From AN 5.57, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi:
(4) A woman or a man, a householder or one gone forth, should often reflect thus: ‘I must be parted and separated from everyone and everything dear and agreeable to me.’
This is the fourth of five contemplations in the sutta we’ve been exploring. It follows logically from contemplating ageing, illness and death as inevitable elements of living a human life.
A Buddhist nun once told me that if her beloved (who had died) walked through the door, she’d abandon the holy life in a heartbeat. When she said it, she knew it wasn’t possible for her beloved to walk through any door that she could see, but she was expressing a stark reality. She had made the relationship her world and consequently the world was lost when her partner died. She quoted the verse above; she had described her direct experience of its truth.
There are less dramatic examples of our being parted from places, things and people we hold dear and find agreeable. As we move through our lives, friendships begin and end, family relationships deteriorate or improve, our health has ups and downs, institutions or organizations that we rely on can both sustain and disillusion us, circumstances may cause us to leave a comfortable living or work situation. What the Buddha is pointing to is our tendency to rely on the unreliable.
Can we look beyond these pleasures? Is there a way to cope with our desire for security and comfort that won’t lead us astray? Perhaps paradoxically, the way out of our “desire” trap is to (gradually) change how we view our desires and preferences.
We may take our desires and aversions to be our marching orders; we may feel that we must obey them, that we have no choice. However, by taking only one step back from that assumption, we might be able to see that our preferences have often changed in direction and intensity. Much as we would like it to be otherwise, we and the circumstances of our lives don’t stay the same; there is no solid foundation to cling to “out there”.
Instead of neurotically pressing forward with our desires, perhaps we can come back to the simplicity of now. What is our intention in this place and time? What desires and aversions are rising and passing away? Where are we choosing to place our attention and energy? Can we stop seeking an illusory secure happiness and become more engaged with the process of living?