Even though we might try to accept the fact of aging, many of us dread getting older. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn to age gracefully. And what if the aging process naturally leads to insight and wisdom? Here, Sam Mowe and Jane Kolleeny explore these ideas with Zen teacher and writer Norman Fischer.
Do you see aging as an inconvenient truth?
Yes and no. Certainly aging isn’t easy and one sometimes wishes youth could somehow return. But then you remember how difficult it was when you were younger, when you had things to prove and projects to complete. You had mountains to climb. When you’re older, you worry less and have more confidence in the future. Life is easier. You know where you are going. You have nothing to prove. There are advantages to aging. When you are, say, 70, this means you are also 60, 50, 40, 30, and so on. That is to say, you know what it’s like to have been all those ages. They are still there, inside you. There is wisdom in this that younger people can’t possibly possess.
But how do you come to terms with the diminishing capacities of your mind and body as you age?
Even though your body is aging there is something else that doesn’t age at all: the life force. As long as you are alive there is a steady force of life in you. You may have more physical and intellectual strength at 20 than you have at 70, but you are equally alive at 70. Your appreciation of the fact of being alive doesn’t diminish. But when you are 20 you are so wrapped up in your problems you don’t notice this fact of being alive. You take it for granted. At 70, you notice, and are more grateful.
If you are an old person and you see aging as a downer you can think about this: recognize that that’s just a point of view. And it’s not a very pleasant point of view. Other viewpoints are possible. Maybe you better cultivate them.
Do you think the aging process leads to wisdom?
Yes. But as we know it is very possible that through bad habits caused by difficult life experiences one can become bitter and depressed in old age, completely missing the wisdom. The truth is, this is probably more common than not. The whole point of spiritual practice is to counteract these quite natural bad habits of mind. It takes effort. And it is better to begin making this effort when you are young. But, of course, it is never too late. I’ve noticed, in recent years, that more and more older people are taking up spiritual practice. And they have lots of motivation! They know what they are doing and why.
What are some of the qualities of aging gracefully? How can we cultivate those qualities?
There are many qualities of aging gracefully, including wisdom, patience, gratitude, love, kindness, humor, and resilience. You cultivate them by training the mind and heart. The first way to do this is with meditation practice, prayer, or some other form of contemplative exercise that you then extend into working with your thoughts, emotions, speech and action in daily life. It helps to have teachers to guide you. A community of support is also, realistically, a necessity. In Buddhist terms these work out to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. But every spiritual tradition has a version of this triumvirate—teachers or guides, some teaching, and community.
Your friend Rabbi Rachel Cowan has written that our culture “promotes a declinist paradigm of aging.” Do you agree? If so, where do you see that?
Yes, of course she is right about this. Our poor culture is so callow and excitable! Market capitalism will do that—excitement is good for the economy! So naturally everyone thinks we need to be young, energetic, and innovative to be relevant. It’s cute, I think. I admire it. But if you are older, and internalize these cultural norms, you can feel like you are out of it and irrelevant. You feel like you should slink off and disappear somehow. This is terrible! As an old person you absolutely must be counter-cultural.
How might we start building a culture that promotes a more positive paradigm of aging?
Person by person, I think. We need living examples of old people who really are old people and who really are vital and admirable, as old people. And we need to understand what aging is, and what it is for. A fortunate young person will one day soon be old. Such a person should be grateful to elders who show the way.