There are five things that have been well taught by the Blessed One, the one who knows and sees, the worthy one, perfectly enlightened by himself, that are to be contemplated daily by women and men, by householders and monks.
What are the five?
“I am of the nature to grow old, I have not gone beyond old age” is to be contemplated daily.
“I am of the nature to become ill, I have not gone beyond sickness” is to be contemplated daily.
“I am of the nature to die, I have not gone beyond death” is to be contemplated daily.
“All that is dear and delightful to me will change and vanish” is to be contemplated daily.
“I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related to my actions, and abide supported by my actions. Whatever action I do, whether good or evil, of that I will become heir” is to be contemplated daily.
Anguttara Nikaya 5.57, translated by John Kelly
Because the aging process is one we can all look into immediately, I want to stay with this topic for a time. We’ll never make peace with death (our own or anyone else’s) if we can’t first come to an understanding of aging.
I remember being shocked to discover that even trees have natural life spans. Our family home once had an elm tree in the yard that was over two hundred years old. We loved and cared for that tree; it had survived a blight that had killed many of its species-mates and had been in that spot since George Washington was president! And yet it was likely to last less than another hundred years, after which it would just be firewood, or rotting food for insects. Understanding this, I saw that this is our process, too, though none of us is likely to last 200 or 300 years.
Bodies seem to create problems from the start. Babies must be watched for signs of illness or other complications, toddlers must be kept safe from traffic and other dangers; as teenagers, we become self-conscious about our bodies and confusion descends. Because we identify so closely with our bodies – we seem to BE our bodies – every flaw in the body seems to be a flaw in ME. Later we start to see signs of decay, the teeth that no longer gleam, the posture that sags, the skin that bags. At this point most of us develop several ways of explaining away or looking away from what is happening. We compare ourselves to people who are older or less fit, we distract ourselves with food or entertainment or even exercise.
No matter how much determined denial we apply to the situation, the aging process continues, like an unstoppable train. What to do? How to accept the unacceptable?
Two strategies come to mind. The first is to consider the possibility that the body is not MINE, that it is part of nature. Bodies are like the trees in the park: they started from seed, they got whatever fertilizer and weather they got, and here they are. When they get old and weak their branches fall off and animals come to live in them and eventually they are cut down, either by saws or by mother nature. In this scenario, we are not owners of our bodies, but carers for them.
Another possibility is to continue believing that the body is, in some sense, the self, and to understand that the self (body) is time-limited. We can think of our parents and grand-parents and great-grandparents. We can think of everyone who ever lived in the world – did anyone ever live for more than 120 years? And for those who have lived beyond 90 or so, how was their quality of life? Is this vision what we are clinging to when we deny the fact that our bodies are aging? Or are we imagining a better, nicer life where we are young again in a heaven where there is no unhappiness?
It is possible, even without perfect understanding, to accept that we humans are time-limited. Please take a few minutes to consider how you relate to your own (and all of our) temporary nature.