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Elderhood: A Buddhist Approach to Aging Well

Posted: 06/21/11 04:52 PM ET

This March I turned 64 -- one year away from Medicare, two years away from Social Security. So there it is: I'm a baby boomer, a Buddhist, and one individual face to face with his own aging. But I'm not alone. Each day and every day for the next twenty years, 10,000 boomers will turn 65. This is a fact with enormous implications for our politics, our society -- and, I believe, our spiritual life.

Forty years ago, when my Buddhist teacher Shunryu Suzuki was in his mid-sixties and the students around him were mostly in their 20s and 30s, someone asked him, "Why do we meditate?" He replied, "So you can enjoy your old age." We all laughed and thought he was joking. Now that I am the age he was then, I realize he wasn't joking at all. Some aspects of growing old can be hard to enjoy, and a spiritual practice can definitely help. This isn't just theory; the Handbook of Religion and Health by Koenig et al. presents research showing that people who have a regular religious attendance or practice live, on average, 7 years longer than those who do not. That research result is even more significant when we remember that for the first time in human history, people will be living in relative good health into their 70s, 80s, and even 90s. What are we all going to do with that extra gift of time?

For the last several years I have been developing a contemplative approach to growing old and aging well. I have come to believe, as my teacher did, that spiritual practice can help us to age gracefully, and that the last part of life is a fruitful time for spiritual inquiry and practice. As part of my research, I logged on to Amazon, put in the search word "aging" and sorted by descending best-seller. Yes, there were a lot of best-selling books with the word "aging" in the title. But when I looked more closely I could see that most of the titles really weren't about aging per se, but about postponing, disguising, or reversing aging. It was only when I set aside sales rank as my criterion that I found some good books with a spiritual approach to aging. Two of my favorites are The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully by Benedictine nun Joan Chittister, and Spirituality and Aging by gerontology professor Robert C. Atchley.

What other resources do we have for accepting aging with grace, about learning the lessons of wisdom that aging teaches, about investigating the deep questions of our human life? 2,500 years ago, the Buddha had a lot to say about the inevitability of loss and change. What could all of us aging folks learn from his teaching today?

The Buddha taught that "everything changes," and many of today's Buddhists repeat that teaching as a patent truism. But suppose we were to rephrase those words to say, "Everything we love and cherish is going to age, decline, and eventually disappear, including our own precious selves?" Suddenly this "truism" takes on a different coloration and urgency. It's all going to go, the Buddha is saying, all of it -- everything that matters to us. In fact that process is always happening; everything is aging, all the time. How is it that we didn't notice?

When we are young, we don't notice. In youth, life is full of opportunity, and when things go wrong there are do-overs and second chances. But on the downhill slope of life, we start to notice the worrisome finitude of time. We go to more funerals, we visit more hospitals, we view the daily news with more distance, and we start to feel an autumnal chill in the air. There are joys too, of course -- grandchildren, time for travel (if we can afford it!), the pursuit of long-dreamed-of avocations and new beginnings, as well as the energizing impulse to "give back" to community and society.

There is also a fresh opportunity to look to the inner life, to revisit the deep questions that a busy career and family responsibilities might have long pushed into the background. A regular contemplative practice can indeed be a part of this journey, and Buddhism offers rich resources in this area. In my upcoming book Aging as a Spiritual Practice: A Contemplative Guide to Growing Older and Wiser (Gotham Books, January 2012) I offer many such contemplative practices -- from traditional meditations on breath, gratitude, and compassion, to more innovative reflections on time, worry, fear, and what I have ecumenically termed "the inner divine." The last section of the book -- "A Day Away" -- is a guided personal retreat that uses these contemplative exercises as a way to reflect on aging in all its many dimensions. I use the term "elderhood" to refer to the totality of this effort.

Elderhood is the culminating stage of a life fully lived. When the time comes, we can (although we may not always ) assume the mantle of elderhood as a kind of birthright, and traditional cultures have all honored and supported elderhood, giving their elders specific roles and tasks to do. In today's wired, youth-oriented world, elders don't typically garner that same kind of respect. These days, each of us has to imagine and construct our own expression of elderhood, and find ways to bring it forward.

Recently I read an online article which described a group of elderly Japanese who volunteered to help with the cleanup of the damaged nuclear reactors. They vigorously refuted any notions that they were some kind of "suicide squad." They were just being practical, they said. "I am 72 and on average I probably have 13 to 15 years left to live,"one said. "Even if I were exposed to radiation, cancer could take 20 or 30 years or longer to develop. Therefore us older ones have less chance of getting cancer." Some might say these elderly Japanese were just expressing a strong cultural value of sacrificing individual well-being for the good of the group. But elderhood is culturally specific; it shows up in different ways in different times and places. Elders are not the same as identified leaders; often elders are invisible, behind the scenes, shining like gold nuggets at the bottom of the stream.

I thought their offer was a particularly courageous expression of elderhood. Elderhood means to take responsibility, to mentor, to offer perspective. The nuclear crisis in Japan is only one of many dire situations the world over that cry out for a mature, seasoned response. I think contemplative practice can give us inner strength and help us develop the resources to assume our elders' role in a troubled and often rudderless world that needs us, now perhaps more than ever.

 
 
 

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