Why do we meditate? It's a good question, especially when there never seems to be enough time in the day. Yet we know that meditation can make a huge difference in the quality of our lives, both in the present and in the future. The great Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi said, "We meditate to enjoy our old age."
Aging as a spiritual practice was the topic of a talk I gave recently for the Victoria Insight Meditation Society. In the narrative of the Buddha's journey to awakening, we hear that he was inspired to leave his life of comfort because of his encounter with an aged person, a sick person, a corpse, and a religious renunciant. These are the four heavenly messengers. With each of the first three encounters, the young prince, Siddhartha Gautama, was deeply moved. He asked his companion if these states of being would also assail his young body. When the answer came back that aging, illness, and death cannot be escaped by anyone, the Buddha-to-be was left to ask himself, "Why should I who am subject to aging, seek happiness in that which is also subject to aging?"
In the fourth encounter, a wandering renunciant crossed his path. The young prince was struck by the man's presence, which radiated equanimity and peace. He realized that there were those who had chosen to leave their worldly existence and seek a different path. He, too, could make that choice.
Each time we sit down to meditate (or set off on a meditative walk) we are making a similar choice. We are swimming against the current of society's expectations that we get busy and make a success of our lives. We are investing in our own happiness.
So what did Suzuki Roshi mean when he said, "We meditate to enjoy our old age"?
Here are some of my ideas:
1) Practicing meditation throughout our lives gradually instills the ability to appreciate each moment in time, no matter the circumstances.
What is before us may be pleasant. It may be difficult, even painful, but a strong practice of mindfulness, of opening to what is happening with interest and genuine friendliness, allows us to stay connected without falling immediately into grasping, or into fear, resistance, or denial. And if we do catch ourselves adding a new level of suffering to a situation, that too can become the object of our attention. Resistance feels like this... Fear feels like this... Practicing meditation prepares us to accept change, to accept loss and even to have a spirit of playfulness and creativity as we age.
2) His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, "My religion is kindness." Could anything be more simple? As we practice meditation we uncover our own goodness. We pay more attention to our speech and our actions. We begin to recognize that we are part of a great web of life. We realize that how we are does make a difference. To live a generous life, to nurture an attitude of friendliness in our interactions with the world, is to live a life with few regrets. What greater gift could we give not just to others but to our future self?
3) Practice sharpens sense perception, allowing us to drink deeply at the well of percption while also holding a larger perspective on time. The Zen poets knew this well. Ryokan, surprising a thief in the process of stealing his few possessions, composed three lines:
The thief left it behind:
at my window.
This kind of attentiveness brings an increased capacity to take great joy in the simplest pleasures - the sound of rain on the roof, the scent of pine needles on a summer afternoon, the taste of a ripe blackberry. We learn how to savour this moment in time and we prepare our hearts to receive the ongoing, omnipresent teaching on the truth of impermanence.
4) Finally, our meditation practice becomes a life-long companion. Whether we are single, married, widowed, or divorced, most of us will encounter moments of great aloneness. Natalie Goldberg's teacher Katagiri Roshi said to her, "Can you stand up with loneliness?" What is loneliness? Just a bittersweet longing for companionship, for another's loving presence in the midst of the journey through life. With a practice of meditation, awareness becomes our companion, gently guiding us to stay interested, encouraging us to watch the emotions come and go, reminding us that others have also traveled this path. Though we may feel the pang of loneliness, we are never alone. Awareness is there with us.
To have a practice of meditation is to prepare ourselves well for the unavoidable and inevitable disintegration and dissolution of all that we call "me" or "mine". It might be a good idea.