Nothing happens when you die: Two contemporary Buddhist masters—Suzuki Roshi and the 16th Karmapa—both said this. When the Karmapa was dying—according to people who were there—he opened his eyes and said, “Nothing happens.”
And in Suzuki Roshi’s book Not Always So he says, “Don’t worry about dying. Nothing is going to happen.”
Well. This is the kind of out-there statement that skeptics of Buddhism point to as a way of discrediting it. Of course something happens, they say—you die! That’s something, isn’t it?
Clearly Suzuki Roshi and the Karmapa were talking about dying at a different level. … 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 baby boomer generation has been criticized for making every stage of life—whether it be adolescence, college, child-rearing, and now their aging—into a self-referential adventure of transformation and improvement. From that point of view the notion of “Aging as a Spiritual Practice” could be seen as just the latest of these baby boomer projects: “We’re going to do aging differently and better than anyone!” Some commentators have concluded that the baby boomers were a coddled, spoiled generation. To them, the bumper sticker “Life is hard and then you die” is more how things actually are.
Needless to say, I see … Read More
We all worry. That is our human condition. Without our exceptional ability to think about a future problem, and come up with ways to deal with it or resolve it, we would not have survived the evolutionary process. And worry is a kind of affliction too, an unpleasant or unwholesome state of mind. Many of us may seek out the Buddhist tradition or meditation because we think it can offer us a method for attaining a state of mind where there is no worry. We are all finding out that Buddhism does not offer that; as a matter of fact, … 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