What I’ve learned from old people about life, death and love

parama-and-patti-at-hearthstoneOld people often say that getting old’s a bitch. At the age of forty, I barely know.

Sensei Harvey Daiho Hilbert, a retired PhD professor at New Mexico State University and abbot of the local Las Cruces Zen Center, was one of my teachers in my early years of voracious study of Buddhist philosophy and avid meditation practice. When I went on a three-day silent retreat led by Sensei Harvey in the mountains of Cloudcroft, New Mexico, I did yoga postures on the scenic balcony atop the meditation temple. Sensei commented, “When you’re seventy, I want you to come back here and do yoga on the porch.”

Years later, I still haven’t forgotten his comment. I took it to heart. I’ve used that idea as a rocket fuel to propel me further into the space of my daily yoga and meditation practice.

I would like to think that I could live to be seventy; and if I do, I would like to think that I will still be dancing and doing yoga.

Geshe Michael, founder of the progressive, tuition-free Diamond Mountain University in Bowie, Arizona and one of my favorite teachers of Buddhism, talks a lot about death. He says that we should think about our death on a daily basis, because it makes us happier people.

(Say, what? Thinking about my own death is supposed to make me happier?)

At first I didn’t believe it.

But then, all kinds of crappy things started happening in my life … all at once: My grandma died; I was told I might have cervical cancer; I got a hemorrhoid; I almost got murdered; I had to move twice; I twisted my knee; I broke up with the most gorgeous, amazing man I’ve ever met after he told me he didn’t love me….

All of this crappy stuff happened all at the same time; like, within the span of a few months. It was a living hell. I almost killed myself over it.

I think I could have killed myself, were it not for a few kind-hearted doctors I consulted and were it not for my having listened to Geshe Michael’s dharma talks about death meditation: “Don’t pretend you’re not gonna die someday. Just be honest with yourself. Pretend that today could be your last day.”

After all that crappy stuff happened, I didn’t have to pretend anymore. I knew I could die any day, at any time.

Maybe if I knew that at a younger age, I’d be an even happier person than I already am. But maybe not. I don’t know.

I’d like to think that I’m about halfway through my lifespan. Maybe I have a few more years to go before I’m actually at that point. For all intents and purposes, let’s just say that at forty, I’m halfway to my death, but that’s just according to statistics on the average modern human lifespan. In making this assumption, I fail to consider a whole host of factors which are completely out of my control.

Let’s consider all the factors that could cause me to die unexpectedly, any day or at any moment:

 

(1) I live in the tropics of Belize, Central America. I could contract and die of dengue or Zika or malaria … or all three combined.

(2) Every day I go swimming in an emerald green river in the jungle. I could get eaten by a crocodile.

(3) One my favorite geeky scientist friends predicts that climate change (melting glaciers, anyone?) could lead to near-term extinction of the human race. Like, within the next decade. Bummer. Human extinction includes me. (Damn it).

(4) Not only do I live in the tropics, but I also happen to live in a jungle with a lot of wild animals (jaguars and venomous snakes included). Any one of them could bite me or eat me… any day, at any time. This could cause my unexpected, unplanned death.

(5) I could get run over by a bus. That could happen pretty much anywhere.

Reading this list back to myself makes me laugh out loud (lol)…. It’s somehow funny to think about all the ways I could die. Yet I’ve spent most of my rather enjoyable, uber-privileged young adulthood in a state of ignorant denial that I could die on any given day, at any given time.

Sorry to point out, dear reader (Hey, thanks for reading!): You could die too. On any given day, at any given time. But how often do we really allow ourselves to seriously think about that undeniable fact of life? (That fact that we all have to die, I mean).

Let me remind myself, just in case I forget: Someday, I’m going to die. That day could be today. At any time.

Sometimes I feel like I’ve already died hundreds of times in my life. I suppose, in a way, I have. I’ve experienced innumerable losses, as most people have. And each loss is like a mini-death.

Let’s consider all the ways I’ve died already:

(1) I’ve quit too many jobs to keep count. Loss of a job is like a death. It causes loss of money in the wallet, relationships, status, respect, and lots of other things that lead to grief, sadness and possibly depression and suicidal ideation;

(2) I’ve gone through three or four divorces and probably dozens of break-ups. (I can’t keep track.) Losing a beloved partner, for any reason, definitely feels like what I imagine dying could feel like;

(3) I’ve moved in and out of dozens of funky apartments and even a few tents. Once I took up residence in the trunk of my own car, not because I was too poor to afford my own place (I had a fulltime job with a decent salary), but just because I wanted to see if I could live in my trunk for a week. It turns out that I could. Living in the trunk of my car was like dying, because I killed my need for a bigger apartment.

By the way, I’m not mentally ill or retarded. I just like living life on the edge and taking risks. Calculated ones.

(4) I have almost been deliberately killed by other members of my own species for reasons that are not worth mentioning here. If you’re curious, you’ll have to wait for my novel to be published. Novels are good for telling stories about almost being killed. Stephen King does it all the time and makes a killing off his books…. so, I assume people like to read about death.

 

What was my point in making a list of all the ways I’ve died already?… Oh, yeah. To point out that death is a part of life. Life and death always go together, like eating beans and farting.

Older people are generally less apologetic about basic bodily functions and the fact that their teeth have fallen out. They seem to be more honest than younger people. I suppose there’s a reason for that. Experience and wisdom seem to go together, like old age and dentures.

Talking with older people has helped me learn a thing or two about life and how to live more fully while I still have the chance. I used to try having deep conversations with my grandmother, but I could never seem to get beyond superficialities. I guess some people just don’t really like to go deeper than what’s visible to the human eye. That’s okay. Grandma’s dead now. I loved her. She was a kind, generous woman. And she baked the best oatmeal cookies.

Some older people are actually capable of accepting the fact that they are going to die soon instead of denying it or complaining about it incessantly. Some older people are actually willing to engage me in an honest discussion about what it’s like to get old. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a few of them and enjoying meaningful conversations about a wide range of interesting topics like marriage, jobs, finances, illness, diet, adult diapers, and dentures.

I assume that people who are older than I am might be pleased to offer me advice about how to avoid making the same mistakes they did.

Recently I had the honor of meeting one such refreshingly forthright older gentleman whom I’ll call Gary. I saw him sitting alone in a rocking chair looking rather sullen and somewhat lonely. He was on vacation with his wife at the eco-lodge in southern Belize where I live and work as a Certified Massage Therapist and Yoga Teacher.

Gary was part of a tour group that had left that morning to go on an excursion into the jungle. He thought that the trip would have been too physically challenging for him, so he’d opted to stay at the hotel and spend the morning sitting in the rocking chair by himself.

As an ardent student of life, I’m compelled to seek and find teachers in everyone I talk to and in pretty much every situation, not excluding this crotchety old dude in the rocking chair. I approached him and asked with the utmost sincerity how he was doing.

My genuine concern for his wellbeing was met with a sullen expression and a mumbled, gruff reply. He kept his head down, staring into the dim glow of his tablet device. Apparently, he was busy reading something, so I turned and walked away, pretending I had somewhere else to go, feeling somewhat spurned and justified in not wanting to talk to him ever again.

But then I remembered the wisdom of always trying to find the teacher in every situation. Despite logic and reason, I returned to the man’s side, reached out my hand to gently touch his shoulder, looked straight into his eyes, smiled and asked him, “Sir, is there anything I can do for you?”

I was prepared for any one of several possible responses: He could have spat on me or yelled at me to leave him alone. But he didn’t. He slowly shut off the hand-held device, took a deep breath and looked up at me. His pondered his words carefully before he spoke in a deliberate, calm manner:

“Well, thank you for asking, young lady,” he said. His face softened. He went on to explain that he was in severe pain from nerve damage to his spine.

I could have said, “Oh, I’m sorry,” or “I understand,” or any one of several possible responses, but I didn’t. Instead, I opted to invest some of my precious, valuable time listening to this old dude in a rocking chair.

There were hundreds of other things I could’ve opted to do instead; like do laundry, go swimming in the river, write my novel, eat chocolate, or wash my hair. Instead, I spent an hour chatting with Gary. He told me he was seventy years old. I told him he had thirty years on me, so I should probably listen to him for a while.

He laughed. I guess he thought I was funny.

We never even bothered to ask each other’s names until after we’d talked for an hour and realized neither one of us had ever asked.

“I can’t imagine what it’s like to get old or be in constant pain,” I told him. “But I’d like to know what it’s like, for you.”

“It sucks,” he said. “You lose things. All the time. Your friends start to die. You get sick. You can’t do as many things as you used to be able to do.”

I listened. I didn’t say much. Again, I’d deemed that he was the wiser one of the two of us.

He wore a collared, button-down blue paisley shirt and tan shorts. He had a full head of white hair, wore wire-rimmed glasses and appeared to be in good physical shape, with a slim waist, athletic legs and smooth, tanned skin. He didn’t move while he talked, maybe because moving caused him pain, or he was content to simply stay still. I suspect both could have been true for him.

A former university professor with a PhD in molecular biology, he was well-read, articulate, thoughtful and intelligent. He and his wife traveled the world together.

“One thing I’ve learned about getting old is that you lose your concepts about what is true. You realize you don’t know anything.”

I smiled. I wanted to hear more, so I kept my mouth shut and listened.

Gary rocked the chair slightly and continued, “I was trained as a scientist. I used the scientific method. I’m a show-me kind of guy.”

He looked off for a moment. His speech was frequently filled by brief moments of pregnant pauses during which he’d look up toward the ceiling, ponder and collect his thoughts before he’d reply in an articulate manner.

Unlike the entertaining stimulation of a YouTube video, listening to Gary required some degree of patience on my part. I was willing to give it a try. I determined that listening to Gary was better or at least as good as the best YouTube videos I’ve ever come across. Unlike most online media, at least Gary was willing to be honest with me.

“I can’t prove there’s a God using the scientific method,” he said, looking up and going quiet again for what seemed like an eternity. Finally he mused, “Faith is beyond science.”

Then Gary turned to me and asked, “Is there a God?”

I followed Gary’s lead. I stayed quiet for what seemed like an eternity while Gary waited patiently for my reply.

Then, I said, “I don’t know.”

Gary laughed. Apparently, he thought I was funny.

“Well, I don’t know either,” he offered. “But I try to meditate a little every day,” he said.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn this about Gary. It was the last thing I expected, since my first glance at him had given me the impression that he was a crotchety, old man better left alone. I was glad to learn how wrong I’d been in judging him so superficially.

I kept my mouth shut. I didn’t need to tell him that I too meditated every day. I wanted to learn what he had to say about it first.

“I learned to meditate with a mantra. The mantra is meaningless. It focuses my attention away from the other thoughts, like the argument I had with my wife, that I have to mow the lawn, that I have to go walk the dog,” he said.

I listened. He continued, “I don’t know what happens or what to call it, but sometimes when I meditate, I get to a place where I lose all thoughts.”

Gary had completely sucked me into some kind of vortex. I suddenly felt like I had entered an alternate reality in which Gary was the only thing that existed in the entire universe.

Maybe he was. At that moment, anyway, and only for me.

“I used to be an avid runner,” Gary said. “I ran sixty miles every week. I wouldn’t listen to music. I would listen to my thoughts.”

He looked me straight in the eyes and asked in his deliberate tone, “Do you have a goal when you meditate?”

I gave myself ample time to pause for reflection before I responded that I didn’t think it was helpful to meditate with a goal in mind, because, I said, I’m probably not focused on meditation if I’m busy thinking about a goal.

Gary laughed again. I realized that he really did think I was funny.

Then I realized that I was genuinely enjoying our conversation. It was the first time in weeks that I actually wanted to spend time talking with someone for more than five minutes.

Gary said, “I try to think about what I am about to do before I do something or say something.

“I try to analyze my motivations for what I am about to do before I react. In my experience,” he said, “I find that it helps me avoid saying or doing something hurtful to myself or another person.”

Then, he said, “Am I boring you?”

“Well, yes, maybe a little bit,” I admitted to him.

He laughed. I laughed too. We laughed together.

“I like to talk,” he said.

“I like to listen,” I said.

“I think you would be a good meditation teacher,” I told him. Then I corrected myself and said, “I think you are a good meditation teacher. I’ve learned a lot just by sitting here and listening to you. I think I can honestly say that I love you,” I told him.

He chuckled and his face softened even more. He paused for reflection, looking skyward.

“I don’t know what love is,” he said. “Is it hormonal? I don’t know. I mean, I know I love my wife. I could explain to you why I love her, but if I did, I would only be telling you about character traits and behavior.”

Then Gary shared that he had been divorced twice before. He said that he has learned not to share his opinions all the time, because he’s noticed that opinions usually start arguments.

“I’ve learned to be comfortable with the idea that I don’t know anything,” Gary said.

Later that day, as I reflected on my conversation with Gary, I thought about how most of the time, we humans seem to prefer believing that we know something. Somehow I am supposed to feel more comfortable with the idea that I know how something works or that I’m in control of whatever is going on.

When I went to visit a few old people in a nursing home last year, I noticed that many of the old people had lost control of their bowels. They required regular diaper changes. Yet, most of them still had fully functioning intellectual abilities. They could talk to me while knowing that they smelled like piss, but it didn’t matter because they knew they were going to die soon anyway. A lot of things seem to become unimportant in the face of death. And a lot of things seem to become more important.

I played piano for an old lady at a nursing home where I volunteered last year. I knew that I wasn’t the best piano player, but it didn’t matter, because she knew she was going to die, so she could fully enjoy my company and the fact that I was there, playing the piano, even if I wasn’t all that good at it.

Age seventy seemed to be the theme of the day I met Gary, the old dude in the rocking chair. Later that night, I facilitated a singing circle and African dance class accompanied by live drumming by my friend and neighbor Emmeth Young. We had mostly older people dancing with us. One of the most enthusiastic dancers happened to be a woman who was celebrating her seventieth birthday that very night.

When the staff of the eco-lodge served her a birthday cake, she cried. I don’t know if they were tears of joy or sadness or a little of both. I think she liked the cake.

I think age helps. I think getting old means going through a lot of loss, which I think facilitates acceptance of one’s death.

I think about death every day. I would like to think it helps me be a happier person.

I don’t know.

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2 thoughts on “What I’ve learned from old people about life, death and love

  1. Great read! Thank you for sharing so much about your daily life. I love your voice and could see myself reading a memoir you’ve written. You have reminded me about how we are all ‘students of life’ so-to-speak. Looking forward to reading more from you!

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