I, we, all beings are of the nature to age. There is no way to avoid aging.
Sitting across from me at the dinner table, my eight-year old daughter suddenly looked over at me and said, “Your skin is like a little wattle under your chin.” She was quick to add – perhaps noticing my grimace – “But it’s a small one!”
As a practitioner and teacher of buddhism, I’ve been working with the Five Remembrances since Thich Nhat Hanh presented them at a retreat I attended in 1992. But still, as I share with students when I present on the life of the Buddha, describing his experience with what is called “the Four Sights” of his first exposure to an old man, a sick man, a corpse and a mendicant, though I’d been practicing for over 15 years, when I noticed that first gray hair on my head, I felt like I’d been kicked in the chest by a donkey! WHACK!
Since that day, more gray hairs have grown on my head and my beard – if I let it grow – would be all gray! This is not to mention the gray hairs that sprout among the jet black hair of my eyebrows, making it look kind of weird, especially in photos when the light seems to flare on the gray hairs making it look a bit like bald spots.
I’ve been told most of my life that I’d inherited some “good genes” and generally had a youthful look well into my early 50s. I’m not making any assertions of causality here, but it truly wasn’t until my eight-year old’s birth that I began to show my age. For instance, at the age of 36 I visited my eighteen-year old daughter at college and while walking across campus was accosted by two students from the year book asking if I’d had my yearbook photo taken yet! They were absolutely floored when I replied that I was there to see my daughter for Parent-Student Weekend. They had mistaken me for a student! And, at the age of fifty I was still being mistaken for someone in his thirties. And though I am – as Barbara Enrenreich notes about herself in her sixties – old enough to die, I am stronger than I’ve been in decades, lifting weights and doing 100 pushups twice a week.
But I find myself occasionally gazing at the thinning texture of the skin of my arms and hands, remembering how I would look, fascinated, at the same thin “chicken skin” wrinkling on my mother’s arms. I remember loving to look at photos of the aged hands of Jean Cocteau and other great artists with awe, admiration and respect, but noticing that I’m not feeling any of that awe and appreciation when I look at my own aging hands!
In fact, though I know better, the cultural context within which I have lived has apparently sunk its insidious and pernicious beliefs into my psyche. I find myself at times wondering who could find this aging body attractive. I’ve read over the years about how many aging women report feeling “invisible” to others, men -- younger men especially – who no longer see them as sexual beings, completely looking through them as simply “not there.” Well, I’m here to tell you that at least this man has also noticed the cloak of invisibility that has fallen upon me! And I’m not speaking merely of feeling that I am not attractive physically as a sexual being but of not being attractive as simply a living human being. Our culture tells me that I’m beyond my prime and ready for pasture though inside I feel anything but! This is what my friend and incredibly talented photographer, Jade Beall (who took that "Wake Up" photo above) is addressing in her work now with elders.
The most toxic consequence of living in a culture that over-idealizes youth and conventional beauty and attractiveness is evident when I look at recent photos of myself, or at my reflection in the mirror, and I don’t see myself as attractive. The other day some photos of me taken in my twenties that I had posted several years ago popped up on “Facebook Memories” and I saw a good-looking young man looking back at me. But I can remember that even back then I did not believe I was attractive or good looking; I had absorbed the notion that I was not “enough.” Through my work with many students, I’ve come to see how pervasive this conditioning is. The problem is, this “not good enough” self-identity leads to a sense of insecurity and anxiety and even mistrust of any one whom we become involved with: we may question the motivations of even the most loving person when we don’t love or accept ourselves.
This realization woke me to two related things: The first is that I – we? – cannot trust our perceptions in all cases. Our perceptions are conditioned by so many factors, and in this case the pernicious cultural obsession with youth and beauty cause many of us – perhaps most of us – such unnecessary pain. The second is that the focus on external appearance itself is a twisted value that aims to condition us to never feeling enough; to always be dissatisfied with this bodymind we are because it is always changing!
The Buddha, when speaking about “self-conceit” said it takes the form of feeling better than, worse than, or the same as others. In all three forms the commonality is that we judge our own value upon the external yardstick of others. When I was thinking I was not attractive enough by comparing myself to others, I was denying my own inherent worth. But even to say we are all the same is still looking externally to connect with our value which is inherent in us as simply being!
The thing is, we are not receiving the message that we have inherent value as living beings from our mainstream culture. Not in the plethora of advertisements for “anti-aging” creams and treatments; not in the fashion industry’s fetishization of young, emaciated photo-shopped models; not in the films and television shows where all the morally good characters are handsome and beautiful.
Once again, the significance of the Buddha saying his way “goes against the stream” becomes clear. In order to feel good about ourselves and to connect with our inherent self-worth, we have to work against the stream of the mainstream narrative. Thankfully, there are increasing numbers of artists working to do just that. But we need to both educate ourselves about the subtle and not so subtle messages we receive constantly through various forms of media and be vigilant in resisting such messages as well as build and expand communities of loving-kindness.
We, all beings, are aging, and as Barbara Ehrenheit also wrote, considering life expectancy for men in 1907 was 45.6 years, and in the year of my birth (1956) it had rose to 66.4, we should be celebrating making it this far!
Happy Continuation Day!!!!