The emotional undertow of aging, I think, is a feeling of loss — loss of youth, loss of dreams, loss of possibility. This quality is what used to be referred to as mid-life crisis. Other phrases have come into vogue now — such as the cheery “60 is the new 40” — but the undertow of such homilies is still loss.
Is there some way out of this sense of loss, some fresh point of view that assuages the pain of it? Actually, there is. Aging is not a matter of years — 40, 60, 80 — but of life process. Everything is aging, all the time. We age from our first breath. The problem is not aging per se, but our view of it.
It is natural to want to avoid pain and abide with pleasure. Even a sunflower wants to turn to the sun as much as possible. Why should it be otherwise? And yet, this pleasure bias does not really maximize our pleasure. Even pleasure turns to pain as it fades. Though we want to maximize gain and minimize loss, gain and loss are actually interwoven in each moment.
In teaching Zen meditation, I sometimes talk about breathing in terms of gain and loss. We breathe in and gain a new moment of life; we breath out and that moment is gone, never to return. This is how our life is.
Or rather, it is how our life actually is. How we want it to be is heavily weighted toward the in and not the out — we want more new moments, less old moments, more sun and less cloud. This is our bias, and yet there is something powerfully liberating to return to the actuality of just breathing in and breathing out. We imagine that there is joy in minimizing loss, of staying with gain. But strangely enough, when we just rest in the equality of gain and loss, of every cycle of time containing both in equal measure, there is a different kind of joy — fundamental joy, we might say.
The way Buddhism has often been taught in the West, it appears to many as a rather “down” or even depressing worldview. Friends of my son who know about his being raised a Buddhist say to him, “Oh, I could never get into that ‘life is suffering’ Buddhist thing.” Well, they might be surprised to know that the Buddha never taught that life is suffering, only that it seems that way from a self-centered point of view. What he actually taught is that it is possible to transform and transcend both our moments of suffering and joy.
Loss is not really loss if we don’t hold onto it. Gain is not ephemeral if we do not continually invent strategies to make it permanent. Fundamental joy is somewhere outside of this loss/gain calculus. I think that the natural process of aging is also the natural process of wisdom about all of this. It is those of us who are older — who have, if you will, experienced many more cycles of breath than the young — who are the natural experiencers and teachers of joy.
This is our birthright.