The Challenges and Rewards of Learning to Meditate at 83 Years of Age
Today we have a guest blog written by Jacqi Sein who is a close friend of ours. Jacqi is 83 years of age and started to learn meditation a few years ago following the death of her husband. The theme of Jacqi’s post is the challenges and rewards of learning to meditate at 83 years of age.
I was born in 1931 in Victoria, Australia, on newly-settled land. One of my earliest memories is of sitting on top of a farm-gate, accompanied by some older children. The gate led into a paddock or enclosed patch of land that was used for holding cows and their new-born calves. In the paddock was a man driving an old T-model Ford truck – he was trying to catch his cow. She evaded him again and again, running in circles around the paddock. When he failed to catch her he started to lose his temper and he began to drive the truck faster. She ran until exhausted, but he kept on, driving her along by crashing into her backside when she slowed. Eventually she staggered and fell, covered in blood, foam, froth and dirt, and died an agonizing death. I watched.
Everyone went home to tea, but I sat on the gate in a misery of pity until someone came to find me. I never forgot the experience and a few years later, when I could read properly, I found a book in the school-library called The Youngest Disciple by Edward Thompson (published in 1938). It told the story of the Lord Buddha walking through the countryside with his disciples, practising compassion and kindness to man and beast alike, and teaching the Four Noble Truths of Suffering.
The First Truth stated that all life is suffering. Birth, sickness, pain, grief, loss, and death – these are all forms of suffering. To have what one does not want is suffering and not to have what one wants is suffering. The Second Truth refers to the causes of suffering. Craving, desire, attachment, the never-ending clutching after riches and pleasure – these are all the roots of suffering. The Third Truth refers to the end or cessation of suffering. If greed, craving and desire are annihilated, then the mind can finally find peace and stillness. Lastly, the Fourth Noble Truth teaches the path that leads to the end of suffering – the Noble Eightfold Path – which includes Right View, Right Thinking, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Diligence, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. The Buddha’s teaching on the Four Noble Truths made a great impression on me.
I took to heart the teachings that this book revealed to me, and as I grew up I developed an interest in Buddhist practice and also in Buddhist art and architecture. When I was twenty years of age I came to live in London, England. Here I met and married a young Burmese diplomat who was a practising Theravadan Buddhist. We had a daughter together and lived happily in England for the next 60 years.
It wasn’t until my husband died a few years ago (following many years’ illness) that I was in need of a Buddhist monk to officiate at my husband’s funeral. After making some enquiries, I was fortunate enough to find not one but two Buddhist monks living and teaching in the area. They could not only take care of the deceased but could also tend to the living. In addition to fulfilling an inconceivable number of roles and touching, on a daily basis, countless peoples’ lives with a never-ending torrent of compassionate and selfless acts, the two monks were giving bi-weekly meditation classes and lectures on Mahayana Buddhism, to which they invited me.
Although I had read numerous books on Buddhism and had been exposed to Buddhist culture through my husband, I decided to start at the very beginning. I was amazed at just how many books on Buddhism there are these days. This is very different from when I was young where there was only a handful of authors to choose from. However, something I have learned recently is that although books are useful, there is nothing as beneficial as having resident teachers, such as the two monks I met, who are always on hand to help explain things from their own experience.
A New Family
Over the course of the last few years I have gradually immersed myself in Sangha living. The Sangha is a group of people who live together, in order to practise the Buddha’s teachings. Spending time with the Sangha very quickly exposes one’s bad habits that have been acquired over a long, fully-lived life. These may need to be modified or even eliminated for the sake of the other Sangha members who are moving quietly and mindfully through their day. Noise can be distracting for others, as can slamming doors, clattering plates in the sink, humming a tune, or whistling mindlessly. Therefore, for people like me that are a bit hard-of-hearing, having an understanding Sangha is helpful, but one also needs to constantly remind oneself (and be reminded) to slow down and go gently.
The Sangha is a new spiritual family, a source of strength and calmness in a new and very fast-paced world. One needs to be able to graciously accept admonishment, which should not be seen as a personal criticism. Gentle censure of one’s actions can be a joy, especially if it is accepted in the right spirit – it helps not to argue back or make excuses (something that I am particularly good at). It also shows that others have confidence in one’s efforts to become a useful, acceptable member of the community. Thus, one must not allow failure in any task to affect one’s determination, and self-discouragement should be avoided.
If we consider the Sangha as a microcosm, and society in general as a macrocosm, then we can see that everything we think and do affects everything around us. A small number of practitioners living gently and in awareness creates an epicenter of peace and insight that begins to spread out into the community. There are lots of old-age people living in the wider community and it is important that they are also introduced to and nourished by this practice of happiness. In fact, one of the central messages of Sangha living is that everybody has something to offer. Age is not seen as a problem or a handicap. One does one’s best with the abilities and experience at one’s disposal. Everyone is able to offer something to somebody else. Everybody is everybody else’s teacher and everybody has a role.
Putting Up with Aches and Pains
When it comes to learning to meditate at eighty-three years of age, the first challenge is putting up with physical discomforts. One attempts to sit cross-legged on a cushion on the floor but very soon, amidst creaks of protesting joints, the dreaded cramp sets in. The next thing that happens is that the back begins to ache and before long concentration is completely lost. Therefore, unlike myself who can be as stubborn as a mule, the best thing to do is to take on-board the teacher’s advice and sit in a chair. I find that if I make an effort to sit in a chair and keep a straight-back, relaxed but poised, then things work just fine. One sits calmly, mindfully breathing, and enters the world of stillness and inner reflection.
The dimming of faculties with age may make the task more difficult, but for me, time no longer holds any limit or threat. With compliance and a growing understanding, and love of one’s chosen path, it is not too difficult to acquire a sense of absolute freedom of the mind and spirit. This clarity of mind and purpose helps to intensify things that previously went unnoticed. For example, in the shopping-centre, one becomes aware of people endlessly rushing and pushing, frantic to get on with the business of acquiring more and more ‘things’. I must have done it myself in the not-too-distant past, but now I try to refrain from rushing and from buying things I don’t really need. I try to proceed through the day mindfully and gently. It isn’t easy, old habits die slowly, but we maintain vision and dedication to the task. At the close of the day, one should feel that it has passed profitably, with structure and purpose. Seeing one’s improvements clearly as well as areas still to be improved can bring joy, comfort and calm.
Thinking about the Future
I would say that choosing to commit to a spiritual and meditative way of life whilst in one’s eighties is not an easy thing to do. It causes all kinds of challenges – physical, mental, spiritual, and domestic. I suspect that some people think I’m losing my marbles and have difficulties in understanding why I am so passionate about learning to live and breathe the Buddha’s teachings when I am already well into old age. However, to even make a small amount of progress with meditation or have any chance of developing spiritual awareness, one needs absolute dedication to the task at hand. One also needs the support of a Sangha of like-minded people who are able to help and give comfort to each other on the path to ultimate spiritual freedom. To those who say that I am too old, that I haven’t time left for all this, I say yes I have, and I also say that I “hold infinity in the palm of my hand”.