The Four Meditations: Transforming Thoughts

This morning I was reading something that is referred to as “the Four Mind Changers” or “The Four Transforming Thoughts” in Tibetan Buddhism, and I thought to myself… gee, that sounds a lot like what I wrote recently about the correlation or co-determinacy of knowledge, power, freedom, and responsibility. I was very pleased to discover that corroboration. And reflecting on these Four Mind Changers helped deepen even further my appreciation for the interrelationship of knowledge, power, freedom and responsibility.

Now, it’s interesting to me that the Four Transformative Thoughts are four in number and not three or five. There is, as I hope to show, a lawfulness to that which is also reflected in William Blake’s “fourfold vision” and what Arthur Miller wrote about the quest for the Cosmic Number in his book on Carl Jung and Wolfgang Pauli — Deciphering the Cosmic Number, which also happens to be “four”.  “Four” is the structure of our reality, not just in terms of the four dimensions (with the addition of time), but also in terms of the four fundamental cosmic forces in physics — the strong and weak nuclear forces, the gravitational force, and the electro-magnetic force. Reality, or “timespace”, is also fourfold in our experience: as past and future times, inner and outer spaces. Our reality is fourfold as we are fourfold, as beings of thinking, willing, feeling, and sensation — the four psychological functions according to Carl Jung.

This is a very old quest. The ancient Greek philosophers also had the four cosmic forces represented as Earth, Air, Fire, and Water, and were as engaged in trying to discover the “fifth” or quintessence as the unifying or integrating principle as physicists today are obsessed with “the Integral Theory” that would explain or unify the four contemporary cosmic forces. Earth, Air, Fire, and Water– the classical elements– also happen to correspond to the principle functions involved in bodily homeostasis (bodily health, or dynamic equilibrium) — metabolic system, respiratory system, nervous system and circulatory system. The number “four” is the number of the mandala. But the “fifth” or quintessence is what gives the mandala form coherent structure. And whether it is the ancient Greeks or the contemporary physicist, the quest for the principle making for the unity of consciousness despite the plurality of forces has been the same pursuit. Heraclitus called it Logos. Buddhism calls it “Buddha-nature”. Some call it “Christ Consciousness” (also “Word” or “Logos“).  And the “four evangelists” of Christian iconography — Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John — also correspond to the Guardians of the Four Directions in Buddhism, as well as to the four classical elements of the pagan philosophers.

I just wanted to mention this recurrent archetypal pattern once more by way of setting the context for interpreting the Four Transformative Thoughts, too.

The Four Meditations or Transformative Thoughts  conform to the same mandala structure. They are listed as

1) Precious Human Existence
2) Death, Mortality, and Impermanence
3) The Law of Karma: of Action and Reaction, Cause and Effect
4) The Defects and Shortcomings of Samsara

These four meditations or thoughts are designed to turn the mind away from samsara and towards Nirvana and Enlightenment. Yet they do it in a most peculiar way, not by turning away from samsara, but by diving right into the midst of it consciously — samsara being called “cyclic existence” or the secular realm of time. In these four meditations I see reflected the issues of knowledge, power, freedom, and responsibility, too, and something revealing about the very structure of reality.

“Precious human existence” meditation invokes responsibility. It is a blessing to be in the human form with its great opportunities for spiritual development. People should not squander this opportunity, but should develop all the resources made available for spiritual development and evolution by being in this form. This meditation insists on taking responsibility for being in the human form. It corresponds, in that sense, to the New Testament Parable of the Talents about the “worthless servant” who, having been entrusted with so many “talents”, wastes them by burying them in the ground. This meditation, then, directs your attention inwards, to discover and disclose your real resources.

The second meditation, on death and impermanence, turns the attention towards time, specifically future time — fate. Everything passes away, Everything is ephemeral. Time is death, or entropy. All things, including ourselves, are impermanent. There is only the flux. We learn to “die to ourselves daily” or, as Sufis say “die before you die, and you shall never die”. The meditation on death is to acquire power over time.


The third meditation on the law of karma, of action and reaction, of the accumulated “knots” that bind and twist our energies. The idea of the karmic law is that it is our “shadow”, the inheritance of thoughts, words, deeds from our past. It is to know ourselves as effects — aggregates of habits derived from past experience. “Wherever we go, wherever we remain, the results of our actions follow us”, is how the Buddha put it. We are aggregates of these past actions. This meditation thus orients us towards the past, our personal history — to gain insight into ourselves as effects, and of the awareness of the law of cause and effect as knowledge.

The fourth meditation turns attention towards what we call “the objective world”, samsara or “cyclic existence” or dukkha — difficulty or suffering. The defects and shortcomings of samsara are those things that make for our malaise or sense of the unfulfilled or unsatisfactory. Samsara is the sense of unfulfilled or unsatisfied (imperfect) being. Meditation on the deficiency of samsaric existence is designed to lead towards emancipation from cyclic existence. To escape the bonds of samsara is freedom.

So, backwards and forwards, inwards and outwards are the directions of these four meditations. And I think they map fairly well to the related issues of knowledge, power, freedom and responsibility, too.  The idea is not to become entangled or obsessed with these issues, but to see them as ultimately empty. They all intersect, of course. They aren’t separate, but aspects of one another. The goal is not immersion but insight, and with greater insight comes also greater knowledge, greater power, greater freedom, and also greater responsibility.

These meditations seem designed to help us grow into greater responsibility, knowledge, power, and freedom.



One response to “The Four Meditations: Transforming Thoughts”

  1. LittleBigMan says :

    ““Precious human existence” meditation invokes responsibility. It is a blessing to be in the human form with its great opportunities for spiritual development. People should not squander this opportunity, but should develop all the resources made available for spiritual development and evolution by being in this form.”

    Of the four meditations, this one has been my main focus as of late. It began for me, as you say, with a complete realization of how precious life in this plane of existence is – regardless of the many moment of dukha it entails. Then, of course, came the deliberation with myself about how best to honor this awesome gift. Directing my attention inward to create responsible and useful things for individuals I am responsible for has been exactly what I have done or thinking to do in the future.

    Thank you for this wonderful and inspiring essay.

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