Live life lightly, live it well

What does it mean to you to take, or seize, the essence of your human life?

Denver Cheesman Park
View from Cheesman Park

I was just walking through my new leafy neighborhood, Capitol Hill, and into Cheesman Park, and once again the Colorado sky is wall to wall blue, a canopy of blue. It appears blue. It is blue? I can see blue very clearly up there. But if I try to reach out and grasp it, I will grasp at air; and if I try to push it away, my palm will meet no resistance.

This is true of everything in my life. Buddha said that all phenomena are mere appearance. They are like the blue of the sky. As Geshe Kelsang says in his section on the four profundities in The New Heart of Wisdom:

From an empty sky, blue manifests. Similarly, from the emptiness of form, form manifests. In the same way, all phenomena are manifestations of their emptiness.

Probably one of the best ways to seize the essence of our human life is to realize that there is nothing there to seize, there is nothing there to grasp at.  If we do that, we not only live lightly in this life, but we can pull the rug out from all our own and others’ suffering, destroying our self-grasping ignorance and all the pulling and pushing that go along with it. The only depth is emptiness.

Doorways in the minddoorway in mind

Many years ago a friend had a waking epiphany, or maybe it was a dream, I don’t remember. He was in a field and there was a doorway opening in the sky to the most exquisite, blissful place he had ever seen. Through that door he could see all the Buddhas and Dakinis beckoning him, including his Spiritual Guide. They were saying, “Come on through! What are you waiting for? There is nothing for you in that muddy field and you should know, you’ve been there long enough. Realize emptiness and fulfill the purpose of your human life, enter the door to total freedom and bliss and bring everyone along with you.”

My friend was ecstatic and motivated. But when he started walking toward that door, he noticed something unnerving.

The door was slowly closing.

He sent a description of this vision to Geshe Kelsang, who, somewhat to his surprise, was absolutely delighted. Geshe Kelsang asked for it to go in the next edition of Full Moon, which was a magazine produced by the New Kadampa Tradition at that time of news, views, and practitioner interviews of how they applied Kadampa Buddhism to their lives (long before the days of the Internet, Facebook, websites, blogs, etc.)

This vision has always helped me with two important Lamrim (stages of the path) meditations, which, because they motivate us to pursue the remaining stages of the path, are the first two meditations of the cycle – precious human life and death & impermanence. We have everything we need right now to enter that doorway, but we are also running out of time.

The first Lamrim meditation

These last two weeks I’ve been meditating on the Lamrim cycle of meditations, as Kadampa Centers traditionally give over the month of January to meditation retreat. It has always been my favorite time of year. Vide Kadampa has been recording his daily Lamrim meditations for over two years, in fact he has written, astonishingly enough, over 1,000 articles! I can’t recommend his blog, Daily Lamrim, highly enough. But nonetheless, if he doesn’t mind, I’m going to try my hand at writing down some of my thoughts on the 21 Lamrim meditations too.

I used Geshe Kelsang’s new book How to Understand the Mind for many of my meditations this year. I loved it.

The purpose of the precious human life meditation is to encourage ourself to take the real meaning of our human life and not to waste it in meaningless activities. 

birth and death“Meaningless activities” like pulling daisies out from that muddy field and making daisy chains? Unless perhaps we are doing it out of love, not losing sight of that closing doorway, and recognizing that the daisies are not as real as they appear (for example)! In other words, it is not what we do but why we do it that makes our activities either meaningful or meaningless.  We all have to do things, after all; we can’t just sit around all day twiddling our thumbs. But external developments, however promising or enticing, never end up being the be all and end all of our lives.

As Geshe Kelsang says also in How to Solve Our Human Problems:

Anyone who has even an inkling of how far the mind can be developed will never be satisfied with insubstantial attainments.

We can’t buy (lasting) happiness, as the saying goes, and we can’t buy lasting meaning either. If we could, someone would have done it by now.

What happened?!

We can feel disgruntled because we try so hard to find all the meaning in things that sooner or later just let us down – including our youth, beauty, jobs, marriages, health, vigor, ambition, careers, possessions, offspring, and so on. At Christmas I went home to my parents in London, who decided for some reason to hold a party for me, inviting all their local friends to meet me even though I’ve met all of them already. Anyway, I wasn’t complaining, and had some good conversations with a diverse, intelligent group of people, most of them now retired after quite illustrious or interesting careers. And, perhaps knowing that I have been into meditation for so long, a few of them shared with me how flat and disconcertingly anxious they felt now as they were ageing, with a dwindling sense of purpose, all their best times seemingly in the past, retired from useful work, their offspring all off doing their own thing. Several had already lost their spouses to death, and none of them felt as healthy or energetic as they used to. They were not being self-pitying – like people everywhere, they were just wondering at what happened, and how quickly too; and what next?

chapters
This life: just one chapter in the book of our travels from life to life

There is nothing wrong of course with raising a family, making money, having a job, etc. We have a saying in the Kadampa Tradition, “Remain natural while changing your aspiration”, which means we keep doing what we were doing before, but change our reasons and motivations for doing it. Traversing human life’s regular milestones is in any case generally inevitable given that we are human beings. But trying to grasp at these external things, trying to hang onto them, trying to give them inherent meaning or value, is like trying to scoop up the blue of the sky — we come up empty.

Ten reasons to be cheerful

Reason one: We are still alive. Buddha listed eight freedoms and ten endowments that make a human life precious from a spiritual point of view, which you can find in the stages of the path teachings, for example in Joyful Path – we can check if we have them all. We can also itemize other ways in which we are in fact very lucky that we might otherwise be taking for granted — eg, friends, family, roof over our head, food in our stomach, clothes on our back, ability to read, still breathing — to counteract the “I’m so unlucky” state of mind that mulls over everything that is wrong with our life and then, not unsurprisingly, ends up depressed, anxious, and discouraged. We can write them down if we are in danger of forgetting them! We could even do one of those Pros and Cons lists (you know the ones, with a ruler line down the middle of the page?!), listing out all the Pros of My Current Existence and Cons of My Current Existence!! Why not? See what happens.

You can even try closing your eyes and thinking of anyone you love and anyone who loves you. Appreciate them. Then spread that feeling further and further. Life can quickly become colorful and rich again with a bit of love thrown in the mix, whatever age we are.

So what is the “real meaning” of human life?!

Maybe I better save what Buddha had to say about that for the next article as I’m running out of space and you are probably running out of coffee break. Plus, who doesn’t like a good cliff hanger …

Over to you: Please share any insights you have had into the meaning of life 🙂

Postscript: Cranky Old Man

I found this on Facebook and it is moving and relevant so I thought I’d share it here.

When an old man died in the geriatric ward of a nursing home in an Australian country town, it was believed that he had nothing left of any value. Later, when the nurses were going through his meager possessions, they found this poem. Its quality and content so impressed the staff that copies were made and distributed to every nurse in the hospital, and made their way into magazines around the country. It is now winging its way across the Internet.

Cranky Old Man

What do you see nurses? . . .. . .What do you see?
What are you thinking .. . when you’re looking at me?
A cranky old man, . . . . . . not very wise,
Uncertain of habit .. . . . . . . .. with faraway eyes?
Who dribbles his food .. . … . . and makes no reply.
When you say in a loud voice . .’I do wish you’d try!’
Who seems not to notice . . . the things that you do.
And forever is losing . . . . . .. . . A sock or shoe?
Who, resisting or not . . . … lets you do as you will,
With bathing and feeding . . . . The long day to fill?
Is that what you’re thinking?. . Is that what you see?
Then open your eyes, nurse . you’re not looking at me.
I’ll tell you who I am . . . . .. As I sit here so still,
As I do at your bidding, .. . . . as I eat at your will.
I’m a small child of Ten . .with a father and mother,
Brothers and sisters .. . . .. . who love one another
A young boy of Sixteen . . . .. with wings on his feet
Dreaming that soon now . . .. . . a lover he’ll meet.
A groom soon at Twenty . . . ..my heart gives a leap.
Remembering, the vows .. .. .that I promised to keep.
At Twenty-Five, now . . . . .I have young of my own.
Who need me to guide . . . And a secure happy home.
A man of Thirty . .. . . . . My young now grown fast,
Bound to each other . . .. With ties that should last.
At Forty, my young sons .. .have grown and are gone,
But my woman is beside me . . to see I don’t mourn.
At Fifty, once more, .. …Babies play ’round my knee,
Again, we know children . . . . My loved one and me.
Dark days are upon me . . . . My wife is now dead.
I look at the future … . . . . I shudder with dread.
For my young are all rearing .. . . young of their own.
And I think of the years . . . And the love that I’ve known.
I’m now an old man . . . . . . .. and nature is cruel.
It’s jest to make old age . . . . . . . look like a fool.
The body, it crumbles .. .. . grace and vigour, depart.
There is now a stone . . . where I once had a heart.
But inside this old carcass . A young man still dwells,
And now and again . . . . . my battered heart swells
I remember the joys . . . . .. . I remember the pain.
And I’m loving and living . . . . . . . life over again.
I think of the years, all too few . . .. gone too fast.
And accept the stark fact . . . that nothing can last.
So open your eyes, people .. . . . .. . . open and see.
Not a cranky old man .
Look closer . . . . see .. .. . .. …. . ME!!

Going on 92

Eileen with SilverI was able to visit my friend Eileen again a couple of weeks ago (you may remember her from this article), and after four years I found her skinnier, frailer, and walking a lot more slowly. The other day a doctor exclaimed: “Are you still walking around on those feet?!” Eileen replied that indeed she was. “And you do know that you have two dislocated toes?!” Eileen knows it all too well. As well as hobbling around on broken toes due to advanced rheumatoid arthritis, Eileen is losing her previously reliable eyesight to macular degeneration, and wonders how and if she will drive for much longer, read, see… Despite all these curtailments, Eileen is still loving her daily meditations on Mahamudra, the clarity of the mind, and still delights in life – a delight that seems extra qualified these days by a deepening patience. We had a lot of fun that weekend. I told her of the interest her last article generated on this blog, and asked her to give us an update on the ageing process from the point of view of a meditator and Kadampa Buddhist; and she has sent this snapshot.

Going on 92

At the request of my friends, here I am again to update the subject of Ageing…

Over a year has passed since I wrote about coping with an ageing body, and now the disparity between that body and the mind, which I am happy to say remains much as it ever was, is more obvious every day.

I will give you an example that happened only in the last few days. My lovely daughter who is now 61 spoke to me on Skype – oh yes, I do keep up with modern technology! – to see where I would like to go for a trip this year. For the past few years we have treated ourselves to a short break in some exciting European city, Barcelona, Marrakesh, Warsaw…  and so now she wanted to know “Where this year?!

I so much wanted to go with her but I also knew that it would be foolish to make this ageing body attempt the trip. So with a foot on each side of the fence, I replied: “Well, darling, where would YOU like to go?” Quick as a flash the answer came, “Let’s go to Prague!”

Now Prague is one of my favorite European cities. I have always loved the idea of visiting the river Vltava, about which the composer Smetana wrote such eloquent music – for although I have visited Prague many years ago, I have never been on that river.

So how to resolve this conflict? To go or not to go? That is the question!

Perhaps the salutary experience I had the next day was provided for me by the Buddhas to bring me to my senses.

A lovely new friend, a Buddhist monk, had taken me to a seaside town on the Yorkshire coast for some sea air. The day was beautiful and the sun warm, even though it is only February. We were strolling along the promenade, my arthritic feet doing reasonably well, and I suggested descending to the lower promenade to be closer to the sea. This involved negotiating a flight of 15 steep concrete steps, but off I set, with my teenage mind and my ancient body. Big mistake! All was fine until we reached the fifth step from the bottom, at which point my legs gave way and I fell head first, landing in a sprawling heap on the ground, to my poor friend’s horror.

Struggling to my feet I tested out my legs. They held my weight, no broken bones – just a large swathe of skin flapping off my lower calf. Dramatically bloody, I must admit, and not a pretty sight. That and a sprained wrist seemed to be all the damage. It could have been so much worse – a fractured skull, a broken hip.

Was this a timely warning to “Be my age!?” To use the time I have left in this life to better advantage? Not to give in to my attachment for beautiful cities, rivers, and above all music? Years ago I asked a well-known Buddhist teacher, “How do you know if you have attachment for something?” and he replied, “If you want it again.”

I took this to mean if I want something again because I think it makes me happy from its own side. It is a major part of our Buddhist endeavours to overcome the 3 poisons of anger, attachment, and ignorance – three snakes in a basket on our lap vying for supremacy and ready to bite any time. Is this an opportunity to deal with attachment? “But hang on…”, objects my unruly mind, “Would it not be an act of giving to go to Prague and make your daughter happy? Giving is, after all, one of the six perfections of a Bodhisattva!!” Prevaricating, my mind hops from one side of the fence to the other.

Eileen doorsWhat to do? I am sitting here, looking out into my garden, and my little cat Silver jumps onto my knee. Two wood pigeons preen themselves in the cherry tree, and it is almost Spring. A wave of wondrous contentment envelops me. How foolish I am, wishing to be somewhere else. Isn’t this the teaching of Buddha, to dwell in contentment and rely on a happy mind? I see it now…Eileen with Silver 2

Dear daughter, don’t be disappointed. Go with a young friend, and later, when you visit me — and we’re sitting by my window with the clematis like a pink waterfall, the early roses scenting the air, and the little cat lying in the sun — you can tell me all about it.

Can ageing be worthwhile?

Carrying on from where this article left off.

The power of the Bodhisattva’s mind 

When a Bodhisattva experiences pain, they regard this pain as an example of the pain experienced by countless other living beings. They do not possess the pain or identify with it. Ordinarily, pain destroys our happiness because we grasp it tightly as our own and it is all-consuming for us. But for a Bodhisattva, their pain induces more compassion for others. Strong compassion, in turn, lessens the feeling of pain, mentally for sure, and also physically. Therefore, a Bodhisattva has nothing to fear from pain.

kindness of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas

If a Bodhisattva experiences a moment of loneliness, for example, they observe it in their mind. They don’t think, “I am so lonely”; instead they think, “Here is an example of the loneliness experienced by countless other beings right now.” Understanding directly how horrible this is, they decide, “How wonderful it would be if I could help alleviate the suffering of loneliness in this world.” Bodhisattvas transform their experience of any sickness or pain into a positive spiritual realization.

We can see examples of this in everyday lives. If parents lose their children to incurable diseases, they sometimes establish foundations in their children’s honor that are specifically dedicated to helping find a cure for this disease, and in doing so find meaning and relief. Or consider Lance Armstrong – whatever you may think of his cycling “performance”, his experience of the pain of fighting and surviving cancer led to his creation of the Livestrong Foundation and the ubiquitous yellow wrist bands that have raised so much awareness and money for a cancer-cure.

love is all you need in Buddhism

As we get older, we tend to experience more physical pain. If instead of focusing on our own pain and thereby making it feel worse, we can manage to think of others who are suffering in a similar way and generate strong compassion, this compassion helps protect us from our pain and fears and motivates us to help others.

My dad had to undergo some very uncomfortable medical treatment last year. He told me that he was feeling sorry for himself in the hospital one day, when something made him notice the other people around him. Focusing his attention on them, he realized that they were in a worse way than he was, and he felt very sorry for them. This totally took his mind off his own painful predicament, and for the first time, but not the last, he felt strangely all okay again.

It might be a good idea to start training in this now!

Growing old gracefully

Do you agree that being confident and being attractive are closely related? When people find a way to retain and cultivate their inner confidence, their engagement with others, their ability to laugh at themselves, they don’t cease being attractive whatever age or however doddery they are. I think a lot of confidence comes from having a clear sense of who you are, what you love, and a zest for life. My Grandfather loved life until the day he died aged 100, and so he was always fun to be with.

growinggracefullyAs our physical enjoyments and reputations diminish through ageing, instead of getting bitter or nostalgic we can increase even further the value we place on our experience of inner peace. If we become more peaceful, positive, and even blissful in our mind, people will enjoy hanging out with us, regardless of our age. This is certainly the case for my friend Eileen, who I’m visiting next weekend 🙂 Buddhist meditation practice can engender great self-confidence.

Upon turning 80 last year (on the same day as my teacher!), my quasi father-in-law wrote to me:

I must admit that yesterday I woke up with a sense of amazement. Wow! I had thought it was only other people that get old, and an octogenarian is old. One is treated with a certain reverence (though whether this might be covering a degree of pity and disdain, I don’t know). Physically, I feel ancient. I used to boast a degree of dexterity but for some years I’ve felt clumsy. I’m learning to be more careful but I dropped and broke the lid of one of P’s casseroles the other day. Walking has become more of a thought-about action, particularly since I slipped on the ice early this year. My memory is getting very poor. There are embarrassingly long pauses in my speech as I search, not for the right word, but for any word that will do! I’ve also lost a little confidence in walking and driving. 

However as far as attitude is concerned, I haven’t felt much change. I am OK as long as I feel I’m still in control of how I’m reacting to what is happening around me. I can visualize a time when this may not be so any more. As long as I find my absent-mindedness amusing, I’m happy. I imagine that most thinking geriatrics feel something similar to this. The sad thing is when one of us “wrinklies” does not notice the control slipping away and they drift into senility. Then all their bold statements along the lines of, “I don’t want to lose my dignity, to become dependent on others; I’d rather die with my independence intact,” and so forth, count for nothing.

Senior-MomentAs our body starts to let us down, we are compelled to rely more deeply on inner resources. Even if we do become more forgetful of words and phrases and where we left our keys, and our brain is seizing up, we can still feel love and compassion in our heart-mind, especially if we have started our training in this. In the end, the journey within is the most interesting journey we can ever take, and ageing is a constant motivator to travel it well.

Your turn: Do you have inspiring examples of people you know who aged or are ageing well?

Facing ageing with strength

Old man look at my life, I’m a lot like you were. ~ Neil Young

Continuing from this article, how can we remain positive when we’re getting old and our body starts to go wrong? I have a few people in my life who have grown old so well that I intend to copy them as I age. One of them is Eileen.

A widow’s story

One of my dearest friends, Eileen, is now a 91-year old widow, physically frailer but still 39 inside. Eileen first met Geshe Kelsang in the late 1970s. In 1996, when she was a spry 70-something, Eileen came to Florida and ran around (pretty much literally) for years helping set up Buddhist centers, before returning to England to live in her cottage in the grounds of Madhyamaka Centre. Eileen Stead Madhyamaka Centre

I first met Eileen years earlier, when her husband was dying, and she has been no stranger to sickness, ageing, loss, and death. So I asked Eileen recently to tell me how she copes so well with it all, and this is what she wrote:

How does one deal with the sufferings of old age? I remember with a wry smile Geshe Kelsang’s description of an old person. He said they were bent over and walked like bird catchers. I thought at the time (20 years ago), “How amusing,” but wait – if you live long enough, you too will walk like a bird catcher. I am aware that recently I am walking with small unsteady careful steps. I make an effort to be sure I’m standing upright and attempt to stride out. I stumble a little, and my lovely Grandson grabs my arm, and says, “Careful Granny.”

Where did the girl go, the one who ran up and down the Lake District hills, and swam in freezing Scottish seas or the warm waters of Florida? I must not fall into the danger of nostalgia, longing for the things that are gone forever. I can remember them, though, with love and gratitude, and maybe when the sufferings of old age become more apparent they will help me. I know for sure that I have deep gratitude for all the wonderful experiences of this life, my husband, my friends, the music and flowers in the garden, and so much more. How could I not be grateful?!  

thank you for kindness

Widows – what do widows do? What do they feel? How do they react? Some, I know, have become very angry – “Why did you leave me?!” Some sink into depression, and some actually take their own lives. I’m sorry to say that these reactions are not helpful, and can only cause more bitterness in the mind. A far better way, I believe, is to acknowledge that all life in samsara has to adhere to the cycle of unending birth, death and rebirth, and nothing anyone can do will change that, so why give way to anger when the inevitable happens?  

We lose our friends too, particularly if we have a long life and they do not. To attend their funerals, and know that yet another good companion has disappeared from your life – that is hard too. These losses have to be met with patient acceptance. It is the only way. As long as we are in samsara we shall have to experience the conditions of samsara and have to deal with our ripening karma, unless we can purify the negativities in our mind. Just as anger can destroy our positive imprints, so compassion and love can purify the negative ones. That is a good thought, and we can work at it with great diligence. 

If through the teachings of Buddha we can become less self-centered, free from our self-grasping mind, and learn to trust in the spiritual path, a new contentment will pervade our lives and we can ride the waves of our suffering and will not drown. We can become a pure being, a Bodhisattva.

Living happy

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.

why we get grumpyIf 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. 50 birthday ageing and meditation

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.”

Happiness training

Happy Rd

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.

violinIn 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?

Getting older and uglier by the year, who voted for this?!


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.

There's only so much we can do with our meaty bodies!

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.