Five Themes for Frequent Reflection

We begin practicing the Five Themes for Frequent Reflection by bringing our awareness to four of the most obvious facts concerning human existence. These four facts - we grow old; we get sick; we die; we lose all of the people and the things that we love - are at once totally apparent and somehow hard to keep a grip on. We don’t want to see them. We look away. We want to feel as if our youth, our health, our lives and our loves belong to us. And they don’t.

In bringing our attention to the fifth fact, the Buddha invites us to look at what does belong to us - the results of our own intentional actions. The fifth reflection invites us to look at how the consequences of our choices stay with us and how they shape whatever comes next.

Five Themes for Frequent Reflection

“There are these five themes that should often be reflected upon by a woman or a man, by a householder or one gone forth. What five?

‘I am subject to old age; I am not exempt from old age.’

‘I am subject to illness; I am not exempt from illness.’

‘I am subject to death; I am not exempt from death.’

‘I must be parted and separated from everyone and everything dear and agreeable to me.’

‘I am the owner of my actions, the heir of my actions; I have my actions as my origin, my actions as my relative, my actions as my resort; I will be the heir of whatever actions, good or bad, that I do.’

Adapted from Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha (Wisdom Publications, 2012), AN 5.57.

To work with these reflections:

  • Set aside a few minutes at the beginning and at the end of each day to read through these five statements.

  • Allow the meaning of each statement to emerge as you read the words.

  • Reflect on experiences that you have had which relate to each statement.

  • Notice any lingering effects as you practice over the course of the week.

  • Write about your reflections and experiences related to this practice in your practice journal.