The other day, I was talking to a friend on the East Coast. He and his wife had just sent me a box of Jesus bandages. I called to tell them how anxious I was to cut my finger. He told me they received the postcard I had sent the week before. It featured a picture of their dog in a pink wig.
Such exchanges, I believe, keep us from taking ourselves too seriously and, by extension, the world around us. They help us maintain an even keel, perhaps keep us sane. They might even ease some of the pangs that come from an aging body.
After discussing the bandages and postcard, we updated each other on what’s been going on in our lives—the usual events that mark time’s immutable passage. I mentioned that I had sold my Volkswagen Eurovan, a vehicle I associate with many fond memories. But the time had been right to let it go. My friend realized this as well, yet he understood too that selling it had not been an easy decision. “True,” I replied, “but what is aging, if not letting go our dreams?”
I had made this comment so off-handedly that for a moment neither of us spoke. Then we briefly acknowledged the truth of my remark, though we didn’t pursue the idea much further. Afterwards, however, I thought a great deal about what I had said, specifically in terms of the letting go part. That does seem to be much of what growing older is about.
Yet the idea of letting go is hardly limited to the domain of the aging. Buddhists (and other spiritual types) use the term quite liberally to make their various doctrinal points. And I think there is much to say for not holding on as fiercely as we do. We’re like swimmers clutching big rocks as they sink to the ocean’s bottom, afraid to let ourselves float with the current. Afraid to let ourselves float anywhere at all.
Before I go further, however, let me point out that I’m neither an expert in Buddhism, nor do I consider myself to be a Buddhist. I am, at best, an amateur explorer intrigued by many of the tenants inherent in Buddhism. I take my lead from Alan Watts. When giving a talk about Zen Buddhism, he announced that he wasn’t professing to be a Buddhist, nor was he advocating Buddhism or any Eastern philosophy. He wasn’t selling anything, he said. He was simply an entertainer.
I can speak with more authority about aging than I can Buddhism. The golden years have already begun to recruit me. I believe the process began when I received my first unsolicited communication from the AARP. And whether it’s a direction I would have chosen on my own is of little consequence. When it comes to growing older, it is indeed a matter of sink or swim.
But let’s return to Buddhism for a moment. Thich Nhat Hahn, in his book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, describes the four immeasurable minds: love, compassion, joy, and equanimity. The Sanskrit word for equanimity is upeksha. It can also mean nonattachment, nondiscrimination, even-mindedness, or letting go. The word comes from the roots upa, which means over, and iksh, which means to look. According to Thich Nhat Hahn, “You climb the mountain to be able to look over the whole situation, not bound by one side or the other.”
Upeksha calls for us to see everyone as equal, without attachment or clinging. “We shed all discrimination and prejudice and remove all boundaries between ourselves and others.” We are, in a sense, letting go of the barriers we’ve spent a lifetime putting into place.
Pema Chödrön provides a different take on letting go. In her essay “The Answer to Anger & Aggression Is Patience,” she suggests that patience is the antidote to aggression. She sees aggression as being synonymous with pain, and patience as a way to stop our suffering from that pain.
Behind all our pain, Pema Chödrön says, “there is always something we are attached to. There is always something we’re holding on to.” But we have a choice whether to hold on or to let go, and that’s where patience comes into play. “Even with small things,” she says, “you may—perhaps just intellectually—begin to see that letting go can bring a sense of enormous relief, relaxation and connection with the softness and tenderness of the genuine heart. True joy comes from that.”
I’ve heard other Buddhist teachers speak of letting go as well, always within different contexts, but somehow all saying the same thing. For example, last year sometime, I listened to a podcast on Buddhist meditation. During his talk, the speaker quoted a revered Buddhist monk as saying that meditation can be synthesized down to two words: “letting go.”
So you can see why, when I think of aging, I can’t help but think of Buddhist teachings. Yet aging, I believe, is its own teacher. Every day we learn to let go of our youth and vigor, our physical presence and desirability, and often our health and mobility. We learn to let go of what we hoped we would accomplish and what we thought our accomplishments would bring us. We learn to let go of the way we had once defined ourselves and the way we had wanted others to define us. We learn to let go of our aspirations and our dreams and our placement in the world and the importance we once attached to that placement.
Indeed, aging provides us with almost unlimited opportunity to practice letting go—and to practice patience and equanimity. Every time we have to negotiate the rigors of a deteriorating body, every time we’re treated with condescension or indifference or disrespect, every time we’re forced to make choices that curtail where we can go or what we can do, we get to practice patience and equanimity and, of course, letting go.
The older we become, the easier it is to recognize the impermanence of the world that surrounds us. Our histories become testaments to change. Our mortality takes center stage. When we resist nature’s inevitable cycles, we open ourselves up to the pain and suffering that comes from not accepting our lives for what they’ve become, all of which is heaped on to the aging process itself.
Perhaps it is only by letting go of our resistance to aging, by no longer clinging to our expectations of what life was supposed to have brought us, by embracing what we cannot change or avoid, that we can find peace in the process of growing older. Only then can we make the most of the moments we have before us and not regret leaving behind those that have already passed.
Aging lets us grasp life’s impermanent nature in ways we might have been incapable of understanding in our younger years. Aging presents us opportunities to experience a broader perspective that looks beyond the day-to-day obsessions and concerns that plagued our youth, to connect with the world at a level of authenticity that heeds its own natural rhythms, to accept life for what it is and not what we want it to be, to open our minds to a vision that transcends the boundaries between ourselves and everything that surrounds us—so we might yet stand on that mountain and see the world without prejudice or attachment or discrimination.
And if aging can do all that, maybe it’s not such a bad thing after all.