“Treat every moment as your last. It is not preparation for something else.”
–– Suzuki Roshi
Aging is a wakeup call.
On my 25th birthday I felt fear of aging for the first time. Crossing the midpoint of my third decade of life made me realize I would soon be 30 and then . . . “over the hill” before I knew it.
No more being perpetually young. For a short time, I felt trapped. But then I took stock of my thinking and realized such useless fear would get me nowhere. I decided to live well while I had the chance. That seemed a lot better than focusing on my inevitable aging and death. Because that’s just morbid, right?
Ironically, at that time I was studying and practicing Zen Buddhist meditation with the great teacher Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. Zen Buddhism, like all schools of Buddhism, puts a great emphasis on remembering –– and directly meditating on –– change and death.
One of the first teachings of the Buddha was the instruction to recognize that everything changes and that once you are born, sickness, old age, and death are inevitable. This teaching is often misunderstood in the West as morbid or nihilistic. This was the mistake I had just made!
Meditation on impermanence and death is a profoundly helpful practice when done properly, without a “poor me” mentality. Looking directly at the impermanence and fragility of life can save us from arrogance, the numbing effects of an attitude of entitlement, and from greed, all of which depend on holding onto the notion that we are immortal and that our ”stuff” is permanent.
Instead of meditating on change, aging, and death, we try to distract ourselves from this reality of impermanence. One way we do this is by entertaining beliefs about heaven. There is nothing inherently wrong with such a belief if you hold it as an operating theory –– something that might be true, but the jury’s still out. Then you simply continue to evaluate whether believing in heaven helps you improve the quality of your life, or not. If you find that belief in a heaven doesn’t serve you, it may be time to look for a better belief –– one that does help you improve the quality of your life.
On the other hand, if you forget that “heaven” is a belief and treat it as an absolute truth, it’s easy to get into various kinds of trouble. Treating any belief as an absolute truth, something we don’t dare question, ends up making us closed-minded. And as we know, human beings throughout history have been deluded into hating and even killing each other, all as a result of fighting over beliefs they decided to treat as unquestionable truths.
So let’s consider the result of becoming closed-minded about our beliefs. If doing this leads us to fear and hate and destroy each other, I would say holding beliefs in a closed-minded way does not improve the quality of our lives. Despite the obviousness of this logic, we often resort to holding onto closed-minded beliefs anyway. As if it would help, we cling to these beliefs in an effort to escape our understandable (if unhelpful) fear of aging and death.
The 5 Most Important Things To Know About Fear of Aging
1. Fear is based on imagination. All fears are imaginary. In this regard, fear of aging is no different than any other fear. You can‘t be afraid of your actual future. It hasn’t happened yet! You can only be afraid of your negative fantasies about what will become of you. And you have a choice as to whether you continue to generate negative fantasies.
2. Fearful thinking makes you squeeze and stress yourself mentally, emotionally, and physically. If you put your effort and energy into this squeezing effort, you are setting yourself up to suffer, Why? Because squeezing and stressing yourself is degrading to your health. Stressing out also affects your ability to exercise good judgment and make good choices in any area of your life.
3. Aging, the possibility of pain, and the inevitability of death, are facts of life, yes. But they do not require us to practice creating fearful fantasies. We can imagine staying healthy and aging gracefully. Such positive mental exercises not only create a more pleasant environment in our mind, but also help keep us healthy. So switch to uplifting fantasies!
4. Fearful thinking is a waste of time! Fear comes along when we have made up our mind that something negative is bound to happen. To do this, first we have to create a false certainty. How many times have you worried about something that ended up not happening? Maybe you found yourself shaking your head as you realized what a waste of time and energy that was!
5. Like an activity we do, fearful thinking is an activity that takes place in the present. We forget this when we get involved with them. We go into a trance of living in the past or the future fantasy, losing all awareness that we are simply alive right here, right now. All of our freedom and power are available now and only now –– we can relax and open up, or we can squeeze and contract. Does it make sense to exercise the free use of your power to get upset about a negative past (that’s over) or a fantasy (future that may never come)? Doing that, don’t we miss the present opportunity to enjoy the gift of life right now?
Fearful thinking –– whatever we are fearful of –– distracts us from developing a sense of wonder and gratitude for this amazing life we have. Every moment is new. Each moment is an entirely new opportunity to experience life just as it is, right on the spot!
Some day our lives will end, it’s true. So why ruin life while we’re in the midst of living it? Instead of dulling our mind and senses with fear, let’s enliven ourselves and brighten our mind and senses!
To do this, we only have to pause with wonder and gratitude for the gift of life –– not the gift of “Jack’s life” or “Alicia’s life,” but the gift of Life itself. Our idea of who we are may be filled with unpleasant judgments and memories, but we can feel free to skip all that and turn toward life’s innate wondrousness.
Focus on the wonder of Life as it manifests as each being and everything in each fresh moment. Focus on the fact that you couldn’t even complain or think fearful thoughts if Life were not giving you the gift of your conscious, living intelligence, moment by moment. Life is brand new in every brand new moment!