Buddhism and Aging
A student once asked Shunryu Suzuki, “Why do we meditate?” “So you can enjoy your old age,” the Zen master answered.
Last Sunday was the four-hour block sitting at our local meditation group, so, lacking our usual discussion topic, I’ll offer some of my own thoughts about aging, and about regrets that show up as we age—i.e., I wish I’d done this, I failed at this, I hurt these people, etc. When we meditate, we begin to see more, and with more clarity. We see the things we did when we were less aware. They’re right there in our face. I don’t know about you, but I can say that’s how it is for me. I see that I’ve lost the chance to be the person I would have wished to be, back then. That time is gone. I can’t fix the past.
Suzuki Roshi says the essence of Buddhism is that "Everything changes." It was much easier for me when I was young to ignore that fact. Then I look in the mirror, now. There’s no denying it. I can use great makeup and exercise, but finally there will be nothing of “me.” That’s the way it is. People I love have gotten ill, and some have died. Eventually, I’ll lose everything.
John Lewis Richmond, a Soto Zen Priest in the Suzuki Roshi tradition, has written a book on Buddism and aging. Actually, it isn’t that everything changes, it’s that “everything disappears,” is what Lewis came to. That’s a lot more serious. He reminds us that Siddhartha, who became the Buddha, walked out of the palace where his father had hoped to keep him from the knowledge of suffering and death. He saw old people. At some point, we all say, with Richmond, “Holy cow. I’m going to be that way, too.” All my money, smarts, credentials, aren’t going to help me. As Richmond puts it, we all walk out of the palace of youthful innocence at some point, and we actually see what’s going on. Everything disappears.
So this is what he has to say about regrets: “How could it have been otherwise? Could it really have been otherwise? No, it’s what happened, and that’s the inner teaching of regret. Regret is the ego trying to distort what is unchangeable, and we have various words for how that happens. One of them is denial, which is very powerful. Research shows that it is largely neurological. The neural circuits simply don’t fire. The brain arranges to protect you from the pain; it’s like you literally can’t get there.”
Personally, the only thing I see to do is to keep looking, keep sitting, watch the sorrow and the distortions of regret, see how they also disappear and reappear. And as my daughter said to me a few years ago, when I was telling her how much I regretted many things about my mothering: “Well, mom, you’re here now.”
And now. And now. And now.