The Pivotal Opportunity of Growing Old

Mike Gyoshi Kaplan
Mike Gyoshi Kaplan
November 20, 2016, Dharma Talk, by Gyoshi Kaplan. This talk was not recorded, and so Gyoshi has written it up as an article.

Why am I giving this talk? I experience this stage of life – growing old – as a wonderful, pivotal opportunity to dive deeper into life. And especially, deeper into spiritual practice. I simply want to call your attention to this possibility.

I’m struck by the poignancy of a koan of growing old: as our interest in our spiritual path seems to deepen, our capacity to travel the path seems to diminish. For a while now I’ve been investigating this koan as I experience it. I’m concerned that it’s easy to get discouraged with our difficult practice in this stage of life, and that Dharma Rain may not be doing enough to support elders and other differently-abled members who are encountering this.

I need to state before going further that nothing I say in this talk is true of everyone who is in this stage of life. Also, this talk focuses on the spiritual practice aspects of growing old. Please don’t take anything I say as devaluing choices you make in this stage that aren’t directly related to spiritual practice.

So, restating the koan of growing old, we experience decreasing energy and decreasing physical and mental capability for practice at the same time as we (may) experience deeper interest in our spiritual path and a deeper connection to our spiritual aspiration. And we now have the time and space to be with these experiences.

Robert Atchley, in his book Spirituality and Aging, states, “There is considerable evidence that spiritual concerns, experience, and development become increasingly important for many people in middle and later life. This evidence can be found in the narratives of individuals as well as in social science surveys. Beginning around age 35 or 40, as age increases, so does the proportion of people who are consciously involved in an inner exploration of the meaning of their existence and their relation to the universe. Albert Winseman (2003) reported that adults age 65 or older were more than twice as likely to see themselves as spiritually committed than were adults age 45-54. Spiritually committed people are often engaged in spiritual practices that heighten the possibility of noumenous, mystical experience. In addition, those who experience transcendent, nonpersonal levels of consciousness often feel called to serve, and spiritually rooted service takes many forms.”

Susan Moon, in her book This Is Getting Old: Zen Thoughts on Aging With Humor and Dignity, states, “As I get older I am turning into myself. Job gone, children grown and living far away, parents dead. Can’t backpack, can’t do hip hop. Who am I, really? Now I get to find out.”

So in this talk I’ll look deeper into this koan. I’ll discuss what spiritual practice may look like in this stage of life. And I’ll explore with you some things that Dharma Rain might do to support us in this practice stage.

Those of you who feel remote from old age, what does this talk offer? I hope that it may increase your appreciation of the diversity of this Sangha, and may encourage you to explore your own relation to aspiration, impermanence, effort in practice, and letting go. I also hope to convey the importance of developing and embodying strong practice habits now – however old and however capable you are. And perhaps this can deepen your appreciation of the trajectory of practice. Finally, if you’re concerned about your parents or other loved ones who are growing old, this may help you understand the kinds of issues and rewards older age brings to us.

So, what do I mean by “growing old”? Some refer to this as the 4th stage of life. Definitions of this often include: 1) retirement from whatever we did to make a living; 2) children, if we have any, are now adults and are largely independent; 3) many of life’s earlier motivations have faded (examples: making money, acquiring material things, seeking fame or power, even getting things done); 4) we have lots of time in our days now; and 5) chronological age is, approximately, older than 65.

We associate various difficulties or challenges with growing old. There’s a broad range of loss we may experience. There’s the diminishment of athletic or physical abilities – flexibility, nimbleness, speed, balance, endurance. There’s the waning of physical attractiveness and the attention that used to bring. There may be the absence of professional respect once we’re retired. Sexual desire and capacity fades. Our minds aren’t so nimble as they once were. We may even live in a mental fog some or much of the time. At some point most of us lose our ability to multi-task. And at some point our health probably starts to noticeably deteriorate. Cataracts, low functioning joints, sleep disorders, hearing problems, and so forth are more commonplace. Other obstacles to practice may accumulate such as regret, lethargy, and fear. And, oh yes, we’re approaching our end. This is becoming more real. We begin to have an experiential relationship to our approaching deaths.

Yet all of these challenges can actually feed our spiritual aspiration and point towards liberation. Kyogen once told me, “there are aspects of our practice that you can really only do when you get older.” He didn’t tell me what those were, but I’m starting to get some sense of what he might have meant. Loss can teach us to pay attention in a way that joy may not.
With “old age” we’ve experienced all the other stages. We have a broader perspective on time than we’ve ever had before.

And, importantly, the 3 marks of existence – dukkha (unsatisfactoriness), anicca (impermanence), and anatta (no self) – all can become more experientially apparent with the assistance of our old-aging. I find that, at least in part, it’s the direct felt experience of these that propels our personal spiritual transformation. That’s very good news for us 4th Stagers. Let’s look a little more closely into each of these 3 marks, and how our relation to them changes with aging.

Dukkha. This is pretty straightforward. Our aging bodies and minds and other losses give us plenty of things that may call our attention and elicit a groan. Awareness of the shortening timeline until our demise may heighten our sense of dissatisfaction with our states of consciousness – where we’re at on our spiritual paths.

Anicca. The lumps and spots and pains and the arithmetic of time left and the changing sense of time can all give us a felt sense of impermanence if we’re paying attention. And these things prod us to pay attention. I also find that it’s easier now to be present in Impermanence because there’s nowhere else I have to be. Susan Moon notes in This Is Getting Old, “Here’s the amazing thing: aging is giving me back the present moment. It’s only linear time that’s shrinking, and as it does, I have a better chance to enter deep time.” The past grows longer and the future grows shorter and vertical time (the present moment) becomes more accessible. This is beyond thought; we experience it.

Anatta. In the earlier stages of life job, family, desires, and culture all reinforce a strong sense of self. But now pieces of me are falling off or becoming less functional. Desires are fading. This facilitates a looser, more open, sense of who I am. The less I believe I’m someone in particular, the more I seem to be able to let go in general. Acceptance and relaxing into the constant flux of life (anicca) is becoming easier. My sense is that acceptance may develop naturally as the effort of youth and middle age falls away.

I also note that our felt experience of the 3 marks of existence can result in a deepening of our curiosity. Who am I? What is the great mystery, death?

Let’s move on now to the practical side of Elder Zen Practice. Zen is not an easy practice. We start encountering ever more difficulty with sitting straight without moving for long periods. These days when a retreat or sesshin is announced, I look first at the schedule and pretty much rule out at least the blocks where sitting periods are longer than 30 minutes. Often I’ll opt out of the entire retreat if there are many of these blocks. I don’t find a wiggle bell in the midst of a one hour period sufficiently refreshing. I assume I’m not alone in this.

The physical speed of our form can be intimidating. Getting up from sitting, full bows, oryoki, all become more difficult as our capabilities decrease. And the schedule of sesshin – getting up at 4 or 5am – is disruptive for me. My sleep pattern is screwed up enough without disrupting it further. Remembering form may get more difficult. My body memory seems to have faded along with my event memory.

As we experience more difficulty in practice with the Sangha, we may feel an uncomfortable peer pressure. “Everyone else looks like a perfect Buddhist. I don’t want to stand out by my impaired form.” We may have a sense of failure or shame that comes with that feeling of being out of sync with the norm.

These various difficulties can easily become burdensome enough that we withdraw from Zen practice. So, how can we maintain and even deepen our practice as we become old?

Some years ago on a Sunday morning the Dharma School teachers were introduced to the broader Sangha and one member expressed her appreciation saying, “it’s not like they don’t have anything better to do.” Kyogen spoke up with one his interjections, “Actually they don’t have anything better to do.” He went on to explain that this work was a deep expression of their practice, and what could be better than to do that. In the same way, when so much else falls away in 4th stage life, we can face the naturally arising question of what we want to do, and go on to do it. Because we really don’t have anything better to do.

Noticing and connecting to our own spiritual aspiration is important to deepening our practice in this stage of life. For me, my connection with my aspiration seems to have grown significantly stronger and clearer with the years. I’m talking here about an aspiration deeper than desire, and beyond thought and self. It’s a felt sense of what deeply pulls us. I experience this more as a pull than a push. Like gravity. There are many personal variations on the arising, content, and expression of aspiration. This varies for each person and will likely morph over the course of our lives.

Aspiration is addressed in the second step of the Eightfold Path as Right or Wise Intention. Quoting Huston Smith in The Religions of Man, “Whereas the first step [of the Eightfold Path, Right View] called us to make up our minds as to what life’s problem basically is, this second advises us to make up our hearts as to what we really want…” There are many ways to describe this drive or urge or sense of pull. Some statements of aspiration are

  • the mind that seeks the way
  • my heart that longs to open
  • going from suffering to the end of suffering
  • going from unconscious to conscious
  • going from denial to surrender
  • going from contraction to love
  • going from separation or self-centeredness to nonseparation
  • going from knowing to not knowing

How can you access the energy of aspiration? It’s most import to check in with yourself regularly why you’re on your seat. Why you’re traveling this path. This is a felt, not thought, whole-body, whole-heart, whole-mind check-in. For a while now I’ve been doing this early in almost every zazen period. It helps ground, orient, and power my zazen.

What else can we do to maintain and even deepen our practice in this 4th stage of life? Well, we do need to pay attention to our changing physical and mental capabilities. We must pay attention to what our physical form is telling us. But at the same time we must not form an identity around that. Some practices to keep in mind around this include don’t-know mind and curiosity. Treat yourself as an experiment. Extend yourself and see what happens. Pull back a bit and see what happens. If you feel aversive to any portion of the practice, investigate this. Drop the external story-line and see what it is within you. And be kind to yourself. Bow to limitations. Let go of any self-judgment about “failures” around form or practice. Add nothing extra to the bare experience.

We may need to find a new personal balance of form and formlessness in this stage of practice. Many of us have sat in sesshins for long periods and followed as best we can the fairly intricate forms of Zen Buddhism. But these forms are not essential to practice, and it would be a tragedy to turn away from practice because these forms have become too difficult. If we invite an awareness of our deepest spiritual aspiration, we can notice what forms respond to and nurture our aspiration, and which are extra or even obstructive to it. If we find ourselves reacting to practice with aversion, it is worth noticing this. We turn our attention inwards to feel the body, heart, and mind sensations of aversion. We can ask what’s real and wise, and what’s just fear.

I also suggest that you don’t have to have your butt on a zafu or sit for a certain amount of time each day to do excellent practice. You’re not a bad Buddhist if you dislike the discomfort of sitting. Young practice tends to lean on form more. As we grow old we may need to make adjustments so that we’re able to continue and deepen our essential practice.

One thing I’ve tried, with some success, is personal home retreats. I more or less follow typical sesshin schedule, but with allowances for what I can sustain. I ask the question, “How do I need to do this in a way that I can keep doing it?” I consider the sustainability of how I do the retreat. Instead of getting up at 4:30am, I get up at 6 or 6:30am. I may do some oryoki meals and some services. For zazen, I take more time for stretching, finding a comfortable position, and stretching again if I become conscious of tightening up. I alternate as needed between my zafu, an infinitely adjustable office chair, and reclining zazen.

Whether or not you do personal retreats, the point is – experiment, be curious, and honor the limitations that you find to be real. Ask for the practice support you feel you need. Dharma Rain may start offering retreats tailored to 4th stage and differently-abled practitioners. Sanzen, both formal and informal, is available with any of the teachers. Contact the teacher or DRZC staff to arrange this. Talk to the Shuso or one of the teachers about modifications to the form that you feel you need in order to be able to practice here. For example, if you need a chair for the sanzen line, ask the Jisha for one. If you need to recline or stand to meditate, ask the Shuso for help to make it happen. We want you to be able to practice with us. So just ask.

In addition, Dharma Rain is considering several things to better serve the older and the differently-abled Sangha. We’ll be making an attempt to more regularly call attention to the possibility of modifying forms as needed. We’re looking at technical accommodations such as headphone sets at select seats to assist with hearing dharma talks, sanzen via Skype, and on-line zazen. There will be special retreats and zazenkais adapted to the needs of us 4th stagers.

I’ll close now by refocusing on this pivotal opportunity of growing old. Repeating Susan Moon’s statement of her elder practice, “As I get older I am turning into myself. Job gone, children grown and living far away, parents dead. Can’t backpack, can’t do hip hop. Who am I, really? Now I get to find out.”