Does meditation still work when you're old? Of course it does, when done properly and with the right attitude.
But I meet many Buddhist meditators these days who say to me, "I've been meditating for decades. I've been to numerous retreats. When I was young it was fantastic. I felt like I was making tremendous progress and being transformed. But I'm getting old now. I can't sit cross-legged anymore. I've got lots of problems in my life -- problems with my children and aging parents in addition to myself. Meditation doesn't seem as helpful or useful as it once did."
My teacher used to say that whenever we feel discouraged or disappointed in our meditation, it is a sign that there is something missing or lacking in our attitude. Many people come to meditation with an idea that through the practice they will be able to find a blissful or ecstatic state of mind or transformation that will offer relief from suffering and lasting happiness. This expectation is not entirely wrong, but it is lacking something.
Thirty years ago, psychologist and Buddhist practitioner John Welwood coined the term "spiritual bypassing" to identify a problem in meditation that he observed in his Buddhist clients and in Buddhist communities. He has expanded on this idea in his book "Toward a Psychology of Awakening," and in a recent Tricycle interview, where he defined it as "a tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks."
He went on to say:
When we are spiritually bypassing, we often use the goal of awakening or liberation to rationalize what I call premature transcendence: trying to rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness before we have fully faced and made peace with it. And then we tend to use absolute truth to disparage or dismiss relative human needs, feelings, psychological problems, relational difficulties, and developmental deficits.
In the last 30 years, many Buddhist teachers and communities have come to see the importance of working on spiritual bypassing, often by including psychotherapy as part of the spiritual path. Still, I think we have a ways to go.
There is also our own American penchant for quick solutions. In the 1960s there were few books on meditation and even fewer teachers. We knew from reading that there was something called "enlightenment" and that it sounded wonderful. There was the naive hope that meditation led quickly and directly to a life-transforming experience that would change things forever. The early books on Zen tended to reinforce this view. Even when authentic teachers such as the Dalai Lama and Shunryu Suzuki explicitly refuted this view, it was too seductive to give up easily.
Once, in Central Park in front of tens of thousands of rapt listeners, the Dalai Lama was asked, "What is the fastest way to get enlightened?
In response, the Dalai Lama simply started to cry -- in front of 50,000 people! Why was he crying? What did his crying mean? Was he perhaps thinking, "How can I explain to this sincere but misguided Westerner all the hard work that is really required for true spiritual transformation?"
When we are young we have, as Welwood says, "unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks." If we actually use meditation to face those issues, to thoroughly investigate them, and do the hard work of step-by-step inner transformation, meditation indeed can prove fruitful throughout our life. But now that we are much older, we have (in addition to any old unresolved developmental tasks from our earlier life) a whole set of new developmental issues, those that come with an aging body and mind.
Once after a lecture someone asked my teacher Shunryu Suzuki, "Why do we meditate?"
He answered, "So you can enjoy your old age."
We all thought he was joking, but now that I am the same age he was when he gave that answer, I know he was just being truthful. The real test of a lifelong practice of meditation is not whether it gives you great insights when you are young, but whether it is deep and thorough enough to allow you to confront the age-old challenges of growing old and the approaching end of life.
Now that I have 40 some years of meditation practice under my belt, I can ask myself: Am I enjoying my old age? Well, first of all, like most 60-somethings, I would retort, "I'm not old. Not just yet. I'm just getting older."
But after that weak disclaimer, I would say yes, I'm enjoying the age I am. I do wish I had the energy I had when I was younger, though.
There is an episode of Seinfeld in which Elaine wants to get a cartoon in the New Yorker. Her idea is this: a small pig is at the Macy's complaint counter, looking up with a plaintive expression at the customer service person peering down at her. "I wish I was taller," the pig is saying.
Right. We are all like that little pig, wishing things might be other than they are. Yes, I wish I was younger, but I'm not. I need to learn to enjoy my old age, just as Suzuki said. That is the challenge for me and for the other 76 million baby boomers. We are all in this together.