As challenging as the early years of parenting may be, many parents will remind a young mother or father to savor the early years with their children because the time goes by so quickly. Before you know it the baby is walking across the living room floor, then saying no, then going to school, then caring more about their friends than their embarrassing family, then moving out to start their young adult life. Just when you figure out one stage they’re on to the next. This advice, to savor each stage, is useful regardless of what stage of life we’re in. Life goes by quickly for all of us, from the first tooth to the first car to the first job to the first child, to the first grey hair. When we live each stage with presence the gnarly, sleepless nights become just part of the adventure.
Each leg of our journey has its delights and its challenges. When we are children, we enjoy less responsibility but also have less power. As we blossom into our teen years the world is laid out in front of us. Everything seems possible, we feel invincible, but we lack the power and wisdom to fully guide our ship. In early adulthood we are at our physical peak. We are finally in charge of our lives. We have power, but it comes with lots of responsibilities. As we age we watch our body slowing down, our skin becoming thinner, our hair whiter. We feel more aches and pains as we say goodbye to our youth. There’s no way around it, life is bittersweet. But the substantial wisdom we’ve gained by living our life with presence enables us to guide others and support the generations coming up behind us. We can look over our life’s landscape and see wide and far. If we’ve been aware and letting go along the way there is a delightful simplicity available to us. We need less than we thought we needed.
Conscious aging is worlds apart from unconscious aging. If we live our life without awareness, undigested bits of experience accumulate leaving toxic residues throughout our psyche. The older we get the greater the accumulation of toxins. Siddhartha, later to become a Buddha, or awakened one, discovered an antidote to accumulating toxins. After seeing an old man, a sick man and a dead body, he was shocked into the awareness that these three fates were part and parcel of every human life. He vowed right then and there to find a way out of this painful situation. He left his father’s palace, relinquishing a life of luxury, and set off in search of a cure for human suffering. Walking out, past the palace gates, young Siddhartha entered the homeless life.
What Siddhartha discovered, after much trial and error, was not a path leading to the end of pain, but a path leading to the end of suffering. We all feel pain, but suffering is optional. Realizing how attachment creates suffering, the Buddha taught the power of non-attachment. This does not mean we do not have preferences or that we do not love deeply. It means we develop the capacity to let go, even when it is challenging to do so. It’s easy to become attached to pieces of our life along the way, especially to our youth our strengths, and the people we love. We even become become attached to our pain, believing that the pain we’ve experienced is who we are. We crave permanency in a world that is governed by the natural law of impermanence. The tighter we cling, the greater our suffering.
During meditation we witness impermanence up close and personal. Each moment brings a host of emerging and dissolving thoughts, feelings, and sensations. We watch as each thought, feeling and sensation comes into view then fades into the nothingness from which it arose. No matter how beautiful or ugly, good or evil, a thought or sensation may be-- it is impermanent. That’s great news when it comes to the painful, uncomfortable thoughts and sensations we dislike, but not such good news when it comes to the warm, delightful sensations we cling to.
During meditation we create a safe space where we can relax into letting go of both uncomfortable and comfortable sensations. We watch everything changing before our eyes. Impermanence moves from being just an interesting concept into something we actually experience. Slowly, bit by bit, we develop a comfort and facility with constant change by watching the coming and going of each breath, each thought, and each feeling. Our suffering diminishes as we loosen the white- knuckle grip of attachment and let go of our fear of change. Then, we may feel sad when our child grows up and leaves the nest, but notice that the change affords us more time to explore passions we have put aside. We may lose our youthful bodies, but we’ve gained a wisdom and comfort with the body we have lived in all these years. People we love die and new networks rise up to support us. Our face becomes the face we’ve earned through years of smiling, tears and laughter. We enjoy well-earned wisdom and deep connections with others. We come to appreciate the small things.
We are apt to become bitter and dry if we don’t process our portion of the pain life doles out. The antidote to this is simple—meeting our life with honest, authentic awareness. Our mind remains fresh when we live in the present moment. We become less concerned about what other people think of us, less concerned about those who wronged us, less affected by lost opportunities. Former hurtles we’ve conquered morph into nougats of wisdom we can now share with others. The more challenges we’ve faced and lived through with awareness, the deeper our wisdom and the more we have to share.
Conscious aging burns off the small stuff revealing a deeper life purpose. In place of youthful ambition we are left with joy in a crisp apple, a good nights sleep, a maple tree changing colors with the seasons, the warmth of a child curled up on our lap, and the joy of giving back. All the stages we’ve moved through become available to us. We are fresh and creative like a child, experimental and honest like a teenager, productive and in charge like an adult and wise like an elder.