Beginning in July, 1999 I became 90 years old for a year. What happened? I was struck suddenly with viral encephalitis and within hours was in a coma so deep no doctor thought I could survive. Obviously I did survive and regained all of my abilities and functions, but it took several years. I tell about this ordeal in my book Healing Lazarus. Later I would joke with people about the “year I was 90 years old” (no offense to those who are 90 years old and healthy, but that was the phrase that kept popping into my head). … Read More
I believe there is a Yoga of Aging. The word “yoga” has come to mean the various classes and workshops that people go to for stretches, postures, and the associated benefits to health and energy. Since it was first introduced here early in the 20th century, yoga has grown tremendously and is now an integral part of the cultural landscape. But the word originally included the entirety of spiritual practices developed in ancient India; the physical yogas so popular today are only one of them.
Meditation is another yoga. The word itself is related to the English word “yoke” … Read More
In the excellent book The Pursuit of Happiness by David G. Myers, Myers quotes fellow happiness researcher Richard Kammann as follows: “Objective life circumstances have a negligible role to play in a theory of happiness.”
This astonishing statement, made by a scientist familiar with all the studies done about happiness, is well worth pondering as it relates to aging—an “objective life circumstance” if there ever was one. It is also helpful in reflecting on whether Buddhism has, or is, a theory of happiness. More on this in a moment.
But first I might as well take this opportunity to explain … Read More
A reader from Israel writes, ‘It is hard not to notice that most of the material one can find about aging is all about illnesses and sickness. However, I am trying to find more of the positive angles of old age.” I think he is right, and that is one of the reasons I started the blog. There is indeed a voluminous literature about illness, the dying process, death, and grieving.
Certainly part of the reason is that these aspects of aging are the most difficult to cope with, and are the most trying and frightening. But if my 50 … Read More
When I was in college I had a class with the eminent psychoanalyst Erik Erikson . He was the kind of inspirational teacher that changes a young person’s life, and his class on The Eight Stages of Man (first outlined in his classic text Childhood and Society) was legendary. He saw the course of a human life in distinct developmental stages (he coined the term “identity crisis” to signify the special life challenge of late adolescence). In his view, the eighth and last stage of a human life was the Integrity stage, when we look back on our life … Read More
The experience of aging is an exercise in comparison that happens inside of horizontal time. What I mean is that we tell ourselves a story. I am 61 years old. I have sixty-one years of memories. I am older than I was a year ago. Ten years ago I could do X but now I can’t, I’m older. And so on. We picture ourselves somewhere on the timeline of a life, and begin to see more of that timeline in the rear view mirror than out the front windshield. This leads, inevitably, to a sense of loss, and perhaps sorrow … Read More
The Buddha’s teaching about emotions could be summarized in a single common English phrase, “Feel what you feel.” The technical term, “mindfulness of feeling,” is widely used in Buddhist writing, but I think “Feel what you feel” captures the actual teaching best, particularly because it is phrased in a way that alludes to its opposite, “Avoid feeling what you feel.” We avoid feeling what we feel especially when the feeling is unpleasant, but I would propose that we also don’t actually feel what we feel even if the feeling is pleasant. The basic quality of feeling, pleasant or unpleasant, is … Read More
The emotional undertow of aging, I think, is a feeling of loss—Loss of youth, loss of dreams, loss of possibility. This quality is what used to be referred to as mid-life crisis. Other phrases have come into vogue now—such as the cheery “60 is the new 40”—but the undertow of such homilies is still loss. Is there some way out of this sense of loss, some fresh point of view that assuages the pain of it? Actually, there is. Aging is not a matter of years—forty, sixty, eighty—but of life process. Everything is aging, all the time. We age from … Read More
In connection with my new blog theme, “Aging as a Spiritual Practice,” I have been thinking more about this Buddhist term anicca, which is usually translated as “impermanence.” Many of the English terms that we are accustomed to using regarding these basic Buddhist teachings were first coined by 19th century scholars and translators of the Pali Canon. These scholars were very good, and understood the linguistic meaning of the Pali or Sanskrit terms, but they were not practitioners of Buddhism, and did not have oral instruction or a visible living teacher as a model to help them know … Read More
I have been thinking for some time about the topic of aging, and how that relates to Buddhism and Buddhist practice. The essence and starting point of all Buddhist teaching is the fact of impermanence, or continuous change. Once Suzuki Roshi was asked to say one thing about Buddhism that was simple and understandable, and he replied, “Everything changes.”
I think we could also say, “Everything ages.”
Aging ceases to be an abstraction when it starts to happen to us. It’s like the old Woody Allen joke: “I don’t mind dying, I just don’t want to be there when it … Read More