And what, Monks, is Ageing? by Sylvia Swain

And what, monks, is ageing? In whatever beings of whatever group of beings, there is ageing, decrepitude, broken teeth, grey hair, wrinkled skin, shrinking with age, decay of the sense-faculties—that, monks, is called ageing.  (Buddha)

Rakan (Sanskrit: arhat) in mossy garb at Sekizanzen-in. Photo © @KyotoDailyPhotoThis is not simply and literally about that trilogy of—disease, old age and death. Sadly, no one is ever too young to become ill or die. But they say that, whatever age we die, after the heart stops we have a few minutes left in which the brain is still active. Now in a timeless realm and uninterrupted by any sound, the consciousness can be rounded out, made whole, according to the life—conscious and unconscious—of that being. People who have a religion which provides for after-death welfare, such as in Tibetan Buddhism, are less troubled. But those without such beliefs, can trust to nature’s spiritual intentions for them, as they, like plants, struggle instinctively and unerringly towards the light.

Only some people reach old age. And this is about ageing in the sense of the achievement of endurance in those who have lived through all the stages of life and survived whatever life has put in their path.

Much has been written about all the other stages of life from birth, through infant school, to adolescence, adulthood, midlife crisis and late midlife. Every one of those stages has had its hurdles to overcome, its disappointments and anxieties, triumphs and fears, its illnesses and even disabilities, together with the trepidations of letting go of one stage before embarking on the next. How well do the elderly bear the honourable scars of life’s battles? I would put it this way: If some young spark calls an elderly lady an ‘old battleaxe’, then she should take it as the compliment it really is, even though it may not be meant as such! The same goes for an old gentleman if he’s called an ‘old buffer’. What is wrong with being a shock absorber in a hard, modern world? It may be filled with technological conveniences, but, emotionally and psychologically, it is a very hard world to live in.

Sadly, we, the generality, are having to live, not at the pace and grace of nature but at the speed and heedlessness of man. Even school children are being forced into computer literacy before they are fairy-story literate; that is if they are ever given the chance to hear those essential, eternal, moral and cautionary tales of the archetypal world and the characters that people them—characters the like of which they will surely encounter in their lives, and which are so enabling in the development of feeling relationships and basic ethics. It’s as if the powers that be are not interested in the natural phenomenon of childhood psychology which needs a broad spectrum of education to nurture it in a balanced way, but only of childhood pathology which, once engendered, extends into the teen years. After that, if still not understood and addressed, it becomes adult pathology and even punishable as crime.

In every age, crime, its nature, and its causes, are ‘tackled’ from the assumption that all we need do is find the best punishment. The Buddha looked into the bigger question beyond the symptoms and addressed himself to the nature of mind itself. And he did it at source, because only first-hand insight into mind is valid. Society and science direct their search outwards to the problems, as if they were specimens under a microscope and nothing to do with collective experience and suffering—the ‘other’ person’s responsibility. The removal of the symptoms entails knowing the causes, not just the symptoms.

None of the vital stages of life can be skipped without psychological damage, as they are organically implanted and hormonally sequenced. For hundreds of years, for example, the growth of technology in the right context and at the right pace has always been welcomed as adding more leisure and comfort to the lives of the people. However, no technology is of benefit if it is imposed rather than offered, and at such speed that it is thrust on us before there has been time to assess its disadvantages as well as advantages. The things which nowadays often seem to be missing from the application of our presumed advancements are foresight and ethical evaluation; in other words, wise application, right understanding.

A baby perches on Jizo's arm at Taizo-in, the oldest sub-temple of Myoshin-ji. Photo © @KyotoDailyPhotoThere is a wisdom that, not always but often, accompanies the ageing process which I hope to illustrate. It is provided by Mother Nature, and is a legitimate stage and aim of our late development. This late-life development is for what the vintage years have been given us.

The story begins with Prince Siddhartha. Only just entering the midlife turning point himself—shocked and overwhelmed by a realisation of the greater suffering of the generality of people, and inspired by compassion for all he had witnessed—he went forth from home to homelessness. He wanted to try to understand the cause and nature of it all. What he discovered was that, in addition to the natural physical sources of pain, there were even more profound causes to be found. These were psychological ones. How does the mind deal with those interior things which are the source of discontent, anguish, fear and woe?

We know now just how right he was to seek the answer in the psyche. Although we all have so much external help with our physical woes, the signs of mental instability and unhappiness are getting worse. If we think worldwide or nationwide of the violence, lawlessness, madness, and cruelty, the resulting ‘stress’—a word once treated lightly and with scepticism—is now having to be acknowledged as a serious problem. It not only manifests in the context of war veterans and similar, but in the frantic modern mind which cannot cope even with affluence—even with all the things associated with pleasure, entertainment and luxury, there is still anguish.

There is no age or stage of life which is free from suffering; no condition which can be found or contrived which is proof against that discontent which is ‘dukkha’. Suffering permeates all stages of life. So there is no one to envy. We are born and we cry—and not without reason. Childhood is sometimes said to be the carefree time of life, but it is punctuated with shocks right from the beginning. Just as we are hurling ourselves around in an ecstasy of abandonment, we are yelled at or grabbed unceremoniously, to be saved from harm. And this is good for us. But to a small child, it is just another frustration of its joy. The restraints and disciplines of coming to egohood and self-awareness are not easy, and only to be valued later in life—and then applied to our own children for their protection and development.

And there are also those further hormonal processes. Adolescence is fraught with confusion, hormonally speaking. There are the torments of self-doubt, the agonies of falling instantly in and out of love, the feeling that one’s life has been utterly ruined by the ending of a relationship or by a disappointing exam result. These things are as painful and urgent at the time as any emotional crisis in later life. The difference is that, as we leave one stage of life for the next, mercifully, we tend to forget the pain and remember the fun. It is, however, more realistic to remember the pain sufficiently. Firstly, to remind ourselves of the intensities of feelings which can be felt, survived, and learnt from at any stage of life’s process. And, secondly, to retain those memories in order to enhance our understanding and compassion for our young generation.

The next hurdle is that midlife critical moment which is sometimes called the midlife crisis. This is a natural and essential psychological threshold to be crossed. It is quite normal in the first half of life for us not to dwell in fear of old age and death, because the ego—the centre of consciousness at that time—is not constituted so to do. This is because the first half of life is an upward climb—to grow, to seek, to achieve, to expand into the world and, as Jung said, ‘To build an ego that does not break down when incomprehensible things happen, an ego that endures and endures the truth, and that is capable of coping with the world and with fate. Then to experience defeat is also to experience victory.’ (MDR p.297)

All our energy in early life is needed to fulfil these early tasks and this is as it should be. Prince Siddhartha did the same and did not question these aims until his time came when he left home in response to, as Jung said, ‘At the stroke of noon, the descent begins, and the descent means the reversal of all the ideals and values that were cherished in the morning. The sun falls into contradiction with itself.’

This seeing the other side of things in a different light is the culture shock for which that strong ego-consciousness is needed. There is sometimes confusion here, as to the difference in meaning between a strong egoic consciousness and egotism. They are complete opposites. A strong ego knows right from wrong, is confident and controlled. An egotist is immature, weak, and given to self-admiration, as in the myth of Narcissus.

The reversal of values at the afternoon of life requires that a new centre for the process of relinquishment of the personality must be started and then followed through with the same assiduity as was given to the building of the ego-consciousness.

Prince Siddhartha was just such a strong character—a man determined to find the answer to the causes of suffering, as yet unknown to him. Modern man, in the pill-for-every-ill culture, seeks to find escape from even legitimate suffering. Siddhartha already knew that pleasure-seeking and escapism were no answer to suffering. So he wasted no time on regrets and went forth into the psychological unknown.

For the average person, however, the afternoon reversal of life is less consciously directed, and so harder to take on. Reversal does not necessarily have to beget a serious crisis but, sooner or later, there comes that pivotal situation of the question of identity, when the direction taken at that time is a crucial decision to make. There is no going back for anybody. We either accept the processes and go ahead trusting our destiny, or dig our heels in, psychologically, and hark back, whilst the decline proceeds unacknowledged and thus uncatered for.

Siddhartha soon discovered there was no known way to his profound objective. Eventually, he left his early teachers, knowing that he was alone in a trackless realm. When he sat down under his tree, he vowed to remain there, intuitively sensing that in the trackless, the unknown would come to him. His act of unparalleled courage at that point was in staying still in the face of it. With his vow to remain came the conviction that he had found his true quest—to find that answer which was his sole responsibility on behalf of all beings. And with that, for Siddhartha, the buck had stopped! He was the pioneer, but each and every person since has their own legitimate share of responsibility, if they will only accept it.

Bishamon-do's glaring Tenjo-ryu (Ceiling Dragon). Painted by Kano Eijyaku. Photo © @KyotoDailyPhotoIn the face of the ageing process—the known and the unknown of it—can we cultivate stillness in our own lives? We will take a look at the wonders uncovered in the unconscious by the Buddha and by Jung which can help and inspire us as we journey towards the goal, the true goal and consummation of our lives. Whether rich or poor, happy or unhappy, a great deal of human life is unconsciously driven rather than consciously lived. And that is the key factor in the Buddhist dhamma teaching. Nobody, young or old, can avoid the physical ills and pains of daily life, and it is the emotional attitudes—our reactions to what happens to us and around us—with which the teaching is concerned.

Having taken up the battle of the buck and, knowing intuitively from within himself that there were specific universal sources of human suffering to be found, Prince Siddhartha directed all his intelligence, strength, and conviction to wresting the answer from the darkness of unknowing.

To know that something is there is the spur to finding it. To contemplate old age and its accompanying disease and death in a spirit of hopeless resignation is enough to send anybody into superstition and despair, but to know that there is an answer to be found, a value to be discovered—even in that late stage of life—is something else. So how will we use those important years, once a source of dread? What did the Buddha really discover? He discovered the vital things which are so near to the human heart—the passions or fires of greed, hatred and ignorance which are so deeply buried that we can walk over them every day without recognising them. These passions are, paradoxically, also the treasures that he identified as the goal of his quest, the sources of suffering, golden truths—his Noble Truths.

Whatever we have done physically and psychologically has had its repercussions; the effects are stored up in the psychological vessel as well as in the body, as we are taught in Theravada: Whatever we have done for good or for ill, of that, we are the heirs. This combination of effects has now become the cauldron of our old age in which the alchemical mixture can be cooked.

We can think of that cauldron as the vessel of our karma. In it we cannot now make a dish to a recipe of our choice. The ingredients, the choices, have already been assembled during our lifetime by our own actions. And, if we are honest, we know that many of our actions were the result of heedlessness, while others were more mindfully arrived at. Of those, some were calculated according to ego ambitions, and others decided according to spiritual aspirations and religious training.

We come now to the maturing of our Buddhist practice. Letting go, relinquishing, is a constant part of the Buddhist life, but it is at the late stage, or age, that we have to prepare for the ultimate challenge set by that practice. Whatever practice we set ourselves to do, can only be met in accordance with our stage of maturity at the time. In the early part of life we are searching for the early stage of life achievements, which naturally involve many changes of direction as we take on new challenges and seek new goals. These things do involve letting go, but the process is made easier because there is always something new to take the place of the old as a compensation.

The midlife challenges can be harder when what has to go may be a relationship, say, that has been a strong support, or a way of life we had taken for granted. Here, again, compensations are sought or new interests taken up. We make these sometimes hard adjustments with the strengths we have developed during the ups and downs of early and middle life.

Then we find ourselves on the threshold of a stage of life which is not dictated by our status in society, but by natural physical and mental changes for which there are no ready remedies. We find that it is not just a matter of my giving something up, but that my ‘self’—that ‘I’ which so nobly has given up this and that—is itself being ‘given up’. Nature is daring to give me away, to dismantle me! However, the ego function has evolved to meet the demands and challenges set and rewarded by society, to be a good student, to be a good patient, a good boss, or whatever. The goal of the ego has ever been progress, to go onward, upward in the hierarchy, even when that hierarchy is a spiritual or religious one! But ‘giving up’ must eventually take on a new direction. Here is a paradox. We have been trained and encouraged all our lives to be self-reliant and now those strengths we had so strenuously cultivated are draining away. We can no longer cross or extend our boundaries, but are being required to accept them, even as they close in on us.

Every day we hear about inflation. But how many of those who worry about it ever turn that concern upon themselves, upon the condition of their own ego? How many say, ‘Oh dear, my mental inflation index is going up. I’ll have to get it down!’ Until we become truly serious and aware, that doesn’t occur to us—at least, not on the scale at which thoughts of gain and development have taken place. So the best place to begin, when coming to the time in life when we feel that something has to be addressed, would be with contemplation on those words of the Buddha when he described the ageing process. This will help us overcome our own inflation.

If we have a consuming attitude to life, as when we consume the world around, we consume the life within ourselves at the same time. To have reached the late years of life has taken not only endurance, but restraint and self-control.

Bamboo pathway at Adashino Nenbutsu-ji. Photo © @KyotoDailyPhotoMaturity marks the difference between the continuation of the old life—of a self losing one thing and compensating with another—in which there is no fundamental change of psychological attitude or direction, and the really new transformation, in which we let go, in the full sense of allowing others their freedom from us, of making no unreasonable demands from society, of being open-handed and nongrasping.

Letting go is not all negative. Now there is a different goal—the goal of assessing meaning and purpose, the goal of making a wholeness of perception out of the various stages, experiences and achievements which have been seen as separate parts of the life which has gone before. We may now, for the first time, be able to take the long view. We find that our life was a whole experience in itself, but our egoistical demanding and choosing relegated much of it to the darkness of the unconscious regions. We pushed away the truths and memories which did not conform to the chosen image of ourselves, creating a stranger—even an enemy—of that unwanted material which was a fundamental part of that life we called our own. In old age, we may find ourselves more receptive and more tolerant of that greater other, i.e. the others outside and the other, newly discovered, within. Now we can be active in a passive way—not doing but transforming our darkness into light.

Since life—both in the collective and the individual sense—is an unfolding sequence of the evolution of consciousness, it follows that our lives and consciousness are in a stream—not fixed anywhere, but partaking in a venture which stretches, so the Buddha said, ‘From beginningless time.’ And if it is well and truly lived, will be consummated in the realisation of the ‘deathless’.

From birth to death, as Buddhists, we can trust that our lives are contained in a greater reality than anything we can contain, grasp and hold. Buddhism demonstrates that, as we are growing into that which is the greater, we personally become smaller.

The wholeness of life means exactly what it says—no picking and choosing, no—like the ugly sisters—trying to cut out the pieces we do not like. All that those ugly sisters achieved for themselves was mutilation. The same goes for the psyche. The rules of training set down for the religious life are formulated to ensure that the heart-mind, or psyche, which is our instrument of enlightenment, is not damaged prematurely by our own interference or ignorance of what we as human beings are in the scheme of things. We, like all other living things, are not created as finished articles. We have to germinate and develop through our requisite stages if we are to fulfil our purpose.

The slowing down of activities in later life can provide time and space for completion—the most important time of life. It may not all be easy and pleasant but we remember that emaciated image of the Buddha and what price he paid for his transformation, and trust to our destiny.

With this all-inclusive, transformative prospect, we can surely move ahead at any stage of life and cross any threshold without fear. We do not need to find or look for things to believe, but just to look at things as they really are and to trust in that looking.

Jung’s ageing years are a good example of this stage of life for modern, western people. At the age of sixty-nine, he broke an ankle and was stricken shortly afterwards with a severe heart attack. In the illness that followed, he underwent a vivid near-death experience during which he had amazing visions of a very significant and symbolic nature. It took him three weeks before, as he said in his MDR, ‘I could truly make up my mind to live again.’ On the day that Jung first got out of bed, his doctor took to his bed and never left it. Jung’s near-death experiences had been so glorious that his waking life, by comparison, was mundane and disappointing. As he said later, ‘Death is the hardest thing from the outside, and as long as we are outside of it. But once inside, you taste of such completeness and peace and fulfilment that you don’t want to return.’

It seemed that his doctor’s life was given to save Jung for a further lease of life and work, during which he wrote his most profound works. Such an exchange could not have been accomplished by any conscious will or arrangement. Jung was a character of worldwide importance in the evolution of the individuation process, so it seems there were underlying powers at work in such a case, as there may well be in the many illnesses and accidents to which the elderly are prone. It all depends on their significance, on their being interpreted correctly, whether or not their message becomes clear. Every individual effort and input towards the living and understanding of the symbolic aspects of life, every step on the way to the enlightenment of mankind, counts to the benefit, not only of the individual, but of the whole. However humble we may be, as Jung once expressed it, each one’s effort could be the makeweight that could ‘tip the scale’. No action is so small that it does not weigh in the scales for good or ill, for one’s own or for the world’s destiny.

So much can hinge on how one responds to the losses of the ageing process. In the first half of life, the crises quite often manifest as psychological breakdowns, and there is always the hope that one will recover to return to the established activities and ambitions. In later life, the crises manifest mostly in physical breakdowns and losses which cannot be made good on that physical level. It is then that religious teaching, learnt earlier in life as something rather remote from reality, begins to make sense. There can be life after letting go, a different life with a different centre; one with a fundamental change, a real recognition of the whole person come to fullness as the ripened fruit changes colour on the vine.

What we learn in the first half of life strengthens us, but it does not prepare us for the contraction of life and faculty which follows in old age. We have to continue that analogy of the sun at the stroke of noon. Jung went on to say, ‘After having lavished its light upon the world, the sun withdraws its rays in order to illuminate itself.’ He maintained that, for the ageing person, it is a duty and a necessity to devote serious attention to himself. ‘Otherwise,’ he continued, ‘many old people prefer to be hypochondriacs, niggards, pedants, applauders of the past, or else eternal adolescents—all lamentable substitutes for the illumination of the self . . . A human being would not grow to be 70 or 80 years old if this longevity has no meaning for the species.’ (8, par.785)

Rakan (Sanskrit: arhats) at Otagi Nenbutsu-ji.However, the hormonal theme continues well beyond the middle period of life into old age, in the context of development of the contra-sexual aspects of the psyche. There is evidence of this, not only bodily but psychologically. Jung made a unique contribution in this field, providing the terms anima and animus to illustrate this particular archetypal phenomenon. He described these qualities in terms of soul and spirit, defining anima as soul in a man, saying that woman does not have a soul, but is soul, and animus as the masculine element representing spirituality in the woman. These two archetypes generally make themselves known to consciousness, not only in projection—for example in lovers’ tiffs and marital quarrels—but as Logos (reason) and Eros (feeling). However, Jung above all uncovered the spiritual archetypal intention in nature for these two psychopomps, for the ultimate purpose of unification in the psyche of all persistently antagonistic pairs. This spiritual intention not only transcends the gender conflicts of masculine and feminine, but all of those projections giving rise to attitudes of ‘self’ and ‘not self’, finally to harmonise into that integrated consciousness of True Self—the archetypal self he based on the ideal of Atman as the undivided one, the true individual, the awakened mind, or whatever term best conveys the wholeness when projection comes to an end.

It is quite interesting to note the influence of contra-sexual characteristics as they hormonally modify body and personality, i.e. faces and voices change, attitudes change, some tough men soften into buffers, timid women find more courage to speak up for what they believe in, and people who have always been very authoritarian can become as little children—all in the furtherance of the processes of integration. Thus, we can start to appreciate the spiritual significance of those two archetypal presences in the unconscious. Throughout life, they exercise a profound influence but their highest function is to effect the integration of psyche in the religious sense. As the dual principles of Eros and Logos, they are the carriers of wisdom and compassion.

So now, who were all those persons who inhabited that body and mind as they grew and changed in the course of the years? The religions teach us to ask ourselves the question, ‘Who am I?’ It is a baffler for the mind to answer when in the throes of a life which is always changing, and oneself with it. Fortunately, for those who have cared sufficiently to ask and who go on asking, perhaps in old age, the question will have answered itself when ‘I’—the ego who asked it—is no longer there as a separate self-consciousness to answer it. The dilemma resolves itself, and the question dissolves into silence. The fruits of the Buddha’s teaching become the fruits of our own lives:

The divine dwelling places for healing the mind are goodwill and friendliness; they are compassion; they are sympathetic joy.

When we truly practice them, they heal us and bring us equanimity and peace of mind.

For example, we all know about the Four Noble Truths, but why were they so called? By the time we reach the late stage of the ageing process, we come to experience for ourselves the practical truth underlying that first Noble Truth. We could not have survived thus far in a state of total escape from that knowledge. However, it depends on the mindfulness exerted during our life span so far, as to whether the causes of our suffering have been fully acknowledged for what they were. We can all know dukkha, but if, whilst we suffer, we still project the blame for our craving, clinging, hatred, and aversion, only onto outer causes, can we truly say that we know the underlying reality of the second Noble Truth, of the causes of suffering? Or are we, even at a late stage, still unconscious of it? To achieve this purifying knowledge, we need to have directed our attention deeply within, to make it a personal investigation.

The word ‘noble’ is akin to knowing, and to noblesse oblige, the obligation which knowledge brings. When we truly know and grow by that knowledge as if inside our weary bones, we are then ennobled by it. That ennobling knowledge obliges us to live by it. Buddha said, ‘Do not simply believe what I say, but ingest it by experiencing it for yourself.’ In this way, salvation is worked out.

This and all his wealth of wisdom raises up the energy to transform the heart. In old age, when we weaken mentally and physically, we become simpler and can do just a few things. We may not remember the intricacies of all that has been written when we are old. If, however, we sincerely ask, ‘May I be well and happy. May all beings be well and happy,’ without any reservations, we enter the community of being; the mind will be at peace. The energies which fuelled division, once bitter, hard and heavy, are now transmuted into lighter energies, warmer, kinder energies, and now we can really enter the Brahma Viharas in that ambience which has been cultivated through centuries of dharma teaching and practice and which now takes effect. This is the true meaning of transformation. Sometimes the dreaded things happen, but having passed the threshold of fear and aversion we can still, through these practices, transform the heart.

Phiroz Mehta said that religious discipline is a growing from within and, having asked what is the right sort of sustenance for this religious growth, he listed power of attention, mindfulness, and freedom from all self-ness. When asked what we will gain from it, he answered, ‘You will gain nothing whatsoever. Gain is the wrong word altogether. But coming to fruition is something transcendent, and Transcendence keeps no profit and loss account.’ He explained that the powers are within us insofar as there is this passion for truth, for reality, for letting life come to fruition without obstructing it through pleasure lusts. It is then, he says that, ‘. . the lovely thing happens, just happens spontaneously, naturally, perfectly, by itself.’

The Buddha, too, told his disciples that the Way, ‘. . is lovely in the beginning, lovely in the middle, and lovely at the ending.’ And that, I submit, was Buddha’s fifth Noble Truth!

More from Sylvia Swain here.

Sylvia Swain made a lifelong study of the teachings of the Buddha, Krishnamurti, Phiroz Mehta and Jung. She was a regular speaker at the BPG summer schools and contributor to Buddhism Now. This article (from the Feb 2001 Buddhism Now) is based on a talk she gave at the 2000 Buddhist Summer School in Leicester



Categories: Biography, Buddhism, Encyclopedia, Sylvia Swain

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7 replies

  1. I love your stuff but do you need to use so many words? I get zoned out after 500 or so.

  2. Wonderful article – thanks for posting it.

    My Fifth Noble Truth would be: Grow old disgracefully as long as it doesn’t harm anyone!

  3. a warm and bright light to navigate the later years ..will revisit to mine the rich depths

  4. A beautiful article. A beautiful explanation. A map for the final stages of life.

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