Aging as a Spiritual Practice: can it really be so?
He was sitting there, just as the rest of us, nearly 50 people in all, on the Zoom screen. One of the "Zoom boxes". No fancy garb, no bells and whistles, no podium surrounded by flowers of devotees, just him. Clearly an elder with what he later termed "white hair", sitting quietly with a very soft and sincere glance to all of us out there in cyberspace. We had come to hear Lewis Richmond give a talk to open the series of 6 talks of the "World Wisdom Traditions and the Spirituality of Aging" program of Sage-ing International. Richmond was formerly a Buddhist meditation teacher for some 4 decades, a role from which he has recently retired, he is an established author, a musician, and has also been a software entrepreneur. But for me at this moment he was simply just a wise elder, a "sage", who had come to talk to us about this subject, his passion, and the work that he is doing now with men who are aging.
Something about Lewis Richmond immediately grabbed me, far more than the wise words and compelling ideas that were coming out of his mouth. It was his frankness, his open candor in talking about his fears, his difficulties that he and his wife were having in dealing with the Covid-19 isolation, the sadness around the death of his sister to disease. Richmond was not trying to impress, not focused on convincing anybody, he was walking his talk- "Vulnerability", he said, "is strength".
There was "Buddhism in the air", he did not go back and forth quoting the Buddha, but shared with us his thoughts how we are all in continuous change, that we are all connected to everything that is connected, and it is compassion and loving-kindness that we are after- and that is an outgrowth of our improving our awareness. Meditation is not about "transcending" and seeking "divine experience" but in being with what is- there is nothing quite like sitting and being with your breath. You can't get more "being" than sitting and observing your breath over time. To many out there, the wisdom of Zen begins and ends with something as simple (and as difficult!) as that.
If I am to be completely honest with myself and with my readers, I must say that something else struck me no less- it was his age. Not simply his age, but how he related to it- openly, accepting, one could almost say "friendly". This triggered in me a story from my youth.
Take up Religion Later in Life
When I was 14 years old and living in New York, my family moved from Queens to a Long Island suburb. For me it was not just a move, but a move which would take me out of a Jewish school environment to a public school one. I was really looking forward to it. As a teenager looking for "exploration" I had my head full of ideas of "entering a mixed society", I dreamed of going out with non-Jewish girls, playing sports and being accepted in what I held with a certain sense of aura- "public school".
My opportunity came very quickly. As a reasonably talented, short but quick, basketball guard, I tried out for the Junior High School team and made the cut. I was in! My name was on the list on the wall, and I could hear people walking by and saying, "Who is this Ronnie Dunetz?", especially one of the guys who was quite angry that he did NOT make the cut. I felt that I was on the way "up" and into a new group of friends and social milieu.
That was until I realized that all the games would be on Friday evening and Saturday, I lived a good 5 miles from the school and would need to travel to games and practices. I was in a dilemma- as an observant Jew (in those days), my family and I did not drive on the Sabbath, I was torn- how could I possibly stay on the team? The coach was empathic, he said he would call the Rabbi and ask for a "dispensation". Those were good intentions but irrelevant, I had to make a decision between upholding my religious beliefs or leaving them for the basketball team, and all that I dreamed would emanate from it. After a few days of soul-searching, conferring with family, friends and teachers, I dropped off the list, with some trepidation. My fear was justified- I subsequently had a miserable school year, felt socially unconnected and had to nurse the idea that this was not what my dreams had promised me…
Later in the summer of that year I went to a sleepaway camp, which was our custom at the time, and found myself talking to some boys whom I had recently met and befriended. Since I was quite good at basketball they asked me if I played for the school team, I told them the story of why I hadn't. One of the boy's had his mouth suddenly drop as he came out with a cry that rings in my ears as loudly today as it did then, some 46 years ago: "Ronnie, what are you CRAZY? To give up playing on the team because of RELIGION? You can always take up your religion and spirituality stuff when you are old!"
This is what hit me as I listened to Lewis Richmond's gentle, wise, friendly words. He WAS older and he DID sound wise. I don’t know if he had to "take up" spirituality in age, because he had been working on his spirituality all through the ages. But there is something that happens to us as we age, IF we are truly aware, present, willing to engage in it. In Richmond's words, "We appreciate life more as elders because we know we have less of it ahead". And he said it not with a sense of desperation and panic, but as a person who has observed life and "met it" time and again, through thick and thin, through crises and jubilation.
Our wisdom is forever a process "under construction". When we reach our elder years, the roads are much more developed, but they never do actually reach the "finish line". It is always breath after breath, time and again. The spirituality in aging is so much like how we function as human beings. It is always there, with us, accessible, compliant, ready to partner. And here is where the spirituality of aging can really be a huge and exciting exploration BECAUSE it changes all the time. In the lovely words of Lewis Richmond's new book, Every Breath, New Chances.
I never did go back to basketball. But I still have my breath. I think I came out ok in the end...