In a recent article for the Associated Press, David Crary writes, "Baby boomers heading into what used to be called retirement age are providing a 70-million-member strong market for legions of companies ... eager to capitalize on their 'forever young' mindset, whether it's through wrinkles creams, face-lifts or workout regimens."
Indeed. We baby boomers are a vast market, and we do want to look and feel young for as long as possible. I am no exception. I have young-looking features, so when I was young I was annoyed when people perceived me as younger than my years. Now I want to be young; I'm annoyed when they see me as older. The grass is always greener somewhere else -- a proverb with a distinct Buddhist flavor, I think.
Mr. Crary goes on to quote Dr. S. Jay Olshansky, a professor of public health and an expert on aging. "It's always the same message, 'Aging is your fault and we've got the cure," Olshansky said. His advice: "Invest in yourself, in the simple things we know work. Get a good pair of walking shoes and a health club membership, and eat more fruits and vegetables."
Since I have just written a soon-to-be-published book on a Buddhist approach to aging -- "Aging as a Spiritual Practice: A Contemplative Approach to Growing Older and Wiser" (Gotham Books, January 2012) -- I would agree with everything Dr. Olshansky said, and simply add, "And don't forget wisdom."
Yes, there is wisdom in aging. That is what, in a nutshell, the Buddha would say -- and what my book says -- about aging's whole terrain. The Buddha taught three fundamental facts of life. These are technically called the three marks of human existence -- dukkha, anicca, and anatta -- which can be translated as loss, constant change, and no fixed identity. They are true at any age, but aging brings them into sharper and more poignant focus.
Loss. Losses seem to accelerate as we age, but those losses can be mitigated by a sense of appreciation for the gifts we still do have. The existence of facial wrinkles is also proof of having lived a long life -- maybe even with grandchildren. So are wrinkles good or bad?
Constant Change: that seems to be the daily mantra of the front-page news: the market down 500 points in one day, a terrorist attack hits London or Berlin, an earthquake in New York City (of all places!). But life is change, even shocking change sometimes -- we don't get one without the other.
No fixed identity: we could call this the plaintive song of the unanchored newly retired -- or the non-retired. Example: 60-year-old Starbuck's barrista (I seem to be seeing more of these lately). Won't there every come a time when we can just relax in a hammock and enjoy a predictable fixed identity? Actually, I tried lying in a hammock recently. After five minutes I was bored; I wanted to get up and do something interesting. "No fixed identity" need not be the bane of growing old; it can, with the right approach, also be the fun.
My book delves into all these issues and much more, with contemplative exercises at the conclusion of each chapter to make each insight more than an intellectual exercise. Yes, I am part of that 70-million strong baby boomer market of which David Crary speaks, though I'm trying to exercise my vanity on the cheap: Recently I decided to grow my hair a bit longer. I thought it made me look younger. I know women who have undergone facial surgery and are extremely happy about how it made them look. The Buddha never taught that we shouldn't, in all our infinite complexity, be fully human. He simply taught that we shouldn't get stuck on it (note to self: easier said than done). However dicey things may seem right now, one thing's for certain, they're going to change. As they like to say in Maine, "If you don't like the weather, just wait fifteen minutes."
The same could be said of a human life.