Chapter Four


When you see an aged person, the Buddha says that you should regard that person as a messenger from the devas (MN 130). The messenger is delivering two messages. The first is that you, too, are subject to aging. The proper response is to learn not to look down on those who are already aged, for they’re simply showing you your own fate. At the same time, you have to learn to be heedful in your actions so that, at the very least, you have a refuge of good kamma to hold you in good stead when you yourself begin to age. At best, you want to reach the attainment that’s not affected by aging at all, so that you’ll be able to live in peace even when old (AN 5:78).

The second message is that all beings are subject to aging. This means that when aging arrives to you, you’re not being unfairly singled out for any particular indignity. It’s a natural process that happens to everyone who lives long enough, so it would be childish and immature to react to aging with feelings of resentment or irritation. Here again, you have to be heedful so that your emotions don’t blind you to the opportunities that still lie open to you to do good in your thoughts, words, and deeds.

When you see signs of aging in your own body, they’re messengers of a different sort, giving you advance warning of your own death. The body has begun to slip out of your control. You’re struck by how alien it is, as it weakens and begins to shrivel without asking your permission or serving notice at all. Of course, it’s been aging ever since you were born, as it gets worn down through exertion and the assaults of the environment, but the signs of aging were masked by the body’s ability to regenerate new tissue. As that ability to regenerate begins to fail, there’s little you can do about it. Someday—and that someday keeps creeping nearer—you’ll totally lose control over it, and it’ll die.

Here again, the proper response is to be heedful in your actions.

The Canon focuses special attention on three signs of aging in the body:

Its beauty withers and fades,

its strength weakens, and

its sense faculties, including the mind, blur and grow dim.

Aside from advocating a healthy diet and physical exercise to keep the body reasonably fit, the Buddha doesn’t counsel that you put any extraordinary effort into fighting these processes of physical deterioration. Instead, he advises that you focus on developing mental qualities that will compensate for them. In other words, you develop the beauty, strength, and faculties of the mind. There are a few passages in the Canon where the Buddha states that as you develop the strengths of meditation, feeding on the pleasure that concentration provides or developing unlimited goodwill, one of the rewards is that your complexion brightens and your body is energized (SN 1:10; AN 11:16). But those physical rewards are only side effects. The important point is that the mind isn’t overcome by the defilements that often accompany aging—such as frustration, sorrow, or anger—which would lead to its long-term suffering and harm. The body may age, but the mind doesn’t have to age along with it.

This observation is not just a random platitude. It’s firmly rooted in a lesson from the Buddha’s awakening: that the mind comes first and doesn’t have to depend on the body. Here’s a chance to prove that principle in practice.

Beauty. The mind becomes beautiful as it develops two qualities.

The first is virtue. Unlike physical ornaments and cosmetics, which look more and more ridiculous the more you age, virtue is an ornament appropriate for people of all ages. Restraint in your words and actions is a sign of graciousness. This perception of virtue as a beautiful ornament is a mental fabrication that’s always wise to keep in mind. However, unlike physical ornaments, it’s not an optional decoration. The Buddha also talks of virtue as a form of wealth. A loss of your virtue, he says, is more serious than a loss of health, of material wealth, or even of your relatives (AN 5:130). Virtue is an inner wealth that’s essential to any trustworthy form of well-being.

The basic definition of virtue expresses it in terms of five precepts: to refrain from killing living beings, from stealing, from illicit sex, from telling lies, and from taking intoxicants. It’s important to note that these precepts can be broken only when you transgress them on purpose, which means that following the precepts makes you more sensitive to your intentions, and forces you to be alert to what your intentions for your actions really are. In this way, virtue is an excellent preparation for training the mind in meditation.

These virtues are said to be appealing to the noble ones when they’re “untorn, unbroken, unspotted, unsplattered, liberating, praised by the observant, ungrasped at, leading to concentration” (AN 10:92).

To say that they’re untorn, unbroken, unspotted, and unsplattered means that you hold to them at all times, without exception.

For them to be ungrasped at means that you don’t hold to them for the sake of comparing yourself with others, telling yourself that you’re better than those who don’t follow the precepts. You hold to the precepts for another purpose, which is to cleanse your mind of its defilements. If you do compare yourself with others with regard to the precepts, it’s to see where other people are more skilled at observing them than you are so that you can learn lessons to apply to your own behavior.

After all, virtue is a skill. When you make up your mind to observe the precepts, you’ll find that there are many situations that present challenges, as when you want to keep a certain piece of information from others who you suspect will misuse it. The easy way out would be to misrepresent the truth to them, but that would break your precept against lying and present no serious challenge to your discernment. The more skillful strategy—one that actually develops your discernment—would be to find a way to divert the conversation so that you can keep the information to yourself without telling a lie.

Finally, for your virtues to be liberating and to lead to concentration, you have to learn how to be strict in them but without at the same time obsessing over them. You remember that virtue is a matter of intention, so as you develop alertness in all your activities, you can become more and more confident in the purity of the intentions on which you act. This confidence leads to a gladness that liberates the mind from worry and allows it to settle happily into concentration.

When your virtues are pure and worn gracefully in this way, they’re a genuine source of beauty for the heart and mind.

The second source of mental beauty is a cluster of three related qualities: composure, forbearance, and equanimity. Composure is a general ability to keep a calm demeanor in difficult situations. Forbearance—the Pali term khanti can also be translated as patience, tolerance, or endurance—is more particularly the ability to restrain yourself from giving vent to your anger and frustration when mistreated by others or encountering undesirable circumstances. This is a theme that the Buddha discusses frequently: Giving vent to anger makes you ugly here and now, and leads to ugliness in a future life. Worse, acting on anger can lead you to do many things that, on calm reflection, you’ll later regret (MN 135; AN 7:60).

Equanimity is the internal attitude that gives strength to your composure and forbearance. As we noted in the previous chapter, equanimity is the internal antidote to irritation. Instead of seething inside while trying to maintain a calm exterior, you wisely consider the truth of the principle of kamma, so that your attitude of calm can seep deeper into the heart.

This attitude gets tested again and again as aging progresses. The challenges of life, instead of getting easier in honor of your reduced strength, grow harder with age. You find yourself less able to depend on yourself physically, and more having to rely on the strength of others. And of course, they’re not always going to do things as you would like them to. As you lose your strength, you’re less able to keep control of situations that you used to control with confidence, and others will see their chance to take control themselves.

This is where you have to exercise some restraint over your anger and irritation, so that you don’t drive away the very people who are actually trying to help you. Even when the people around you are not sincere in wanting to help you, you can’t let your goodness depend on theirs. Restraint helps you keep to the moral high ground. An internal attitude of equanimity provides a solid basis for that restraint.

As you’ll recall from the preceding chapter, equanimity is developed by reflecting in general on the principle of kamma. The Canon, when discussing forbearance, gives focus to that general reflection, highlighting specific examples of how to apply the teaching on kamma to the two main situations that call for forbearance: painful feelings from injury or illness, and hurtful words from others. We’ll discuss how to deal with the pains of illness in the next chapter. As for pains from injury, the Canon advises keeping in mind the simile of the bandits with the saw that we discussed in the preceding chapter: This image or perception is a form of present-moment mental fabrication that can help keep you from fostering ill will for those who have injured you—or are trying to injure you.

In the case of hurtful words, the Canon gives two sets of instructions for how to develop the right internal attitude to strengthen forbearance. The first set of instructions focuses on your past kamma; the second, on your present kamma.

In his first set of instructions, the Buddha notes that it’s because of a mixture of good and bad past kamma that you’ve been born into the human world, and the speech you’re bound to hear in this world is a mixed bag as well: timely or untimely, true or false, affectionate or harsh, beneficial or unbeneficial, spoken with a mind of goodwill or with an attitude of inner hate. This is the normal range of human speech. If you want to hear nothing but pleasing speech, you’re in the wrong world (MN 21).

So when someone addresses you with untimely, false, harsh, unbeneficial, or hateful words, it’s nothing out of the ordinary. And it certainly gives you no extraordinary right to respond simply as you feel like it, because anything unskillful you do under the influence of anger will still count as more bad kamma for you, no matter how “justified” you think it is. You have to maintain your composure at all times so that your actions will always be skillful.

The second set of instructions focuses on the fact that you suffer most from hurtful words because of your own present-moment verbal and mental fabrications around what other people have said. Ven. Sāriputta, one of the Buddha’s disciples, recommends that when people insult you, you should tell yourself: “A painful feeling, born of ear-contact, has arisen within me. And that is dependent, not independent. Dependent on what? Dependent on contact” (MN 28).

In other words, instead of fabricating narratives around how horrible those words were, and how outrageous it is that someone could think so little of you as to insult you that way, you let the sound of the words stop simply at the contact. Let it die on its own. Don’t pull it into the heart. Then you contemplate the contact—in line with the second stage of mindfulness practice, reflecting on how anything dependent on conditions is inconstant. When you let the sound simply pass away on its own, your mind is released from the suffering it would otherwise have created in the present moment by entering into miserable states of becoming expressed in any of your old narratives poised to spring up around the contact.

You also release yourself from the bad kamma that you would likely create if you allowed yourself to brood and nurture anger over those words. And in refraining from anger, as we’ve noted, you avoid making yourself ugly both in the present moment and on into the future.

The Buddha speaks frequently of forbearance not only as a source of beauty but also as a strength. A poem that appears several times in the Canon makes the point that the strength of anger is the strength of a fool, while if you’re truly strong, you show your strength through forbearance. In doing so, you work for your own good and for the good of those trying to provoke you. They may perceive it as a weakness, but that simply shows that they know nothing of the Dhamma (SN 7:2; SN 11:5). You can’t let their perceptions influence you to act in an unskillful way.

So keep those two perceptions in mind: that forbearance is a source both of beauty and of strength.

Strengths. As you grow older and your physical strengths weaken, it’s all too easy to give in to your weakness—to let your responsibilities slide and give up on making any efforts out of the ordinary. And it’s easy to get frustrated as the body keeps finding new ways to resist your will. However, if you’re heedful—in other words, if you sense that your actions will make the difference between long-term pain and long-term happiness—you have to take stock of what strengths you still have. Then you can devote them to securing your greatest long-term benefit. You can’t let yourself get lazy and fritter your remaining strengths away.

As we noted in the Introduction, the Canon contains two lists of strengths that aid in promoting long-term welfare and happiness. There are five members in each list, but the lists overlap, so that taken together they provide a list of seven strengths in all. Taken together, these strengths are basically further refinements of heedfulness. They are:






concentration, and


These strengths will form the basic framework for the remainder of the discussion in this book, so keep them firmly in mind.

The first three strengths form a set, as they work together to foster the proper attitude to bring to the practice. They motivate you to focus on doing your best to work for your long-term welfare and happiness.

Conviction here means conviction in the Buddha’s awakening: that he awakened to the true nature of how action can create suffering or lead to the end of suffering, and that the truths to which he awakened should inform your own actions. In particular, as you age, conviction teaches you that you have to take seriously the Buddha’s discoveries on kamma and rebirth: that the kamma of each action lies in the intention behind the action, and that your intentions can lead to results not only in this lifetime, but also on into lifetimes after this. As we’ve already noted, those results can shape your future lifetimes in two ways: in creating openings for good rebirths, and in fostering skills that can exert control over your cravings so that you can best take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves as death arrives.

Both approaches require that you do your best to foster skillful intentions here and now. In this way, conviction takes the principle of heedfulness and focuses it on developing the strengths of the mind, and skillful intentions in particular. As the principles of dependent co-arising point out, your intentions may be influenced to some extent by the strength of the body, but they’re not entirely dependent on your physical strength. It is possible, even as the body weakens with age, to accomplish great things in strengthening the mind’s tendency to form and act on skillful intentions. Given that the skillfulness of your intentions will determine how well you face illness and death, the best investment of your energy is acting in skillful ways that will help you in that regard.

So it’s not wise to compose a bucket list of last-minute sensory pleasures to cram into what little time remains before you go. Instead, your bucket list should focus on the goodness you can create in your thoughts, words, and deeds. This goodness includes two sorts of qualities: general qualities, such as conviction, virtue, generosity, and discernment that will create the conditions for a good rebirth; and specific meditative skills, which will be needed to master craving at the moment of rebirth.

If you’re afraid of missing out on the sensual pleasures that the world has to offer, reflect on something Ajaan Fuang, my teacher, once said to me: If there’s a particular sensual pleasure you long for, it’s usually a sign that you had that pleasure in the past and are now missing it. Think about this for a moment, he said, and you’ll develop a sense of saṁvega. After all, if you devote effort to trying to gain it again, you’ll lose it again and then want it again. When will you see the futility of continuing to pursue it as it keeps slipping away?

A better use of your time would be to focus on the good you can do now. Ajaan Maha Boowa, one of the Thai forest masters, once had a student in her 80s who came into possession of a large collection of his recorded Dhamma talks, and she wanted to see them transcribed. However, she doubted that she’d have the strength to do it herself, as her eyesight was failing. His advice to her was this: See how much goodness you can squeeze out of the body before you have to discard it at death. Energized by his advice, she was able to complete the project, leaving behind two large volumes of excellent Dhamma talks.

This attitude toward the body—which we identified in the preceding chapter as a healthy positive body image—is one of the lessons that conviction teaches as aging comes rolling in. But of course, why wait until the body shows obvious signs of aging to heed this lesson? It’s not the case that you can die only after aging shows itself. If you’re heedful, you try to squeeze as much goodness as you can out of the body—and the mind—as soon and as consistently as you can.

Shame aids in this direction by motivating you to act only on your most skillful intentions, based on your desire to look good in the eyes of others. But because shame is an attitude that has received a lot of bad press from modern psychology, it’s good to be clear about what kind of shame the Buddha is talking about here. Actually, there are two types of shame: the unhealthy shame that’s the opposite of self-esteem, and the healthy shame that’s the opposite of shamelessness. Modern psychology focuses on the first type of shame; the Buddha is talking about the second.

Unhealthy shame is a weakness, but healthy shame can be a strength, depending on whose eyes you want to look good in. The Buddha recommends that you cultivate the desire to look good in the eyes of the wise: in particular, those who have successfully followed the path before you. By learning to look at your own behavior through their eyes, you’re training your own eyes to become wise as well.

In this way, you take advantage of the social context in which the Dhamma is taught. Even though we each have to develop the skillfulness of our own thoughts, words, and deeds, we’re not asked to reinvent the Dhamma wheel from scratch every time we act. Instead, we can benefit from the lessons learned by those who have practiced the Dhamma before us. In doing so, we’re relying on the principle that the Buddha said was the most important external factor conducive to awakening: admirable friendship.

Admirable friendship involves more than just making friends with admirable people. You also need to emulate their admirable qualities. This is where a sense of shame and honor comes into the equation. Your desire for your admirable friends to think well of you is a strong incentive to follow their good example.

Admirable friends can be recognized in possessing four good qualities, and it turns out that these are the basic qualities that create good openings for rebirth. This means that as you emulate your admirable friends, you create good openings for your own rebirth. The qualities are these:

• conviction in the Buddha’s awakening and in the principle of kamma;

• virtue, in the sense of not breaking the precepts or encouraging others to break them;

• generosity, and

• discernment.

The discernment of admirable friends can be seen in two things: the standards by which they judge you, and their purpose in judging you. If they’re really discerning, they’ll judge you by your actions—not by your appearance, wealth, or anything else over which you have no control. They’ll judge your actions both by the intentions on which you act and on the results to which you give rise. In both cases, the standard of judgment is your ability to find happiness in such a way that your intentions and actions harm no one: not you or anyone else.

Admirable friends judge your mistakes not simply to arrive at a judgment. In their compassion for you, they want to help you recognize why your mistakes are mistakes, so that you can learn not to repeat them. In this way, they’re encouraging you to be compassionate toward yourself and to develop the true source for your happiness: your ability to act with more and more skill.

To develop an attitude of shame in this context means that you learn to judge your actions by the same standards and with the same compassionate purpose that admirable friends would use in judging them. In this way, as you internalize their standards and purposes, focusing on developing skill in line with the lessons of conviction, you become an admirable friend to yourself, devoting your strengths to your long-term benefit.

If you can’t find admirable friends in your immediate surroundings, you can take the Buddha and his noble disciples as your friends. That way, when you start getting lazy in the practice, you can remind yourself of the efforts they made in their practice, and their compassionate intentions in passing the Dhamma on to others—including you. When you realize that you would be letting them down if you continued to be lazy, your healthy sense of shame should spur you to get back on the path.

This is why the Buddha called shame a treasure and a guardian of the world. You benefit when you perceive it in those terms.

Compunction is often paired with shame and, like shame, it’s a disinclination to do wrong. It differs only in that its motivation is more impersonal. Instead of focusing on how you look in the eyes of the wise, it focuses more on how, given the way causality works over the long run, you’re not immune to the consequences of your actions. You see the negative consequences that could come from acting in unskillful ways—and you care.

In this sense, compunction is the opposite of callousness—the attitude that you’ll do as you please and you don’t give a damn about the consequences. It’s also the opposite of apathy, the defeatist attitude of seeing action as futile, and not caring about anything at all. When you feel compunction, you actively care about your long-term well-being and try your best not to jeopardize it.

This active quality of caring may be one of the reasons why compunction is also paired with ardency in descriptions of meditators wiping unskillful thoughts out of their minds.

Like ardency, compunction is the wise response to a principle that the Buddha said is the most important internal factor conducive to awakening: appropriate attention. Appropriate attention looks at experience in terms of the Buddha’s two most categorical teachings: (1) the principle that unskillful actions should be abandoned and skillful actions developed; and (2) the four noble truths, together with the duties appropriate to each. Both of these teachings concern active truths—truths that call for you to act on them. Compunction is the response that’s willing to act on them so as to avoid causing anyone any harm.

This is why the Buddha lists compunction along with shame as both a treasure and as a guardian of the world.

The remaining four strengths build on the attitudes fostered by the first three. They, too, form a set, in that their main focus is on developing skillful qualities and abandoning unskillful qualities in the mind. And they, too, are further refinements of heedfulness. They differ only in the degree of subtlety they bring to being heedful.

Persistence starts with the realization that if you’re really heedful, you can’t simply be convinced of the truth of the Buddha’s teachings. After all, his truths contain imperatives on how to act. If you want to really benefit from those truths, you have to make the effort to abandon unskillful qualities and to develop skillful qualities in their place.

From this realization, persistence starts as you motivate yourself to do just that. In other words, skillful persistence is not just brute effort. It involves the effort to make yourself want to do the things you know are skillful but are hard to do, and to abandon the things that you know are unskillful but are hard to give up.

The element of desire is necessary here because all phenomena are rooted in desire (AN 10:58). To foster skillful desire, you can bring to bear any of the skillful attitudes that the Buddha recommends: In addition to heedfulness, conviction, shame, and compunction, you can use goodwill for yourself and others as a motive force for arousing your persistence and continuing along the way. You can spur yourself to practice by reminding yourself that you’ll benefit the more you practice, and so will others. Remind yourself, too, that goodwill, in the Buddha’s estimation, is not a weak and totally gentle quality. It’s often depicted together with endurance and strength.

Once your desire is in place, you put in the effort to follow the path. You realize that you can’t just coast your way to awakening. This is why, when the Buddha compared the factors of the path to a chariot, he compared persistence to the wheels, without which the chariot can’t move forward. When he compared the elements of the practice to a fortress, persistence was represented by the soldiers, who can never slack off in their efforts to protect the fortress of the mind. And in general, when portraying people who followed the path, the Buddha never used the image of people relaxing their way across the flood. Instead, he’d use images of people going into battle to attain victory, of people actively searching for something useful, or of people working at developing skills.

Discernment plays a further role in skillful persistence in figuring out what precisely is the right effort at any one time. The Buddha lists four types of effort altogether: guarding against unskillful qualities that haven’t yet arisen, letting go of any unskillful qualities that have arisen, developing skillful qualities that haven’t yet arisen, and maintaining and strengthening skillful qualities that have. The path is not simply a matter of letting go. Ultimately, yes, you will have to let go of everything, including the path, but that stage comes only when you’ve developed the path in full measure.

Still, the practice requires that you watch over it carefully so that you don’t squander your efforts. It also requires nourishment to keep you going. When the Buddha, in discovering the path, realized that he would have to keep his unskillful thoughts in check but could allow his skillful thoughts to range free, he realized that even then, the mind could get tired (MN 19). And of course, once the mind is tired, it’s easy to fall back to old, unskillful habits. So as a further refinement on the heedfulness of persistence, he turned his thoughts to resting in concentration.

This step of the path is embodied in the next two strengths: mindfulness and concentration. These steps can be treated as one because right mindfulness is what gets the mind into right concentration. We’ve already discussed these two strengths in detail in Chapter Two. Here I’d simply like to focus on their role in developing skillful intentions and abandoning unskillful ones.

By keeping in mind useful lessons you’ve learned from the past, mindfulness helps you to recognize skillful and unskillful qualities as soon as they arise. It also helps you to remember what you’ve done in the past to deal with them appropriately. This makes it easier to deal successfully with these events in the mind before the unskillful qualities strengthen with time, or the skillful ones fade away through inattention.

The role of mindfulness in keeping Dhamma lessons in mind operates on at least two levels: the level of general values and the level of specific techniques.

On the level of general values, mindfulness keeps the larger perspective of right view in mind: that it’s always worthwhile to be heedful of the states of the mind, and not to give in to laziness and defeatism as the body weakens with age—or with illness or death. This is the level of mindfulness that’s needed to keep up your overall undaunted fighting spirit as physical weakness sets in.

On the level of specific techniques, mindfulness recognizes individual mental states as skillful or unskillful, and remembers which techniques have worked in the past to strengthen skillful states and weaken unskillful ones.

The relationship between mindfulness and persistence on this level of the practice is nicely symbolized in the Buddha’s image comparing the practice to a frontier fortress (AN 7:63). Just as persistence is represented by the soldiers, mindfulness is represented by the wise gatekeeper who keeps out those he doesn’t recognize and admits into the fortress only those he recognizes as friends: all the good qualities that can be developed in the mind. Without the gatekeeper, the soldiers would have to deal with hordes of friends and foes thronging through the door. But because the gatekeeper is selective in who he allows in, the soldiers can focus their efforts on strengthening their friends as they arrive, and benefiting from the friends they’ve already strengthened.

In the same image, concentration is represented by the stores of food that sustain both the soldiers and the man at the gate. In bringing the mind to stillness with a sense of well-being, concentration provides a place of rest and nourishment for the mind. But it also does more. The stillness of concentration enables mindfulness to detect the arising of mental qualities more clearly. The sense of well-being makes the mind more willing to view its unskillful qualities with a sense of dispassion, not hungering for the fleeting pleasures they bring. It also keeps you from getting disoriented as you let go of mental qualities to which you’ve been clinging tightly as a part of your identity.

The preliminary insights that arise from concentration alert you to the fact that if all qualities could be viewed with total dispassion, then the fortress would be totally secure. But they also alert you to the fact that concentration, on its own, isn’t enough to accomplish that task. If you’re really heedful, you need to develop the added discernment needed to bring that level of dispassion about.

In this way, concentration provides the foundation for the final strength—discernment—at the same time making you sensitive to why it’s needed.

Discernment is defined as the ability to perceive arising and passing away in a penetrative way leading to the right ending of stress (SN 48:10). But just as mindfulness is not bare awareness of events arising and passing away, neither is discernment.

The crucial words in the definition here are “penetrative” and “leading to the right ending of stress.” In the Buddha’s vocabulary, the term “penetrative” means detecting differences as to which arisings are skillful and which are not. This is in line with the passage in the Canon saying that analysis of qualities, the discernment factor in the factors of awakening, is nourished by appropriate attention to which mental qualities are skillful and which are not (SN 46:51). The fact that this sort of insight is said to lead to the ending of stress puts it in the context of the four noble truths and, in particular, in line with the strategy outlined in those truths: You end stress by fostering dispassion for its cause, which is craving. And as we’ve noted, craving is what causes you to be reborn. So to put an end to stress and to rebirth, you have to look at arising and passing away in a way that leads to dispassion for craving.

In Chapter Two we discussed the Buddha’s strategy for doing precisely that: his five-step program for leading to escape from passion.

• As you watch the arising of mental events, you look to see how they’re originated in the mind

• Then you watch to see how they pass away as that internal cause passes away as well.

• If you find yourself reviving them, you look to see what allure they have: why you would want to make the effort to keep pursuing them even as they keep slipping away.

• Then you compare the allure with their drawbacks, to see that the drawbacks far outweigh any benefit you get from the allure.

• Reflecting heedfully on this fact gives rise to dispassion, which allows you to escape from any desire to cling to those events. That’s the escape.

As we’ve also noted, you apply this strategy first to unskillful qualities, and then, when the decks have been cleared, to the five strengths themselves. That’s how total release is attained.

That’s also how you strengthen the mind so that it can confront not only aging, but also illness and death in a way that you don’t have to suffer from them.

We can better appreciate the usefulness of these seven mental strengths by seeing how they counteract particular pitfalls of aging. Take, for instance, the common tendency to indulge in thoughts of nostalgia as you get older. As your body weakens with age and the range of pleasures available to you begins to shrink, it’s all too easy to cast back into the past to try to relive old pleasures now lost, or to regret opportunities for pleasures that you could have pursued but didn’t.

This habit of trying to wring a few more drops of pleasure out of the past, for some people, is one of the few sources of sweetness as the body grows old. But the sweetness has its bitter aftertaste. It can easily lead to sorrow over what is now out of reach, and that sorrow can inspire resentment and anger.

The desire to find happiness through nostalgia is actually inspired by wrong view—seeing that the present moment offers nothing of value, so you give added value to times that are long gone and cannot be retrieved.

Heedfulness teaches you that the present moment does offer opportunities of value, and that nostalgia is a waste of valuable time. You might think of Ajaan Lee’s image: Thoughts of nostalgia are like licking the bottom of yesterday’s soup pot when there’s no soup left. You get no nourishment to show for your efforts, even though there are other sources of nourishment all around.

Conviction gives focus to heedfulness by telling you of the particular dangers of nostalgia in light of the Buddha’s insights into kamma, rebirth, and the four noble truths. Nostalgia squanders time that could be invested in developing qualities that would lead to a good rebirth. Worse, it inclines the mind to align with cravings that could easily lead it astray at death. After all, even though nostalgia may seem like an innocent pleasure, it’s actually a form of becoming. If indulging in this type of becoming turns into a habit, it will prime the mind to engage in the same habit as death approaches—and who knows where it will lead? If you pine for a particular place, you may be seized at death with a desire to return to that place. If for a particular person, you’ll want to meet that person again. But even if the place and the person were as good as your nostalgia now paints them—and that “if” assumes a lot right there—that place and that person have changed in the meantime. You could easily be setting yourself up for major disappointments. And even if your nostalgic cravings happened to land you in a good place, it, too, would pass away with time, and you’d be stuck with the problem of nostalgia all over again.

You’d be much better off focusing on developing skillful qualities of mind, and trusting that they will take you to places and groups of people that won’t disappoint. If you want to think of the past, think of the wise actions you did—times when you were generous out of the sheer goodness of your heart, or virtuous when it involved sacrifice or you could have gotten away with less than honorable behavior. Let those thoughts inspire you to find ways of being generous and virtuous now and on into the future.

Or even better, you can devote your valuable opportunities in the present to develop qualities that will take you further, to forms of happiness beyond the vagaries of places and time.

Based on this conviction, you cultivate the desire to abandon thoughts of nostalgia, and to replace them with something better. This is the basic task of persistence, but it can make use of a sense of shame and compunction as well—shame in the sense that you’d be embarrassed to have the Buddha or any of the noble ones see you waste your time in nostalgia; compunction in the sense that you really don’t want to create long-term problems for yourself through your short-sighted desire to squeeze pleasure out of the dregs of pleasures long gone.

Instead, you can think of the pleasure you can find by practicing generosity, virtue, and meditation here and now. Squeeze some goodness out of what strength you have. Even if you don’t have many material resources or much energy to share, you can find pleasure in developing thoughts of goodwill for all beings. And as long as you have an in-and-out breath, you can foster mindfulness and concentration around it.

By developing concentration based on the breath, you can sensitize yourself to how you’re engaging in the three kinds of fabrication—bodily, verbal, and mental—and you can apply that insight to the mind’s tendency to want to go back to the states of becoming that form around thoughts of nostalgia.

This is where you can apply the Buddha’s five-step program for discernment, starting by seeing which mental events give rise to thoughts of nostalgia and how they pass away. As you learn to observe events in the mind in this way, you can come to see the allure of nostalgia—all the wrong assumptions about pleasure, aging, and life in general that would make you want to go for those thoughts to begin with. You see that the allure is also composed of the three types of fabrication: how you breathe when you engage in those thoughts, the way you talk to yourself around them, and the perceptions and feelings you associate with them. You see how artificial—and even dishonest—the whole enterprise is.

Then you can compare the allure of those thoughts with their drawbacks. You can not only think of the drawbacks that you learned by viewing nostalgia in the light of your conviction in the Buddha’s awakening, but you can also realize that if you had continued to indulge in nostalgia, you wouldn’t have had the chance to find the pleasures of concentration or to train the mind to look for even higher pleasures that will never leave you.

When it really hits home that the allure of nostalgia is far outweighed by its drawbacks, then you develop dispassion for it. That’s how you can escape from it—for the sake of your long-term welfare and happiness. You’ve shown yourself that even when the body ages, it can develop the inner strengths to accomplish great things.

Faculties. As the strength of the body fails, its sense faculties weaken as well. This can place severe limitations on the pleasures you can find through these faculties, as your senses of sight, hearing, or taste get murky and less and less reliable. More importantly, it can cut you off from moral support and Dhamma lessons that you could gain from others as you deal with the hardships not only of aging, but also of illness and death. The mind can easily get caught in the echo chamber of its own thoughts, with little or no outside input to dampen the echoes. If those thoughts are positive, there’s no problem. But given that the aging of the body can easily put the mind in a depressed state, the amplification of depressed thoughts can drown out the positive thoughts that are precisely what you need at this stage of life.

To protect yourself against this eventuality, you have to learn how to make yourself more self-reliant in the Dhamma. Part of this, of course, means memorizing passages of Dhamma that will hold you in good stead as you lose your ability to read or listen to Dhamma talks. But more importantly, you have to develop good internal qualities that will keep the mind strong.

It so happens that the Buddha taught a list of five mental qualities that he also called “faculties” (indrīya), and that these are precisely the qualities needed to make the mind its own refuge. These mental faculties are identical with five of the strengths we have just considered—conviction, persistence, mindfulness, concentration, and discernment—with two of them, mindfulness and discernment, especially suitable for overcoming unskillful mental states from within.

One of the Buddha’s verses (Sn 5:1) notes that mindfulness is like a dam for restraining the currents of unskillful mental states, whereas discernment is what stops them for good. To use modern medical terminology, mindfulness—together with the concentration it leads to—functions as symptom management for a disease, whereas discernment effects the actual cure: searching out and uprooting the disease’s causes so that the disease can go away and not return.

This is how these two faculties work together: When you get into an unskillful thought world, such as anger over an incident in which someone mistreated you in the past, mindfulness recognizes it for what it is—unskillful—and reminds you that it’s constructed. You can get out of it by stepping back to observe how it results from causes, and how those causes can be abandoned and brought to an end.

Discernment then does the work of analyzing the different kinds of fabrication that give rise to the anger, with an eye to seeing what its allure is. The fact that you’re willing to question the anger from an outside perspective shows you that at least part of the mind is ready to view the anger with dispassion. When you gather evidence showing that the drawbacks of angry thinking outweigh the allure, the resulting dispassion can provide you with the escape.

That’s how the mind, as it loses contact with the outside world, can act as its own refuge. And of course, it’s precisely this ability that will be needed at death.

So in this way, as you develop inner beauty, strength, and reliable mental faculties to compensate for the weakening and withering of the body, you’re also beginning to master some of the skills that will be needed at death.

Even as you age, you can still accomplish great things.