Living in the Light of Death: On the Art of Being Truly Aliveby Larry Rosenberg
This book presents the Buddhist approach to facing the inevitable facts of growing older, getting sick, and dying. These tough realities are not given much attention by many people until midlife, when they become harder to avoid. Using a Buddhist text known as the Five Subjects for Frequent Recollection, Larry Rosenberg shows how intimacy with the realities of aging can actually be used as a means to liberation. When we become intimate with these inevitable aspects of life, he writes, we also become intimate with ourselves, with others, with the world—indeed with all things.
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Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1: The First Messenger
"Not wanting things to change." If we think like this, we must suffer. When we think that the body is ourselves or belongs to us, we are afraid when we see it change.
am subject to aging. Aging is unavoidable.
Just to spend some time with this contemplation every day would be instructive, to see it and really penetrate it. People often get impatient when you tell them something like that. I
I'm aging, they say. And we do know it, intellectually, in the abstract. Then again we don't. We don't know it in our hearts. We don't know it in our bones. And we don't live it. The slightest sign of aging comes up and we do everything we can to avoid it.
I'm not talking just about face-lifts, hair dye, hairpieces, adopting the fashions of young people. (And I'm not necessarily opposed to such things.) I am talking about being aware of what your body is going through. I'm talking about knowing that you—like everyone and everything else—are subject to the law of impermanence, and that that law includes not just eventual death but gradual changes along the way. I'm talking about forgetting the image you project, and knowing what is happening to you.
I'm also talking about experiences that happen to perfectly ordinary people, all the time. One happened to me not long ago that really knocked some wisdom into me and has given my students many a laugh as I have recounted it. I am a person who takes very good care of himself. I do yoga most mornings; I take long vigorous walks; I meditate a great deal; and I am careful about food supplements and the food that I eat.
About three years ago, when I was sixty-three, I was on the subway in Boston, coming back from a trip to the dentist. I comfort myself with the thought that I may have looked a little peaked from my dental work. I was standing there holding onto the metal rail when a young woman seated in front of me smiled and stood up and gave me her seat. I didn't realize at first quite what was happening. I
thought she was getting off at the next stop. But that stop went by, and the next, and I started to realize: Wait a minute. A young woman just gave me her seat on the subway.
My mind started racing. I wanted to say to her: You've got it all wrong. I get up and give my seat to you. I've been giving up subway seats all my life. But apparently, from her standpoint, this looked appropriate. She was a young,
vigorous, healthy woman. And I, it seems, looked like a man who needed to sit down. All my years of doing yoga, eating good food, and taking long walks were wasted. I looked my age anyway. Next time it would be, "Hey, Grandpa.
How'd you like a seat?" Or, "Slow down, old-timer. Let me help you with those packages." My self-image as a youthful, bouncy "older man"—an image I didn't even know I had—had been smashed to pieces.
This was not a bad experience. It was actually good. A young woman made a courteous gesture, and I got to take a load off my feet. It was what I did with it—before my awareness returned and I had a good laugh at myself—that mattered. It was a modern-day rite of passage, an initiatory moment that let me know I was in a new category. It shattered my self-image.
Self-images are a problem. They are designed to help us feel adequate and secure but also often cause a great deal of suffering. We all have them, and most of us aren't aware we do. We spend enormous time and energy and even money creating and protecting them, trying to keep them intact while our daily experience is chipping away at them. Then when someone sees us in a different way, we are shattered. They mention a senior-citizen discount, and suddenly we see ourselves in Bermuda shorts and canvas shoes, wearing a funny little straw hat.
That isn't the image we want to present at all. The pictures we have in our own head are way out of date.
What we normally do is create a new image: Yes, I may strictly speaking be eligible for the senior-citizen discount, but I don't look it (unless I've just been to the dentist). I'm quite spry for my age. I have the strength of a man twenty years younger. You can keep your seat on the subway (though I will take the lower fare).
am not, I repeat, opposed to looking after one's health and appearance. I
believe in taking care of the body, and that includes dressing well and being clean and well groomed. Doing so is just a matter of expressing one's human dignity and doesn't mean we are self-centered.
But the practice is about moving beyond all images, being intimate with the raw,
naked experience of your body, its moment-by-moment experience. The Buddha spoke in several of his sutras of the body within the body. What he meant was the body as it really is. Not the image we have of it but the body as it is right now, the sensations evident to us as we sit reading this book.
The great baseball pitcher Satchel Paige had a much more down-to-earth way of putting it, but he was saying the same thing. When he was in his prime as a pitcher, African-American players were confined to what were then called the
Negro leagues, and by the time he finally got to the majors he was quite old for a ballplayer. Reporters naturally asked him about his age, and he said,
"Age isn't a problem. It's a question of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter."
Let's have a look at a concrete example, one that is less whimsical. At the Cambridge
Insight Meditation Center, where I teach, I regularly give interviews at which students can come in and talk to me about their formal sitting practice or their daily lives. On one recent morning, a student told me she'd been experiencing a great deal of sadness and fear about aging. I asked her to be more specific, and she said that that morning she had awakened with some stiffness in her back and knees. Perhaps she pictured a grandmother or some other elderly relative who was stiff in the morning, and suddenly this relatively young woman—she was just in her mid-forties—thought, "This is it. Old age is here."
Within seconds she was picturing a really stiff body, one that could never straighten out; white hair, wrinkled skin, the loss of all attractiveness; a cane, then a walker, finally a wheelchair; she saw her body deteriorating, her mind starting to go, her final years full of illness and pain. Furthermore, she hadn't put enough away for retirement, so she imagined destitution as well, an old woman who needed special care but couldn't afford it. She saw herself on the street,
wrapped in a ragged overcoat and shivering, asking passersby for money.
In reality, she was an attractive professional woman in her forties, living in a perfectly comfortable house. But as far as her suffering went, she might as well have been out on the street already. Such is the power of the mind. It can take a simple unpleasant sensation and turn it into a powerful sense of self.
We have all experienced such flights of fancy, sudden feelings of terror. And I
would be the first to admit that they conceal a certain wisdom. Old age,
sickness, and death are the fate of most of us—death, for all of us—so in that way she was seeing something real. Furthermore, the need to provide for your old age is a real one that needs to be attended to. Sometimes you experience exaggerated anxiety because there is some real task that you need to do.
At the same time, this was an almost classic case of a process that the Buddha talked about quite eloquently, the way that the mind turns physical sensations into suffering. It is an excellent example for us to work with. So I would like to spend some time on it.
Of the various phenomena that can arise in the body and mind, one that the Buddha spoke about specifically is designated by the Pali word
which is often translated as "feelings."
doesn't actually refer to what we think of in our culture as feelings but just to sensations, anything that might come through the six sense doors (in Buddhism,
the mind is considered a sense).
Buddha said there are three kinds of
to which we have three characteristic reactions. A sensation might be pleasant, in which case we tend to hold on to it or want to repeat it. It might be unpleasant, so we are inclined to push it away. And it might be neutral. In the case of neutral sensations, we tend to get bored or fill in the emptiness with fantasy. Either way, we're not present with the sensation.
For my student, the feeling was unpleasant but just mildly so; a little morning stiffness is not exactly a heart attack. But the act of pushing it away was quite elaborate. It also traded a minor physical discomfort for a severe mental one. It took a mild physical pain and turned it into torment.
Another phenomenon that might turn up as we watch the body and mind is what the Buddha called mind-states. These are more complicated than sensations; they typically combine a racing mind, piling-up thoughts (like the ones about aging that we've just seen), with noticeable sensations in the body. There are various mind-states, but three that the Buddha emphasized repeatedly in his teachings he called the
or three mental poisons. They are greed, hatred, and delusion, sometimes rendered as passion, aversion, and confusion.
Greed is the feeling of wanting something we don't have. Hatred is the feeling of wanting something to be gone that we do have. And delusion is when we don't know what we want or don't see clearly what is present. There is a fog over the mind.
in general are rooted in delusion, or ignorance. Ignorance is the real basis of all our craving and aversion. So you could say that the source of my student's problem was delusion, concretely manifesting itself as aversion. Something was present that she didn't want to be there. She began to struggle with it. And her mind-states proliferated.
Buddha was once asked how such a situation differed for someone who is enlightened, as opposed to someone who isn't. And he said the unenlightened person is like a warrior who is hit with two arrows. In my student's case, the first arrow was the stiffness. The second was the emotional turmoil that she made out of it. The first arrow is unavoidable. There are pains and difficulties that are simply a part of being human (and many of them are linked with our larger subjects, aging, sickness, and death). The Buddha never claimed we could avoid them.
But we can avoid the second arrow. We don't need to take physical suffering and make it into torment. We can feel the stiffness and let it be stiffness. What's the problem? It is an impermanent phenomenon like any other.
Meet the Author
Larry Rosenberg is founder and resident teacher of the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a guiding teacher at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts.
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