The Supreme Contemplation

Practicing with the Four RemindersAndrew Holecek

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One of the best ways to prepare for death is to acknowledge that we really are going to die. We’re falling in the dark and have no idea when we’ll hit the ground. Buddhist scholar Anne Klein says, “Life is a party on death row. Recognizing mortality means we are willing to see what is true. Seeing what is true is grounding. It brings us into the present. . . .” We all know that we’re going to die, but we don’t know it in our guts. If we did, we would practice as if our hair were on fire. One way to swallow the bitter truth of mortality and impermanence—and get it into our guts—is to chew on the four reminders.

The four reminders, or the four thoughts that turn the mind, are an important preparation for death because they turn the mind from constantly looking outward to finally looking within. These reminders, also called the four reversals, were composed by Padmasambhava, the master who brought Buddhism from India to Tibet. They can be viewed as representing the trips Prince Siddhartha took outside his palace that eventually transformed him into the Buddha. During these trips, Siddhartha encountered old age, sickness, and death, and developed the renunciation that turned his mind away from the distractions and deceptions of the outer world and in toward silence and truth.

As a meditation instructor, I often prescribe the four reminders as the best remedy to get students who have stalled on the path back on track. As with mindfulness itself, the four reminders provide another way to work with distraction. They bring the key instruction from The Tibetan Book of the Dead—“do not be distracted”—to a more comprehensive level. The four reminders show us that it’s not just momentary distraction that’s problematic but distraction at the level of an entire life. If we’re not reminded, we can waste our whole life.

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