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About Death and Old Age

July 25, 2018



I had a conversation recently with a friend who is getting a bit "long in the tooth", as they say, during which we remarked upon the tendency people have to avoid admitting to themselves that they are growing old. People, it appears, go to great effort and expense in order to avoid recognizing this fact, to the extent that they will employ various tricks and stratagems (some of them even surgical) so that they may look past the reality towards a memory of the youth that they no longer have. My friend and I agreed both that it's understandable that people would behave in such a way--it's scary to admit that one is old, after all, because death follows close upon old age--and that it's sad we deceive ourselves in such a way. Old age, ideally, is not something to regret, but a phase of life to embrace, or at least so it appears to me. It's the time when we may the most fully receive from all of the hard work we've put into our growth and awareness, and when we (hopefully) have the most skill in living happily.


Over the years I've found it helpful to consider life as folks in the East tend to do, as containing a number of different stages, with an attitude of mind and a work appropriate to each stage. During the stage of adolescence, for example, our job is to grow physically and emotionally such that we are prepared for adulthood, and it's best to maintain an open and receptive attitude of mind (as opposed to the self-focused and self-conscious orientation of many teens in our culture). As we age and go through our natural life stages our priorities change naturally, or at least such is possible if we are open to the process of life unfolding and not stuck in some sort of paradigm that no longer fits our actual station. Eventually we come to the point where accomplishment and the building of a life are mostly done, where we have contributed what we were able to in a material sense, and where it's time to let go and turn one's heart and mind to more essential things.


This seems to me a stark contrast to the typical attitude here in the west, where we idealize youth and ignore old age, and so get trapped in ways of being inappropriate to our actual circumstances.


In traditional Indian thought, as I understand it, the last stage of life is one in which we are required to let go of material responsibility and turn our attention to our spiritual nature, and prepare for death. All of life from this perspective is seen as a spiritual journey, but the last stage is the most overtly spiritual. Back in the day in India once people arrived at old age they would sometimes leave their homes and become wandering monks for the remainder of their lives, devoting themselves completely to their relationship with God. There's a lot of wisdom in this, it seems to me (minus the homeless begging part, unless that's just your thing).


I have not yet reached the stage of old age, and so what I can see about it is more speculative than experiential. It's often on my mind, however, as it's right around the corner. I speculate that old age is something to actively engage in, not something to ignore and avoid, and that death requires earnest preparation if it's to be done well. The best way to prepare, at least from my point of view, is to do whatever hard work remains to remove the illusion of our separation from Life, so that there is as little as possible between the human and the Life than animates, and so that the transition back into oneness with Life is easy and smooth.


People don't want to acknowledge the inevitable approach of death. Death is scary to consider, especially if one is trapped in an imagined isolation from the beautiful, compassionate source of all that we perceive. Ego is terrified of death, because ego is the thing that will be left behind. I like to believe that our essence continues beyond death without ego, that it merges with Life upon death, and the illusion of our separation disappears. Looking towards death in this way, I do not find it to be troublesome or depressing; in fact, it feels liberating to me to hold the inevitability of death in my awareness such that I have it there as a reality to run all of life past. It's much harder to take the fighting and complaining of conditioned mind seriously in the face of impending death, and life, when in the vicinity of death, becomes precious and sweet. We can only properly entertain the conditioned fantasizes when we believe we will live forever. One of the great privileges of being human is that we understand we will die, and so we have access to the great mystery that this fact reveals. As we age the content of life (hopefully) loses importance, and the deep mysterious processes beneath the appearance of things more and more capture our hearts and minds. It's good to be aware of this, I think, and to give ourselves to this process as best we can.

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