Everyone wants to be seen: observations from a Buddhist Gerontologist

A guest article.

(Given that these strange COVID-19 times are making our elderly all around the world even more vulnerable, and that many are being kept behind closed doors for their own protection, I find this guest article in 2 parts a timely encouragement to see them and to care. ~ Ed.)

Being seen by others

I discovered my fascination with the elderly during coffee hours after Sunday services in the small town where I grew up. I also learned it was unusual for almost anyone, let alone a five-year-old, to be interested in them. Despite regular encouragement to go upstairs to play with the other children, I managed to finagle my way through the rooms of the parish house and into the company of the elderly parishioners, particularly the women.1960s-grandmother-in-chair-hugging-vintage-images (2)

They’d call me close and, peering out behind coke bottle glasses, ask me things. I don’t remember the detail of those early conversations, but they left me with a lasting impression. I thought,These people are so interested in others.” I felt special in their presence. Cherished. Safe. I felt seen.

Thus began a lifelong habit of seeking out the oldest person in the room. While the mantra of the mid-’60’s was, Don’t trust anyone over 30,” mine was “Don’t trust anyone under 50.” My most trusted companion was my paternal grandmother, a kind woman who lived in an old country house at the other end of town. She was one of my greatest teachers, teaching me one of the most important things I have learned in my sixty years on this planet – the power of unconditional love.

Learning to see others

The truth is that I viewed every elderly person as my teacher. In How to Understand the Mind, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso writes that the function of a person isTo perform actions and experience their results.” As an older friend once remarked, “You live long enough, you know stuff.” I reasoned that the older a person was, the more they knew, even if it was what not to do. They were time capsules of valuable karmic lessons, and from an early age I began looking to them for answers.

At some point I realized I was organizing what I was learning into my own mental filing cabinet. Some of it was social in nature — “European Immigration to the US in the Early 20th Century,” some of it technical — “Behavioral Patterns Exhibited by Those with Memory Loss,” and some of it just plain fun — “How to Sew, Crochet or Knit your own Wardrobe.”

I couldn’t help but note the physical changes that occur with age, as well. The thickening glasses. The hearing loss. The swelling in the ankles. The fading memory. The bandages on arms and heads. The skin. (Once I commented on a woman’s badly bruised skin. “Skin?!” she scoffed. “This isn’t skin. It’s tissue paper!”). The smells of ointments, tinctures, and sweet perfume. One by one I learned their stories. I listened. I studied. I watched. I saw.

This man’s search for meaning

Gerontology, the study of aging, emerged as a bonafide college degree in the late ‘70’s and I was one of the first to sign up. There I learned about the “Life Review,” an explanation as to why older people seem to like to reminisce. According to this theory they talk about their lives as a way of making sense of them. They are wrapping things up, getting ready to go.

Davis Funeral Home Edited

Learning that my elderly friends had an almost biological need to talk about their lives prompted me to deepen my line of inquiry. My motive was not entirely altruistic; I was desperate to find answers to some of life’s bigger questions.

Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that I was being raised in a funeral home a few houses down from my church, but underpinning my early life was a nagging thought that everything was existentially pointless.

A story from Joyful Path of Good Fortune sums up my feelings at that time. A man is painstakingly carving a round stone into a square one with a feather. When a passerby asks why on earth he is doing this, he responds,

I am doing this so that I can leave the stone behind.

The story is referencing pointless efforts made in the accumulation of wealth, but to me everything was a variation of the same theme — be it a career, raising a family, or collecting tchotchkes. We will all die in the end, so why bother? I was sure one of my aged friends could provide me with the answer.

Over the decades I moved a lot, which put me in touch with thousands of elderly people in Rhode Island, Florida, New York, Ohio, Kansas, Indiana, North Carolina, California, and immigrants from around the world. When the moment seemed right, I’d ask my friends, the oldest of whom was 104, “What’s the point of all of this?” or “Why are we here?” Everyone seemed happy to offer an opinion, but I never did get a satisfying answer. What I did get, instead, was another list: “The Top Ten Meanings of Life.”

I don’t know if meaninglessness is the chicken and depression is the egg or the other way ‘round, but they are a killer combination. I knew this from my many years of working with people who were stripped mercilessly of the things that meant the world to them — their spouses, homes, cars, careers, reputations, health, wealth, families, and oldest friends. Some were left with nothing to fill the void, critically ill and deeply depressed, begging to die. But I knew of this deadly combination not just from witnessing it, but from experiencing it from the inside out. From a young age I began to experience a deep and inexplicable sadness.

As a young man I stumbled across a quote from the French philosopher Voltaire that struck me as so profound I committed it to memory. He said, “We throw ourselves in prison and stand as our own guard.” I knew on some level I played a role in my own torment, but at the same time I felt powerless to stop. And, as much as the quote impacted me, there was still no answer as to how to get out of this vicious cycle. Or if it was even possible.

Screen Shot 2020-03-15 at 7.13.59 PM

Before becoming a Buddhist I believed a certain amount of suffering was natural, part of the human condition.” While I never dreamed it was feasible to completely end suffering, as taught by Buddha, I did believe it could be mitigated. So I did with my depression what I did with everything else. I took it to my elderly friends. Why is there so much suffering in the world?” I’d ask. Or, “Given all that humans must endure, only to die in the end, how can a person ever be happy?” When the moment seemed right, I’d be candid. “I’m depressed,” I’d say. “Do you have an idea of how I can shake it?”

Finding the path

After an exhaustive, nearly half-century search, it was at my first class at the Kadampa Meditation Center in Los Angeles that I began to find answers. The monk taught that my search for freedom from suffering was common. Aware of it or not, every sentient being, even babies and insects, carries the same basic wish to be free. It drives everything we do. And yes, Virginia, there is a way out.

The prison, I learned, is called samsara, a hellish and unending nightmare that is the experience of a self-centered and deluded mind. As Geshe Kelsang puts it,

Samsara is not an external prison; it is a prison made by our own mind.

The meaning of our lives is to be found in securing a permanent release from our jail cell and in helping everyone out of theirs. We do this not only to improve this life, but to secure our futures after we die. But how? As Geshe-la explains:

Although samsara resembles a prison, there is one door through which we can escape. That door is emptiness, the ultimate nature of phenomena. By realizing emptiness we can escape from samsara.

In the early days of my Buddhism, realizing this magic bullet of emptiness seemed a ways off; and, meanwhile, what’s a suffering sentient being to do?! I took refuge in the more easily accessible method practices as outlined in How to Transform Your Life, such as renunciation, compassion, and patience. Geshe-la writes that these minds help us to inch towards the prison door. Eventually

…by diligently practicing a pure spiritual path, and thereby eliminating our self-grasping and other delusions, we can bring our samsara to an end.

jail Blog

In Buddhism, delusions are described as those states of mind that create suffering and virtuous minds as those that result in happiness. Self-cherishing is a principal delusion, and compassion — our wish for others to be free from suffering — is a principal virtue. Something about this idea clicked for me. I even had a folder. There it was in the far recesses of my mind, dusty and overlooked, but chock-full of rich and valuable evidence to validate the truth of Buddha’s teachings.

I didn’t have the wisdom to know its value at the time but, once I learned what it contained, I reorganized my findings into two separate files and moved them to the forefront of my mind. Borrowing language from my new hero, the Buddhist Master Shantideva, I titled one, “Self-Cherishing — All the Suffering in this Worldand the other “Love and Compassion — All the Happiness in this World.”

In part 2 of this article I will expand on my observations of how seeing others and being seen by them inches us toward the door to our own liberation.

In the meantime, I would love to hear your comments.

(Postscript: There are many word choices to describe people of a certain age.” I’ve used them all in my career so as not to offend, but my personal preference is elderly.” To my mind the popular euphemism senior is a regression, sending us back to high school and in the process devaluing the trials, tribulations, and triumphs all of us experience if we are lucky enough to live that long. I know some people consider elderly an ugly word, but historically it was an honorific. As for me, at the ripe old age of sixty, considered young elderly by some classifications,” I’m not quite ready to let it go.)