An interview with Lewis Richmond
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.
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.
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.