An excerpt from My Buddhist Journal; A Year in the Life of a Buddhist
This morning, during meditation, I reflected on the process of ageing. I was asked yesterday, or maybe it was the day before, about my age. I wanted simply to respond “56,” but I paused for a second or two. I paused, not because I couldn’t remember, but because I instantly realized that, while I’m chronologically 56 years of age, I’m also 38, 18 and 40 and 50! At times, there’s even a mischievous 8 year old running around.
For all our agitations around chronological age, we often forget that in many ways we are anything but what our years say about us. I still think I feel like I did when I was 40 - that is to say, my body hasn’t changed much since then. Like then, I have a few aches and pains. Like then, I don’t have back problems or arthritis. I still walk and hike more than the vast majority of people, with very few ill effects beyond physical fatigue if overdone - but that’s always been the case.
I feel the same mental clarity that I did when I was 18. I’m still as curious about the world and it’s workings as I was at 18 - more so. If I could wave a magic wand, I’d go back to college or university for architecture and totally love it. Despite needing reading glasses, I continue to read more now than I ever had.
So what is it about ageing that troubles people? Well, having listened to conversations between older people (older chronologically, at least, than me) they seem to talk a lot about their physical ailments, bodily functions, aching joints and similar. This is no surprise, really, for these are physical pains and concerns. Yet, we know these things will change and it can be no surprise when they do. We can see our face change almost daily - a wrinkle here, a crease there. If we do not take care, we see our weight increase as the years pass. For most of us, our sense of smell and taste diminishes as we get older, our eyes begin to struggle with fine print. Many experience decline in sexual appetite - a decrease libido, as it were. We may walk up the hill, rather than run.
In short, our physical bodies do, indeed, show signs of ageing and there’s not much we can do about that - short of cosmetic surgery, assorted creams, ointments, lotions, serums, rubs, various therapies and cryogenic freezing. Hmm... sounds like there’s a lot we can do about it actually, if we’re so inclined and if we have the money. Maybe that’s a whole other issue.
When a young man, who is himself not beyond ageing, looks at an aged man, he may experience some level of horror, revulsion or distain, oblivious, it seems, that he himself is also the subject of age and ageing and may become the subject of horror, revulsion or distain. But why is this? Can simply recognizing we are all subjects of age and ageing, temper our infatuation with youth and beauty? Age is the fate that awaits us all.
Was this always so? Was age always the fate for everyone in ancient times? Possibly not. Accident, sickness, disease, poor housing, poor diet, poor social nets, war, feud, dangerous animals and similar may have killed many (possibly most) before they reached their “golden years.” There is no question that we are living longer today (on average) than those who came before us. Sure, there will always be exceptions regarding “good genes,” local diets, luck-of-the-draw and what not. Still, on average, we live longer now than any who came before us.
And it’s not just a few years longer, but something like a couple decades longer! Soon (I forget exactly which year, maybe 2050) the world population will, for the first time in the history of humanity, include more old people (60 and over) than young people (15 and younger). That will be historic - unprecedented. Never before has this been so. In some more developed nations this may already be so!
Saturday, March 5
More About Ageing
This global population ageing affair brings up, I suppose, some real issues around social equity. The relationships between the generations and within the generations becomes strained, if only for the difficulty that the young are no longer replacing the aged at a rate that they used to. Historically, there were always more young people to do the work while the aged retired or died away. This is no longer the reality. (I wonder if this situation is driving more lenient/liberal immigration policies, esp. in developed countries?)
I quote from the executive summary of the United Nations Department of Social Affairs - Population Department study, World Population Ageing 1950-2050.
“Population ageing is profound, having major consequences and implications for all facets of human life. In the economic area, population ageing will have an impact on economic growth, savings, investment and consumption, labour markets, pensions, taxation and intergenerational transfers. In the social sphere, population ageing affects health and health care, family composition and living arrangements, housing and migration. In the political arena, population ageing can influence voting patterns and representation."
So, globally, this is a matter of concern from an economic and societal point of view. I can’t think or speak too much at that polar mesospheric cloud level. I will confine my ageing comments, (or more correctly my comments on ageing) primarily to the level of the individual and mostly to my meditative reflections of ageing.
Yesterday, as I mentioned, I reflected on ageing during meditation. This is not the first time. Typically, I envision my ageing body, the wrinkles around my eyes (thankfully, some call them laugh lines), my need for reading glasses, my bald head, by grey beard, my tough-to-control waistline my tired feet after a long day of walking, my concerted effort to hear others in a noisy restaurant, etc.
I meditate on these things not as a matter of regret or bitterness, but as a matter of reality. I realize my grey beard does not make me old, nor my bald head, nor tired feet. Not my wrinkles nor my need for reading glasses. Those are only physical conditions. They are only what I want them to be. They can be a source of pain, regret, disillusionment and sorrow, but with right view and right thinking, they are only conditions - void of any story unless I add one.
I suppose one concern the aged or ageing will have is that idea of giving up their independence. I’m not entirely certain what that means for me and I guess it means something different for everyone. What independence am I “giving up,” really? I’ve written before that we are totally and utterly dependent on others to supply us with literally everything we touch or need on a day-to-day basis. If everything we needed, that was supplied by others, was taken away this afternoon, the vast majority of us would be dead by morning. I don’t think that’s an over estimation of the reality. We are truly, deeply and essentially dependent upon others for our very existence. This reality does not change as we age.
So what’s going on here? I think our pervasive illusion of "independence" weakens as we age. We realize that at some point we will depend upon a cane to help us walk. We will depend on a warmer coat to keep us comfortable. We will depend on medication to promote health, ease pain or prolong life. We will depend on others to help us up the stairs or offer a seat on the crowded subway. All this and so much more. We begin to see through our illusion of independence and I think, for the untrained/unprepared mind, this is terrifying or at least unnerving. We are forced to drop the illusion of independence and face the reality that has always been there - the reality of complete interdependence.
Of course, ageing brings us closer to death. I think human beings are the only sentient creatures that can actually contemplate their death in a deep and meaningful way. That may be a topic for another day ... or even another book ... but I am reminded, once more, of my friend K.R.
One day, K.R. seemed unusually depressed over his wife and children leaving him a couple months earlier while he was on a film shoot in another city. He didn’t have the energy to keep his almost empty house in the clean and orderly manner that he used to. He lacked any energy, to speak of, on this particular day. I asked him how he was sleeping. He actually perked up at that question, responding “Oh, sleep, yes. It’s pretty good, actually. I think I get plenty. It’s a lot like death, but without the commitment,” he chuckled. that was the first time in a long time that he had laughed.