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.