How can the principles of Zen Buddhism be constructively applied to aging? You may use yourself as an example.
You have 90 minutes. Good luck!
I’m like “Holy shit! Are you serious?”
OK, pretend I’m back in college.. I get it. Meanwhile here goes:
We know that Zen is founded on the Four Noble Truths;
1. Humankind is destined to suffer.
2. Man’s suffering is caused by desire.
3. Suffering may be overcome by ending desire.
4. Desire may be overcome by following the Noble Eightfold Path:
The whole thing fits neatly on a matchbook cover!
The key principle here is that we human beings are normally in a state of suffering. This seems especially true as we get older. This suffering can manifest itself in so many ways, it is hard to even count them. But we need to start somewhere, so let’s list some of the more obvious ones that are familiar to many old folks such as myself:
Loneliness – often due to losing a spouse, a close friend or relative, someone who we loved and who used to be a central part of our lives, but no longer is.
A sense of abandonment – a feeling that we are no longer needed or no longer have any useful role to play in society simply because we are old. I could write an entire essay on ageism but will save that for another time.
Health problems – Besides making us unhappy and miserable by themselves, these tend to drive away others who don’t necessarily want to share or be personally involved in our particular misfortunes.
Financial insecurity, poverty – How many older people do we know who are or were just barely getting by before the pandemic, before the recent wave of inflation hit? Millions I would judge! My heart aches for all of these folks! What is to be done for them?
Loss of independence – Many older folks such as myself must often change our residence, move into an assisted living facility, hire in-home help, move in with relatives or take such other extreme measures as are needed to keep us going through our old age. The independence we once enjoyed throughout most of our adult lives is now, or is about to be, lost forever.
OK, I’ve established plenty of ways for us old folks to be suffering. Big time! No argument there! Now let’s connect the dots and see if Zen can offer help and guidance on any of these!
On Loneliness –
Loneliness implies a desire, a desire for companionship, love, something we want to have, something we may have once had, but can no longer find. How can we follow the Eightfold Path to solve that one?
We must see clearly the truth of the matter, the suffering of loneliness lies only within ourselves, within our brains. The feeling of loneliness, the desire for companionship, the desire for loneliness to be swept away must all themselves be extinguished from our brains! A Zen practitioner might say, “Go outside and plant some roses!”
We should intend to live our lives, truthfully and faithfully, according to our deeply held principles and values while maintaining an external focus that takes our mind away from what may be bothering us on the inside.
Our ‘self talk’ and interactive speech with others should be directed to positive, constructive things. Things that make ourselves happy and that make the world happy, even if its just a teeny bit.
Get out and do stuff. If you can’t get out, do it on the web like I’m doing.
If you are up to it, do some volunteer work or engage in some activity that is positive and beneficial to the external world.
For anything to happen, you must actually try. You must actually work at this ****. Like I’m doing here.
I have a lot of stuff I could be unhappy about or desirous of, but my focus at this moment is fully devoted to the task at hand, which is writing this article as best I can and sharing these Zen principles in a useful way. Moreover, I will certainly fail this exam if I don’t maintain 100% focused on getting this thing complete in the time allowed.
During this entire time I have been mindful of what I am trying to do here, mindful of the positive impact I may be having on others by choosing my words and ideas carefully so that you, my readers, may be able to see how the principles of Zen might be useful to you in everyday life.
OK, my 90 minutes are about up. I’ve only covered one of the five kinds of suffering by old people like myself. With a little more time, I’m sure I could tie together Zen principles with the other four items listed. Or a hundred other ones. It doesn’t matter. Zen is that powerful!