Posts Tagged ‘aging’

In his book The World Could Be Otherwise (Shambhala, 2019) the Zen priest Zoketsu Norman Fischer Roshi makes an arresting remark, as notable for its subtlety as for its bold assertion. “When I am sick at a retreat,” he writes, “I don’t try to perform as if I weren’t sick . . . I try not to waste time wishing for another condition. I just live within the condition I have.” (My italics)

Norman Fischer is a poet as well as a longtime Zen practitioner. He chooses his words with care. Had he written with rather than within—“I just live with my condition”—his statement would have been unremarkable, even banal. But instead he wrote within, a word that means, among other things, “in the interior of.” And between those two prepositions, so common in speech and prose but so wide-ranging in their implications, there is a significant and telling difference.

“Just live with it,” we are sometimes advised, when we have complained for the hundredth time about some misfortune that has befallen us. “Suck it up.” Uttered often in a tone of exhausted patience, those dismissals imply a common way of coping: a stoic resignation, accompanied often by covert resistance and unexpressed resentment. Even as we are living with our present condition, we are fervently wishing for another.

To live within one’s condition is to take another tack entirely. Zen teachings sometimes refer to the Eight Vicissitudes, those changes in external conditions that may occur over a lifetime and profoundly affect our inner lives. The Eight Vicissitudes are gain and loss, fame and obscurity (or infamy), praise and blame, and happiness and sorrow. To that list we might add health and illness, and, for good measure, the unwelcome changes attendant to aging. We can choose to “live with” the negative aspects of those changes, in the ways described above. But we can also elect to live within them, an attitude and mode of being that entails three essential components.

The first is full recognition. Having incurred a setback, be it physical, emotional, or financial, we may be tempted to kid ourselves: to deny, minimize, or otherwise misrepresent its true nature to ourselves. But if we are to live within our changed condition, we have first to acknowledge it, fully and accurately. That may require us, on the one hand, to gather reliable objective information, while filtering out myth and misleading opinion. On the other hand, we will need to pay due attention to subjective data: to what has occurred and is occurring in our bodies, hearts, and minds. Balancing fact and feeling, we can endeavor to assess and understand our present condition, not as an abstract concept but as a present reality, clearly perceived and duly recognized.

The second imperative is adaptation. Within, we may recall, can also mean “inside the limits of.” And to adapt to a new condition is in part to adjust to the limits and constraints it has newly imposed. Fischer speaks of “scaling down” and, more evocatively, of “modulating” his activities to accommodate his altered condition. To modulate one’s voice is to adapt its amplitude, tone, and intensity to suit the present occasion. In the context of music, to modulate is to change the key. Analogously, we can live within our present condition by modifying our activities to suit our present circumstances. Or we can find, as it were, a new key in which to sing our familiar songs.

Third and last, to live within a condition is wholly to inhabit it. Within, in yet another definition of the word¸ means “the inner part.” And fully to live within a condition is to plumb its inmost being, to become intimate with its essential nature. In a well-known Zen koan, Zen Master Tōzan Ryōkai (807-869) advises a monk, when hot, to be “thoroughly hot,” and when cold, to be “cold through and through.” In his personal variation on that traditional theme, Fischer speaks of “being sick completely” when so afflicted. Although this attitude may sound like capitulation, it is actually its antithesis: a courageous resolve to live, openly and fully and to the best of one’s ability, within a condition that one has neither wanted nor freely chosen.

Fischer’s words were written several years ago, before the pandemic shook the foundations of our world. But the principle he articulates and the guidance he offers remain relevant, practical, and eminently humane. At no time has it been more important to fully recognize and realistically adapt to existing conditions and to live within them as best we can. By so doing we can not only meet the challenges we are facing without loss to our common humanity. We can also respect and protect ourselves and everyone around us.


Norman Fischer, The World Could Be Otherwise (Shambhala, 2019), 122.





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The poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) hated being old. In his late poem “Sailing to Byzantium,” written when Yeats was in his early sixties, he described an “aged man” as “but a paltry thing, / A tattered coat upon a stick . . .” And in “The Tower,” a poem of the same vintage, he likened the “absurdity” of “decrepit age” to a battered kettle tied to a dog’s tail. Invoking the traditional duality of body and soul, Yeats contrasted his “passionate, fantastical / Imagination” with the humiliations of physical decline. By common consent, Yeats’s late poems are among his finest, but the agon they so memorably dramatize is that of an aging artist resisting with all his imaginative might those inevitable changes that happen to us all.

Zen teachings also address those changes, but they offer a very different perspective. Nowhere is that perspective more concretely articulated or more forcefully asserted than in the litany of home truths known as the Five Remembrances. Here is Thich Nhat Hanh’s translation: (more…)

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Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney

In an interview many years ago, a journalist asked the Irish poet Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) for his thoughts on aging. At the time, Heaney must have been in his late fifties or early sixties. With his usual precision of language, leavened by a wryly ironic smile, Heaney remarked that growing older had brought “the inevitable attenuations.” He did not elaborate, but anyone of a certain age could readily fill in the blanks. And more important than the words or the missing details was the attitude behind them, an attitude at once rare and profoundly liberating.

Like forty million other men and women over the age of fifty, I belong to the AARP, formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons. As a privilege of membership I receive two bimonthly publications: the AARP Magazine, which is printed on glossy paper and vaguely resembles People magazine; and the AARP Bulletin, which is printed on newsprint and resembles a tabloid. The Magazine endeavors to entertain, educate, and inspire me, while perhaps selling an Acorn Chairlift or a life-insurance policy along the way. By contrast, the Bulletin aspires to keep me informed and alert me to financial and health-related hazards threatening older people. Together these complementary organs of our consumer culture purport to enhance my so-called golden years and help me feel more secure. All too often, however, their effect is quite the opposite. (more…)

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The weir on the river Chew in Pensford

The weir on the river Chew in Pensford

It has often been observed that time seems to go faster as we grow older. Our birthdays arrive with increasing rapidity. Shortly after my fortieth birthday, I began to feel as if I were taking the garbage cans out to the curb every other morning. And with each ensuing decade this subjective sense of accelerating time, which a number of my older friends have also noted, has grown ever more prominent. It is as if we were afloat on a swiftly moving river, and each of those “important” birthdays, the ones that mark the decades of our lives, were another waterfall, whose drop and velocity have yet to be experienced.

Yet, from the vantage point of Zen teachings, neither birthdays nor waterfalls are quite what they appear to be. They are at once real and illusory. In his book Living by Vow the Soto Zen priest Shohaku Okumura has this to say about waterfalls:

A river flows past a place where there is a change of height, and a waterfall is formed. Yet there is no such thing as a waterfall, only a continuous flow of water. A waterfall is not a thing but rather a name for a process of happening. . . . We cannot distinguish where the waterfall starts and ends because it is a continuous process.*


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