The person of little learning
Grows old like an ox;
The flesh increases,
But insight does not. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)
This verse does not refer to book-learning but to acquired wisdom. During youth and middle age we may feel that we are in the prime of life and we can’t imagine feeling any other way. Then, at a certain age, we start to notice things beginning to work less well with our bodies, and sometimes, with our minds. It varies for each of us, what we notice and what we care about. For some it’s the physical slowing down, the diminishing of energy or stamina; for others it’s the mental hiccups, having to search for words for a second or two longer than was previously the case.
These changes are inevitable if we live long enough, but they are not a problem, they are a signal for us to ask: What are we doing with our time and energy? What have we learned? What talents or gifts have we honed? What are we better at now than we were in our youth? Are we able to listen and reflect more skilfully? Have we learned to support or care for others in a particular way? Have we developed something that we could teach others?
In one of the classic instructions from the Buddha, the five recollections (https://buddhasadvice.wordpress.com/an-5-57/), the first is:
“I am of the nature to grow old, I have not gone beyond aging. This is to be reflected on often/daily.”
We’re invited to reflect on the fact that we’re not exempt from the aging process in order to help us maintain a perspective that what is true now will not be true forever; in fact, it’s barely even true for now. The energetic forces of the universe are in constant motion, at different, unpredictable speeds. We can take our own aging process as an intimate lesson in the impermanence of everything in the universe.
An ox is often used as a symbol of a slow-moving being, oblivious to their surroundings, in contrast with a sage. Both are old, but only one is wise. Even when we’re young, it’s helpful to give some thought to what path we’re on — where will it lead us? The question is not “what is the ultimate destination” (impossible to know), but what direction are we heading in? Is it towards or away from clarity and wisdom?