The nature of aging is change. We are fascinated by watching that which changes. When change starts to happen to who we think we are, the fascination turns into fear. We are living in a system that is out of balance; the zeal for independence and individuality has left us alienated from the structures of family, community and nature.
Raghu: Here we are again, Ram Dass Here and Now podcast. I’m Raghu Markus.
Let’s see, today I’ve found an old talk – when is this from? It’s not that old compared to how old they can be since he started doing this in the ‘60’s. This is from 1993.
At that time he was contemplating, finally, aging – even though at time he was in his 60’s, where I am now. So even bringing up this whole thing presenting this…. we have quite a varied audience, I would say, listening to these podcasts. So I’m a little hesitant to present material on aging to people in their twenties and thirties, even forties. It’s funny because he talks about up until he was about fifty, his reference to age was probably he said about 12 – 14 years old and I can relate with that. We all can relate with that. And so it’s something that we all absolutely put way on the back burner – aging, we don’t want to think about it until you actually start falling apart. And he has some funny anecdotes here. It was a talk at Omega by the way, which is a retreat centre in New York area.
He just … he’s funny! And he tells some funny stories about the trials and tribulations of finally facing aging ….
In this case he’s talking about getting on a train. There was a good rate for senior citizens, so he was all happy, to …in his mind the conductor was going to come over and take his ticket and he was going to say, ‘Wait a minute let me see your ID here.’ Like when he was eighteen and he was trying to get a beer and he was forced to show his ID. Myself, I remember going with my wife to a movie theatre just turning 60 or 62 and she says to me, we can get the senior rate for you here, and I say: ‘Shut up,’ (kindly) ‘I’m, gonna pay more. I don’t want to know about the senior rate.’ That was just another way of getting into that denial.
Ram Dass wrote a great book by the way called Still Here. I don’t know how many years ago, it was pre-stroke I believe, and it was about aging. It is a fantastic book and if you’re over 50 and you’re starting to think about this stuff, it has everything in it about how we deny our aging process. We go to the gym, we colour our hair, we get divorced and act out like teenagers – men do anyhow. And in fact I was with Ram Dass one time, I must have just thoroughly read the book, and I said to him, this book you wrote is making me crazy. Everything you say in here in terms of denying aging – I’m doing. I coloured my hair, (I don’t do that anymore). I’m a Pilates fanatic – trying to keep a flat belly, I could go on and on. Course he lists all his stuff – he was going to Gold’s gym too. He’d got a trainer. Some boogy boarding on an adventure retreat, or some crazy shit – a wave threw him up on to a coral reef and he got completely cut up! So in other words, if he can go through this denial, boy, we all can go through it. We all are going through it. So even if you’re 25 and listening to this thing, I think you can get some good information even though you’re probably wont be paying much attention to it, at least you’ll get a laugh out of some of this…
What Ram Dass is pointing out is we’re living in a system that is way out of balance. Our zeal for independence and individuality has left us alienated from the structures of family, community and nature. And the way elderly people get shunted… As soon as you see somebody walking a little slowly or driving at three miles an hour in front of you, you go out of your mind…. In India we spent a lot of time with families in India. And the elderly are so revered there – as depositories of wisdom and they are looked upon, from the smallest children to middle aged people, to provide guidance and so on and this has been pretty well lost in this culture unless you’re a famous person, an artist or something like that.
We just shield ourselves from that process and this is all about change. The nature of aging is change. We’re fascinated with watching the changes but when it starts to happen with who we think we are, this fascination turns to fear. That’s very insightful. And very true. There is a lot of fear associated with change.
And it can be you out there at twenty five years old who is having some changes, you know, starting out in life and they can become fearful. So the idea of practising, of getting behind, to who we really are, regarding the fact that everything is constantly changing – is a great practice that will be benefit when we do get to a place where the body change is a radical slap across the face. Not that some of these other changes aren’t, like losing a girlfriend, losing a wife, losing a job, going through a change of location, and all of it, not to denigrate those kinds of changes.
But certainly the change that happens when you start to lose your faculties … can cause a lot of fear. I have to say that one great thing that we picked up in India and I’ve mentioned it on this podcast and I’m sure you’ve seen it in other places, Ram Dass has certainly talked about it, and that is a certain meditation that many of us who have been in India with Maharaji have practiced called Vipassana meditation which is insight meditation. Sharon Salzburg who’s been part of many of the retreats that we have been doing with Ram Dass and Jack Kornfield, and Trudy Goodman are going to be with us this December at the big Open your Heart retreat. That’s the first announcement – you’re the first to know about that. And Joseph Goldstein, these are people who primarily brought this practice back to America and there are many teachers teaching it now, but these three are very special people.
It’s insight in to the knowing or the experiential process of understanding that constant change is part of nature. So it’s a wonderful practice. … They do these ten day meditation courses that you can do anywhere around the country, just look it up, Google it up. But after the ten days you do come out of there with some great insights into the fact that there is nothing solid, nothing stays the same and this is all tremendously helpful stuff. Let me see what else he talks about here….
‘See the way in which the spiritual journey is one of going deeper and deeper into your being. Behind that which changes to find that which does not change.’
Another one is ‘See the process of aging in itself is a creative act.’
This is all to really turn us around from the way in which we deal with aged people and the way we deal with it ourselves when we get there. The system that we have been living in, that we are now living in, in this culture, regarding this is – it’s a tragedy. And you see it in the papers all the time. Now, especially with people living much older than they have in the past. The other thing that is probably really useful … obviously practicing as I mentioned this particular meditation, Vipassana, insight meditation, to gain some of that insight – that’s useful at eighteen years old. OK? Because practice makes perfect and when you go through changes you definitely need to be able to fall back on something.
He’s talking about awareness. That’s one of the things of course we all need to develop – awareness and mindfulness. The concept of awareness is truly intrinsic to our ability to move with all of the changes that go on in our lives. Sometimes with that awareness we become fascinated by what we start to perceive in front of us, what we become aware of and sometimes we miss the boat though because we miss the notion of what awareness is of itself. It is a state of being that we can become identified with that is not as rustled by the changes that go on.
So this is a great talk again, excuse me to all those younger folk out there who are definitely not thinking about aging at this point. Ram Dass calls it, he says ‘We’re going to speak today about change.’ So although he’s talking about aging, the idea of confronting change, I think, is an essential thing, an essential for anybody of any age, cos we’re all dealing with that on a moment to moment basis. Alright, here we go, sorry I’ve taken up all your time here, in terms of where’s Ram Dass, so here he is, Ram Dass, Here and Now, talking about change.
Last year I was on a late evening train and the station was closed so I had to buy the ticket on the train. I had just become 60. So when the conductor came I said to him ‘I’d like a senior citizen ticket.’ (laughter) And what I felt when did that was just what I had felt when I was eighteen years old (Laughter) I had been in Boston where the drinking age was twenty one but I went to New York with some friends and the drinking age was eighteen. I went into a bar and I said I’d like a beer, with trepidation that they wouldn’t serve me because I was too young. I had the same feeling with the conductor. (Laughter) But he immediately made out the ticket (Laughter) for a senior citizen and I’m … I said ‘Don’t you want to see my ID?’ (Laughter) and he said no! (Laughter) And I was shocked. (Laughter)
Because until I was 50 I think I saw myself as somewhere between 12 and 14 (Laughter) and then around 50 I started to grow up and I began to consider the fact that I was possibly an adult. So in earlier years when I was thirty and a student would come in and say ‘Sir may I see you.’ I would take it as a joke. (Laughter)
But when I became 60… up until then I had treated age rather uninteresting. I was busy being spiritual and spiritual people don’t focus on age of the body, (Laughter) but I decided when I was 60 to milk it to see what I could get out of it. To see if there was any work I should do.
Usually I’m travelling during my birthday so people cant have birthday parties but this time I told everybody I wanted birthday parties. And I had many birthday parties. Because 60 was a key year. I have studied in the East a great deal and at 60 you become a sannyas. In the ashramas or stages of life, from zero to 20 you’re a student; from 20 to 40 you’re a householder, raising your children, earning money; from 40 to 60 you start to do spiritual studies and pilgrimages and practices and at 60 you throw over everything. You’re totally free. And 60 is such a key point.
In this country it’s a little more confusing cos you don’t know whether you retire at 55 or 60 and Medicare isn’t until 65, so you don’t quite know where the mark is. There’s no clear right of passage as to when you’re old.
But I really wanted to milk it and I realized that I got caught in it and for about six months I was really busy being 60. (Laughter)
I looked at my hand and I saw my father’s hand and I thought there’s a sixty year old hand. (Laughter) Bone and blood vessels and wrinkles and spots. (Laughter) Wow … spots. You know the Porcelana ad says … (Laughter) It says: ‘They call these spots aging spots, I call them ugly.’ Isn’t that an extraordinary ad, I mean, to create suffering? The other way to look at it is ‘They call these ugly, I call them aging spots.’ (Laughter)
But what I had done is I had internalised at some level more or less consciously, the social clock of aging of our society. Because we are basically a hunting tribe and what happens to old people in hunting tribes, since hunting tribes have to keep moving is old people are left behind and they’re treated as somewhat irrelevant. And since economic productivity and social roles of achievement are so stressed in this society, and in this youth society, I began to feel like it was time for closings rather than openings. I should look at the projects I had left to do. Maybe I should consider retiring from Seva foundation. Maybe I should do my last book. I mean I was really climbing into it, maybe I should take six months of the year off.
I started to notice I’d travel and … I use carry on baggage because I don’t like baggage claim waiting … so I noticed the corridors to the plane seemed to be getting longer (Laughter) and I thought ha ha it’s happening.
And I reacted to it in an interesting way. Part of me was sort of steeping myself in ‘OK what’s it going to be like to be older? I’ll slow down. I’ll honour this.’ And the other part was doing this bizarre behaviour. Where …. Last summer I spent some time helping my colleague build his house with adobe bricks. I would be in this long line of people, all of whom were about twenty to thirty year old Mexican labourers, and me and my friend and the bricks weighed about 30-40 pounds and we would toss them up the hill from one to another. And we would work from 7.30 in the morning to 5 at night. At which point they would go out to dinner and play. And I would stagger to bed. (Laughter) But I wouldn’t give up. I did it.
Then I thought my body’s out of shape, so I went to Gold’s gym (Laughter) and I got a trainer. Now Gold’s gym is wonderful cos it’s where everybody comes. All those really kind of muscle bound forms, (Laughter) these huge things and they have mirrors all around the sides for these people to admire themselves. But because I’m near sighted without my glasses I couldn’t see in the mirrors, all I could see were these huge forms going by. (Laughter) So pretty soon I was beginning to walk like this… (Laughter) because since I couldn’t see myself I just assumed I was one of them and … (Laughter) but the trainer, as we went through the regimen, at one point I was sitting there trying to decide whether I would live or die, and she said ‘Are you alright?’ and I knew she wouldn’t be asking that to one of them so … (Laughter) I remembered my father’s little poem:
‘It’s not the crows feet under your eyes that make you old or the grey in your hair I’m told but when your mind makes a contract your body cant fill, you’re over the hill, brother, you’re over the hill.’ (Laughter)
But I wasn’t ready to give up so in November I went with a thirty three year old friend of mine to the South Pacific to do two months of boogie boarding. (Laughter) For those of you who don’t know, a boogie board is a plastic board and you go out in the waves and you ride on the wave. So I found myself in Tahiti in Marquesa island, and my friend would leap into the surf and rush out to get the waves. And these waves are coming in and I would be struggling to get through the wave and I would get out there were all these … not only weren’t they sixty years old, they weren’t fifty or forty and they weren’t even thirty. They were about fifteen and only one person gets away it turns out, if you want to find the right place. So I was fighting these fifteen, twenty year olds, and at one point I took a wrong turn and I ended up on this coral reef (Laughter) with the waves pounding down on me and the coral cutting my legs and you know how long it takes for coral to heal and everybody was screaming at me to do something, which I couldn’t hear over the waves, and I thought what am I doing? (Laughter) Is it possible that I could say ‘Enough already’? (Laughter)
I’ve saved my father’s cane. (Laughter) for whenever. Cos there’s a lovely Chinese story about that an old Chinese man who’s retired. He’s too old to work in the garden and he’s sitting on the porch and his son is tilling the garden. The son has a wife and family and the son looks up at the old man and he thinks you know he’s so old he just eats food, what good is he. Says, no its time for him to be done. So he went out and he made a wooden box and he put the wooden box in a wheelbarrow and rolled the wheelbarrow up to the porch and he said ‘Father, get in.’ (Laughter) So the father got into the box and the son put a cover on the box and started to wheel the box towards the cliff. And as he got to the edge of the cliff, there was knocking from inside the box. (Laughter) And he said ‘Yes father’ and the father said, ‘Well I understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it son, but might I suggest that you just throw me over and save the box because your children will probably need it later.’ (Laughter and clapping)
But one of the things that’s helped me from not getting too trapped in our cultural models is that I do travel a great deal in other cultures. And in other cultures I’m always surprised at how different the feelings are that are generated around variables. Like in India when I went there last time, two years ago, one of my lovely old friends up in a village in the mountains, said to me ‘Ram Dass, you’re looking so old.’ He said ‘You’re so grey.’ Now, at first my reaction to that was my western cultural reaction of ‘Oh god – that’s terrible’, but then when I quieted down, I heard the tone with which he was saying it. He was saying it with great respect and delight. Like I had now become one of the elders in the society and he was saying ‘Wow, you’ve done it, you’ve grown old, how great.’
And what I have found is that after I live in places like Guatemala, or Malaysia or Thailand or Burma or Italy or France or Spain or Polynesia, where there are extended families, where everybody has natural roles within the structure and where old people are part of the families and the old and the young are wise fools together and the whole thing is quite built in. Then you come back to this culture where you have quote ‘an aging problem’. And I realized we are gathered here because of our cultural pathology. That were it not for that we wouldn’t need this so much because in many cultures this was all built in, in a natural way and in our zeal to be independent, we have thrown away the baby with the bath a little bit. And we’ve ended up where we have alienated ourselves across generations instead of embracing ourselves across generations. Creating these kinds of supportive communities where the roles of elders are obvious and clear.
In our society of course, where technology moves so fast we get outdated, so that the question of what wisdom elders have that is useful. I mean I’m only at WordPerfect 5.0 (Laughter) and I realize now that I already cant talk the language of my friend’s twelve year old son and you know I moved from a typewriter to a computer and I kept saying to myself, old dogs can learn new tricks, old dogs can learn new tricks, old dogs can learn new tricks, and I’d put it over my computer (Laughter) But I don’t know how many more old tricks I’m going to learn and I may just decide to be out-dated.
But I think that we have to recognize that we are living in a system that has gotten out of balance in which the zeal for independence and individuality has left us alienated from the structures not only of family and community but from nature. In ways that Zalman was talking about from recognising our identity as part of biotic communities in parts all of which give an intuitive innate meaning to aging and they give you a feeling of the appropriateness of the place. Most of us live in urban areas where we are living almost totally surrounded by the projections of the human mind. And very rarely are we living so close to nature and earth that we are experiencing in our blood and our being the cycles of cold and warm, of leaves falling, of the feelings of nature, of death, of birth, of aging.
And it’s a harsh reality at one level and it’s the horrible beauty of the wisdom of nature that we often have shielded ourselves from and in that shielding we have lost something. Because we’ve been afraid to look at the nature of aging and death. Robert Kassebaum says ‘the limitations and distortions of our core vision of what it means to be a person in our culture, becomes starkly evident in old age. If to be an old person is to suffer abandonment, disappointment and humiliation, this is not a geriatric problem. It is the disproof of our whole shaky pudding, technology, science and all. If our old people are empty – our vision of life is empty.’
Now ….as Eve’s song talked about the changes, a Stevie Wonder song, the nature of aging has to do with change, obviously and the nature of changing phenomena is that they are endlessly fascinating. We get fascinated with that which changes. When it starts to happen to who we think we are, the fascination turns into fear. The first level of change that we have to attend to is the physical nature of change with aging. As I read this list it will be very familiar to many of you: arthritis, neuritis, insomnia, constipation, poor circulation, high blood pressure.
I went to the doctor the other day, he said your blood pressure is high. He said would you do what ever you do to lower it. (Laughter and clapping) I said what I do to lower it is not visit doctors offices that’s what I do it’s called the white coat blood pressure. Nervous tension, atrophying muscles, bones breaking easily, motor nerve signals slower, lungs less oxygen, loss of mobility, cant hear as well, cant see as well, run out of steam sooner, days when you feel sick and nauseous, questions about continence.
Now those changes themselves are so fascinating, that I can take you to whole societies in the sun, in St Petersberg, for example, where there are hundreds of thousands of people who are endlessly reciting the lists of these changes to each other (Laughter) Mostly their own fascinate them the most, however they do listen to each other so that they can give fair hearing so that they can have time for their own. But you don’t say ‘How are you?’ (Laughter)
And that’s real and its very real and its very painful and its very confusing because the body just doesn’t do what it used to do and it does a lot of things it didn’t use to do. And while you can see how real that is for those people – when you put in the places of those people who are the same age now just put on those dentures, Einstein, Oscar Reubenstein, Pablo Picasso, Rembrandt, George Bernard Shaw, Monet, Chagal, Bob Hope, Grandma Moses, and Margaret Mead and you cant image them sitting around doing that same thing can you? So it’s clearly not age, is it? It’s where the mind grabs hold and which changes it focuses on, right?
Now around that one, it’s so endlessly fascinating we’ve developed a great deal of humour around it. Johnny Carson soon to be former, Johnny Carson says … I knew a man who gave up smoking, drinking, sex and rich food. He was healthy right up to the time he committed suicide. (Laughter)
Groucho Marx said ‘in middle age you go to bed hoping you’ll feel better in the morning, in old age you go to bed hoping you have a morning.’ (Laughter)
Robert Benchley said ‘I feel fine at fifty except for an occasional heart attack.’ (Laughter)
These identifications are so intense it’s extremely hard to break them but as you heard, you can feel, that it was possible to lift out of them and to see the body as a vehicle. In the East you see the body as something you have incarnated in to and it’s a vehicle that … it’s like a space suit for working on this planet, on this plane of reality, And your space suit… I have two cars. One is 19 years old, and one is 18 years old. Now to me they’re new cars because I remember them…but one of them just failed the smog test in California and I realize now that it’s just a car. But to be able say its just a body in the same way? Cos most of us have identified so with the …It’s like identifying with your car, and somebody says, How do you do, who are you and you say I’m a Ford. (Laughter) You know, like I’m an arthritic, like I have gout. How do you do? I have gout. (Laughter) You know? It’s the same thing. You’re identifying with the vehicle. It’s a charming old vehicle, it’s just falling apart (Laughter) but with a little tender care I can keep it together for a little while longer.
However when you get to the psychological things that change, it’s a whole other ball game.
(aside: Excuse me… What is my time on this … do I have…)
When you work with the psychological changes …. because there are a lot of new ones you face that are psychological changes. Some of them just increase and some of them appear that have never appeared before.
Let me give you a little list to play with, you handled the physical list well, try this one. Despair, depression, feeling abandoned, lonely, worthless, frustrated, worrying, doubting, vulnerable, forgetful, losing self confidence, petty, irritable, fear of the future, obsessed with possessions, meaninglessness, friendlessness, fear of being penniless, no one to touch, loss of psychological power, worship and fear of doctors, (Laughter) suspicion, paranoia.
Those all sound pretty real. And they are coming and going and appearing more and more frequently and changing. As your social support system changes, as you may have to leave the home, as you may have to lose friends, as you may have to find that you have less responsibility, as the reward systems you work for don’t work anymore. You try to maintain psychological security by holding on to things as they are. And if you can hear the predicament… That everything is changed … Things change. My car gets old. My body gets old. That’s obvious. The hard one to hear is that thoughts and feelings are things and things change. And that your identification with your thoughts and feelings is another source of the cause of the suffering.
What we usually do under those conditions is we work in a therapeutic sense, psychologically, to try to find some psychological model that will allow us to age and we try to substitute that for the one that is depressed and fearful and frightened. It’s a horizontal shift.
And there are certain qualities that we look for – we try to cultivate.
Martin Buber says: ‘To be old is a glorious thing when one has not unlearned what it means to begin.’ He’s talking about somebody who knew how to begin, he said: ‘He was not at all young but he was old in a young way knowing how to begin.’ And most of the social programmes that are not for the physical body are for psychological well being. And supporting education, the Elder Hostel, travel…. If you read the magazine Modern Maturity you just see lots of stuff about keeping your psychological health good and your physical health good. To continue to do things, to be active, etc. To see aging as a challenge, as a psychological challenge. A challenge that is sufficient to motivate you to grow but not so extreme so as to induce depression, regression, in other words not beyond our adaptive capacity.
To psychologically study the way in which we are responding to change in a habitual way, that is similar to the way we responded to change at puberty, the way we responded to change in childhood, and realize we’re just reliving psychological patterns over and over again. And to break our habits and get out of those things.
Part of the psychological mental health of elders and aging has to now do with political power. With the grey panthers, with the AARP, with power, with, as Zalman says, the baby boom and the power. Now every bus will be a kneeling bus because we have the votes.
Now that’s a good example of something that is extremely useful and important and relevant, when older people say ‘Look we are not going to be disempowered by a youth culture, we are going to redefine the game of what cultivates respect and we are not going to wait for anyone else to give it to us, we’re going to take it. And we’re going to take it with our political power.’ That is great, but I want to represent another voice here and say do that, and do it effectively, don’t get trapped in it. Don’t get trapped in worldly power because the business of aging has some other agenda to it as well.
One of the things that eldering allows us to do, or aging rather, allows us to do is become more eccentric. That’s a psychological shift in role, before when you had to be a certain way, now you can let it all fall apart little bit more. There’s a wonderful poem by Jenny Joseph I’m sure some of you know it, it’s A Warning, she says
When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and it doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick the flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit.
You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausage at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.
Ah but now we must have clothes to keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.
But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.
That’s of course T. S. Elliot’s Prufrock,
I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind?
Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
And one more poem that I found in a Hallmark card: (Laughter)
Because of course the psychological fear that we have the most is of losing our mind and this says:
Just a line to say I’m living, That I’m not among the dead,
Though I’m getting more forgetful and more mixed up in the head.
For sometimes I can’t remember, When I stand at the foot of the stair,
If I must go up for something or if I’ve just come down from there?
And before the fridge so often my poor mind is full of doubt,
Have I just put food away or have I come to take some out?
And there are times when its dark out with my night cap on my head, I don’t know if I’m retiring or just getting out of bed.
So if it’s my turn to write you, there’s no need in getting sore,
I may think that I have written and don’t want to be a bore.
Remember I do love you, I wish you were here,
And it’s nearly mail time, So I’ll say goodbye dear.
There I stood beside the mailbox with my face so very red,
Instead of mailing you my letter I have opened it instead! (Laughter)
I love my new bifocals, my dentures fit me fine, My hearing aid is perfect but lord – I miss my mind. (Laughter)
Now it’s much harder to hear the possibility that one can extricate oneself from that which changes when the changes involve ones own personality. Because while you may be able to see the body as object – its very hard to see the personality as object because you’ve identified with it for so long. You think that’s who you are. And now we’re getting more into the depth of the matter because the question one asks is ‘Is there a place to stand in relation to change where one is not frightened by it? Is there a place to stand in the presence of change where one can be with the changes, even enjoy the changes, work with the changes, become an elder, do all the things that changing involves and at the same moment cultivate equanimity, spaciousness, emptiness, awareness, clarity?’ That’s really what the issue of spiritual, of the deep spiritual work is about.
Now there are stages of that work and the first stage I think is the recognition of what is most comfortable for people in spiritual dimension, something called the soul. Which says you are still a separate entity – but you aren’t the incarnation, you aren’t what was born, so you aren’t your personality and you aren’t your body.
Here are just a few images to work with and think about this. One is by Yeats, ‘An aged man is but a paltry thing, tattered coat upon a stick. In less soul claps and sing and louder sing for every tatter in its mortal dress. Oh sages standing in God’s holy fire, be the singing masters of my soul. Consume my heart away, sick with desire and fastened to a dying animal. It knows not what it is and gather me in to the artifice of eternity.’ Pull my soul out of the identification with the body.
And in T S Elliot’s, poem East Coker
‘As we grow older the world becomes stranger,
the pattern more complicated, of dead, of living.
Old men (and women) ought to be explorers, here and there does not matter,
we must be still and still moving into another intensity
for further union, a deeper communion.
Through the dark cold and empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters,
Of the petrel and the porpoise.
In my end is my beginning.
You and I are paying the price of having grown up in such a materially oriented society. Such an externalised society, such a society that measures people in terms of their products, their achievements, their possessions, their knowledge. Instead of cultivating the quality of being.
In the East one spends one’s life from a spiritual sense in preparing for aging and death. We have spent most of our lives in denying aging and death.
And the predicament we face now is, that once we become older, when we suddenly realize there’s another agenda, its harder to do it now. Because its harder to not be distracted by all of the changes that are happening in our bodies and our minds. And that is why you are encouraged spiritually –
It says, die in the morning so you need not die at night. And that has to do go through the spiritual transformations when you are young so that when you get old you will have built up the resonance within yourself to transform the changes without getting caught in them.
Mahatma Gandhi had spent so many years in inner spiritual practice and with the mantra he did Ram Ram Ram Ram with his beads Ram Ram Ram Ram that when he walked out in to the garden that day and a man came up and shot him four times at point blank range in the chest, as Ghandi was falling over, he didn’t say ‘Oooof’ or ‘Save India’ or ‘You are forgiven.’ he said Ram. He was so ready to move forward that at the moment, the unexpected moment, he was ready to utter that mantra which would take him into the next space. The depths of the understanding of that particular image, of the preparation, not just for the moment of death but for the process of aging, it is a life times work. To know how to grow old is the master work of wisdom, one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living. And one best done early on.
TS Elliot has one other quote, he says: ‘We cannot stick to the moving finger of time on the surface of the sphere but must descend into the still point of the turning world.’
That is, one of the traps that our mind is in is the trap of time and aging has to do with time. and I must ask you ‘Is there a part of you that is not in time?’ And if so, find it and rest in it. That’s the whole mystical journey. Now the predicament is, the part of you that is not in time: you cant see it, you cant smell it, you cant hear it, you cant even think about it and yet it is. You can only Be it. You cant know it. Because the thinking mind knows objects and objects are in time.
What a frustrating thing! It’s like having a flash light that you shine on this and that, on a memory, on a plan, on a sensation, on a feeling but when does the flashlight shine on itself? And the flashlight itself is that part of you, which you could call….what ever call it – it’s just going to be a word which isn’t going to be it, but let’s call it awareness. Awareness has no time. It has no space, It doesn’t die, it wasn’t born, its not going anywhere. Everybody is having continuous experience or continuous understanding or resting in awareness, but you are so fascinated with what you are being aware of, you never notice the awareness itself. Isn’t that strange?
What you begin to see is the way in which the journey, the spiritual journey, is one of going deeper and deeper into your being to go in behind that which changes to find that which does not change. And it’s not a ‘that’ but to find ‘not change’. And in that process you start to use the things of your life as your vehicles of doing it. And all of the things I’ve talked about – the physical breakdown, the psychological breakdown all can become the stuff you use in order to go behind it, by saying not this, not this, not this. And when you know how to use aging to go behind time, then you begin to see that all of that stuff that’s happening to you, not only might not be bad, it might even be grace.
There’s the story of a man who had a horse and the horse ran away.
And his neighbour came up and said ‘Oh that’s terrible.’
And the man said ‘ You never know.’ (Laughter)
And the next day the horse came back and it was leading two other wild horses.
And the neighbour said, ‘That’s wonderful.’
And the farmer said ‘ You never know’.
And then his son was training one of the wild horses and while he was riding the wild horse he fell off and broke his leg and the neighbour came up and said ‘That’s terrible.’ And the farmer said ‘ You never know’.
And then the Cossack army came through recruiting everybody, taking all the young men that were able but they didn’t take the son because he had a broken leg, and the neighbour came up and said ‘That’s wonderful.’
And the farmer said ‘ You never know’ and on it goes you see? (Laughter)
You begin to experience that the very stuff of aging becomes stuff to work with for your spiritual journey. There are some advantages of aging in that you are like the Chung Su’s old gnarled tree that no woodsman cuts down any more, so it can do its own business.
You become irrelevant so you can do inner work. (Laughter)
Frances, a resident in a nursing home, she says ‘Lack of physical strength keeps me inactive and often silent they call me senile. Senility is a convenient peg on which to hang non conformity.’ she says. (Laughter) ‘A new set of faculties seems to be coming into operation. I seem to be waking to a larger world of wonderment. To catch little glimpses of the immensity and diversity of creation. More than at any other time of my life I seem to be aware of the beauties of our spinning planet and the sky above. Old age is sharpening my awareness.’ That’s senility.
I had an extraordinary image of this when I was taking care of my father who died about three years ago, at ninety. And over the years my father had been a very effective political social animal, very successful and as he got older during the last three years, he got very quiet inside. And he’d just smile a lot and I’d sit with him and hold his hand and we’d look at sunsets. We had never done that. All our lives. Because we were always busy ‘What’ll we do now.’ You know that kind of active world. So a man came to visit, a relative came to visit my father, who had never gotten along well with him, and he said ‘Hi, how you doing?’ and my father just smiled at him. And the fellow walked out of the room and he said, ‘That bastard, he still wont talk to me.’ (Laughter)
And then my aunt came along who loved my father incredibly, she said ‘George, how are you?’ and he just smiled at her. And she said ‘Oh poor George, what have they done to you? Where are you? You’ve gone away.’
There he and I were sitting, we were both in ecstasy, just sitting and smiling.
We were totally at peace. It was like washing the Buddha all the time. It was incredible. I mean, he was just blissed out all the time. He didn’t even know himself. They were both miserable. (Laughter) Isn’t that interesting? They were miserable because their model of who he should be, because of who he was, but that isn’t who he is (Laughter) and the interesting question is whether you will allow the moment to be real or not.
There’s a wonderful line, ‘The very frailty of age guards its secrets. The inner world of the old is seldom worded. To speak of half formed ideas which come with attunement to inner self is to destroy their growth’ said Margaret Keyes.
See when I say to you, you are looking for a place in you that is not form. That is not in time. That is not in space. It’s not something you can talk about. All your words are just fingers pointing at the moon, they’re not the moon. And when you get old and you cant talk so much, then you’re in a position where you may be able to hear those components that are not talkable about. Otherwise you keep reducing the world to what you can talk about.
Its so interesting how age works to the advantage spiritually.
I go to Burma say, to sit in meditation for two months. I go in to a cell, I sit down, no books, no letters, no television, nobody to talk to. I just sit. I sit and I go inward. And I go to as quiet a place as I can. But look at what happens when you grow old, you go deaf, you go blind, you got arthritis, you cant move around. What an ideal time to meditate. (Laughter) I mean if any message were clearer. That’s it. Isn’t it the optimum time to sit down and shut up. (Laughter) and really listen inward. And yet we treat it as if it were an error or a failing. Isn’t that bizarre? Seems so to me.
The next issue, of course, that we have to deal with of course is the issue of dying.
Suzuki Roshi said ‘Life is like setting sail aboard a boat which is about to go out in to the ocean and sink’ (Laughter) You ready for that? (Laughter) Not me, I’m not going to sink. I’ve got a life preserver. (Laughter) and Rilke said ‘That one can contain death, the whole of death, can hold it to one’s heart gentle and not refuse to go on living is inexpressible.’
The key spiritual work that aging demands we focus upon, is the way in which we relate to death. And the way you relate to death is a function of how much you are identified with that which dies. When you were born you were undifferentiated ‘all of it’. And then you went into Somebody training and you became Somebody. You became a defined, boundaried Somebody. You were trained by somebody who thought they were Somebody. (Laughter) and in the zeal with which you were trained into your somebody-ness, what you lost was your connection with the unity that exists behind the diversity. You just got so focused on your separateness you lost the unity. And the spiritual journey is awakening back into the unity, the one-ness, the spirit, the God, that permeates and is all things. Not so that you get lost in the unity and forget the diversity, or your uniqueness, but that you regain the balance. Because once you have in you a recognition of that part of you which is part of everything which is part of everything, part of the one, your fear of death is dissipated immensely.
As long as you are identified only with your separateness – you are afraid of death. And that fear is going to colour all of your years. And the art of being able to look directly at death and directly at suffering, that art, the ability to keep your heart open in hell, to look at what is, look at all of it, is a function of your ability to find in yourself that which is not changing which is not separate, that is not vulnerable to time and space. That’s the spiritual work, that’s the journey of aging.
So to undertake this spiritual journey – what is required? Zalman talked about doing our philosophical homework. That is, now instead of just reading People magazine New York Times, whatever, Variety, start to look for those kinds of literature, resources, books, that reflect about these issues of metaphysics, of who you are and what you are doing here. If you have a religious context, do it through your religious context. Read the Rabbi Nachman, read St Augustine etc.
Recognise the stages of life and honour them.
Aside: Which I would almost do if I could find them….searching (Laughter)
There they are… Well now, Confucious said: see I always have one…
At fifteen I set my heart on learning.
At thirty I have planted my feet firm upon the ground.
At forty I no longer suffer from complexities.
At fifty I knew what were the biddings of heaven.
At sixty I heard them with a docile ear.
At seventy I could follow the dictates of my heart
for what I desired no longer overstepped the boundaries of right.
Talk about old people .. don’t have to give up sexual appetites. You don’t – but when they fall away, what a blessing! (Laughter) How much free time you have! I never knew….! (Laughter)
I mean I don’t want to undercut the game of old people are sexy, I think that’s wonderful, and they’re sensual and it’s all great. But my god you don’t have to keep playing with toys all your life, there are other business you have, don’t denigrate it by saying ‘I’ve failed.’ because I cant get it up or I cant make it or I cant do this. I mean, that’s absurd ….. Aside well that’s kind of…. (Laughter)
So recognising and honouring stages of life is extremely important.
Look at change itself and reflect about that as we have been doing here.
See how, as I’ve talked about, losing your hearing as a value and not a loss. See how you can use your aging as a vehicle to help you in your spiritual work rather than being something thats an obstacle. Recognising in yourself the conflicting forces. The forces that make you want you to stay effective in the world having love and friendship and all of that and the other part that wants to be contemplative and go inside and really give that contemplative inside part some space, water it a little bit. Give it some sunlight to grow, instead of treating it as ‘Oh god I don’t want to go out today.’ As if it’s some kind of an error.
Give yourself psychologically the opportunity to grieve for the end of dreams, for the end of childhood, for all the people that go away, for the loss of each thing, thing upon thing, upon thing.
The loss of competence, the loss of people, the loss of life style. The loss of your body functioning etc. Stop feeding the drama of aging. Your denial of aging or your milking of it by being so attached to it are both getting in the way, of realizing that who you are has no age. Who you are is in a body that has age, it’s in a personality that is aging and changing but you yourself aren’t.
Reflect about death. And become friendly with it.
Find a community around you of people who would like to really grow inwardly if you’re luck enough to find them. They’re called satsang or sanga or the family or the community of spirit. If you don’t then you’ve got books of sadhaks, of wise women, of all of that. Tune back into nature more deeply so you can feel the cycles, the natural cycles of which your body and your personality are a part.
Find practices of meditation. Meditation on impermanence, meditation on suffering and the end of suffering. Meditation on non-self. Meditation on dependency.
Learn how to act in the world in caring and compassionate way without being trapped in being the actor by using it all to go inward more deeply, more deeply.
Just to give you just a flavour, I’m about to draw to a close here.
These are the kind of spiritual teachings I work with.
You should rest in naturalness.A clear, empty and naked mind essence, free from any concerns, just rest in your awareness.
When your body falls sick don’t indulge in it, but rest in naturalness.
Look into the painful sensation itself. The pain doesn’t cease, however you will directly realize the inate state of awareness free from any thought about where it hurts, what it hurts, how it hurts as well as the object of the pain.
At that moment the sickness grows less intense and becomes more insubstantial.
Regard disturbing emotions from within the space of emptiness.
Any disturbing emotion that may arise is wisdom the moment you relax in naturalnesss. Look directly into it. Don’t deliberately reject it or regard it as a fault or indulge it in concreteness, or even regard it as a virtue, just look at it. And keep coming back into spaciousness, come back into spaciousness.
The result of the kinds of spiritual work I’m talking about is that you are growing towards being equanamous, peaceful. Where you see that the process of the aging is itself the creative act. And you see the way in which you are your own creation and when you are creating from peace and equanimity and the quiet spaciousness of being in love in the universe, the unity of the universe, you become a wise elder in to the society.
When you are dependent on others, the way in which you are dependent is a message to other people. To help them get free of their fear of dependency.
The people I work with who are dying, I have to tell you, are my great teachers. They are people who in the way they work with these processes keep teaching me. So understand that … Mahatma Gandhi’s line, he was on a train, it was rollling out of the station, a reporter rushed up and said ‘Mahatmaji, give me a message to take back to the people.’ He had just time to scribble on a paper bag, he handed out the bag and it said: My life is my message.
I invite you to look at your life and see what message it is you are. And when you find that part of you that is afraid, that is caught in time and that which changes, get to work.
There’s no better time to do than now.
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