I don’t know where I heard this joke. Maybe Sue Moon’s book This is Getting Old. I will attribute it to her, whether she wrote it or not!
Two old friends were at a restaurant. One woman said, “I was just at a Zen retreat on aging!” Her friend replied, “I don’t need a Zen retreat. I know that getting old is letting go of one damn thing after another.”
The Buddha’s fundamental teaching on suffering and the cause of suffering is summarized by the phrase “letting go.” He taught that the cause of suffering is desire and clinging, and that the end of suffering is letting go.
We so often hear about letting go that we actually believe that we know what this means. If I just let go, I will be happy. But I think the reality of clinging and letting go is profound and elusive and subtle. It is perhaps the most difficult spiritual work that we have to do, if we want to be truly happy and present in our lives.
We hear the word “desire” and think of lust or greed. But desire is the deep, endless yearning for things to be other than they are. We want more and more and more. We had a joke in my college dorm, “Too much is never enough.”
This dissatisfaction with our life as it is may be the single greatest cause of our unhappiness.
Another word for desire, in the sense I am using it, is clinging. And this clinging is entirely expected, especially as we age. We cling to a more youthful me. We cling to the idea of a body that used to be strong. We cling to our lovers and partners and children. We cling to life.
There is nothing wrong with these kinds of clinging. It is normal. It is human. But this clinging causes immense suffering.
It causes suffering because of impermanence and change. Things change every moment. Things come, things go. Thoughts come, thoughts go. People come, people go. There is nothing to hold onto, not even ourselves. Not even our own identity. Every moment we are born anew.
We cannot remain as we were in our thirties; our bodies are always changing. We cannot cling to our parents and our partners and friends, because they will eventually die. We can’t cling to our children.
We wish to possess that which we can never possess, because it was never ours in the first place.
Kahlil Gibran wrote:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
This is a huge challenge to me. I cannot let go of my child, nor would I want to. But my child is an adult man. I can no longer have the intimate relationship of mother and child. I cannot fix his problems and I cannot make his life easier. I can only pray for his well being. As most parents know, we are powerless. I am not sure after what age of the child we are powerless, but probably when they get their drivers license.
So how can we practice with impermanence and change? We practice acceptance – radical acceptance. We accept life as it is. This is not giving up; it is an aspirational act. As we get older, I think we realize, more and more, that we are not in control. We do our very best and accept the rest.
One of the great truths in spiritual living is that we can’t open fully to this life that is right here if in any way we are ignoring or warding off the truth of impermanence, mortality and death.
Our capacity to live and love is directly related to our acceptance of change and loss.
However, I am always aware of spiritual bypassing. Letting go, especially of loved ones, is very, very hard. It is not done in an instant, although, maybe it can. Letting go and forgiveness and gratitude are life practices. But first we have to remember to do them.
Angeles Arien said, “I think that a reason to do spiritual practice is to commit ourselves simply, consciously to say, Yes, yes, yes to this whole process … that we will undergo anyway: aging, sickness, and death.”