There are five things that have been well taught by the Blessed One, the one who knows and sees, the worthy one, perfectly enlightened by himself, that are to be contemplated daily by women and men, by householders and monks.
What are the five?
“I am of the nature to grow old, I have not gone beyond old age” is to be contemplated daily.
“I am of the nature to become ill, I have not gone beyond sickness” is to be contemplated daily.
“I am of the nature to die, I have not gone beyond death” is to be contemplated daily.
“All that is dear and delightful to me will change and vanish” is to be contemplated daily.
“I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related to my actions, and abide supported by my actions. Whatever action I do, whether good or evil, of that I will become heir” is to be contemplated daily.
Anguttara Nikaya 5.57, translated by John Kelly
As surely as each day that we are alive, we are one day older, we also cannot stop illness from coming to us. Illness may come when we are young or old, from our genetic inheritance or from random or unknown causes. Let’s include accidents in this category; they’re called accidents because no one wanted them to happen.
One reason the Buddha asks us to contemplate these unpleasant(?) realities is because of our instinctive desire to deny them. Although we know that aging and illness are inevitable, we still harbor the idea that we have control over them. If we take really good care of our bodies, we think we’ll age more slowly and have fewer illnesses. To some degree this is true; caring for our bodies and minds can make both aging and illness less onerous than they might otherwise be, for ourselves and others. But avoid them entirely? I think not. We can avoid thinking about them at the conscious level, but it takes a monumental effort. It is this burden the Buddha invites us to put aside. By accepting the reality within which we all live, we can stop fighting with it and move through life with more ease.
Have you ever heard or read about a catastrophic illness and had the momentary thought, “Whew! I’m glad that’s not me or any of my relatives.”? Or when someone you know has a terrible loss, say the death of a child, have you thought, “I could never bear that.”? In these ways, we deny the truth of our situation. We wrap ourselves in the delusion that we have been protected while someone else was not. We close our hearts down to what we think cannot be borne. And yet all of us have borne, or will bear, tremendous pain and loss. How can we learn to accept this?
The Buddha warns specifically (in the fuller sutta) against the arrogance of youth and the arrogance of health. When we are young and healthy we feel invulnerable. When we’re middle aged and healthy, we still feel (kind of) invulnerable. When we get sick, we become annoyed, impatient for the illness to go away, and a sense of unfairness appears, as if out of nowhere. But that sense that fair equals youth and health and unfair equals old age and sickness – well, that (perhaps dormant) attitude is what we’re trying to unravel. Unless we look for it in our minds, we will not find it.