Lately I find myself engaging with friends in an ancient and revered form of discourse whose origins lie in the dim past of humanity. To take part in this talking ritual requires only that you have reached a certain age and are willing to expose yourself thoroughly. I am referring to the art and practice of “geezing.”
Often it starts with an innocent greeting such as, “How are you?” When we were younger the answer was usually, “Fine, how are you?” Lately however, with friends of a certain age, I find that the question will open into an extended discourse about health and aging, reminiscent of the classic Buddhist reflection on the thirty-two parts of the body—a report on the liver, lungs, joints, muscles, kidneys, heart—a conversation sometimes known as “the organ recital.”
Geezing can be about any part or function of the body. So, for instance, I notice that I’m not as steady on my feet as I used to be. While I’m not actually stumbling, I am wobbling a little. What should I have expected? I’ve been carrying this oversized head around on two thin legs for almost seven decades now. It’s a balancing act, and gravity is beginning to win. I am Homo erectus, looking for a place to lie down for a while.
But geezing is not just about physical infirmities. There are mental ones as well. At one geezing gathering, after cursing our loss of memory, a few of us came up with a memory game. It’s probably a good brain exercise, and also offers a Dharma teaching—revealing the impermanence of cultures and beliefs and how much we are defined by our moment in history. I made a list of some of our memories. We start every line with the phrase, “I’m so old I remember…”
Recently during a session of geezing, I looked around at my friends and realized that the map of their faces had become topographic, the wrinkles sculpted into the masks they wear: the eye edges crinkled from decades of smiles and squints; the worry canyons etched into a forehead; the pensive valleys around a mouth, disappearing into the growing folds of the neck skin. It was as if their personalities had emerged onto their faces.
By the way, speaking of the exposed epidermis, I finally figured out why we get those little age spots that appear on our skin as we grow older: It is nature’s way of marking us as part of the next group to be taken. Yikes!
In recent sessions of geezing I find myself trying to put a positive spin on aging. Look at it this way: you wouldn’t want to be facing death with a youthful mind and body now, would you? Think of all the fun you could still have! But aging forces you to give it up, piece by piece. And when there is hardly any energy left in the body, and it hurts here and it hurts there, and your definition of fun is a long nap, then you might consider death as not so terrible. It all fits together. We bow in gratitude for it all, including aging and death.
Recently I was sitting around with a few friends, and we began speculating on death, what happens next, where we will be going. One of my friends—someone who has actually read the Abhidhamma in Pali—said that what happens after death depends on conditions at the moment we die. He warns us, only half joking, “If you die with lust in your heart, you may come back as a rabbit.”
“I’m not going to start worrying about my next life,” I reply, “because I’m still not done worrying about this one. Besides, I don’t really believe in reincarnation, so I’ve got nothing to worry about. In fact, the only thing I have to worry about is nothing.”
Indeed, a lot of my practice these days is to make nothingness more real, to bring it into focus. I’m scouting out the territory. I often do it at the end of each exhale—plunging myself into the void along with my breath. At some moment in the future there will be no following in-breath.
Jorge Luis Borges has a wonderful line about what happens at the end: “Death is just infinity closing in.”
Meanwhile, two distinct moods seem to accompany my aging, both deepening with the passing days. One is poignancy, a sense of fragility and loss in the midst of all experience. I see a family playing with their children on the swings in the park, and while I delight in the scene I know how quickly those moments will evaporate. I also realize that I will not have those particular worldly joys again. And when I am laughing and joking with my daughter I sometimes feel the grief of our parting. How does one “let go” of such worldly delights?
Wandering the hills of Northern California, I carry the realization that I will someday be leaving this place I love, forever. Never again will I see the great pines waving through the in-flowing fog, or the gnarled sculpture of the oaks standing firm, or smell the vibrant decay of the woods punctuated with the tang of fennel and eucalyptus—all of it will vanish, along with my senses themselves.
Lately I find that I am missing myself in the world, ahead of time.
The poignancy that I feel is occasionally associated with my own diminishing possibilities. I don’t expect to become a whole lot happier or stronger or more successful than I am now, or even more enlightened. Okay, so I might be able to inch a little closer to “the deathless state.” But it better happen soon.
I know that this poignancy is a symptom of my love for the world and my attachment to being alive in it. Luckily, in counterpoint to the poignancy runs a growing disenchantment with it all. That feeling may simply be age-appropriate to older people, but it is also possible that the teachings of the Buddha have finally taken hold in me. I figure that either I am becoming enlightened, or just plain bored.
I am growing tired of seeking new and exciting experiences. There are a few places on the planet that I would still like to visit—the Galápagos, Mongolia—and a good movie or a fine dim sum restaurant or the sight of a beautiful woman can still spark my interest and delight. But I admit to having grown somewhat “pleasure weary.” Maybe it’s because I have had plenty of pleasure in my life and have arrived at a place where most experience is a rerun. You know, “Been there, done that.” Also, more and more frequently the effort to make something pleasant happen is simply not worth the payoff.
Maybe my disenchantment is because our world has, in fact, lost some of its innocence and shine. Could it be that my own decline and fall is running parallel to that of my civilization? On second thought, this displeasure with one’s culture is probably just another age-appropriate sentiment, one that has been a prime motivation for geezing through the ages. The perennial discussion usually begins with the phrase, “Back when I was a kid…”
That said, let me admit for the record that I don’t like much of the music the kids are listening to these days. (I never thought I would say such a thing.) The lyrics are often incomprehensible and most of the ones that I do understand I would rather not. There is usually no melody worthy of humming and the synthesized electronic drones and drumbeats are just annoying to me. I could go on about my lack of enthusiasm for contemporary art, theater, movies, books, and journalism, but maybe all my complaints about modern culture are simply due to the fact that I’ve consumed so much of it over the years. I am stuffed.
There is a more lofty way to look at my disenchantment. It may indeed be a sign that I have reached a new place on the path of realization, the one announced in the Puralasa Sutta, where it proclaims that for the Buddha, “The intoxication of being has been destroyed and eliminated.”
The Buddha was certainly no romantic. He even warned us against becoming attached to those we love, as in the discourse entitled, “Suffering Born of Those Who Are Dear.” Yes, the Buddha does call this human life “precious,” but that is because humans can understand themselves and end the stream of karma, thereby escaping another birth. The primary goal of this life is to become a “non-returner.”
I sometimes feel that being alive is more of a burden than a blessing, but I am somewhat ashamed of this sentiment. I was brought up in a culture of humanism that cherishes life, and trying to escape another turn on the wheel feels as if I am betraying my own cause, devaluing everything that I love.
Nonetheless, when I hear that life is not a desirable condition, I often feel a sense of relief. If life is not supposed to be easy or enjoyable or filled with obvious meaning, then I can relax. I’m not getting it wrong. This is just the way life on this planet is designed.
So at times my disenchantment with the world and life feels like liberation. The risk is that, for me, that feeling too easily slips into indifference, a cold, brittle place where “nothing matters.” It is equanimity on ice.
Besides, I much prefer the feeling that comes from loving the world. (I’m sure evolution wanted us to love it.) I’m talking about the big love here, where you take the whole of creation into your heart, warts and all, and say, “Yes. This is worth all the pain and confusion!” I can get into a sweet place wandering the edges of jhana or catching a glimpse of the radiance of mind, but the older I get, the more I look for my satisfaction in loving. If I have to pay the price of a little poignancy or a sense of impending loss, then so be it.
So, love is the answer, again. And one thing I love to do is sit around with a bunch of friends who have lived through this era and culture with me, and have a good session of laughing and geezing—about the Dharma and the drama and the long strange trip it’s been.