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Updated by Joe Hunt on Jan 27, 2021
Headline for The Four Reminders: The Buddhist Solution to A Focused and Purposeful Life
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The Four Reminders: The Buddhist Solution to A Focused and Purposeful Life

Distraction is often seen as a disease of the modern age.

Social media, city life, the news, smartphones, and all the other stuff that invades our privacy and gobbles up our attention is to blame.
If only we could get rid of all that stuff, then there would be no issue.

We would go be able to focus on and do whatever we set our minds to.

Well, you can already simulate that today.

There’s an endless array of apps, products, methods, and tools designed for blocking out the world, overcoming distraction, and achieving optimum focus.

And yet, you might have noticed that even with a bunch of tools and absolute perfect conditions, there can still be times when you can’t sit still for two seconds and focus on what you want to.
Sure, there’s going to be times when it’s not your day or you’re just too tired or whatever. But what I’m talking about goes beyond surface-level distraction and how motivated you feel at any given moment.

It’s a kind of constant internal wobbling from not being sure what you’re doing with your life. A complacency of not valuing your time. An indifference of getting caught up in unhelpful cycles and not knowing how to, or why you would even want to, get out of them.

This is the problem of distraction at the level of an entire life.

Distraction of this kind is nothing new. It’s an age-old problem that’s plagued humans long, long before social media and Tony Robbins existed.

One of the first to notice this problem was Padmasambhava. Known as the second Buddha, and who you could consider an early “productivity” or “motivational” pioneer, Padmasambhava was the guy who brought Buddhism from India to Tibet some 2000 years ago.

While transporting the tradition, he noticed that even when they had access to the vast accumulation of Buddhist teachings and practice on dealing with desire and living with purpose, his new students would still often struggle to get fired up, refrain from fooling around, and change their lives.

To solve this, Padmasambhava (let’s call him Paddy for short) developed a short set of potent lessons called The Four Reminders, or the four thoughts that turn the mind.
They include the precious opportunity offered by human life, the truth of death and impermanence, the law of karma, or the fact that actions have consequences, and the futility of living in samsara.

Paddy didn’t create The Four Reminders to be another list to memorize and store away in the knowledge bank.
That’s the last thing he wanted.

He saw that even when studying Buddhism, which is meant to bring you closer to the reality of life, you can all the while still overlook, intellectualize, and be distracted from some of the most solid realities that fuel an alive and purposeful life.

The Four Reminders are meant to reminder you of what is real and therefore really matters. They turn you away from focusing on and being distracted by what’s going on around you, and turn you inward to discover and experience what’s true for yourself.

Learn them. Then reflect on them regularly and with intensity. Especially when you don’t want to when things are going well. This is often when we need reminding the most.



1. Your Precious Human Birth

“We are always in a position where something might happen to us. We don’t know. Life can just turn upside down. Anything can happen. How precious, how really sweet and precious our lives are.”—Pema Chödrön, The Wisdom of No Escape

You only have to watch a few minutes of a documentary like Cosmos to get an idea of how precious human life is and the universe are.

“There’s as many atoms in a single molecule of your DNA as there are stars in the typical galaxy. We are, each of us, a little universe.” Neil deGrasse Tyson exclaims with his child-like enthusiasm.
But no matter how many times you hear it and how big deGrasse Tyson’s eyes get when he says it, it often doesn’t do more than pique your curiosity.

How do you actually feel that wonder and preciousness deep in your bones?
In Buddhism, realizing the preciousness of life isn’t about massive numbers and abstract comparisons. Such information may be awe-inspiring and wonderous, but it’s hard to relate to the reality of daily life.

For instance, you may listen to deGrasse Tyson talk daily about the stars and the incomprehensible immensity of the universe and feel very insignificant and lucky, but all the while you may not see or appreciate the fact you have enough freedom and time to watch a documentary, enough wealth to own a phone or computer, enough food and good health to not be dying from starvation or writhing in extreme pain, and enough peace to not be being bombed or interrogated or just trying to survive.

Books, documentaries, videos, and even articles like this one can only give us an idea of the preciousness of existence. They can act as useful pointers and signpost. However, they can also distract us from the immediacy of recognizing the preciousness of this human birth and this life we have.

Recognizing your precious human birth is about being able to feel gratitude and wonder even in the seemingly most mundane and boring aspects of life.

Like waking up in the morning. Driving to work. Pumping gas. Feeling the rain on your skin. Having skin. Being able to feel anything at all.

You don’t need to learn crazy facts about the cosmos to feel alive. Or constantly doomscroll and track COVID deaths to feel grateful for having a body and being healthy.

But at the same time, it’s not about running around pretending everything is amazing and that everything that happens to you is a blessing.

It isn’t just the good stuff that’s precious. If you can only see how beautiful and wonderful everything is, then you’re not able to see the reality of suffering, how others suffer, and how you suffer. You’re too busy trying to feel good.

The goal of life isn’t to gain total pleasure and 24/7 happiness. Despite how some Buddhists and some billionaires think, being grateful for your life isn’t walling yourself off from the dangerous world and trying to immortalize your consciousness in the cloud.

Pain, misery, feelings of being trapped, grief, confusion, frustration, loneliness, heartbreak, embarrassment etc., are a part of life. Just because they don’t feel good or seem “precious” to you doesn’t mean they’re not and should be excluded.

But likewise, they don’t have to worship them. Such feelings are like the weather, they come and go. The point is that no matter what the weather, even if you’re feeling low and depressed, it doesn’t mean you have to forget how precious it all is.


2. The Truth of Impermanence or Death

“With mind distracted, never thinking, “Death is coming,”
To slave away on the pointless business of mundane life,
And then to come out empty — it is a tragic error.”—The Tibetan Book of The Dead

In the ancient Indian text the Mahabharata, the sage Yudhishthira is asked, “Of all things in life, what is the most amazing?” He answers, “That a man, seeing others die all around him, never thinks he will die.”

What’s even more amazing—and probably what Yuddy was getting at—is that even when we know we’re going to die, we can still act like we’re going to live forever.

On some level, we know we could die at any moment. We’re dying from the moment we’re born. Death is no further away from you or me than it is a 120-year-old lying on a hospital bed who’s about to take their final breath.

The problem is, as a collective we act like this is nonsense. We believe that our lives and our futures are so certain. And to support this belief, we concoct ideas about faith, luck, and destiny, and build our lives in a way that makes it seem like we are going to live forever.

Anything to get around having to reconcile and live with the seemingly impossible reality that you’re never more than a breath away from death.
Breath in.

Breathe out.

Don’t breathe in.

Bam, you’re dead.

In the West, death is a pretty grim subject. But in Buddhism, the reality of death, as expressed in the teaching of impermanence, is the most liberating teaching of all.

All around us we see impermanence — in our moods, the changing seasons, the supermarket meat aisle, granny’s funeral.

At first glance, such constant change and lack of permanency may make us feel lost, grief, rejection, tragedy, pointlessness, nihilism.

But the more we don’t push away or hide the inevitability of the demise of ourselves and everyone and thing around us, the more we discard useless distractions and feel the urgency and primacy of life coursing through our veins.

As Tibetan Buddhist expert Bruce Alan Wallace says:

“In light of death, our mundane desires are seen for what they are. If our desires for wealth, luxury, good food, praise, reputation, affection, and acceptance by other people, and so forth are worth nothing in the face of death, then that is precisely their ultimate value.”

Without the reminder of death and impermanence, we never know what’s important. We may stay in our little bubble of comfort, avoiding pain and putting off life for some future date that never comes.

By regularly reminding ourselves of the truth of death and impermanence, it’s like holding our need to please, our self-imposed limits, and our trivial and insignificant worries up to the light and watching as they burn away into ash.


3. The Law of Karma

“Fundamentally, in our everyday life, it’s a reminder that it’s important how we live. Every time you are willing to acknowledge your thoughts, let them go, and come back to the freshness of the present moment, you’re sowing seeds of wakefulness in your unconscious. You are conditioning yourself toward openness rather than sleepiness.”—Pema Chödrön, The Wisdom of No Escape

The law of Karma is often seen as a way of connecting arbitrary events and showing that everything happens for a reason and you ultimately get what you deserve.

You don’t tip the waiter and then you lose your wallet on the walk home. Your partner falls in a muddy puddle after snapping at you. You get stuck in traffic on the way to work because you snuck out quickly to avoid your mother-in-law.

But karma is much more practical and humdrum. It describes how every action has a consequence. Particularly at the microscopic level of the mind, where tiny moment-to-moment choices become so automatic, we don’t even recognize them as choices anymore.

These are our mental habits and tendencies or our karmic patterns. They’re patterns of behavior we get stuck in and continue while hoping for different outcomes and chastising ourselves when nothing changes.

One of the most problematic karmic patterns we get into is in how we respond to stress or difficulty.
When difficult feelings like frustration, depression, or fear come up, we react by overeating or getting drunk or closing off. Then, when we look back on what we’ve done and the result is the same as usual, we feel even worse and the pattern continues.

This is how karma works. It’s nothing mysterious. It’s just patterns of behavior and attention that keep us trapped in cyclical loops that keep fuelling themselves, despite what we may want or think about them.

You’re working.

You check your phone.

You go back to work but become frustrated because you can’t focus.

You think “ugh, it must be one of those days”, and check your phone again.

You repeat.

To break such automatic loops of action-consequence-reaction, it’s key to remind yourself how the law of karma works. You need to be able to see the bigger picture instead of just getting caught up inside the loops.

One way to do this is to recognize how what you do in this moment will affect what you do in the next, and the one after that, and the one after that. Remind yourself how do you want to feel in an hour, tomorrow, next week, in a year, or in ten years from now?

This isn’t to say doing this will stamp out karmic tendencies instantly and that certain habits will never get the better of you again. Every action has a consequence. Over time, by taking more conscious moments to acknowledge your thoughts and behaviors and not denying or indulging them, you’ll become more and more prone to moments of conscious action, which, in turn, will lead to more and more positive karmic conditions.


4. The Futility of Samsara

“Samsara is preferring death to life. It comes from trying to create safety zones. We get stuck here because we cling to a funny little identity that gives us some kind of security, painful though it may be.”—Pema Chödrön, Comfortable With Uncertainty

Samsara is a meta-loop we can get caught in through attempting to find stability and happiness in all the wrong places.

We seek pleasure and avoid pain.

We seek comfort and avoid discomfort.

We seek security and avoid groundlessness.

In Buddhism, this desire to find satisfaction and certainty is thought to be at the root of all our dissatisfaction and feelings of uncertainty about life.

In the West, we most often have it the other way around. We think that dissatisfaction and uncertainty are problems that need to be solved by finding security, predictability, reliability, familiarity, and surety. Once we attain all this, then we will finally be able to feel at ease and be able to relax in this strange and alien world.

But the fact is, those that do get this far typically report the opposite.

Chasing security has only made them feel more insecure. Surrounding yourself with comfort only makes you more susceptible to discomfort. Going after ultimate satisfaction only makes you feel less and less satisfied.

Life is always falling apart. We’re born dying and even the next breath is uncertain.
We can distract ourselves and try to find stability and security in the ever-changing conditions of the world, and we can turn towards and embrace this reality.

The temptations of samsara are plenty and can be incredibly sticky. So much so that if you do challenge the cycle and try to break free, you can be hit with a whole load more reasons to stay cozy and closed off.

This is the point of the Fourth Reminder — to show there is another way of living beyond seeking comfort and stability. It reminds us that we don’t have to play the game of More and that feeling vulnerable, lost, lonely, and like the ground has been pulled out from beneath your feet is not always a bad thing that needs to be avoided.

Rather, they can be signs of your coziness being challenged or uprooted. Signs you’re not distracting yourself from difficulty anymore but are getting in touch with the very precious and often not so comfortable feelings that come from being an imperfect human who’s alive and active in the world.
Of course, this isn’t always easy. Choosing to be alive over being dead is to give up clinging to a small but comfortable and secure identity, and to enter into the infinite unknown.

This is only scary when you have something to lose. That’s why stepping out of samsara is a continual process of letting go and reminding yourself of the reality that there is nothing you lacked or needed in the first place.

The Four Reminders help us keep moving more and more in line with what’s real and true, as opposed to getting continually sidetracked and distracted by what’s easy, convenient, or what we think we want based on external influences.

Distraction isn’t just some symptom of the modern age that we can deal with by finding the latest and greatest tool or app.

It often comes from the much deeper and subtler issue of being in a world where 99% of our time and attention is focused on what’s going on out there.

Using The Four Reminders, we can take moments more regularly to stop and turn our attention within.

The more we do that, the more we can back in touch with the impermanent, sometimes sticky and difficult, but all the time precious nature of what it is to be alive.

And when that happens, then suddenly we may that being distracted is the last thing on our minds.