The Dharma of Aging

Gautama the Buddha was among the first religious or philosophical teachers to discern the truth that "everything changes." This prescient insight, now embedded in the standard model of modern physics, is one of the most enduring legacies of the Buddha's teaching.

Since the publication of Aging as a Spiritual Practice, my Buddhist-themed book on aging, I have taken to re-wording "everything changes" to say "everything ages." Everything ages -- people, animals, plants, trees, stones, rivers, oceans, even planet earth itself. The youthful baby boomers of the 1960s who are now the mainstays of Buddhist centers and sanghas -- they are aging too. And they will be aging longer; increased longevity is now a looming fact -- not just in America, where it is affecting political discourse and retirees' finances, but everywhere. There are now a billion people on planet earth over the age of 60, and that population is growing fast.

Buddhism has many important things to say to this ballooning cohort of elders. I like to say that aging itself is natural dharma. "Everything changes" is the opening chapter of the Buddhist story, but the many chapters that follow explore the full implications of this impermanence. For example, the Buddha taught that it is not helpful to hold onto things and cling to them -- even our precious selves. They are not going to last. Clinging to them is the root cause of unnecessary suffering; that is another chapter in the Buddha's world-view.

When we experience aging in our own physical wear and tear and declining stamina we are not just studying Buddhist doctrine; we are living out the four noble truths in our own bodies and minds. The ancient Hindus believed that our later years -- the fourth stage of life in their thinking -- was the natural time for spiritual inquiry. This is still true. However, the rigorous meditation retreats and practices that many of today's Buddhists took up in their youth are not so appropriate for our aging bodies. We need to come up with new ways to practice dharma that match our capacities and our life experience.

In my aging workshops, where I combine traditional Buddhist practice with inquiries into aging, I ask people to reflect on what aging actually means for them. What makes you think you are aging? I ask. It seems like an obvious question for but it is well worth asking. People do start with the obvious--sagging muscles, sallow cheeks, aching knees, midday naps. But when I then ask, "What hasn't aged?" people have to look more deeply. The trajectory is not all downhill. Research on aging (and there are lots of it now) has discovered many aspects of our life that actually improve with age. One of them is "integrative problem solving." Yes, we may be slower at match problems or word retrieval, but we are better at putting together a creative solution to a complex problem that requires a lot of life experience, as well as a lot of practice in solving such problems. Older people do measurably better at such tasks than younger people do.

Dharma begins where Buddha began, with the question, "Why do people suffer and how can we ease their suffering?" He often said in his sermons, "I teach one thing only, suffering and the end of suffering." That is the ultimate "integrative problem," and older people, in my view, are well equipped to tackle it. For one thing, we know suffering in all its shapes and varieties; that is one of the "gifts" of mature years. For another, we can look back on our life with a sense of gratitude for its gifts. Gratitude can increase with aging, simply because we have collected more life experience to be grateful for. (Example: young people don't have grandchildren).

While reflecting on our increased longevity, one of the questions I pose in my book is, "What are we going to do with that gift of extra time?" Play golf, travel, read books, join clubs, walk in nature, take up bird watching? Older people already do many of these things, but what about the inner work of asking, What is most important in what I have done? What does it all mean? What's the best use of the time left to me?

I myself am 66. Am I young? Old? Somewhere in between? I have been a meditator and meditation teacher for over 40 years. The practices and teachings I did when I was young no longer quite fit who I have become and this is true of the people I teach too. What kinds of inquiries and practices are appropriate for our age and station? What spiritual transformations are particular and congruent with our natural life wisdom?

These are the questions that I am asking, and encouraging others to ask. Sometimes I think that Buddhism, after 2,500 years, is finally coming into its own. Conflict and the needless suffering human cause each other through ignorance and greed is still with us -- unchanged and unabated, it often seems. Due to human meddling and selfish thinking, the entire planet is threatened. The one billion people over the age of 60 have something vital to contribute to this situation, as does the dharma itself. We may not have the fervency and stamina of youth, but we have something even better: perspective.