To honor the heavenly messengers of old age and our own twenty-fifth anniversary, Inquiring Mind turned to our elders. We asked for their wise words, and here are the teachings we received.
What a laugh!
That actor serving tea in the zendo
Thinks he’s me!
Enlightenment is like
the square root of minus one:
imaginary but useful
in solving certain personal equations.
He did not kill his mother
He did not kill himself
and he did not go crazy.
All in all
Quite a successful life.
Pissing out of doors on a summer night
Look up! Meteor shower.
By Lou Hartman
By Ajahn Sumedho
I’m getting old. This body isn’t like it was. It’s stiff and clumsy. Going up hills is no longer very easy for me, my knees ache, I have lousy feet, and my digestion isn’t very good anymore. Indigestion, arthritis, stiffness, old age. But do I suffer from it?
This is the way the body goes. It’s born, grows up, gets old and dies. That’s the way it’s supposed to go. Even Gotama, the Buddha, got old and died. It’s not that the end of suffering means that you’re so evolved you don’t feel arthritis or painful feet—you don’t feel it, so you don’t suffer. That’s not it. Instead, you don’t create suffering around the way it is.
Not to create suffering around the body is to receive the body in all its aspects—its sicknesses, illnesses, fevers, good health, vigor, fatigue, youth, old age. That’s just the way conditioned phenomena is. Conditioned phenomena’s nature is dukkha; it’s changing. It has no ability to sustain itself in a peak moment: Can I reach a peak age, maybe twenty-five, and just stay that way forever? Now, at my age, seventy-four, I don’t want to live forever in a seventy-four-year-old body! I quite look forward to death: Get rid of this thing. [Laughter]
This is where mindfulness allows us to receive the conditioned realities of the present with nonattachment: they are like this. The suffering is not wanting them to be like this. Not wanting to get old, not wanting physical discomfort, wanting to be young again, wanting to be healthy, wanting to be vigorous. That’s the suffering we create. That’s the unbearable misery of human ignorance: always wanting something you don’t have, or not wanting what you do have.
By Ram Dass
The best way to deal with aging and dying is to step out of time. Don’t concentrate on the past or future. Just stay in the moment and you might even find joy, in spite of your age or physical condition.
As to sickness, when I first had my stroke it undermined my faith in Maharaji, my guru, which brought on depression. I was interpreting my stroke as a negative event, until I slowly came to see it as fierce grace, a place of deep learning, showing me where I was caught. Eventually my faith in Maharaji became restored, even strengthened.
So now I advise people, in the face of illness or dying, to just plumb the depths of your heart and you will find the guru. Inside yourself you will find grace, the healing of all your ills.
By Toni Packer
(Inquiring Mind called on Lenore Friedman, a longtime student of Toni Packer, to ask Toni for some wise words on aging. —Ed.)
This is Toni at her desk, dictating to Sally at the computer. I am composing the letter you requested for Inquiring Mind. Please accept my apologies for the long delay. There has been a seemingly never-ending accumulation of things (having to do with sickness, retreats, friends and relatives, visits and letters, and adjusting to new positions in bed, toilet, wheelchair, etc.). I can hear you say at this moment, “This is exactly what we want you to write about!” so I will proceed.
Throughout many years of listening, teaching, counseling, meeting together with people, there have been repeated concerns, particularly brought up by women, about the dreaded question of aging. Not just concerns but outright fears. Will I remain reasonably strong and healthy? What will I look like? Will I be able to continue doing what I’m doing now, and what will happen if not? My own strength is no longer what it used to be. There are great problems of mobility, pains in different joints and limbs, and so forth. Some people complain about increasing numbers of headaches, and there is the ever-lurking fear of “losing one’s mind altogether.” You will probably recognize yourself in several (or all?) of these questions.
What are our fears all about? What is going on right now—actually, really, discretely—and what is merely projected thought in the theater of the mind, without any living reality? I once wondered whether any of my long-held fears about the future—dating back to childhood and adolescence; in school, marriage and family life; in Germany and in this country—had ever had any true basis in reality. Could I remember and name one single thing that had come true as I had feared and imagined, year after year? I realized that there is a deep schism between what we think will happen and what is actually taking place. Things of the imagination have nothing to do with actual life—the living reality of now . . . and now . . . and now.
Is there any relationship between wakeful living here and now and the dreamlike imagining in the sleep of our fears? Please look again at what is going on in this moment, before dreaming the dream of life has even started. What is it like, “getting older”? Is there even any truth to the concept of aging? Right now, as I ask this question, with open eyes and ears, there is a bird with a crested tuft landing on the telephone wire and taking off again before I can think of its proper name. The sky is blue, and indescribably beautiful clouds—pink and white and gray—are slowly floating along. Have they actually moved, or are they simply here, now, together with the waving branches of trees in the evening light? Where are Lenore and Sally and Toni this instant of not knowing? Just listening and looking, right now, without knowing?
Pausing for a moment, Sally is asking whether I can say something about living in almost constant pain. Thinking slowly takes over the stage: what pain is she talking about? And how does it feel? Who feels it? Where is it? The hands reach for the warm jacket hanging over the back of the wheelchair, because coldness is slowly coming into awareness, as well as aching knees, feet and toes. Are these sensations any different from the flying birds, the floating clouds, the waving branches?
And what of Lenore with her request for a letter on aging? Is that why thinking is going on, dictating a letter to Sally at the adjacent desk? I don’t know, and there isn’t any need for an answer. Things just happen exactly as they do.
Love and hugs,