It’s my birthday today. I love a birthday. I love birthday cards and birthday candles. I love getting a bunch of messages on Facebook wishing me a happy day. I love doing something – alone or with others – to mark the milestone. I love feeling special on “my” day (which, if I’m doing my math right, I share with about 16.5 million others on Earth).
And I hate to admit it, I wish it wasn’t true, but I also struggle with having a birthday. I’m 48 today. I graduated from high school 30 years ago and from college 26 years ago. A whole boatload of adults were born AFTER those graduations. Time is moving forward and my life and my body are going with it. Most days I’m okay with it. I usually feel pretty Zen and chill but then I find myself wishing that I could run like I did when I was 28 or that my face and body looked like I did when I was 25 (or even 35!).
I’m embarrassed to admit it. It feels small-minded and superficial. But the truth is that sometimes I feel sad and even scared about getting older. I KNOW that aging happens to everybody and (as I often say to someone who is bemoaning their own birthday), it’s better than the alternative. I love being alive. I love life. I’m reluctant to give it up. Which I’m not planning to do any time soon. But still.
A few weeks ago, I listened to a brilliant dharma talk by Anne Cushman called “Long Live Impermanence.” (I don’t know what happened y’all but since I downloaded it, I’m not able to find it on DharmaSeed so I can’t share a link.) She is funny and smart, draws on a variety of fascinating sources and she offered me new thoughts on the constant change that is human life.
In her talk she makes reference to Buddha’s Five Remembrances and recalls chanting them every morning when she was practicing at Thich Nhat Hanh‘s Plum Village in France. They go like this:
Buddha’s Five Remembrances
I am of the nature to grow old.
There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health.
There is no way to escape ill health.
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 the nature to change.
There is no way to escape
being separated from them.
My actions are my only true belongings.
I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.
My actions are the ground upon which I stand.
On the surface of it, this is a real bummer. At first blush, it would seem that chanting that every morning would seriously be a drag. I mean, seriously. But right there at the end, that last part turns it around. “My actions are my only true belongings.” The last section reminds me that my time and my life are precious and what I choose to do with them is important. Yes, it’s true that in 100 years we’ll all be dead, but the world that will be happening then will be affected by the actions I take now.
So, I got curious about the Remembrances. After listening to Anne Cushman’s talk, I looked them up online and I wondered about the possibility of looking straight at the reality of impermanence. I realized that in some part of my brain, I think that MAYbe, if I eat right, and exercise, if I take care of my skin and drink 8 cups of water a day that I won’t age and, ultimately (this little part of my brain thinks), I won’t die. It’s not my whole brain. I don’t BELIEVE that I’m immortal. It’s just a little part of my brain that says, “Yep, everybody gets old and dies. But if I do things JUUUST right, maybe I won’t.”
Since I know that this line of thinking is a little off, I figured I’d give the Remembrances a whirl, so I’ve taken to reading them before I meditate in the mornings. And it’s funny, but it’s not a bummer at all. There is something freeing about it. I can actually feel myself relax as if I’ve been holding time and change at bay and I can let it go. There is no way of escaping change or old age or death, so I can just chill and get on with my day.
In the introduction to the Remembrances that I found, it says “When you deny the reality of life, you appreciate it less. Meditate on the Buddha’s Five Remembrances and rediscover the magic of life just as it is.” In my short experience, this feels true. I am struck by the preciousness of every day and am reminded to choose words and actions that I feel good about. It’s cool how this seemingly-morbid look at life has encouraged me to engage in life: say the compliment that I might not have, apologize more quickly, and help, even in a small way, however I can.
If I fight the inevitable transience of life, and work to stay as some previous, faster-running, firmer-skinned version of myself, I lose the chance to become who I am now. With one month left of my sabbatical, I’m ready to teach Nia again*. It is a small way that I can be of service and offer my gifts, and it feels good. If this birthday was my last, I would feel that I made a contribution in a way that only I can. Reading Buddha’s Remembrances every day is helping me to actively choose more ways that I can connect and shine my light. “My actions are the ground upon which I stand.”
In Nia, we borrow the famous Crazy Horse quote and say “Today is a good day to die” when we are surrounded by what we love and we have done our best. Today is my birthday and today is a good day to die.
Happy Transience Day, everybody! Let me know how you are celebrating the precious impermanence of your life!
* For Nia fans in Charlottesville, starting September 1, I’ll be teaching on Mondays and Wednesdays at 1045 at ACAC Albemarle Square and on Thursdays at 9am at ACAC Downtown. I’m also subbing a bunch in August, so you can check the schedule! Do come play with me!