Filed in Zen (Chan)

Aging as a Spiritual Practice

An interview with Lewis Richmond

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A student once asked Shunryu Suzuki, “Why do we meditate?” “So you can enjoy your old age,” the Zen master answered.

In his 20s when he listened to the exchange, Lewis Richmond, Soto Zen Priest in Suzuki Roshi’s lineage, has had plenty of time to reflect on his teacher’s answer since. “It’s taken me a long time to get past the surface of that answer. I’m now pretty much the age he was when he said that, and it ain’t easy getting old!”

Yet in his most recent book, Aging as a Spiritual Practice, Richmond sees in aging great opportunities for spiritual growth. In this interview, conducted at Richmond’s home in Mill Valley, California, I sat down with him to discuss the opportunities and insights aging offers.

—James Shaheen

Melissa Kaseman, Aging as a Spiritual Practice

Photographs by Melissa Kaseman

When asked about the aging process by The New York Times last year, Woody Allen answered, “Well, I’m against it. I think it has nothing to recommend it. You don’t gain any wisdom as the years go by. You fall apart, is what happens. People try and put a nice varnish on it, and say, ‘Well, you mellow. You come to understand life and accept things.’ But you’d trade all that for being 35 again.” Funny, but is he right? Well, I have tremendous admiration for Woody. I’ve laughed at all of his movies. But I don’t agree. Physically of course you do slowly deteriorate, but there is a deeper point about aging.

But isn’t this the prevalent view? I think we have to distinguish between the prevalent media view and the private experience. Certainly, ours is a youth culture and a consumer-driven culture, and advertising targets young people, period. But if you talk candidly to older people, I think they have an intimation that there’s something precious and new about growing old. They’re not quite sure what it is or how to get there. And I dare say if I could sit down with Woody and be more serious, I could probably get him to agree, too.

It’s helpful to take a more balanced view. Yes, there are all of the indignities of aging. But there are also gifts that come with age. Would I trade my life now for being 35? Of course it’s a silly question, really. We are who we are, but I would trade my body! [Laughs.] Anybody would, you know? But I don’t think anybody would trade their mind. I think that life is cumulative, and if I look at who I was at 35, it’s clear I know more now. I’m a deeper person. I have a deeper appreciation of other people. I’ve just lived a life—a full life. So that’s how I look at it, and that’s how I open the book. There’s a whole adventure waiting to open up for people who are aging, but they do have to get through that “I wish I were younger” phase.

In your book you write that “not only is aging an ideal time for the cultivation of the inner life, but it’s also itself a doorway to spiritual practice, regardless of spiritual faith.” Can you talk a little bit about how aging itself can be a doorway to spiritual practice? There’s some point in your life, early or late, when it hits you that you and everybody else that you care about and love are not going to be here eventually, so now what? That’s the gate. And when you’re at that gate, life changes on you. It has a different coloration. It’s more precious. It’s more serious. You feel a loss of innocence. You say, “Gee, I’d like to go back to being 15,” you know, where you didn’t have to think about this stuff. But you’re at that gate, and really the choice at that point is, do you go through the gate and really see that as an opportunity, or do you just rent some videos and pop some popcorn, or whatever? A lot of us nowadays will live to be 90, so part of the gate is, “Yeah, I’m getting old and I’ve got a lot of time left, so what am I going to do?” Play golf?

If your knees hold up. Yeah, if your knees hold up. [Laughs.]

And if they don’t? Either way, the gate to spiritual practice begins with the visceral insight that everything is going to vanish, including me.

When asked what the gist of Buddhism was, your teacher, Suzuki Roshi, answered, "Everything changes." That’s it in a nutshell. We all know that everything changes, but usually it’s just intellectual knowledge, and you make a distinction here between knowing it and really knowing it. That’s right. Until I had cancer at 35, impermanence was just an intellectual truth. Aging and Buddhism start in the same place, really. The penny dropped for me when it went from “Everything changes” to “Everything disappears” [laughs], which is a lot more serious, especially when it’s you, and, in my case, when you have a nineyear- old son. It hits you like a ton of bricks. I was very lucky, I had a curable form of cancer. For a lot of people, the knowledge first comes when their parents fall ill, especially when it means getting them into skilled nursing, or going back home to deal with the house or deal with doctors. It’s one step removed, but people in my meditation group, in their 30s and 40s, are going through this with their parents, and it’s the same kind of experience, whether it’s happening to you directly or to somebody you love. It becomes experiential, as it was for Siddhartha when he walked out of the palace and actually saw old people. There’s some point when you really see it, as opposed to, “Oh, yeah. That person’s old.” He really saw it. It’s like, “Holy cow. I’m going to be that way, too. All my privilege isn’t going to help me.” And that was his starting point. I think that’s true for everybody. That’s a universal story. We all walk out of the palace of youthful innocence at some point, and we actually see what’s going on. That’s the Buddhist story. It’s our story.

Melissa Kaseman, Aging as a Spiritual Practice

How does meditation help us deal with old age? Well, meditation helps because it grounds you in your experience at this moment, continuously. It’s what I call in the book “Vertical Time.” You’re just here. You’re actually just here. Over time, if you meditate regularly and go to retreats, that’s kind of one of the deepest transformations and lessons. It changes your brain, really. You start to have that sense of being here and being rooted in what’s going on right now as your primary reality, rather than, “I wish I had done this when I was younger,” or “What’s going to happen in five years?” All that mental static is why we can’t enjoy our old age. There is a lot more static of regret and worry as you get older; that’s why meditation practice can really help.

Regret? Yes. People spend a lot of time thinking about what could have been. “Gee, I never got that Nobel Prize,” and so forth. They think a lot about what’s coming, and without a meditation practice, it’s difficult to accept those mind states. When you’re meditating, you still have those thoughts, but there’s something else that releases you from being afflicted by it. Suzuki Roshi once said that we meditate to enjoy our old age. I think that statement, succinct though it might have been, was a straightforward response from his own personal experience. When he said it, he was already ill, and I think he was actually finding a way to continue to enjoy his life even so. And given that he died a couple of years later, he might have had an intimation that his time was limited, and so for him to say what he said was actually pretty serious. Since we were mostly in our 20s and 30s when he said it, it was a time capsule for most of the people who were there, including me. I had to revisit that statement when I was much older and look at it differently.

How does your practice change as you get older? Well, about half of my sangha sits in chairs. I don’t, because I’ve been lucky with my knees, but I’ve had some hits to my body, so I can’t sit the way I sat in my 20s. That’s one of the things that changes. When you’re younger, it feels heroic to sit, and the Buddha’s own life story is a kind of hero myth—a masculine hero myth. It’s what men imagine that they do in their life—vanquish obstacles. They go up against the enemy and they prevail—take a scalp, attain enlightenment, whatever it might be. I’ve been meditating since I was a teenager, for almost 50 years. There’s not a sense of striving or gaining in the way that there used to be. There’s much more a sense of surrender and just resting. The second thing is, when you’re older, you’re much more likely to have in your own life, or in the life of people you know, real problems, serious problems, intractable problems. So I think that meditation has a lot more serious material, there’s a lot more to grab onto. You don’t need to be sitting there, wondering, “Why am I doing this?” Or, “What’s it going to get me?” It’s right in front of you, you can see clearly what it’s there for.

What is it there for? Well, I think when you’re young—and I think a lot of people in the dharma world may still feel this— meditation is about arriving at some transformative experience that’s going to make your life very different. By the time you’re older, you may have had experiences like that and discovered that it doesn’t change your life in quite the way you thought. In fact, in some ways, I think speaking very honestly, opening up in that way makes your life more difficult, because you’re seeing things as they really are, and things as they really are, are not so wonderful, actually. And you have more of a sense of responsibility to have to do something about this, just like the Buddha. After his enlightenment, he felt, “I can’t possibly express this.” And in the myth, Brahma and the other gods came down and said, “No, you’ve got to teach. You’ve got to come down off the mountain. You’ve got to help people.” And so he did.

We go through a stage where we think meditation is going to be some kind of panacea. I wrote recently on the Huffington Post about some of my 50-year lessons of dharma, and one of them is, “Meditation’s not good for everything.” And it’s probably not really good for making your life wonderful.

What’s it good for? It’s good for knowing what’s real and what isn’t, and that takes time to emerge. There’s a tremendous actual liberation in knowing what’s real, and increasingly you can discern that in situations, through your meditation, “Well, this is just my stuff.” Or, “This is solid. This is real.” And you start to have that discernment. That’s really useful. That can make a big difference in your life. So I’d say that’s what it’s really for, but I think it was Jack Kornfield who said that—and other teachers have said this, too—”Motivation is never pure.” People come to practice for all kinds of reasons. In the end it doesn’t matter what their motivation is, as long as they stick with it. Eventually, they’ll get there.

You do write about regrets—the sense you might have done things differently. But regrets are interesting because one way to respond to them is to ask, how could it have been otherwise? Could it really have been otherwise? No, it’s what happened, and that’s the inner teaching of regret. Regret is the ego trying to distort what is unchangeable, and we have various words for how that happens. One of them is denial, which is very powerful. Research shows that it is largely neurological. The neural circuits simply don’t fire. The brain arranges to protect you from the pain; it’s like you literally can’t get there, and you arrange not to get there in terms of remembering, but I think transforming regret into appreciation is one of the main values of meditation. You asked about it earlier. That’s one of the main things that happens because when you meditate, regret starts to surface and you start to think about your life. Meditation neutralizes denial after a while and opens up the circuits and things start to flow in, and then you begin to realize that regret is a distortion of what’s real. What’s real is that this is your life, and it happened, and there’s no going back. There’s only altering your attitude and perception about it so that you can go forward. So I think that regret looks like one of aging’s challenges, but actually it’s also an opportunity. It’s the two sides of that gate.

James Shaheen is Tricycle’s editor and publisher.

Read an excerpt from Aging as a Spiritual Practice (Gotham, 2012) here.

Watch Lewis Richmond's Tricycle Online Retreat, "Aging as a Spiritual Practice," here

For more articles like this, download the current issue of Tricycle from iTunes.

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eileen.mc's picture

I attended a class on the dharma of aging at BCBS last December - powerful experience. There's a full retreat in September in Ashland, OR - www.thedharmaofaging.com if you are interested

jackelope65's picture

Meditation, to me, seems like a waste of time if we run away from the hard things and just meditate on beautiful vistas. My mom had esophageal cancer and lived with my wife and I through the first year of recovery from surgery and chemo, and, 10 years later, through the last year of failed chemo and death. Life in our home was extremely hard with the ups and downs and a lot of extra work. We also invested a lot of time helping with my dad and my wife's parents, all while raising 3 children. Do my children understand aging, illness and death? I think so, and also appreciate their present vitality. My wife and I, now both 65, can't escape it. Sure we love to meditate in wide, open spaces, but we also are able to meditate on a lot of suffering and we would not have it any other way. Modern society has so sanitized sickness, old age, and death most have no idea of what is facing themselves or what their parents and others have suffered. Meditating on the words, "sickness, old age, and death," is a meaningless proposition. I have also witnessed the rage and frustration of family members who have only cared for their parents at a distance as well of the calm of those who provided real care on a regular basis, while I practiced as a physician caring for the sick and dying. Modern society may be having such a hard time dealing with these issues and that is why so much is written about it. When multiple generations lived under one roof, no one had to read a book about sickness, old age and death.

Wanderer33's picture

Wonderful interview, and thank you, Sam, for the links.

Richard, I also have these troubling thoughts about wasting precious time on activities that have no (for want of a better word) value, particularly when pain prevents more meaningful activities. This article and discussion point out ways to think about it. Thank you for asking this.

Sometimes I wonder if it isn't a form of ego to think that every moment of my life _should_ have some sort of value. What makes me think I am that important? :)

jungsoo's picture

such a fantastic interview. thanks

d-valin4's picture

I think I've had more than one experience of "When Lightening Strikes" or as you said when you wake up to the fact the "I am aging and dying." One was when I was 48 and had breast cancer and another when my husband moved in with another person and we divorced when I was 53. I've had my ups and downs but it all did serve to wake me up. Thanks for your reflections and meditations,

foggedin's picture

After 62 years of a fairly tumultuous life, I took refuge and began practice. At my age and with my mind, the ability to concentrate and grow in awareness is pretty much non-existent. Still, I sit every day, grateful for the little awakening that opened my eyes to a much better way. What I lack in concentration, I try to make up for with compassion.

olander5's picture

the best advice i've ever received on life:
grant yourself a moment of peace,
and you will understand how foolishly you have scurried about.
learn to be silent,
and you will notice you have talked to much.
be kind,
and you will realize your judgement of other was too severe.
hasten slowly,
and you will soon arrive.

eileen.mc's picture

This really touches me - may I pass it on? And do you know whom to attribute it to? Thank you for sharing it.

Marys's picture

This is such a wonderful article in that it reveals meditation as a practical and yet profound practice to have in our lives and as we grow old (er). There is a thread running through the above responses, something about making the most of one's time or wasting one's life away...I wonder if that is coming from a feeling of not valuing oneself...or whatever one is doing has value or merit? Heading into my 55th year and having been unemployed for a week now, I'm starting to understand the value of every moment, whether I'm meditating, or cleaning up the puke that my cat left on the floor, making a grocery list or even watching a spring training baseball game. The point is, we all have value every single moment of our existence and I feel that meditation helps me to experience that. So I think first, you have to see the value of your own life, then whether you're volunteering or cleaning up the puke, you're worth every moment of your existence. And as we grow in age, we're given more time (chances/opportunities) to experience this.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Birth, aging, illness and death: Can we develop a powerful enough life-condition to savor existence itself? Naturally, according to Buddhism.

Marys's picture

Beautiful! Yes, to savor our existence...that would be the gift to give ourselves. _/|\_

ann.callaway11's picture

I am grateful for this article and feel we should have more of these conversations, especially here in our western culture where "death" is still perceived as a horrifying event. It is very helpful to have a spiritual community where these things can be openly addressed, discussed and brought out of the shadows of fear and dread.

thank you to everyone

ss485's picture

"There’s some point in your life, early or late, when it hits you that you and everybody else that you care about and love are not going to be here eventually, so now what? That’s the gate. And when you’re at that gate, life changes on you."

I have arrived at that Gate...
I'm over 70 and two and a half years ago I had a stroke that was not too debilitating. After surviving it I began to realize that I couldn't plan out too far. You know, "in 20 years we can......" I can't do that now. What has helped me immensely was reading Larry Rosenberg's book, Living In the Light of Death.

It's strange, but while I was recovering I was unable to meditate. I don't know why, I just was unable to incorporate it back into my life.

I think anything that can help us understand the aging process is more beneficial that one can imagine. I repeat these 5 contemplations on death awareness on an almost daily basis:
I am subject to aging. Aging is unavoidable.
I am subject to illness. Illness is unavoidable.
I am subject to death. Death is unavoidable.
I will grow different, separate from all that is dear and appealing to me.
I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions,born of my actions, related through my actions, and live dependent on my actions.
Whatever I do, for good or ill, to that will I fall heir.

Dominic Gomez's picture

You are subject to (re)birth. Birth is unavoidable. (As far as Buddhism is concerned.)

Sam Mowe's picture

We couldn't agree more. Just to let you know, there are a couple of conversations happening about these topics right now in the Tricycle Community:

1) Lew's online retreat, "Aging as a Spiritual Practice": http://www.tricycle.com/online-retreats/aging-spiritual-practicehow-grow...

2) Griefwalker, a documentary about death and developing grief as a skill:

http://www.tricycle.com/community/griefwalker

Sam Mowe
Associate Editor

Richard Fidler's picture

Lightning strikes every day. I am sixty-seven and am constantly troubled by thoughts that I am wasting a life by watching TV, playing games, getting absorbed in the internet, and devoting too much time to activities that neither enhance my life or the lives of others. That doesn't mean every minute has to be productive--a mindful walk in the woods is fine--but there is so much time wasted and I feel bad about it. Does anyone else feel this way?

dyogiman's picture

I am sixty seven and find that accepting it is the hardest practice. However, I am a young sixty seven and find still running my real estate business and regular yoga practice keeps me healthy and involved in life. I am fortunate too because I have led an active life that now "being" is more important that "doing". I am about to embark on the practice of TM or transcendental meditation. My wife and I will be doing it together. This will add much to our life together.

sunita's picture

I have a similar experience and try to limit these times but am not always succesful especially when I don't feel well.
I also try to tell myself that it does not help to feel bad about it and to thoroughly enjoy it instead!
Even with some volunteer work these times still exist!

gribneal's picture

As I am going through much the same thoughts and feelings as I age, I am so grateful to have this a topic for study and comment. I think that part of this experience for me is in reaction to our society's pressure to perform. After years of finding my identity as a working person, I am now trying to get away from labels and the idea that I "should" be doing something. So I am attempting to get away from the idea of doing and move toward the idea of being.

KnowThankYou's picture

Gribneal, thanks for that reminder.

mjt_colo's picture

Richard, I too am sixty-seven and think much of the same thoughts. I do daily meditation, but much of the day is spent dealing with my lab puppy or the other activities that seem to be wasted when I could be doing other things. I am going to investigate doing at least a weekly volunteering to help others while my health is good. I am fortunate in my health and want to contribute to others with loving kindness.....

with metta