with the full implications of what they are saying.

So yes, contemplate the fact of impermanence in order to live life fully, intimately, to come to see its absolute value in its ephemeral nature. Practice in order to avoid living this precious human life grasping at impermanent objects or experiences, and not ignoring them either, but savoring the good, and working to change what you can that is harmful to yourself and other real living beings who are also precious because also mortal. Don’t waste this life as if it were some dress rehearsal for future lives or some transcendent state of being. Immerse yourself in the world because you really are of it!

Here’s something I've written about the five remembrances if you’re interested…

Ignorance, or avidya, is a root cause of suffering, according to Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutra (II.5). But the ignorance Patanjali refers to is less a lack of knowledge than an almost willful ignoring of reality. Today we call it denial. For instance, we may intellectually know that all things change, yet we desperately deny this truth; a denial that leads to anxiety, fear, and confusion.
At a past lecture, I led a group of interfaith seminarians in the contemplation of the five remembrances, "the buddha's" teaching on impermanence, aging, health, change, and death. Afterward, one of the students asked, "Isn't this just negative thinking?" On the contrary, I would argue that the five remembrances is what "the buddha" offers to awaken you from denial, to cultivate an appreciation for living, and to teach you about nonattachment and equanimity.
If you think of it this way, the meditation is not a bleak, depressing list of things you'll lose, but a reminder of the existential situation of the human. When you accept impermanence as more than merely a philosophical concept, you can see the truth of it as it manifests itself in your mind, your body, your environment, and your relationships, and you no longer take anything for granted.
Once you accept the reality of impermanence, you begin to realize that grasping and clinging are suffering, as well as the causes of suffering, and with that realization you can relax and celebrate life. The problem is not that things change, but that you try to live as if they don't.
To work with the five remembrances below, it helps to memorize and repeat them daily. Say them slowly and let the words seep in, without immediately analyzing or interpreting them or your experience; that can and should come later. Just notice your reactions. Let them rest until they shift and pass away—as all things do, being impermanent. Stay with your breath and observe the sensations under all your thinking. You may experience dread at the thought of any or all of these realities.  You may experience huge relief as the energy you've spent denying and hiding from the truth is liberated to move freely through your body. Who knows what you'll experience until you try it?
Some remembrances are easier to accept than others. For me, it was easier to consider that I'm aging and will die, than it was that I have the potential for ill health. I have a strong constitution and am rarely ill; I had believed that if my practice were "good" enough, I wouldn't get sick. So, on those rare days when I was ill, I often reproached myself for being sick and was a pretty cranky person to be around. But with the help of the second remembrance, I've grown more accepting of illness and can now feel a profound sense of ease even while ill so that I don’t needlessly suffer my illness. What this has shown me is that there is indeed a difference between disease and dis-ease.
Another way of practicing the five remembrances in relationship is through  hugging meditation. When your partner or children leave for work or school, hug each other for three full breaths, and remind yourself of the fourth remembrance: "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." If you're having a disagreement with someone, remind yourself, before getting swept away by heated emotions, of the fifth remembrance: "I am the heir of my actions. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions." None of this means you should be passive or reluctant to advocate your views. Instead the meditation helps you respond more skillfully with awareness rather than simply from conditioned reactivity.
You can also get used to the concept of impermanence by listing things that have changed in your life over the past month or two. Perhaps a difficult posture has become easier, or an easy posture has become challenging. Perhaps a problem with a family member has resolved or grown more complicated. You'll be hard-pressed to find something that hasn't changed! As I post this today, I look back over the month and review my mom’s illness and death; a teaching engagement that took me to Los Angeles; and a political fight to influence Arizona’s governor to veto an immoral, discriminatory bill that the state legislature had passed!
Again, facing the truth of impermanence shouldn't depress you; it should free you to be fully present. It should help you realize that the peace and ease you seek are available in the midst of changing circumstances. When you really see that all things change, your grasping and clinging fade under the bright light of awareness, like the stains in a white cloth bleached by the sun.

If nonattachment sounds cold and unappealing, you may be mistaking it for indifference. It's the experience of attachment, based on the denial of ceaseless change, that is lifeless. Life without change is a contradiction in terms. When you're attached to something, you want it to stay the same forever. This attempt to "freeze-dry" elements of your life squeezes the vitality out of life. The practice of nonattachment allows you to enjoy life wholeheartedly in its very passing.

Through your attachments you create mental manacles that bind you to the limited view that life is your life, your body, your lover, your family, your possessions. As your insight into impermanence deepens you start to see the truth of "not-self." When you can extend beyond the limits you've created you see that your life is not really "yours" but ultimately simply one manifestation of life.

As “the buddha” tells us: "When one perceives impermanence, the perception of not-self is established. With the perception of not-self, the conceit of 'I' is eliminated, and this is nirvana here and now."

The Five Remembrances

I am of the nature to age. There is no way to escape aging.

I am of the nature to experience illness. There is no way to escape illness.

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.

I am the heir of my actions. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.