Aging: Impersonal, Impermanent
A reflection on practice by Jean Smith
Aging, with its concomitant physical and mental changes, happens to all of us. Whether aging brings suffering or happiness depends upon how we relate to it. When we’re children, we’re delighted to add another mark to the doorway to show how much we’ve grown; we come home excited because we’ve memorized a multiplication table. Fast forward some decades to the time we go in for an annual physical exam, are measured, and are told that we’re an inch shorter than we used to be – or when we stumble trying to remember a word or name, having a “senior moment.” Somehow we’re surprised, as if we thought these changes happened to others but could never happen to us…
When we’re young, we may be happy to have physically matured enough to compete in certain sports or to ride roller coasters. But as we get beyond a certain age, we begin to be more limited in what we can do physically. When I was no longer able to hike up mountains – one of my favorite pastimes – I had the choice to just sit there in the valley or to find an alternative. I bought a horse who could go up into the mountains and a ladder so that I could get on her….
I remember the first time I went to an aquatic aerobics class with all the other “ancients.” It seemed to be the only kind of exercise I could still do. My first thought was “Has it come to this?” and when I realized realistically that it had come to that, I settled in and enjoyed the classes. At one point the instructor put on a tape of music from the 1960s. You should have seen this pool full of old gals, gray heads thrown back, singing every word, making vortexes in the water as we did a bit of the dirty boogie from our younger days. One woman commented that it was a good thing we couldn’t fall down in the water. That day, I experienced impermanence through physical changes, saw these changes in everyone around me and acknowledged that they were not personal, detached from “the way I used to be,” and enjoyed myself thoroughly.
One goal of spiritual practice is to see the world and ourselves in it clearly. When we have expectations that for the rest of our lives we’ll be able to do everything we could at some magic age – say, thirty-five – we are simply being delusional. We have opportunities throughout our lives to observe impermanence as we age. We see the choices we have about our lifestyles as we age. We see these things in others. We can look back over our lives and be grateful for all the wonderful moments we’ve had, and we can come into the present moment with gratitude for the accomplishments, wisdom, and compassion we could only have achieved with life experience during the passing of time.
–© Jean Smith, Life as Spiritual Practice: Mindfulness and the Paramis, Wisdom Publications 2014
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