In Buddhism, aging is a spiritual practice

Updated On — 11th Oct, 2022

As we approach the last pages of our human story, in Buddhism aging as a spiritual practice encourages us to be softer, more vulnerable, more caring and loving.

The other day at the hospital, I ran into a nurse I haven’t seen in a while. She looked at me and asked “You’re still working?” I guess I’m not used to getting this question because an answer didn’t roll off my tongue as it would if she had asked what I had for breakfast or what kind of car I drive.

My immediate mental reflex was to ask myself what kind of question is this? Of course I am still working! I have the rent to pay and food to buy for my family. But then I remembered, oh yeah, I’m the oldest nurse “still working” at the hospital, so OK, this was an appropriate question.

“Uh, yeah,” I managed to say. To which she replied with the inevitable, “So when are you going to retire?”

Aging. It kind of sneaked up on me.

It seems like I was just 50 last week. As many of us can tell you young’uns reading this, time seems to pass faster the older we get, and Scientific American can explain why this is.

As an older person recently observed, I forget who (likely due to my age):

I feel like I am having breakfast every fifteen minutes.

Am I old? Well, according to John Shoven, a professor at Stanford University, someone age 65 is now considered old. No wonder that nurse asked me when I am retiring. I guess I am officially old at 66.

In Buddhism aging is a practice--Landscape with stars,Henri Edmond Cross
In Buddhism aging is a spiritual practice (Landscape with Stars, Henri-Edmond Cross, 1905)

Even though I started studying Buddhism when I was 22, the depth of the teachings is really hitting me much deeper now. In a way, aging is at the heart of what the Buddha talked about his entire 45 years of teaching.

Impermanence is the big message. Everything is changing moment by moment. Everything.

This is way deeper than I can convey here. 

I feel we missed another teachable moment. After 9/11 many of us felt the reality of impermanence was as close as our breath; and we came together in ways we hadn’t before to comfort each other.

But a few months later we were back to finding comfort in our distractions and consumerism.

Before we began this recovery from the pandemic, death was palpable. We felt its proximity every night we turned on the news. By tuning into the reality of aging and death on our TV screens we were living the essence of the Buddha’s teaching. 

Putting on N95 masks, and wearing gloves, and standing six feet apart, death was close by.

Now it’s back in the shadows of our mind.

There could have been a more thorough-going, culture-wide realization, not unlike the historical Buddha’s first encounters with old age, sickness, and death.

Suzuki Roshi, whose talks in the 1960s became the uber-popular book Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, taught that each breath was like a whole life, with a beginning, a middle and an end. And that each exhale is a kind of dying.

In our practice, we especially get to know our outbreath, fading into a “sheet of white paper” as Suzuki Roshi described it. To which his student Mel Weitsman adds,

When the moment of death comes, our last breath is familiar and comfortable. There is no need to be afraid.

As we approach the last pages of our human story, our practice encourages us to be softer, more vulnerable, more caring and loving.

And to flow with change.

In the present moment we discover a spontaneity beyond time, where there is no aging, no measuring, no comparing to what was, and no worry about what will be.

This is freedom. This is love. This is peace.

This is why we meditate.


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About Tom Davidson-Marx

Former Buddhist monk, now father of two and full time registered nurse, my passion is sharing what I have learned from a life-long love, study and practice of the early Buddhist teachings. Thanks for reading.

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