Aging as a Spiritual Practice
We can’t escape the process of getting older. But for those who embrace it with awareness and gratitude, it can bestow unrivaled gifts.
In his new book, Aging as a Spiritual Practice: A Contemplative Guide to Growing Older and Wiser (Gotham, 2012), American Buddhist and best-selling author Lewis Richmond shares a fresh perspective on the aging process. While acknowledging that the stare-down contest with one’s mortality often brings fear, frustration, sadness and anger, Richmond, who is in his mid-60s, uses Buddhist teachings to show that with a shift in attitude we can find in life’s second half — or fourth quarter — fresh beginnings, deeper appreciations of life and relationships, and even spiritual transformation previously unavailable.
In this Q&A, I asked him to elucidate some key points of the book to help us reframe our own fears and negativity so that we can come to not only accept aging as inevitable, but also to see it as a tremendous gift to savor.
—Suzanne Gerber, Living & Learning editor
Q. You call your book a guide for gracious aging. In it, you say this stage of life is an ideal time for cultivating a spiritual practice and getting more in touch with one’s inner life. Why now?
A. Everyone needs to feel that their life has purpose and meaning. It’s one of life’s basic needs. It is only when we have lived a full life and the time of elderhood is dawning that its deepest meaning begins to appear.
Of course, aging has its share of losses. One is the loss of earlier identities: job, career, family, relationships and so on. The challenge of aging is to keep building new identities, through volunteer work, a different career, avocations, new friends, new vistas and new interests. One of the phrases I hear a lot is “giving back.” Even though certain aspects of our body and mind decline as we age, the opportunity to give back can expand and grow.
Q. You note that a fundamental truth of both aging and Buddhism is that change is inevitable. How can learning to accept that improve one’s life?
A. Change cuts both ways: as loss and opportunity. Those entering their aging years who focus solely on loss feel their life contracting. Those who “reframe” change as an opportunity for renewal do much better. The aging research I cite in the book shows that reframing is a measurable cause of increased happiness as we age. Curiosity and flexibility are qualities to be sought after and cherished.
Q. How do you as a Zen Buddhist priest define “spiritual practice”?
A. I define spiritual practice very broadly and ecumenically: as paying close attention to the things that really matter. What are those things? Beyond having a deep sense of meaning, there is also a feeling of belonging to something greater than ourselves. Research shows that people with an active church membership or spiritual practice live on average seven years longer than those who do not. That should tell us something. Finally, there is what I call a sense of the sacred or the divine, which the meditations I teach in the book invoke and develop.
Q. You emphasize the need to let go of the tendency to compare ourselves to who we were and learn to embrace who we’ve become. Yet that’s not so easily done. What are some concrete steps we can take?
A. To counteract the loss of who we used to be, I teach the “gratitude walk,” where you walk quietly in nature and notice what things make you feel grateful: the birds, the air, the sunlight in the trees. I also teach people to say “thank you” silently to themselves and watch what arises. When I first started doing it, it sounded mechanical and self-conscious, but soon I found that each time I said it, some picture came to mind: the book in my hand, a tasty dinner, the setting sun out the window. It’s simple to do but yields quite powerful results. Generosity is a related spiritual value that can be cultivated and strengthened, and in the book, I share several contemplative exercises that do that.
Q. You had two serious health crises in your life. How did your spiritual practice help you get through them?
A. I had cancer when I was 35 and encephalitis when I was 52. The cancer was my moment of “lightning striking” as regards aging. From that moment on, I have always felt the fragility and vulnerability of being alive. The encephalitis put me into a coma that no doctor thought I could survive. When I awoke, I had serious damage — I couldn’t talk, walk or even focus my eyes, and it took me almost three years to make a full recovery. Despite my Buddhist practice and strong meditation community in the San Francisco Bay area, I was in despair; it felt as though my life was over. I couldn’t see how I could earn a living or even live a normal life.
During my time of rehab and healing, I learned to be grateful for the smallest things and for the care that others offered me in so many ways. I became more humble and appreciative of all those people who are ill or disabled who would never recover as I did.
I also found over time that there was an unexpected gift hidden in both these illnesses: the ability to help others in a similar situation. People began to seek me out, particularly after I published my second book, Healing Lazarus, about my encephalitis. They sensed I knew what they were going through. The roller-coaster drama of being a cancer patient — I knew all about that. The fears and travails that come with neurological illness: I was something of an expert.
Finally I came to realize that everything that happens to us in a life can be seen as a blessing, even the most devastating reverses. It’s all a matter of seeing it with the perspective of compassion and love.
Q. How can we reframe our own negative health experiences as opportunities for change and/or deepening awareness?
A. Health issues creep up on us as we age: the daily pill dispenser, the medicine cabinet full of drugstore remedies, more frequent visits to the doctor, anxiety around the annual checkup, on and on. This can make us feel crabby and like complaining — which is exactly the tendency we should fight. The reason we have all these issues is because we are still here. We are alive! We need to focus on that.
Even serious illness offers surprising gifts. People used to ask me a lot if I knew why I got cancer, and I answered from the Buddhist perspective: Sickness happens because we have a body. Would we rather not have a body? Rather not have been born? Put that way, almost everyone would say they are glad to be here and can come to see life as a treasure worth cherishing right up to their final breath.