A chapter titled “Meeting Aging with Kind Awareness” in Mark Coleman’s book From Suffering to Peace inspired me to speak about the theme of graceful aging. May we be able to echo these words of Frank Lloyd Wright when he was an elderly architect: “The longer I live, the more beautiful life becomes.”
Coleman points out that because our culture celebrates youth and attractive appearance, many people avoid or deny the reality of aging. Athletic, beauty and cosmetic industries heighten anxieties about losing looks and vigor by promoting exercise regimens, dietary supplements, and skin products that promise eternal youth.
Even if we don’t believe the advertisements, it’s hard not to be influenced by their messages. Mark Twain joked, “I was young and foolish then; now I am old and foolisher.” Although it is indeed foolish to try to postpone the natural process of aging, it takes courage to swim against the mainstream.
When my mother was in her eighties, she was still publishing books of poetry. One evening she attended a party and listened to her young male dinner partner talking nonstop about his own accomplishments, never once inquiring about her life. As they parted ways, Mom surprised him by stating calmly, “You missed a chance to discover who was sitting beside you.” How common it is for younger generations to discount the contributions and experiences of elders.
Our sangha provides a refuge where we can contemplate Buddhist teachings about the inevitability of aging. For the Buddha, old age was one of the Heavenly Messengers, reminding us of the urgency to wake up to the preciousness of our time-limited lives. The Buddha taught that the First Foundation of Mindfulness is the body, which reminds us continuously that life is finite. To develop a sane relationship to aging we must be willing to accept changes in the body and mind. Ram Dass reminds us, “To make peace with aging is to make peace with change.” Coleman emphasizes the importance of treating our human vulnerability with tenderness.
Now that my Dharma teachers are nearing the eighth decade of life, sanghas like Spirit Rock are making provisions to honor and care for these elders, who have much to teach about graceful aging. In her eighties, Sylvia Boorstein has built a reputation as a queen of Metta. She exemplifies Betty Friedan’s quotation, “Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and growth.” During a month-long retreat, I benefited from Sylvia’s kind and sage counsel and enjoyed her witty sense of humor. Petite and pixie-like, she seems ageless because she accepts herself just as she is.
Coleman refers to an extract from a poem by Carmelene Siani that envisions a healthy attitude towards aging:
Let me hope that while my body may fail in strength
My spirit will grow in wisdom.
Let me see that being independent is not necessarily
An end and be all,
And that embracing interdependence
May be the greatest gift I can give
Those who love and care about me.
Let me look out the window and see
Not how few summers there are left to me,
But how beautiful are the summers left to me….
Let me look at my body and see beauty….
Let me be able to lie in my last hour
And feel nothing but gratitude for it all,
Exactly as it is and exactly as it was.
One of my role models for graceful aging is an 81-year-old friend and fellow meditator named John. Despite serious lung damage and being tethered to an oxygen tank, he has been teaching Plato’s Republic to continuing education students. Rather than considering himself a retired or disabled professor, John keeps himself intellectually stimulated and focuses on what he can do to serve his community. During a recent phone call, John commented that even after reading the Republic twenty-five times, he still gains new insights into Plato’s philosophy.
John’s regular meditation practice may contribute to his alert mind and his positive outlook. Coleman cites recent research studies demonstrating that, in comparison with control subjects, long-term meditators show less deterioration in the prefrontal cortex and insula. Results suggest that meditation practice may reduce age-associated structural and functional brain changes.
Meanwhile, our practice involves waking up to whatever is occurring in the present moment—including subtle and not-so subtle indications of aging. Consider how you relate to facial wrinkles. Do you ignore them, cover them up, or welcome them as traces of laughter, tears and hard-earned wisdom? Coleman likens wrinkles to tree rings that indicate the passage of years and that add gravitas.
Years ago, I met a skinny indigenous woman whose face was webbed with wrinkles. At an outdoor market in Oaxaca, Mexico, she was selling avocados, piled like small pyramids on a shawl. Our eyes met, she flashed a nearly toothless smile, and we started to converse in Spanish. Admitting that she was tired, “Xotchil” took a break to drink a soda, and we sat face to face at a rough-hewn wooden table. Her first question was, “How many children do you have?” When I replied, “None,” she looked at me with compassion and boasted about her nine youngsters, all helping her to sell vegetables when they weren’t in school. In that moment, despite our different karmic paths, Xochitl was as content with her lot as I was with my Dharma studies and international music therapy career. Eventually, we established that she and I were the same age. Because of her wrinkled face and work-worn body, I had assumed that Xochitl was two decades older than me. Comfortable in her own skin, she accepted signs of aging that I could see clearly would soon affect my own body. She was like a Heavenly Messenger representative who helped me to face my own aging process.
Spirit Rock teacher Anna Douglas observes that Dharma practice asks us to open to all the seasons of life, including old age. In workshops and retreats that she leads for people who are 55 and older, she calls aging a “kind teaching” because it happens silently and slowly, one wrinkle at a time.
Yet she recognizes that growing old entails a sense of loss. As we age, what has given us a sense of identity—including our appearance, energy, intellect, achievements, and talents—all these reveal their impermanence and begin to diminish. When our entry into a room is no longer noticed, and when our usual ways of attracting positive attention fade away, we may feel anxious.
Nearing 80, Anna confesses that she can no longer speak as quickly and fluently as she did a decade ago. Aware that some younger listeners are impatient with her struggles to recall particular words, Anna remembers when she was youthful and impatient herself. When she views her word-finding difficulties as a lesson in humility and dispassion, she finds a measure of equanimity: “This is how it is between young and old. I don’t need to judge myself for being slower. This is [the reality] now.” She can laugh about changes in her verbal fluency with those she calls her “age cohorts.” They are old enough to know the territory of slowness and forgetfulness and can understand their common plight.
Years ago, Mark and I visited a beloved elderly couple and their houseguest, who was even older. As the three white-haired friends chatted amiably, we tried to follow their conversation. Eleanor would start off with, “Bob, do you remember our vacation to—now where was it?” Bob would reply, “Do you mean the time we went skiing at—what’s the name of that mountain?” Their houseguest would add, “Didn’t I meet you there? On the road through that little town—what’s it called?” After a while, Mark and I realized that the content of the conversation didn’t matter. What was important was the conviviality among longtime friends, who were thoroughly enjoying one another’s essence.
The longer we live, the more we experience the many facets of reality revealed by impermanence. After going through many rounds of beginnings and endings, and multiple periods of joy and sorrow, we learn that impermanence is universal and impersonal. With practice, we grow in wisdom and embrace the lessons that accompany aging.
Practice Embracing Aging with Kind Awareness (adapted from pp. 54-55)
Sit facing a partner and close your eyes.
Sense each other’s presence.
Imagine that each of you is gazing at your face in a mirror.
Can you appreciate your face just as it is, noticing the ways that you have changed through the years?
Can you bring kind attention to the wrinkles, blemishes, spots, and other signs of aging?
Note any reactions or judgments, and let them go.
Rather than judging yourself for how your face is aging, acknowledge the reality and universal truth of aging.
Can you sense tenderness for yourself and the vulnerability that you feel about aging?
Recite to yourself the mantra: “The nature of the body is to change and age.”
Then slowly open your eyes and gaze softly at your partner’s face.
Repeat the mantra to one another:
“The nature of the body is to change and age.”
Discuss what you learned with this practice.