Saturday, 8 July 2017

Ageing, into true orientation

Ageing; it’s an ongoing reality, not just a Buddhist reflection. Sure, I still have good health, and am I think, quite fit. The week-long walk I recently undertook in southern England was manageable and enjoyable – but about 10-12 miles (16-19 kms.)per day of not very challenging hills was definitely enough. What surprised me was that it took my legs a week or more to get back to the kind of flexibility that best suits sitting meditation. 

But at least I can still do that: at the International Sangha meeting that immediately preceded the walk, the number of elders sitting in chairs is  becoming noticeable. More striking was the physical condition of Luang Por Sumedho, who at eighty-two was the eldest participant, and whose energy levels only allowed for an hour or two of interactive time per day; time carefully stewarded by his bhikkhu attendant. ‘Wait until you reach eighty,’ was Luang Por’s comment. Still, his presence was as much an inspiration as a reflection on mortality: his mind seemed bright, even playful, and whenever he settled after the awkwardness of moving a body whose feet don’t give clear signals of the condition of the ground, and whose sight is impaired, his presence felt serene and quietly joyful. During the gathering and the retreat that preceded it, he gave all he could. And although there’s only so much one can expect of tissues and energy, the results of steering those towards purifying the heart certainly made that direction look like the best option. Tissues and a mind bound up in them stiffens and dies; but the heart can rise and be bright. Preceded by  fifty years of training, and service, eighty looks pretty good.

If you’re not there yet, wait until you reach sixty. That’s when it became obvious to me that bodily energy has limitations. When you’re in your twenties and thirties, there’s tons of it to spare (sometimes too much). In those days, when sangha life seemed to be an endless project in terms of creating physical, managerial and spiritual structures, I could just throw myself into it all with an eagerness that had to be tempered by restraint and patience. Nowadays, it’s more the case of consciously rising up to such concerns as present themselves within my orbit, and managing energy by taking breaks. My last mountain walk, in 2010, made it clear that the ‘just push through and keep going’ strategy was no longer relevant. The body won’t do it: half way up a slope, it slows, stops and sits down. Then one has to wait for the energy to return; it no longer comes at one’s call. Lesson one in the academy of ageing: a realistic preview of an undertaking, with the understanding that a project, task or venture can’t necessarily be undertaken just because it’s useful or interesting. Even emails: unless they’re managed, they multiply into long threads that keep me at a screen for hours each day. So, sorry, but I don’t automatically respond. It feels a bit sad, but if I’m a teacher, then I have to teach and model ageing, and present the field-work. 

Lesson two is to know one’s boundaries and stay within them. Ageing means there are limits. Even with intellectual energy. When I wrote the book Dawn of the Dhamma in 1990, I did so by working ten hours per day, six days a week for five weeks. Now if I take on such a project, maybe three to four hours of focused work per day is the maximum, along with at least one day per week of leaving it in a metaphorical or real drawer. That feels more in accord with Nature; most animals rest at least as much as they run around. So what’s within my boundary of concern, responsibility and energy? The lesson teaches us to get an overview before leaping in.

Lesson three: learning curves get steeper. In fact rather then trying to learn the latest ways to manipulate technology, it's probably a better use of resources to ask some younger monk or savvy lay person for help. With that softening of independence and will power comes the ability to receive more fully the goodwill of others. And to appreciate their skills without having to have them myself or feel inadequate. Mutuality and appreciation come to the fore.

Lesson four is flexibility. It’s not just physical. As a matter of routine, I exercise with yoga āsana as I’ve done for nearly fifty years now, along with Qi Gong (over twenty years), but often for no more than twenty minutes or so. A newer development is that the days have become more flexible in terms of what I do and how much; and nights too – time spent in sleep can vary between four and six hours. But there are also rest states other than sleeping; meditation itself is increasingly about entering a state of alert repose, moderating the energy levels to a steady-state and feeling into the space of awareness. At a quieter level of energy, awareness is flexible (not flaccid): ready to engage, but not aiming at anything. That repose is wakeful, non-directional, expansive and receptive. In this, subtle and more foundational effects and causes can be discerned, opened to and released. Meditation then has become as much a norm that I return to, as a practice; it means entering a mode of awareness that gives energies, thoughts, or other conditions the space to be met and integrated or released.  However when energy is more steady and settled, the mind follows suit and there's less to deal with. The mind isn’t interested in creating anything or directing, deciding, discriminating, judging; it's done plenty of that, thank you. Instead it settles at a level of consciousness that is more primary and even pre-personal. Awareness feels open and liminal; it’s in the territory before conceiving (self, other, future, past etc.) gets going. 

Once this sense is known, it can become a primary orientation. That allows a greater degree of flexibility around function, performance and relationships. One doesn't have to be the best; one doesn't have to be the fulfilment of other people’s expectations. One doesn't need to prove or live up to aims and standards that pull awareness away from the centre; it’s more important to feel the pulls and pressures and stay centred. But that’s not self-centred: the truth of awareness must be lived out with its willingness to be present and receptive to that which arises. Any resistance, or shrinking away, or shrugging off become apparent as defence strategies, and are felt as a constriction, a loss of freedom. So settled awareness doesn’t accord with self-interest; it’s more attuned to a correct relationship with what arises. Getting to that point takes practice, and I’m still a learner at this – but I take note of how the great elders of our international community operate: they seem to know when to act, what to say and when, while remaining free from personal preoccupation. Flexible.

Lesson five (highlighted by a steady stream of friends and supporters passing away) is to get to that point; and let others sort out the details and the extras. So I find myself more and more teaching what seems most essential; to help people (and myself) access intelligent and comfortable awareness. If this awareness is a steady orientation, it’s possible to live and grow in this personal world; here is a sense of safety with its fundamental goodwill. The tricky detail being that it isn’t personal; it’s before the personal conditions arise. And that means that the sources of the programs and attitudes that become a person get revealed: dis-ease, restlessness and having to do something, or feeling guilty and inadequate that one isn’t doing (or in fact being) whatever it is that one should be (while not knowing what that is). Not that any of that is your fault. Essentially this dukkha is not personal, not topical, not specific; and it isn’t resolved by doing anything other than tackling its program. It’s non-specific because its source is the pressurised space of one’s unsettled awareness. That then colours everything that the personality forms out of.

That we get old, sicken and die may seem like a basic fact rather than an occasion for learning. But it’s what years of practice prepare us for. That, as there’s no safe place in the world of me and it and pushing and pulling, we’d better take refuge somewhere else. Check it out. Is the space of my awareness free from intrusion and free from obstruction? Check for anxiety, or craving or holding on. If there can be a letting go of compulsions and a settling in to embodied steady-state, we can be safe from hindrances. There can arise sense of fundamental welcome. That sense has nothing to fear and much to feel blessed by.

Thank you age; with such a teacher, unless one wants the spirit to stiffen and die, one just has to get wise.


  1. Venerable, thank you for this deep reflection on aging! A question: I am approaching 60, many years of sitting and studying, even hard efforts at learning Pali, etc. I find myself anymore approaching and dwelling in the quiet, pre-conceptual spaces you so often mention. But all I am amazed at anymore is the mind's chemical/neurological processes and manipulating these through directed neuroplasticity...I find myself shying away from the traditional terminology and the types of philosophical structures found in the canon. One day this phrase came to me while I was sitting which sums up this beautiful and quiet quiescence and the work I have undertaken, or rather which has gradually undertaken me: "die before you die, so that when you die, there is nothing to die." I quite like that. But I don't find myself anymore thinking about sankharas, or Dhamma, or sati, or paramis, etc. I just watch the brain closely...and realize patterns of neural programming, and work at dismantling them bit by bit. Fascinating. But this disheartens me. Finding the Satipatthana Sutta many, many years ago was one of the great moments in my life, maybe the most seminal. Is it possible to lay aside the teachings as one ages and just deal with the primary workings of the brain's neurological systems? Without Pali labels and such? It seems to me anymore that that is all there is...neural programming. I was initially shocked by this starkness..but have settled into this work with what I can only describe as sober and fascinating it wrong to set aside the teachings in this way? Please forgive the rambling disconnectedness of this post! I think of you so often with deep Metta...the joy and depth your talks, books and videos have brought to my life....appamana....Robert

  2. A few years ago backpacking around SE Asia I was very pleasantly surprised how much respect ones aging body gets from strangers, getting into the metro in Singapore people offered up their seats with such grace I was glad to be aging.

  3. Your wise reflections resonate powerfully with one whose body is of a similar vintage, with subtle awareness of diminishing energy levels. It’s interesting how the body responds positively to respect and the absence of any expectation of what nature ought to deliver. It’s great to see you continuing to spend time in the open air while the body still co-operates, I do the same. Nice also to hear your recent talks on the Cittaviveka website. Blessings.