Saturday, August 26, 2017

Growing Old

Growth is inherently painful. To grow is to fall apart. New forms arise from the debris of the old. What was must die, so that what is can be. And we are always growing, even when we are growing old. This is why in the First Noble Truth Buddha taught that life is suffering. To be alive means to grow, and growth means change, and change hurts.
            Unless you accept change, embrace it even. Then your pain is transformed into awareness. The Second Noble Truth of Buddhism lays bare this process – that our suffering and dissatisfaction are principally caused by our resistance to what is. We suffer because we refuse to accept that life is not controlled by our arbitrary and self-serving demands. We don’t get what we want. We don’t get to stay young. We don’t get to not die. Once we accept the fundamental impermanence of all forms, including our own, a peaceful serenity illuminates the path ahead. The Buddhists call this nirvana.
            Nirvana is a compound Sanskrit word: nir a negating prefix, and vana meaning air that is moving, like wind or breath. Nirvana, often translated as “to blow out,” as in extinguishing a candle flame, is really just a way of saying stillness. It is a state of consciousness free from the agitation of self-centeredness, craving, and fear. In nirvana we are awash in gratitude, wonder, loving-kindness, and acceptance. Because we want nothing, we receive everything.
            To age consciously means to understand the full cosmic process that coming into being and going out of being entails, not from the perspective of a single organism, but from the God-perspective. Being born is a death sentence. No matter your afterlife belief system of choice, these forms – these awkward, aging bodies – are not long for this world. If you have anything pressing to do, I would get to it now. You don’t know how much longer you have.
            In the Phaedo, Plato’s dialogue about the final hours of Socrates’s life, we see Socrates’s friends gathered around him as he calmly faces execution by means of a long, cool drink of hemlock. As his friends fret, wail, and moan, Socrates remains the model of serenity and acceptance, like the hub of a wheel around which everything spins madly. They ask him how he can be so cool and composed in the face of death. He explains that the philosophic life is “training for dying,” and that in many ways he has been practicing for this his whole life. The lover of wisdom, Socrates argues, works hard to root their existence into something deeper, something truer, something more abiding than these fleeting forms. We don’t really know what happens when we die, he says, and it might be better than this mortal life. How do we know? We don’t. So it’s irrational, he argues, to fear death.
500 years later Roman philosopher Marcus Aurelius further amplified the burgeoning Stoic doctrine of acceptance. “Frightened of change?” he asked. “But what can exist without it? Can you take a hot bath and leave the firewood as it was? Eat food without transforming it? Can any vital process take place without something being changed? Human lives are brief and trivial. Yesterday a blob of semen; tomorrow embalming fluid, ash. So this is how a thoughtful person should await death: not with indifference, not with impatience, not with disdain, but simply viewing it as one of the things that can happen to us. How you anticipate the child’s emergence from its mother’s womb; that’s how you should await the hour when your soul will emerge from its compartment.”
I never really liked that Dylan Thomas poem, the one that says “Do not go gentle into that good night…rage, rage against the dying of the light.” I prefer the stance of Buddha, Socrates, and Marcus Aurelius – to welcome aging and death like any other change – an opportunity to practice slipping the noose of attachment and sliding into the vast and boundless space of sacred realization.
[This piece was originally appeared in my column "A to Zen" in the September/October edition of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]