"The truth is, we're all beginners when it comes to the process of aging," write Ezra Bayda and Elizabeth Hamilton, who have each been practicing meditation for more than 40 years and teaching since 1995, including leading retreats in the United States and abroad. They currently co-teach at Zen Center San Diego.
Ezra Bayda, profiled in our Living Spiritual Teachers Project, is the author of seven books including Being Zen, The Authentic Life, and Saying Yes to Life (Even the Hard Parts). Elizabeth Hamilton is the author of Untrain Your Parrot and Other No Nonsense Instructions on the Path of Zen and has led numerous workshops at hospices. Now they have turned their attention to the process of aging. Ezra's voice is the primary one in the book.
As he has done in the past, Bayda opens our hearts, minds, and souls to spiritual practices that will enhance the quality of our daily lives. These activities enable us to work with obstacles, setbacks, disappointments, and failures and more specific challenges such as serious illness, a loss of strength and energy, chronic pain, grief, loneliness, and memory loss. Behind this approach are essential Buddhist understandings of impermanence, equanimity, and aspiration.
For example, here are three vows to use in the morning before you meditate.
- May I say Yes to everything — going to the root of my fear.
- May I be aware without ceasing — letting life just be
- May I see the face of God in everyone — dwelling in the heart of awareness.
Two benefits of old age are deep relaxation and letting be (being present to what is). Bayda hits high stride when he discusses how to work with difficulties through a Three Breaths Practice for dealing with loss, a Compassion Meditation for moving away from a focus on self and tapping into the pain of others, a Meditation on Cultivating the Experience of Connectedness, and more.
The chapter on physical pain explores this problem as a path to awakening:
"At the very least, we can view our pain as an opportunity to learn from our many attachments —especially from our attachment to comfort. There is also attachment to our body and to control. And in cases of chronic pain, there is also attachment to our future — the fear of what's going to happen to us. Yet, practicing with our pain is what allows us to gradually become free of these attachments, or at least to hold them more lightly."
Bayda suggests working with the pain directly by posing questions to the pain, bringing kindness to the pain, learning from the pain, and doing a pain meditation (see practice). The chapter ends with "Cliff's Notes on Working with Pain," a set of questions to remind you of the techniques they have offered.
A useful teaching, often attributed to the Buddha, is a guiding principle for elders: "In the end this is what matters most: How well did you love?" The practices in this book are designed to help you discover how to always aim toward love. Often this requires reframing common experiences. "We can come to understand that disappointment and pain can actually be tenderizers for the heart, awakening us to love." A need for rest opens the door to more reflection and inward awareness. Reflecting on death yields benefits: "Being fully conscious that we don't have endless time, and consequently being willing to truly be present with the time we have left, can even lead to the experience of meaningfulness and joy."
Spirituality & Practice's Elder Spirituality Project aims to reframe the often limiting and negatives ideas about the experiences of the last stage of life. Getting older, we believe, can be an exciting and rewarding spiritual adventure. We launched this project in 2013 and have been adding curated content to it regularly. We are delighted to now have this accessible, practical, and inspirational book to add to that collection. We recommend Aging for Beginners highly to all elders, those who work with them, and those who love them.