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Buddhist Teaching on Aging Spiritually: Worry Less, Care More and Find Out What Love is Before You Die

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The baby boomer generation has been criticized for making every stage of life -- whether it be adolescence, college, child-rearing and now their aging -- into a self-referential adventure of transformation and improvement. From that point of view, the notion of aging as a spiritual practice could be seen as just the latest of these baby boomer projects: "We're going to do aging differently and better than anyone!" Some commentators have concluded that the baby boomers were a coddled, spoiled generation. To them, the bumper sticker "Life is hard and then you die" is more how things actually are.

Needless to say, I see things differently. Yes, we baby boomers came to maturity at a time of great social upheaval and change, and we participated in and helped engineer that change. And due to the affluence of the postwar America in which we grew up, we had the time and energy to devote to our own inner development and outer social transformation. In the 1960s, 70 percent of college students rated "personal fulfillment" as their most important life goal, while today the same percentage mention financial success as their life's goal. Money and career seemed easy 40 years ago; now they seem hard.

In that sense, times have changed, and today's Generations X and Y have very different priorities than we did. What has not changed are the fundamentals of the human condition, which includes aging. There is the old saying, "Youth is wasted on the young." If only we had 60-year-old wisdom in a 30-year-old body! There have been a number of hit movies that have explored this fantasy. Well, dream on. It has never happened and barring some medical miracle, it never will.

We don't worry about things we don't care about. Worry and care go together. We care about our family and friends; that is why we worry about them. We care about the fate of the planet, or of the hardships of people losing their jobs or their homes. These things matter to us a lot, and it would seem that if we gave up worry we would also be giving up our care. That doesn't seem right.

Buddhist teaching understands this connection between worry and care quite well. Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, spent his whole life working on this single problem: How can we relieve the unnecessary suffering that we impose on ourselves because we care so much and can't see a perspective larger than our care?

Or to put it another way: How can we transform our conditional, limited love for just those people and things we care about into an unconditional love which cares equally about everyone and everything?

When I was a child in Sunday school, we would ask our teacher, "What is God? Who is God?" And we were told, "God is love." I never gave a whole lot of thought to that answer at the time, I just accepted it as true without understanding what it meant. Now in our crisis-ridden world, where war and violence and hatred seem as prevalent as any time in the past, God as love seems a lot more complicated than it did when I first heard it. How is it that this unconditional love continues to elude us, generation after generation? How can we find it? What can we do?

I think this quest is the particular mission of elders, those who have lived long enough for youthful idealism to fade and deeper wisdom to dawn. The spiritual practice of aging, I think, is to add some words to that cynical bumper sticker. I would say it this way:

Yes, life is hard, and then you die, but before you do find out what love is.

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