As many of you know, I've been studying Buddhism of late. There are good, practical psychological truths in Buddhism and studying myself through this lens has been both very helpful and very painful. Helpful in that, by seeing my short-comings I have been able to work on them. But, painful in seeing how shallow I am, how deeply influenced I am by society and by friends, family and acquaintances I am and how much I cling to the past. I recently read Ram Dass' "Still Here- Embracing Aging, Changing and Dying", which is largely about not clinging to the things of youth and not being averse to the inevitable changes that will come with old age. I'm someone who has contemplated his own mortality a morbid amount. It has been one of my biggest fears since I can remember. But, I thought I was doing pretty well with it over the last few years. Recent events and reflections on those events have me reevaluating the progress I thought I had made. That has been a painful process and involved its share of suffering in and of itself. But, that's OK. It's another chance to practice. I will share with you (what I can) of those reflections in the hope it will resonate with you and perhaps my pain can help you avoid a little pain of your own.
Just a refresher or a quick introduction for you. One of the Four Noble Truths or founding principles of Buddhism is that clinging (or aversion) leads to suffering. IOW, it's not our circumstances that cause us to suffer, it's how we perceive them and how we wish they were different. Attachment to things that are impermanent (which is everything in this world) will lead to pain when those things are lost or unattainable. Aversion is the flip side of the coin- being attached to something not happening causes suffering also. One of the goals of Buddhist practice is to rid ourselves of (or reduce the amount of) clinging to impermanent things. Greed for wealth, striving for popularity, wanting things to be as they used to be (attachment to the past) and even attachment to an ideal "self" are all things that cause us suffering. As I read Ram Dass' book, I was self-evaluating (as I always do) and giving myself pretty high marks. My fear of death has been greatly, greatly diminished. In many ways, I'm ready to go (other than leaving my immediate family behind- I feel I owe it to them to be here). But, what I realized is I still cling to a youthful image of myself. I can embrace death, but I have not yet embraced aging and changing. Recently, as part of my 365 Blog Project, I took a picture of the place I get my hair (what's left of it) cut now. No need to pay $20 to cut this head anymore. Next step is to go to Target, buy some clippers and start shaving it down myself. I made light of it titling the post something like "Good-bye to hair.". But, secretly, inside I wish I could have the dreadlocks I never got the chance to grow. I'm getting more and more gray in my beard. I remember when the first little gray guy popped up a year or so ago. I immediately began plucking them. When I take bike rides, I compare myself to how fast I could go when I was in my 20s. I ask myself "Am I slowing down? Was I faster then?". I can still hit a golf ball as far (or as short) as I ever could. When I was taking a lesson a few weeks ago and the pro said "You're still very flexible.", my chest puffed up. "Yes!" I thought "I've still got it."
Now these things in and of themselves are relatively harmless. Working out and staying fit is a good thing. Taking care of my body so I don't age prematurely is a good thing. But, our culture encourages us to go beyond that, to go to ridiculous extremes. And, I thought I hadn't bought into it. I thought I was pretty well adjusted. But, now I realize I have bought into it more than I thought. And it's not only for myself. I want those around me to stay the same, too. The other day, Shayna (my seven year old) asked me what I would wish for if I could have only one wish. I said for her to be seven forever. I was only half kidding. I already want my children to be younger than they are and they're just 7 and 10. I look at my parents as they are aging and want them to stop aging. There's even some resentment when I see people around me getting older, fatter, whatever. How dare they change!
Recently, something happened that I wish I could share with you. Well, it's been coming on for years, slowly. But, it's come to a head (in my realization) recently. I can't talk about the details here. Someone might actually read this ;-). Well, in a way I'm glad I can't go into the details because then you'd know just how attached I am when it comes to clinging to the past and how shallow I am when it comes to what others think about me and those I feel reflect on me. Isn't that in itself a bizarre concept? "How others reflect on me?" Like I'm responsible for their actions? I apologize for being circuitous here, but it's necessary. Let's suffice it to say that I realized a great deal of the suffering I cause for myself is based on my image of what other people should be and how what they are reflects on me. The details aren't important (well, they are to me and I've journaled them and will be examining how I handle this). What is important is what an utterly absurd source of suffering this is. To cling to things completely beyond my control, that are inevitably going to change and that are not even mine to cling to in the first place is so silly that I'm really disappointed in myself that I've allowed it to happen.
I wish I could say that now that I've identified this source of suffering I had just pulled it out like a thorn and it's all over. But, it's not that simple. Now that the identification has been made the hard work begins. The good news though is I know what to work on and I think I have the tools to get it done. I'm sure it'll be two steps forward and one step back.
There are several ways to attack this. As I always say, identification is the first step. Done. Now, meditation (prayer, reflection) will help. Mediating on the situation(s), how I react to them. How I feel when I react. Meditating on the impermanence of life and actually working to embrace that rather than fight it. Also being grateful for what I have in the present moment is key. A line from Carly Simon's "Anticipation" has been my favorite since I was a kid. It has such deep meaning in just a few words "These are the good old days." Always keep that in mind.
Until next time....