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
At some level, we don’t want to die because we can’t imagine things not staying more or less as they are. Our general self-protective attitude stiffens at any perceived threat to the status quo. And yet even by the age of five, we have survived innumerable unplanned-for dangers. Everything we hold dear will change; there is no certain safe harbor. How to cope?
We can train ourselves to go with the flow of change rather than resist every unexpected turn, and this attitude has the potential to wake us up to new possibilities. I once confessed to my father that I didn’t know if I could cope with a huge unexpected change in my living situation. He said, “We don’t know what we can cope with until it comes to us.” The truth of this is obvious in our own lives and if we look at how others respond to change. Seemingly impossible springs of patience, skill, and wisdom can rise to the surface.
The original question that sparked this discussion was, “How should we behave, what should we say, when disaster strikes someone we care about?”
Our disasters can take many forms: the difficulty or death of a family member, a life-limiting diagnosis, divorce, job-loss or simple despair. How can we better help those in distress?
From a correspondent with Washington Post columnist Carolyn Hax (1 Aug. 2012):
I was a volunteer chaplain in a hospital for 14 years. Guess what? NOBODY feels at ease in trying to support someone who is going through hard emotional times. Even people who are trained to do it.
Listening is key. That’s what most people really want and need. And to start, you can always say, I feel bad for you, tell me what you need, help me to understand the problem.
The wise advice in this letter can be applied to people we want to help or support, and also to ourselves. We can acknowledge, “I feel bad. What do I need? What exactly is the problem?”
Just having these questions in mind can make it possible to be of maximum use to people in need. “I’m sorry. Can you tell me what you need? Can you help me understand what’s happening for you right now?”