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Aging as a Spiritual Practice

Aging as a Spiritual Practice

Read this article to find meditation spiritual practices that will enhance your aging process. 

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I began studying with my first Buddhist teacher Shunryu Suzuki Roshi in the 1960s when I was in my twenties and he was in his sixties. Once, after a lecture, someone asked Suzuki, “Why do we meditate?”

He laughed and replied, “So you can enjoy your old age.”

We laughed with him, thinking he was joking; most of us were young, and had no clue what he was really talking about. We didn’t understand that as a lifelong meditator he was simply being truthful. Now that I am the age that Suzuki was when he made this statement, I have come to agree with my teacher. Contemplative practice is helpful—indeed, vital—to healthy aging and the cultivation of elder wisdom. But how and why is this so? How can we learn and practice what Suzuki Roshi taught about aging?

My new book Aging as a Spiritual Practice: A Contemplative Guide to Growing Older and Wiser is my effort to answer these questions in all their complexity and detail. The book grew out of my decades of experience as a Buddhist meditation practitioner, priest, teacher, and author, as well as my own personal experience of illness and aging. Early in the book I point out that from ancient times, the elder years have been seen as an ideal time for the cultivation of the inner life. But the meaning of “elder years” has changed drastically. As recently as 1900 the life expectancy in America was 48. Now it is 80. The baby boomer generation will live much longer than any generation in history. The last third of life may now be as long as thirty years. That is a stunning change. What will we all do with that newfound gift of time? My answer: Turn within, reflect deeply on the life we have lived and the deep meaning of life itself, cultivate generosity and gratitude, and discover deep acceptance.

To this end, each chapter of the book incorporates one or more contemplative practices. Some are adapted from the Buddhist tradition, some from other faiths; a few are my own invention. In writing the book, I wanted to offer more than just a spiritual perspective on aging or a review of aging research (although the book does offer both). I wanted to give readers practical tools to address the challenges and rewards of aging in their own lives. The book is not just for experienced meditators or just for Buddhists. Aging is a universal experience, and wisdom a universal treasure. The expression “growing older and wiser” in the book’s subtitle hints at the known connection between aging and wisdom. Indeed, in every traditional society elders were honored not just for their practical knowledge, but also for their wisdom about the right way to live, the deepest purpose of a life, and ways to understand the suffering and loss that is written into the fabric of our existence.

In this article I explore various aspects of these questions and present two of the contemplative practices from the book. And since I’m writing for a new online journal dedicated to the contemplative life, I contrast different styles of meditation, and explain which styles are best adapted to the path of aging.

Aging: Losses and Gifts

No realistic discussion of aging can proceed without the candid admission that aging is marked by loss. These losses—the death of a friend, an illness or disability, waning vitality, retirement—pile up as the years wear on. When I say this in my workshops, the expressions on peoples’ faces grow solemn and heads nod. They all know it’s true. Of course we suffer losses at every stage of life; but aging’s losses are more irrevocable. One such loss is the passing of time­—the sense that the best years of our life are behind us, that time is running out, that our days are numbered, speeding toward an unknown future whose final end grows more visible with each passing year.

Were loss the only dynamic of aging, growing old would be sad indeed. But each loss can contain the seed of a gift. One such gift is gratitude—an appreciation for what we have not lost, for the preciousness of life itself and for all the connections of friends, family, and fellow travelers that endure. These gifts need not be grand or profound; they could be something as simple as the egg you ate for breakfast. This is the twofold challenge of aging work—to cope with losses, and to find the countervailing gifts that may lie hidden within them.

The Buddha taught that suffering and loss are an inescapable fact of existence, but he also taught a path of wisdom to transform and transcend loss. When I thought more deeply about my teacher’s comment about enjoying our old age, I realized that in a few words he had summed up the whole Buddhist path—a method to appreciate all of life, including aging, all the way to the end.

The contemplative practices I teach are a way to develop and sustain that appreciation. Two of the practices I teach are Vertical Time and the Thank You Prayer. Vertical Time offers a way to transcend the confines of our personal life story, while the Thank You Prayer uses visualization to connect us to our innate gratitude. Both practices are ways to help re-imagine aging in a more positive and wholesome light.

Vertical Time

I begin Vertical Time by asking participants to close their eyes and picture themselves sitting by the side of a country lane which stretches off to the left and right. Look to the left, I say, and imagine that this road represents your past. Picture a series of road signs there, each one marking a significant event in your past. The sign closest to you might mention a recent birthday, a vacation, a son or daughter’s wedding. Farther off is another sign of a less recent event, and then another and another until the road vanishes around a bend, where your earliest memories lie. Most distant of all is the place where the road begins, the day of your birth. This mental exercise should feel familiar, because it’s actually something we do unconsciously all the time—remembering and remaking our personal history. It is part of normal waking activity. Everyone does it; it’s how we maintain the perceived constancy of self.

Actually, according to recent research on memory, the past is neither fixed nor constant. We may think our memories are like video clips stored in the brain, but apparently this is not so. The brain stores the raw materials of an experience—the sights, the sounds, the smells, the feelings, the words—but not the event in its entirety. Each time we “remember” an event we actually re-assemble these elements anew. This is why memory can be so unreliable, and why two peoples’ memories of the same event can be so different. So the road signs you see now are the road signs you have fashioned today; tomorrow or next month they might be rather different.

In explaining Vertical Time I point this out, because one of the misconceptions about aging is the notion that the past is fixed, and therefore unfixable. But now we know that the past is something we are continually adjusting. The past doesn’t really exist as the past. It is something we remake in an ongoing continuous present. Therefore to think of it as fixed and immutable is too narrow.

Next, I say, picture yourself turning to the right, to view the road of your future. The road signs of the future are blurry and uncertain. You can picture some big milestones—the year social security begins, or the date of an anniversary or birthday. But for the most part these signs are little more than hopes and dreams, often marked by uncertainty, worry, and doubt. You also know that just as the road of the past had a definite beginning, the road of the future has a definite end, though it is a date we will never know until it happens.

My name for the whole of this road, past and future, is “horizontal time”—linear time as we customarily conceive it. In horizontal time we were once young but now are old, we once had high hopes but now have mostly recollections and regrets. In horizontal time there are wonderful memories, but also much sadness. It’s hard to truly enjoy our old age through horizontal time alone. To do that we need another dimension of time.

So, I say, turn your attention away from horizontal time and shift your attention to your body sitting by the side of the road. Notice the feeling of the breath in your body. Feel your breath moving up and down from your seat to the top of your head and down again­—a vertical motion. This vertical motion is also time, and resembles a clock—rhythmical, constant, and steady.

Expand on this awareness of breath until you feel each exhale dissolving into the space around your body, and each inhale coming in from that space. Expand that awareness still further until you feel the full expansiveness of it—a sense of no limit or boundary. Identify yourself with that space of aliveness.

This sense of breath and space—which I name vertical time—is not a linear road of past, present and future. It has no past and future. It doesn’t progress or develop, it doesn’t travel. Compared to linear time it is timeless—we could even say eternal. In vertical time there is no loss or gain. There is only this body and this breath, and the limitless space in which they both live. Vertical time was never young, and it will never grow old. When Suzuki Roshi said, “We meditate to enjoy our old age,” he was referring to this kind of time.

When I ask people in my workshops to share their experience, they often describe the shift from horizontal to vertical time as a moment of relief. One woman said, “When I pictured my future, I began to think of dying and started to get scared. But when we shifted to the breath, my fear fell away.” The burdens and woes of horizontal time can dissolve in that way. One reason is that vertical and horizontal time are not really separate. They meet whenever mind meets body and breath. We live in the intersection of horizontal and vertical time. The present moment embraces both kinds of time, and in their joining we can find freedom.

Meditators are often taught that memories of the past and worries about the future are distractions from meditation. They are encouraged to set such thoughts aside and return to the breath or whatever the object of their meditation is. For some types of meditation this instruction may be useful. But the vertical time that I teach is not like that. It is inclusive of all experience. When I ask people to shift their attention to body and breath, it is not to the exclusion of the country scene they were visualizing; it includes it. Whatever comes into awareness—the road signs of the past or future, memory, worry, breath or great space—all of it is welcome. My own term for this all-inclusive practice is “just-awareness,” though it goes by other names.

The Thank You Prayer

This practice came to me one evening when I was sitting in a chair after dinner, watching the sunset through the window. The words “thank you” came to mind, and I reflected on how often we say those two words—to the checkout clerk in the store, to the waiter in the restaurant, to the airline attendant who brings us a pillow. They are among the first words we learn as children—words that are probably stored in more places in our brain than any others. When my father had a stroke he lost most of his language, but he could still count to ten and say thank you. Thank you is basic to who we are. I started repeating the words—“thank you, thank you”—while watching what came to mind, and was surprised to find that after each repetition some image or picture sprang into awareness.

This is how I lead the practice. I say the words “thank you” several times, each time leaving a minute or so of silence for participants to observe what springs to mind. I tell them not to censor or criticize what comes. One woman reported, with some embarrassment, that she thought of the ham sandwich she had just had for lunch. I told her that was fine. The practice is not really about the images that come but about gratitude, and how ready at hand gratitude always is. I point that out; I say that in our hearts gratitude is an inch deep and a mile wide. It is one of the most potent resources for aging practice. To whatever extent losses diminish the things we hold dear, gratitude restores them.

In one workshop, a man introduced himself by saying he had just gone through a painful divorce. He seemed wrapped in sadness. After we did the Thank You Prayer, I went around the circle asking people to report what came to mind. When it came his turn, the man looked up, his face brighter, and said, “The taste of cinnamon!”

The taste of cinnamon—a simple thing, yet so rich. Divorce, illness, death—these can be devastating losses. But the taste of cinnamon abides—spicy, piquant, and sweet—like life itself, like gratitude. How did it happen that the taste of cinnamon came into this man’s mind unbidden, when all I said was, “Thank you?” He wasn’t expecting it, nor was I, but it came into the room and uplifted everyone.

Further around the circle a woman reported, “I think I must have fallen asleep for a moment. Like in a dream, I saw a bottles of fingernail polish in a row, each one a bright color, each one different. They were beautiful.” What is nail polish and bright color but something to make us prettier and brighter? Her dream vision brought her that offering. Another woman reported seeing a geometric grid of many colors; in the center, written in bright red letters, was the name of her youngest son, who had just left for college. She had been feeling sad about his departure, and suddenly in her mind there he was.

These examples show the power of imagination and the ready accessibility of gratitude. Each of these participants expressed surprise at the potency of their experiences. I have taught the Thank You Prayer for over a year to a variety of audiences, and I am still surprised at how powerful a trigger these two words of gratitude can be.

Types of Contemplative Practice

There are many kinds of meditative practices, and many different purposes for them. I will mention five–mindfulness, concentration, visualization, cultivating positive emotion, and just-awareness. In my work I have found certain combinations of these methods especially effective.

The Thank You Prayer begins by cultivating a positive emotion—gratitude—just as the Buddhist Loving Kindness Prayer cultivates compassion. Yet the Thank You Prayer is also an unguided visualization. Since the core challenge of aging is to reframe or re-imagine life more positively, visualization is particularly apt for this.

Vertical Time blends guided visualization with just-awareness. By just-awareness I mean the kind of meditation practiced in my own tradition of Soto Zen, where it is called shikantaza—usually translated as “just sitting.” The Mahamudra tradition of Tibetan Buddhism has a similar practice called “resting in true nature.” “Just-awareness” is my own term; I have come to feel that “just sitting” doesn’t adequately convey the living beauty of the experience. When I teach in Christian churches I sometimes call this practice “divine presence,” and people there understand what I mean. When Meister Eckhart, the thirteenth-century Christian mystic, said, “The eye with which I see God is the eye with which God sees me,” I believe he was referring to a practice like just-awareness, surrendering to our deepest selves in this eternal moment.

So when I ask people to shift their attention from horizontal to vertical time, and feel being alive in each breath, I’m really asking them to rest in just-awareness. In contrast to concentration practice—where the mind focuses on a single object, just-awareness is all-inclusive; it offers direct access to the ultimate. As my teacher Suzuki Roshi often said, “That you are here right now is the ultimate fact.” This was his way of acknowledging the power of his lifelong practice of just-awareness.

Meaning, Belonging and the Three Causes of Happiness

In my summary of aging practices, I often mention meaning and belonging as two primary themes of inner aging work—two guardians to help us find renewal as we age. Without meaning and belonging it’s hard to enjoy life, or even feel that it’s worth living. A recent research study shows that people who belong to a church or spiritual community live seven years longer on average than those who don’t. A spiritual community provides both meaning and belonging; the study shows how powerful an effect those two factors can have on well-being and longevity.

Meaning comes first of all from having useful work to do, and from the feeling of making a contribution. “Giving back” is something I often hear people say in my workshops as something they want and need to do. Meaning is also a sense that we matter, and that the things we have done in our life have mattered. In these ways meaning is an essential nutrient for the spirit, just as food is to the body.

Belonging first of all means being with people, in whatever ways we can. But there is also the inner feeling of belonging, regardless of outward circumstance, which contemplative practice can provide by connecting us to our deeper self and to all creation. The practice of just-awareness illustrates this best. When we feel each breath melt into the great space of awareness, when each exhale dissolves into the ground of being and of all creation, we feel connected and joined to everything. That kind of belonging is something that will never leave us, even to our last breath.

Science validates these conclusions. In the new field of happiness research, using brain scans and other high-tech methods, scientists have discovered three factors that measurably increase happiness—gratitude, reframing, and generosity. We know that gratitude lifts our spirits; the Thank You Prayer shows that. Reframing—a term borrowed from psychotherapy, means learning to see a difficult situation in a more positive light. Though the practice of Vertical Time is a good example of that, I have come to feel that all of contemplative practice is reframing. As for generosity, it is worth noting that the Dalai Lama agrees with the scientists. He says, “If you want to be happy, offer happiness to others.”

Gratitude, reframing, and generosity—together they are the inner work of aging.

Conclusion

Sometimes people ask me what I mean by spiritual practice. My answer is that spiritual practice means paying close attention to what really matters. The wisdom of our mature years gives us clues. Love, friendship, being helpful to others, family—a long life teaches us that these things truly matter. Wealth, power, fame, and status—these might have mattered at one time, but as aging comes they seem less important.

I started out teaching my contemplative methods in Buddhist centers. But more recently I have begun teaching, with good success, in churches and temples. As someone who once spent a year in Christian seminary, I’m comfortable with the language and environment of Judeo-Christian faith. Though I remain a Buddhist by training and preference, it’s clear to me that no singular faith or creed has any special claim to aging as a spiritual practice, unless it’s the creed of all humanity.

In a world so divided and conflict-ridden, aging is one universal. When it comes to growing old we are each the same universal human being. We all grow old together.

I leave you with my version of the Buddhist loving kindness prayer, adapted to aging:

As each of us grow older, may we be kind to ourselves;
As each of us grow older, may we accept joy and sorrow;
As each of grow older, may we find contentment in all our days.
May it be so.

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Aging as a spiritual practice

Lewis Richmond
Lewis Richmond

Lewis Richmond is a Buddhist priest and meditation teacher and author of four books including the national bestseller Work as a Spiritual Practice (1999) and the recent Aging as a Spiritual Practice: A Contemplative Guide to Growing Older and Wiser. Lewis was one of the early disciples of Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and is an authorized teacher in the Suzuki lineage. He leads a meditation group based in Tiburon and Mill Valley, CA and is a regular contributor to the magazines Tricycle, Shambhala Sun, Buddhadharma, and The Huffington Post. More at http://www.LewisRichmond.com