the four thoughts
The four thoughts that turn the mind come from Buddhism.1
precious human birth
Suffering arises as a failure to recognize impermanence. Thoughts and behaviors that reduce suffering create ripple effects (karma), and the same is true of thoughts and behaviors that increase suffering. It is a rare opportunity to be born as a human and to reflect on our experience and the four thoughts.
One can practice meditating on the four thoughts.
When we allow ourselves to think something is permanent we make attachment and aversion possible. When we don’t want something to go away, and we don’t expect it will, and it goes away, we suffer. When we want to be away from something but it is with us and we don’t think it will end, we suffer. We can form attachment and aversion to thoughts and emotions. We suffer from things we could simply choose to stop thinking about, but it takes that insight and practicing meditation helps.
We live in a world with other conscious minds capable of suffering. Our thoughts and behaviors effect conscious minds across time and space. We can meditate on the interconnectivity of our actions with suffering or joy in our community and the web of karma for life on earth as whole.
Human birth is a unique opportunity to reflect on the four thoughts and to reduce suffering. In Buddhism the following metaphor is given:
Life reincarnates in many forms and to be a human is very uncommon. There are many lower levels of consciousness. There is a ring that floats on the ocean and a sea turtle who only pokes his head above water for air once every 100 years. The rarity to be born a human is the same as the rarity of the turtle coming up for air and he happens to have his head go through the ring.
Reflecting on unique human birth cultivates gratitude for the opportunity and energizes us to improve our karma and reduce suffering.
I learned about the four thoughts in college2 and I’ve meditated on them frequently since then. I think of them as the irreducible facts of our experience.
I remember something said by Yuval Noah Harari3 regarding the question of whether an artificial intelligence might experience consciousness and therefore have a moral status. He said it will be very easy for us to be fooled into thinking an AI is conscious. The real question is “is there suffering?”. If something can suffer then it is conscious and we should care about whether it suffers more or less.
Note the four noble truths refers to a different list from Buddhism.
Gates to Buddhist Practice by Tulku Chagdud
Author and historian, most famous for Sapiens.