Aging Together

“Don’t worry, my sister––when you reach the end you’ll know it.”
–– from The First Free Women, by Matty Weingast

Valley Insight started a new practice group this May. We officially call ourselves “Mindfully Aging Together.” Though most of us are in our sixties, seventies, eighties, and nineties, anyone is invited to attend our open weekly meetings, which occur every Monday at 2 p.m. This time was chosen through a doodle poll taken by the thirty or so people who expressed interest in meeting for support with issues of old age, illness, and death. Probably the time was no one’s first choice. Stopping right in the middle of a Monday afternoon is most often not convenient for anyone, given our usual list-of-things-to-do; and yet, as one of us pointed out, illness, aging, and death are rarely ever convenient! Isn’t that part of the challenge, part of their unpleasant nature: they don’t come on our schedule.

Because I could not stop for death ––
he kindly stopped for me.
–– Emily Dickinson

And so, bowing to the truth of all our lives and the lives of all those we love and hold dear, we pause, let go, and sit together. Our group format has evolved somewhat during this first month. From 2:00 to 2:30, we have a guided, short meditation based on a particular theme from Dharma teachings. We end the meditation at 2:30. Some of us leave at that time. Those who want to talk together are invited to stay on until 3:00 p.m. During this second half, we share our reflections, in both small and large group formats, on the topic of our meditation and related personal concerns.

Once we had established the time and format for our group, the question became: What Dharma topic do we start with? The Five Subjects for Frequent Recollection, which have us recognize aging, illness, death, and loss, along with our agency in facing them? Or the very basic Four Noble Truths, offering practical guidelines for facing the stressful challenges that constitute a human life? The Eightfold Path? Five Spiritual Powers?

Slowly, it dawned on me that every Dharma topic is actually quite clearly pointing to, and supporting us in, the process of aging, which in truth begins upon birth. We are being instructed in how to die, even as we are learning how to be fully alive, now. Change is at the forefront of the human experience, always. The teachings on impermanence (anicca), are not only pointing to the truth of constant, ongoing, moment-by-moment change; they are also inviting us to directly know the accompanying uncertainty, inconvenience, loss, endings––our own vulnerability. This can be difficult to see and hard to hold onto as we move through our busy days. However, when in regular meditation practice, the mind is temporarily set free––in a sense, “secluded”––from the hindrances, we can see that change is everywhere as an unavoidable and natural part of life. In such moments, we are free; we see life directly––as it really is. For a moment, we are not clouded by the reactivity of wanting something else to be happening; or hating this moment; or spacing out in the face of challenges; or succumbing to worry and doubt. We realize that the traumas and fears of aging and loss aren’t just happening to us. We are all in it together. Over time, we gradually come to peace with this one of the Five Reflections for Daily Meditation (two versions):

“Everything I love shall become different and separate from me.”

“I shall become different and separate from everything I love.”

Reflections on impermanence are found throughout the Buddha’s teachings, and one very important place is in the first of the set of Four Awakening Themes, which as a whole is used to describe the natural, ongoing development of our mindfulness practice towards the full liberation of our hearts and minds. Through practice, we are becoming kinder, wiser, and happier. These four themes also point to aspects of our everyday, subjective life experiences. Pointing these out and contemplating them as they naturally occur can enhance our abilities in aging and dying skillfully––with less angst and more gratitude and joy. Navigating these recurring life themes can help us transform aging, illness, and death into spiritual awakening and freedom.

The Four themes: We witness and contemplate:

  1. Impermanence––the constant change of life itself;
  2. Viraga––the fading away of our desire to grasp and hold onto things––knowing more and more clearly that they will change;
  3. Niroda––an increased steadiness in witnessing endings;
  4. Letting go––not holding on and not pushing away.

In the classical Early Buddhist teachings, these four themes actually herald the approach of nirvana, which can be defined as “lasting peace.” In a way, the natural unfolding of human life can be understood to parallel the course of these awakening themes. Perhaps bringing an intentionality to them will help us to find enhanced value and direction in our aging. Related to this possibility, I read that when Oprah Winfrey asked Toni Morrison how it felt to be in her eighties, Toni smiled and said: “I hope you live long enough to find out.”

There is a teaching here to ease our relationship with aging, death, and loss––and at the same time, to enhance our connection with compassion, wisdom, and life itself.

Buddhism says much about wheels being set in motion, about one thing leading to another. In this sense, fully realizing impermanence gets the process going. As we remember, embody, and don’t turn away from the changes accompanying aging, a softening of our instinctual urge to grasp occurs naturally. This “fading away” is referred to as a dispassion for that which leads to stress and discontent. This quieting of the reactive aspects of mind brings about our ability to understand fully that things end––without our turning away from their beauty––and hence, we can move to a natural, and timely, letting go.

“To live in this world, you must be able to do three things:
to love what is mortal, to hold it against your bones as if your own life depended on it;
and when the time comes, to let it go, to let it go.”
–– Mary Oliver

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