On Aging

From the time I was sixteen until the time I was fifty my inner sense of myself remained unchanged.  I never felt like an “adult” inside, whatever that was supposed to feel like.  Although I’d worked as a professional for two decades and had grown children of my own, I still felt like an adolescent.   It wasn’t until I reached fifty that I truly felt like an adult.  And I wasn’t sure I liked it.  Would my life become static and stolid; would I become staid?  I needn’t have worried.  It didn’t, I didn’t.

At fifty-five I started accumulating medical diagnoses: the relatively benign (BPH, GERD) the relatively ominous (diabetes) and the potentially catastrophic (liposarcoma).  My list of prescribed medications grew long enough that I needed to write them down to remember when I visited my doctors.  I became aware of how dependent I had become on them.  What if there was some kind of global catastrophe and I couldn’t get my insulin any longer?  Interesting — worrying more about getting my insulin than about any possible global catastrophe (nuclear war? bioterrorism?) itself.  I had become an insulin junkie!

My external body changed as well: a balding head, a graying beard, occasionally swelling knees, unsightly keratoses.  Impermanence with a vengeance!  Vanity has not liked any of it one bit.  I began to feel, if not exactly ancient, then on the road to  antiquity.  How my mind resists it!  I want to hold on to my youth, appearance, and good health as long as possible. Who wouldn’t?  Wouldn’t you?

The trees in my neighborhood are now bare of leaves.  Last Friday I helped my family bury another family member, the fourth this year.  The days have shortened, the weather outside is colder.

Does this sound grim?  Do I sound unhappy?  It only causes unhappiness if I make it into a story: My Saga of Decline and Decay starring Me.  Or I project into the future:  “If this is how things are now, how will they be when I’m 90?”  “If I’m a bit forgetful right now, is that the onset of Alzheimer’s?

But actually, in any given moment, I’m okay.  Right now is just fine. I’m in good shape for the shape I’m in.  My heart beats, my lungs breathe, my legs carry me where I need to go, my eyes see.  All systems are go.  Beautiful moment, perfect moment.  And if vanity doesn’t necessarily like what it sees in the mirror, I remember that all the people who love me love me still, despite my mirror narrative.

And that’s the way it is for all of us, really. If we count up all the minutes we’ve lived and put them in the denominator, then count up all the minutes we’ve endured genuine agony (not mental agony due to projected fear about some future moment, but boiling-alive-in-oil-this-very-moment agony) and put them in the numerator, what is our suffering ratio?  As bad as they’ve been, the truly awful moments have been few and far between, and most moments have been okay in and of themselves.

Imagine being pushed out of an airplane without a parachute.  It might take several minutes to hit the ground.  The only moment of true physical pain is the last, and it is over in the blink of an eye.  All the rest of the journey is free fall.  You can spend the entire trip worrying about how much that last moment will hurt, screaming as you go.  Or, if your Buddhist practice is very good, you can enjoy the feeling of the wind through your hair.  How do you want to go?

Aging is like that.  What is there to be afraid of?  It’s a natural process, the way things are.  You can resist it if you like, but what’s the benefit in that?  Or you can let go and experience life fully the way it is, without the story.

As the cold weather sets in we put our garden to bed.  Today I cut back the rosa rugosa, already bereft of leaves, only a few bright red rose hips reflecting the sun’s light.  We rake up the sweet smelling salt hay we only last month laid down to protect the newly spouting grass.  No sign of the thousand flowers that bloomed this spring and summer.  The bulbs are all asleep, awaiting the return of spring.

We, the garden, the world, all one ongoing process of change.  Coming and going.

Be present.  Breathe.  Drop the story line.  Beautiful moment, perfect moment.  Just as it is.

16 Replies to “On Aging”

  1. Seth,
    This is a lovely post and so true. My mind resists that I am aging but my body challenges my mind to a duel and seems to be winning, though I try hard to stay in shape. The process may not be one I like but I do my best to step aside, observe it, learn from it and whenever I can, to enjoy it, or at least to laugh at it and at myself from time to time.

  2. There are times that I think the Rolling Stones were right when they sang, “What a drag it is getting old.”

    I am going through some of the same things you are. Whenever I put my hand to my forehead, I can’t help but remember that there used to be hair up there. I loved my hair. I know, attachment. But still, I hate to see it go. And it’s definitely going. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear that somehow my cat eats it at night when I’m asleep. And to be honest, I’d prefer that to the truth. Then I’d have someone to blame. Plus, the keratoses, the knees, the back, and my own very special potentially catastrophic ailment that is apparently poised to rock my world much, much sooner than I am prepared for, or expected.

    You are absolutely right, and thanks for writing this. It’s easy to realize this stuff intellectually, but to realize it in your heart, so that you can get up off the floor when you’ve been knocked for a loop, is not always so easy. It helps to have others remind us of what we already know but forget in the midst of emotional and mental trauma.

  3. Thanks, as always!

    I’m reminded of Woody Allen’s recent news conference at the Cannes Film Festival this past spring. The interviewer asked for his reaction to aging. He replied: “I find it a lousy deal. There’s no advantage in getting older. I’m 74 now. You don’t get smarter, you don’t get wiser, you don’t get more mellow, you don’t get more kindly. Nothing good happens. Your back hurts more. You get more indigestion. Your eyesight isn’t as good. You need a hearing aid. It’s a bad business getting older, and I would advise you not to do it.”

    Of course, Woody isn’t into Buddhist practice. If he did he might find himself wiser, more mellow, and more kindly! Age doesn’t make you those things, but practice does.

    1. How true, Seth. And when did Woody find much that is positive to say about anything! ? Not his strong suit, at least in his public persona.

  4. Beautifully written — it reminds me of my friend, Larry, who swore he’d crash his private plane into a mountain when his illness debilitated him too much because he valued his physical activities as his highest pleasures and reasons for living. But he did not crash his plane. He was bedridden the last 6 months. When I jokingly asked about his former boasted bold plans (we had that sort of relationship), he replied, “Sabio, you could not even begin to imagine how beautiful Mozart has become for me. Bound in bed, I now live in a exquisite world of beauty with my music.”

    Larry died 3 weeks later. He was not Buddhist, nor Christian just an atheist who understood exactly what you are saying — well, OK, probably not exactly, but there are three things I see in your post:

    (i) you can’t anticipate how everything will change for you

    (ii) you can’t imagine still finding happiness when loved people or things are taken from us

    (iii) reality can surprise us, if we let it

    Is that part of what you meant? If so, I think that is what Larry taught me.
    Your post was fantastic and made me feel reality a little more fully today — thank you.

  5. Sabio,

    Thank you. You are absolutely right. The narratives we spin in our minds about life after dreaded future events are fictions that cannot accurately predict the reality after such loss unless we become prisoners of those fictions. We can tell ourselves that life will be grim and meaningless if “x” happens, but after “x” life is still life. And we are still responsible for (and capable of!) making meaning and appreciating beauty.

  6. Reading your thoughtful reflections on aging, I am reminded of how Anagarika Munindra (1915-2003) dealt with the unavoidable fact that, as the Buddha stated, we’re all subject to disease, decay, and death. Nothing morbid about it. Munindra greeted these processes with equanimity and embraced each moment of life with mindfulness and joy. While most, if not all, of us would be dismayed at losing our teeth, Munindra simply investigated the process as he aged. Then, on an occasion of sharing a meal with some of his old students, one of his last two teeth fell out, which meant he could no longer chew his food. Yet he remained unflappable and said, “Ha, ha! Impermanence!” Right, nothing lasts.

    Even as Munindra endured the physical suffering of his final months, he was still keenly curious about the experience he was undergoing and, despite being too debilitated to lift his head, blessed everyone who came to say goodbye with wholehearted metta (loving-kindness).

    As one of his younger students said, his approach to aging was radically different from the one she grew up with in a suburb, where women in particular were anxiously trying to stave off growing older by getting botox injections and the like. Munindra was a model for not viewing aging as something awful to resist and forestall, but as yet another field in which to practice daily.

  7. Dr. Segall,

    Thank you so much for this post. I am 20-year-old student and having a little “quarter-life crisis” of sorts, dealing with the concept of death. A friend jokingly tells me it’s as if i never knew that I would someday die until now. I just wanted to say thank you, thank you for this post. It has made me feel a whole lot better, and I reflected on the paragraph of being pushed out of an airplane for almost 10 minutes just now, all going by in an instant. Your words have resonated clearly with me here. Profoundly calming.

    Peace.

    1. Thanks, Eric. Everyone knows in an abstract sort of way that they are going to die someday. Then something happens: the death of someone your own age, a near escape, a threatening diagnosis. Then what had up until then been abstract becomes concrete and real. Glad that you found this post helpful.

  8. Seth,

    Thank you for such an insightful and heart-warming perspective on aging especially the last line:

    “Be present. Breathe. Drop the story line. Beautiful moment, perfect moment. Just as it is.”

    You may be interested to read Gil Fronsdal’s reply to my question about(my) coming to the Dharma late in life. You can scroll down to it on this page.

    http://www.insightmeditationcenter.org/books-articles/articles/transcribed-talks/online-community-qa-with-gil-fronsdal-october-2010-transcript/

    Are you aware of any advice The Buddha gave to people coming to the Dharma late in life? One answer I came up with myself is: “Keep breathing!”

    Finally, a small quip that I have heard on aging – it is better than the alternative!

    With metta,

    Terry

      1. Seth,
        I forgot to mention an article on aging in the latest, March issue, of Shambala Sun by Olivia Ames Hoblitzelle, entitled “Touch of Grey”. It also cites The Dalai Lama recounting a story about a very old man going to see the Buddha. At first his attendants turned him away because of his age and lack of practice, but the Buddha came by and welcomed him and took care of him. Within a short time the old man became an arhat.
        Unfortunately, I cannot find more details of the talk or the source of the story but I find it most encouraging,
        Terry

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