It seems to me that one major reason we get grumpy, irritated, depressed, or angry is if we feel that our happiness or freedom are under threat.
If we think that our happiness and freedom are bound up with external situations and other people, this means that we are going to get grumpy a lot, as we have so little control over these things. Sooner or later, the things that we were relying upon in life for happiness and freedom blaze out or else slowly fade away. And grumpiness of course is hardly the solution; it only makes things worse.
I was at a good friend’s 50th birthday party last month in Balham. My friend has the sensibilities of an English Woody Allen, and gave a wry, amusing speech, quite spontaneous, (and to the whole restaurant, not just his gathered friends), about how grateful he was for everyone coming to support him and commiserate at this time. The night before the party, I dreamt that he, me, and several other very old friends of mine were all turning 50 together and that our whole life was just the duration of a day… It was late afternoon already. In my dream I was considering how, even if we are thinking, “Ah, just a few more years left at work, then I can chill, relax, enjoy the fruits of my labor, meditate, sit on a beach or whatever”, this is like looking forward to that sleepy couple of hours in front of the TV before you crash into bed. It all goes so fast. Now is not the time to defer gratification but to enjoy every moment and make it count. Our next life is breaths away.
I asked one old friend at the party whether having his three teenage kids made him feel younger or older, and he replied ruefully: “Older, definitely! The taller they get, the more they look down on me!” My generation may be concerned about bags under their eyes, yellowing teeth, expanding girths, deteriorating fitness levels, and kids who now find us ancient and embarrassing. Not only are we no longer turning heads, but the quirky behavioural patterns that were charming and cute in our smooth-skinned twenties are now creepy and eccentric. Senior moments are beginning their stealthy creep up on us as we forget people’s names and where we put our new reading glasses. But what does that mean for our parents’ generation?! As Bette Davis famously said,
“Old age is no place for sissies.”
Signs of transition are all around me at the moment – indeed they always are, Mayan predictions or not, but sometimes we take more note of them. I stayed with my parents over Christmas as they were writing out their Christmas cards – every year the list grows shorter and they receive fewer cards. My grandfather, who lived to 100, once told me that he was the only person left in his address book. An increasing number of my parents’ friends are also experiencing ailments and disabilities — these seem to pile up on us as we age. It is not enough just to have to go through gruelling treatment for cancer, we also fall over and break our frail shoulder. It is not enough just to have high blood pressure, we also suffer from macular degeneration and feel our freedom curtailed as our driving license is taken away. It is not enough to be increasingly vague, we also suffer the loss of confidence as we struggle to do things we used to do without thinking, or to learn new things. And so on. On Christmas morning, I went with my sister-in-law’s family to visit her very lovable mother Christine in the nursing home she has been living in since her stroke – she is frail and no longer recognizes her own hand (sometimes, to the kids’ amusement, mistaking it for my brother’s). I felt humbled not only by the reserves of patience this is bringing out in my sister-in-law, but also the courage and dignity with which Christine’s husband John, aged 82, is facing the destroyed privacy of their 60-year old marriage, as he sat eating Christmas dinner with his wife surrounded by people lolling and dribbling.
The Buddhist teachings talk about the sufferings of old age and we may wonder why they need to point this out; surely it is just toooo depressing. But ask anyone who is there already, old age happens anyway, and surprisingly fast; and the key is to find a way to grow old gracefully, happily, and meaningfully. If we don’t die first, we’ll grow old too. We can do older people the courtesy of recognizing that they are us and we are them; there is only the slight difference of time. The more we understand that happiness and mental freedom come from within, the more control we retain over it, and the easier it is to grow older with equanimity. This has also been my observation with certain older people in my life, including my 81-year-old teacher, who is timelessly blissful, and my grandfather.
So, as mentioned, if our happiness and freedom are tied up entirely in externals and other people, we are sure to lose them sooner or later and so get sadder and quite possibly grumpier as we get older. But if our happiness and freedom are inside, depending on our own states of mind, this is not the case, as they cannot be threatened by change. This is why I think it is so valuable to learn how to meditate, and why it is never too late to learn.
And for you young things…
And for all of you under 40 reading this, time to get your act together! (as the Buddhist teachers of old would say.) If you don’t believe me, ask anyone over 40 how they got so old and they are at a loss: “I was 20 only yesterday! What happened?!” Don’t live up to the classic grumpy old man adage: “Youth is wasted on the young.”
I see meditation practice as “happiness training.” Old or young, there is never a time when we don’t want to be happy and free from suffering. Happiness and suffering are opposites, like light and dark. The happier we become, the less we suffer. Happiness is part of who we actually are, as well as a skill that we can cultivate.
According to Buddha’s teachings, happiness is a state of mind and therefore its real causes lie within the mind, not in external objects. Happiness is not some divine favor granted on whim to the chosen few. Nor does it depend on dumb luck (although, tellingly, the Scandanavian root of the Western word “happiness” means “luck,” implying we don’t have much say over it). We cannot buy happiness, nor indeed find it existing anywhere outside the mind. Yet each of us possesses the potential to be happy, and each of us can become happy and stay happy. How? By training our mind so that it is always peaceful and positive.
Meditation is the means for finding and keeping happiness in our mind; and if we’re happy in our mind, we’re happy everywhere. The Tibetan word for meditation is “gom,” which literally means “familiarize.” What are we trying to become familiar with? The positive states of mind that make us happy. According to this explanation, meditation is not something we just do on a cushion, but throughout the course of our lives. Like a doctor, Buddha identified the healthy, productive states of mind that make us peaceful, contented, happy, or blissful and the unhealthy, counterproductive states of mind (or delusions) that make us unpeaceful, discontented, unhappy and depressed. Examples of positive minds are love, compassion, patience, kindness, and wisdom. Examples of delusions are “the three mental poisons” of anger, attachment, and ignorance.
In fact, whenever our mind is free from the mud of delusions, it is naturally peaceful and clear. We’re often so tightly wound up in our self and our problems that we fail to see that our natural default experience is actually being happy. By learning to meditate, we pay attention to the seeds of happiness within us. In a cacophonous urban din we may hear the strains of a beautiful violin; and by paying attention to this it becomes louder to our ear. In the same way, by paying attention to the small moments of happiness that are already within us, gradually and without forcing it our experience of happiness grows stronger and louder.
Over to you: do you agree that it is possible to get happier as you grow old? Do you have any examples?