From Age-ing to Sage-ing
The woman above is Peggy Freydberg, who began writing poetry at the age of 90 and wrote until she died at 107. Her collected poems, Poems from the Pond, offer a distillation of her sage wisdom gained in more than a century of living, observing, loving life.
The title of this post is from From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Revolutionary Approach to Growing Older, a wise compendium of practices and tools by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who suggests we can pro-actively claim a wise elderhood by continuing to engage in community and contribute to our larger world with purpose and zest.
As the populous baby boomer generation now crosses the threshold into aging, with all of its dreads and difficulties, there are many excellent resources available now to guide folks in the process of staying grateful and fully engaged in life while we’re still alive to do so.
[Some transparency here: the week after I turned in my manuscript for Bouncing Back, I was required to apply for Medicare. The month after I turned in my manuscript for Resilience, I was required to begin taking my Social Security benefits. Am I grateful for that safety net? Of course. And both are such archetypal reminders of time moving on and myself wanting to learn how to age gracefully and skillfully, even resiliently.]
Getting older certainly brings changes and challenges. Bette Davis once remarked:
Old age ain’t no place for sissies.
And that’s so true. Aches and pains, loss and diminishment, death and dying nearer the horizon.
The Buddhist tradition teaches practices to contemplate the impermanence of life all along. To notice that the breath comes and goes; that thoughts and emotions come and go (which they do, when we don’t fuss and ruminate about them). That everything we cherish and treasure will come and go. To develop the equanimity of a clear mind and an open heart to face the ultimate losses of death, our own or the people we most dearly love.
And this practice of becoming comfortable with loss and impermanence is essential to living life well at all. We don’t have to wait until we’re “old.”
Among my close friends, one was stricken with multiple sclerosis in her 30’s, ending her successful career in tech and changing everything about coping with life completely. Another friend contracted a rare nervous system syndrome in her 40’s, ending her career as a public defender (though not her passion for justice). Another developed a heart condition in her 50’s that put an end to her beloved dancing (though she can still enjoy the dancing of her grandchildren). Another friend’s husband suffered a debilitating stroke in his 60’s that ended their much-enjoyed travels together, though not their love for each other. Another went into kidney failure in his 70’s, which fortunately did not end his teaching career nor the traveling that involves, but did serve as an abrupt reminder of the inexorable march of time and the body slowing down/falling apart as we age.
All of these people are real people; all of them are in my daily life. Another friend, a long-time mindfulness practitioner now in his 80’s, sent me an email this morning:
“Of course illness or disabling accidents can produce sudden and challenging change. I think for me the difference is the more subtle aspect of finding oneself in a new and demanding stage of life.
I do think that our mobility, energy and drives can often mask us from suffering. It seems in old age you are hit flat in the face with the physical limitations and their study progression as well as diminishing mental capacities.
Acceptance, adaptability, awareness are important at all points in our lives. Awareness, wisdom, maintaining a spark are essential. Otherwise it will be a very painful time, or so it seems to me. On the whole I am doing quite well, accepting things as they are.
The teachings of the Buddha are so far ranging and liberating. Now at this point, when simplification is more essential to me, my practice has boiled down to three short teachings that I use to keep focus.
Everyone is as they are, everything is as it is.
Practice is about knowing and letting go.
This is how it is, right now.
These reminders form an umbrella for all else.”
And our virtual conversation and reflections continue even as I write this post.
This weekend I began reading A Beginner’s Guide to the End: Practical Advice for Living Life and Facing Death, because I want to be “consciously conscientious” about how I face the news of arthritis now in my right hip and knee, even as I continue to have the privilege of teaching resilience around the world. If I find it as helpful as I expect it to be, I will probably post a newsletter about it in the near future.
I read The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us about Living Fully when it was first published two years ago and will probably write a blog about the wisdom found there, too, as I re-visit it on this journey.
For now, some wisdom about resilience and aging:
You can judge your age by the amount of pain you feel when you come in contact with a new idea.
– Pearl S. Buck
Wisdom is not what you know but how quickly you adjust when the opposite proves true.
– Robert Brault