When I was in my early thirties, and looking moreorless good still, I recall complaining to my hair stylist that I was starting to go grey. He replied that many of his clients complained of ageing, as they sat there staring at themselves and him in the mirror, and he would reply:
“We are all going in the same direction at the same speed.”
Wise man. As far as most of us are concerned, even if we have managed to escape a serious illness up ‘til now, just getting older and uglier is calamitous on a personal level. We don’t like losing our looks, our muscle tone, our smooth skin, our shiny thick hair, etc. We don’t like the effects of gravity on our body. But, as Buddha taught and we can easily observe, getting older and uglier is also entirely universal – it happens to all of us who are lucky enough to remain enough years in a human body. So why are we so fussed just about ourselves? When it is this inevitable, why do we allow ourselves to get this fussed at all?
If I were any good at drawing graphs, I could draw one to represent the rise and fall of our looks that went something like this… the line would go up gradually starting at birth, peak in our late teens and twenties, go down slightly in our thirties, and then start to drop precipitously in our forties. From then on, it would all be downhill ‘til our body is disposed of entirely.
We might as well accept it happily. Otherwise, regardless of how much increased effort and money we put into looking good, we are in for decades of diminishing returns.
On a flight to San Francisco a few years ago, I was standing behind three teenage Californian girls on the walkway to the plane. This is what I overheard. The first girl remarked: “I saw your mom the other day. She looked good. How did she manage that?” The second girl replied: “She does Botox. Yeah, and she really works at keeping in shape, it’s like she thinks about it a lot.” The third girl asked: “How old is your mom?”, and the reply was “She’s like forty already!” There was a collective shudder as they took that in, then the first girl said: “I’m soooo going to have Botox if I get that old. It’ll be better then. I’ll never let myself go.” A pause as they thought ahead to the dismal day when they would turn forty and ugly. Then the third girl decided against it, to head nodding all around:
“I’m soooo not going to get old.”
I couldn’t help smiling, but I had to relate. I remember in my teens and early twenties thinking that middle-aged people had somehow just lazily let themselves go — how with just a little more attention to what they ate and a little more exercise (and how hard is that for goodness sake?!) they’d look far better and younger. The grey hair, the pot belly, the wrinkles — it all felt somehow optional. I figured I’d follow my own advice and thus escape the trap they’d fallen into, that I’d look very much the same at their age as I did now. But, guess what. I do eat pretty well and I do still exercise, but I look nothing like I did when I was nineteen. Those girls on the plane did not throw me a second glance – as far as they were concerned, I had clearly failed. One part of me wanted to butt in and say, “Just you wait…!” but of course I didn’t.
Which reminds me of another time after I first moved into Madhyamaka Centre in 1986. A bright, healthy, relatively shapely young twenty something, I was sauntering down the beautiful driveway and, it being a Sunday, there was a local couple up ahead of me, walking very, very slowly. As I got closer to them, I could see that they were both entirely old and decrepit, and I remember this ignoble thought popped into my head: “I’ll never let myself get like that!” At which point, the old man turned around, looked me straight in the eye, and said, not without kindness: “You think you’ll never be old like us. You think you’ll always be able to walk fast down this road. I thought that too when I was your age. But you wait.” I had to chalk that one up to an emanation of Buddha. Despite years of studying ageing, sickness and death already, even teaching about them in branches and on Foundation Programme, this old man’s simple words struck home.
And I didn’t have to wait long, at least before the process of ageing got well underway. Now it has got to that point when every peek in the mirror yields seemingly another wrinkle, grey hair, crevasse, or jowl. It would be scary if it wasn’t funny. (Or funny if it wasn’t scary, I’m not sure which.) Are you at that point yet when you cast around for photos that are several years old for your Facebook page, or at least photos that were shot in dim lighting?! Well, just you wait.
It makes much better sense to focus on improving the beauty of our mind through developing love, compassion, patience, wisdom and so on. This beauty will never let us down either in this life or in any future lives.
Apparently Americans per capita spend more on skin care each year than they do on education. Yet someone I know working in the skin care industry told me the conventional wisdom is that even the best creams and surgical procedures will take only a few years off someone’s looks. Of course, if we try too hard, at some point it backfires — we end up looking unnatural and off-putting, the opposite of what we signed up and paid so much for.
We are attached to an image of ourselves, not accepting who we are and where we are at. Talking of this body image, though, have you noticed how on some days you think you look hot (still) and on others you can’t quite believe how much you’ve aged – yet a casual observer would not be able to tell the difference between these two you’s (and probably couldn’t care less if they could?!) It is all in our mind.
Have you ever seen those pictures of the most attractive people on our planet, the movie stars, when the Enquirer has got hold of them at an unguarded and un-photoshopped moment? Like those stars, we generally don’t allow that to happen. We approach our bathroom mirror deliberately and with certain preconceptions, and this usually determines what we see – “Look, I still look quite nice!” We add our own photo-shop: We angle our head in a certain complimentary way, perhaps smile seductively at ourselves, hold our stomach in, and stand up straight (don’t tell me this is just me!! I’ve seen you…) But how often have you heard someone relay how they were travelling up an escalator in a mall the other day when they caught sight of a middle-aged overweight grey-haired person with terrible posture in the mirror, only to realize with horror that it was their own reflection?! And you wonder what others see sometimes. The other day I wandered down to an open-air blues concert in my town and an ancient man (who was probably my age) tried to pick me up, as if he stood a chance! I felt I was way too young for him, but he probably thought I was just the same age.
When we’re young, we take it in our stride when someone says: “You’re gorgeous!” But the most we can hope for as we get older is: “You’re looking good for your age.” The Buddhist scriptures talk about “the mask of youth”. That smooth flawless skin must fall off sooner or later, even if we try to resist it like some kind of Dorian Gray making a pact with the devil of self-pre-occupation. We can be the opposite of Dorian Gray – becoming more beautiful on the inside, even as our face and body succumb to the years and gravity. (Of course I’m not suggesting we entirely neglect what we look like, just that we don’t exaggerate its importance.)
Why am I saying all this? Only to encourage everyone, or perhaps just myself, to not worry about getting uglier because it is inevitable, at least superficially at skin level. We can cut mold out of an orange, but it is still only a matter of time before the whole orange succumbs. And though there may be more oranges in the fruit bowl, we only have this one body, so our ageing is an indicator that it is time to get out of samsara, the cycle of impure life, by focusing on what we can control, our mind.
If you are beautiful inside, you’ll never be ugly. People will always find you attractive and want you around – that is one of the main benefits of patience, for example. So we could save ourselves a lot of time and heartache by taking Buddha’s advice on board. And sooner — learning to see it coming while we’re relatively young — rather than waiting until the last minute, when we really can kid ourselves no longer but have left ourselves little to fall back upon. Luckily, we are not our bodies so we don’t have to identify with them so desperately. There is a great deal more to us. Our body has a limited shelf life, but the continuum of our mind does not.
Finally, we don’t even have to focus on our bodily age if we are interested mainly in the inner life of our mind, for our mind is ageless. I always find it fascinating how, from a Buddhist perspective, all of us are the same age because our mental continuums have existed since beginningless time.
Over to you: Do you agree? And have you ever met anyone who is more beautiful as their body grows older? What is their secret?
p.s: Ageing happens to everyone who lives long enough, even George Clooney, who claims to be scared of getting old and dead. The London Times quoted him last week:
“There’s only a certain amount of time” (about 10 years he thinks)—“when you get the keys to the kingdom. I’m terrified of the moment when you’re the guy who goes to the studio and says, ‘I’ve got this idea,’ and they’re like, ‘Thanks for stopping by,’ and you walk out and they roll their eyes.”
Please share this article with all the old geezers you know, if you like it.