The Grace in Aging

The Grace in Aging January 19, 2015

41fiKyUKqnL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Every so often I come across a book I read very slowly. I want to savor every sentence, wring every bit of meaning out of each line, and think deeply about how the words apply to my life. Kathleen Dowling Singh’s The Grace in Aging: Awaken as You Grow Older

is one of those books.

First, let me acknowledge that it has a somewhat clunky title. It sounds frightfully earnest, doesn’t it, like the literary equivalent of bran cereal? And books on aging don’t exactly fly off the shelves, unless they’re ones on how to slow down the process of growing older.

Singh’s book is meant to appeal to those who don’t want to live their last decades on spiritual autopilot. Her central premise is that aging (whether you’re 40 or 90) is an opportunity for spiritual awakening.

In chapters that include meditations on Withdrawal, Silence, Forgiveness, Humility, Presence, and Commitment, Singh explores Buddhist teachings in an accessible way. This may be the single best book I’ve ever read on Buddhism (or perhaps it’s just that I’m more open to the truths of Buddhism now than I’ve been in the past). But Singh’s gentleness, insight and wisdom will teach you a great deal even if you’re a member of another faith or follow no organized religion.

“Are we willing to leave this unimaginably precious gift of a human life unopened?” she asks in the book, explaining that growing older gives us a wide range of triggers for awakening. Many of these opportunities we likely see as negatives. If we’ve relied on beauty or power for status in the world, inevitably they will fade as we age. If we lacked the time for spiritual practice when younger, illness or disability may give it back to us. If much of our life has been spent feeding the ever-hungry ego, growing older gives us the chance to look at what we’ve mistakenly nurtured with such care.

Confronting our mortality, writes Singh, is jet fuel for our spiritual practice.

Dying, of course, lurks behind all discussions of aging. No party, however fun, lasts forever. One can see this essential fact as depressing and tragic–and certainly in individual cases it is, and Singh doesn’t suggest we short-circuit the natural process of grief, either for ourselves or for the loss of a loved one. But if done well, a person at the end of his or her life moves through the classic stages of spiritual growth to surrender into the grace in dying.

Writes Singh:  “What we will observe, if we have the privilege to be present with someone at the end of his or her life, are the following special conditions: opening to mortality, withdrawal, silence, solitude, forgiveness, humility, the practice of presence, commitment, life review and resolution, opening the heart, and opening the mind. Those of us who are still living can take powerful lessons from the dying. Each of these special conditions is a powerful catalyst for transformation. They release us from grasping to self. Working skillfully, we can introduce and make use of these conditions in the midst of life, in these very chapters of being old. Just as these special conditions facilitate the grace in dying, they can lead us directly into the grace in living.”

Jack_in_the_box,_pg_1 (1)
Note the fleeing rats (Wikimedia Commons image)

Singh uses a memorable image to illustrate how many of us live. We are like jack-in-the-box toys, she says, each of us reacting the same way when we feel threatened or insecure. Our thoughts and habits are like that clown bouncing up again and again from his box. We each have our clown of choice: anger, self-pity, a need for approval, a seeking after control, a desperate clinging, or jealousy. These are our habitual escape routes, well-traveled paths that condition our responses to whatever we confront.

I’ve been thinking about my own jack-in-the-box a lot since reading this book. Singh doesn’t present a magic formula for keeping that stupid clown from re-emerging when I least expect him, but I think I am a little less automatic in letting him loose.

“How many of the finite number of breaths that I will breathe in this lifetime remain to me?” Singh asks. “This next inbreath. Will it come? This next outbreath. Is it the last? We are very present in such moments. There is no frivolity. Nothing inessential sweeps us back into dull and clouded mindlessness.”

IMG_2589
(Photo by Bob Sessions)

 

Let me end with one of my favorite passages in the book:

“It’s a bit chastening to see how often we can think, after rising from a meditation or sitting or teaching, ‘Now . . . back to the real world.’ It’s important to rise slowly. It’s important, if we have so chosen, to remember that the intention to awaken encompasses every moment. No moment can be excluded.

There is, initially in a practice and for quite a long time afterward, a dynamic of compartmentalizing our spiritual life. We rope off many corners and many rooms in that vast, interior castle.

We want to resist that decades-old impulse to fall back into the dream of self, the sleep of form only. It’s very helpful to look at the areas of our lives that we wish to cordon off or that we don’t choose to view with the eye of spirit. What’s off limits? Is it work? Relationships? Family? What we do for relaxation? Is it vanity? Is it attachment? Or grudges? Or fears? Shame or other unhealed aspects of our psyche? It’s good to know what we hold as not available for inquiry. There lies our ignorance.

Eventually, as we continue to engage these last years for spiritual practice, we come to see that every moment, every interaction, every circumstance arises from the ground of being. Every moment is one of the places where our feet make contact with the noble path.”

 

 

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Crisonhaler

    Wonderful. Thank you for sharing exactly what I needed to read this morning.

  • Crisonhaler

    Wonderful. Thank you for sharing exactly what I needed to read this morning.

  • Karen Quiner

    Beautiful. Thanks for the recommendation. I may read it based on your recommendation.

    My own bias is that there isn’t much of Buddhism that can’t be incorporated into my Christian faith but that I can get off track if I don’t see it all in the light of Christ.

    I have always held that our path to God is very much a path of letting go, which is also Buddhist teaching.

    It is enlightening to watch my mother as she gets closer to the end here on earth. It is one experience of letting go after another. It is hard to imagine there is much left but there must be. She is doing it with such grace. She is teaching me a lot.

    My current daily prayer – Suspice.

    God bless you.

  • Karen Quiner

    Beautiful. Thanks for the recommendation. I may read it based on your recommendation.

    My own bias is that there isn’t much of Buddhism that can’t be incorporated into my Christian faith but that I can get off track if I don’t see it all in the light of Christ.

    I have always held that our path to God is very much a path of letting go, which is also Buddhist teaching.

    It is enlightening to watch my mother as she gets closer to the end here on earth. It is one experience of letting go after another. It is hard to imagine there is much left but there must be. She is doing it with such grace. She is teaching me a lot.

    My current daily prayer – Suspice.

    God bless you.

  • Anne Tanner

    This may be the ideal book for me right now. I’m coming to the end of a long term as junior warden and vestry member at my church, during which I grew used to having church business intrude frequently–sometimes very frequently–when I would try to contemplate. However, someone has to do it, so I’d grin and head off to settle the argument about paint color or where the dolly should be kept or why we had ordered styrofoam cups or where we keep the gluten-free crackers. It’s been an interesting and occasionally oddly fulfilling job, but now her words, “rise from meditation,” send chills down my spine. Imagine that! Time to meditate. I can’t wait.

    But once you’ve grown used to being a go-to person, transition does not come easily, I suspect. I’ll need her help to let go.

  • Anne Tanner

    This may be the ideal book for me right now. I’m coming to the end of a long term as junior warden and vestry member at my church, during which I grew used to having church business intrude frequently–sometimes very frequently–when I would try to contemplate. However, someone has to do it, so I’d grin and head off to settle the argument about paint color or where the dolly should be kept or why we had ordered styrofoam cups or where we keep the gluten-free crackers. It’s been an interesting and occasionally oddly fulfilling job, but now her words, “rise from meditation,” send chills down my spine. Imagine that! Time to meditate. I can’t wait.

    But once you’ve grown used to being a go-to person, transition does not come easily, I suspect. I’ll need her help to let go.

  • Stephen Locher

    A superb and insightful review of one of the great books of contemporary western Buddhist practice. Who would have dreamed that our elder years could be such a marvelous opportunity? Lori, you have caught what has been the essence of this book for me in this eighth decade of life – how encouraging to hear another oar splashing in the same water!

  • Stephen Locher

    A superb and insightful review of one of the great books of contemporary western Buddhist practice. Who would have dreamed that our elder years could be such a marvelous opportunity? Lori, you have caught what has been the essence of this book for me in this eighth decade of life – how encouraging to hear another oar splashing in the same water!

  • annechien dik

    Although I had almost assured myself , standing before my bookshelves loaded with

    spiritual books, that apart from perhaps a book with meditations from whatever side

    it may come, I would not plunge in “just another book with spiritual insights and

    -instructions” I can’t help almost at once deciding to buy this one since it deals with

    exactly the items that I am facing now and I want to deepen my experience on this

    path more than anything in the world. In my experience until now I feel that this age

    – being in my eightees now – is in a way the best part of my life as far as lettting go

    and enjoying the “simple” daily pleasures are concerned. But I feel curious about

    the future . Not so much about what might happen to me but about the answers

    I might give.

    There is a deep longing for more wisdom and also for sharing this with others.

    Because of the way you introduce this book Holy Rover I have decided to run to

    the American Bookshop down town and buy it. Would it be a good idea to maybe

    share our experiences on this blog after a certain period? In what way it has

    influenced us? I might very well be the only one with this idea and that is also OK.

    Thanks again Holy Rover……

    • lori

      A splendid idea, Annechien! Let’s give people a couple of months to read this book and then I’ll open up a discussion about it on the Holy Rover. Many oars splashing in this water!

  • annechien dik

    Although I had almost assured myself , standing before my bookshelves loaded with

    spiritual books, that apart from perhaps a book with meditations from whatever side

    it may come, I would not plunge in “just another book with spiritual insights and

    -instructions” I can’t help almost at once deciding to buy this one since it deals with

    exactly the items that I am facing now and I want to deepen my experience on this

    path more than anything in the world. In my experience until now I feel that this age

    – being in my eightees now – is in a way the best part of my life as far as lettting go

    and enjoying the “simple” daily pleasures are concerned. But I feel curious about

    the future . Not so much about what might happen to me but about the answers

    I might give.

    There is a deep longing for more wisdom and also for sharing this with others.

    Because of the way you introduce this book Holy Rover I have decided to run to

    the American Bookshop down town and buy it. Would it be a good idea to maybe

    share our experiences on this blog after a certain period? In what way it has

    influenced us? I might very well be the only one with this idea and that is also OK.

    Thanks again Holy Rover……

    • lori

      A splendid idea, Annechien! Let’s give people a couple of months to read this book and then I’ll open up a discussion about it on the Holy Rover. Many oars splashing in this water!

  • wow.

    great post, just brought the book and looking forward to a lazy Sunday afternoon.

    keep up the great posts

    http://www.spiritual-contacts.co.uk

  • wow.

    great post, just brought the book and looking forward to a lazy Sunday afternoon.

    keep up the great posts

    http://www.spiritual-contacts.co.uk