In thinking about ageing, it’s time to return to the source. In AN 5.57, which you will find in full as a linked page at the top of the home page, the Buddha says the following (translation by Bhikkhu Bodhi):
Bhikkhus [practitioners], there are these five themes that should often be reflected upon by a woman or a man, by a householder or one gone forth. What five?
(1) A woman or a man, a householder or one gone forth, should often reflect thus: ‘I am subject to old age; I am not exempt from old age.’ [We’ll get to the other four themes in due course.]
Later in the same sutta:
For the sake of what benefit, bhikkhus, should a woman or a man, a householder or one gone forth, often reflect thus: ‘I am subject to old age; I am not exempt from old age’? In their youth beings are intoxicated with their youth, and when they are intoxicated with their youth they engage in misconduct by body, speech, and mind. But when one often reflects upon this theme, the intoxication with youth is either completely abandoned or diminished. It is for the sake of this benefit that a woman or a man, a householder or one gone forth, should often reflect thus: ‘I am subject to old age; I am not exempt from old age.’
And later again in the same sutta:
This noble disciple, bhikkhus, reflects thus: ‘I am not the only one who is subject to old age, not exempt from old age. All beings that come and go, that pass away and undergo rebirth, are subject to old age; none are exempt from old age.’ As he often reflects on this theme, the path is generated. He pursues this path, develops it, and cultivates it. As he does so, the fetters are entirely abandoned and the underlying tendencies are uprooted.
When we are young, we can’t imagine being old. We feel that the world belongs to us and we can’t picture a time when others will be in the spotlight that we now enjoy. Because of this “intoxication” we may not believe that our actions can have important consequences. It may not occur to us that our actions have the power to do irreparable harm to ourselves and others. If we consider the full arc of our life, we may come to see that what we say and do really does matter; that each choice we make creates momentum in a particular direction.
Part of this reflection is to remember that every person, every animal, even every plant, has a natural life span with a beginning, a middle, and an end. If we open our consciousness to the full cycle of nature, remembering that every being we encounter was born and will also grow old and die, it will almost certainly stimulate in us a desire for deeper understanding, a motivation to investigate our experience as thoroughly as possible.
These are the reasons the Buddha gave for reflecting often on ageing. We’ll continue considering this subject in ways that (I hope) are useful to us in the context of our contemporary lives.