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When I’m 62

June 3, 2013

by Stephen Damon

Yesterday, while I was working at my bookstore a woman came up to the front counter to purchase a copy of This is Getting Old, by Sue Moon, a long-time Zen student who practices at Everyday Zen Foundation with Norman Fischer. I told her that I knew the author and had read the book as we began a very interesting conversation about growing older. Yesterday was her 62nd birthday and she thought that it would be very fitting to read a book about aging. One thing led to another and before long we were talking about how we felt about what we had done with our lives. Eventually, we got to the “great question” of life and death.

The turning point of our conversation had to do with the question of whether or not we could’ve predicted how our lives would’ve turned out when we were still young. Both of us agreed that at the age of twenty it was impossible to have foreseen how our lives would eventually turn out. I added that while I couldn’t have foreseen that I would be doing what I am now doing, it did make sense. We could’ve left the conversation at this point and gone on with our respective days. But we didn’t. We continued to talk about our lives and the “questions behind the facts of our lives.” We talked about time, change, and causality.

I said that the uncertainty of the future, however it is defined, is the reality of our lives. I said that if we are honest we have to admit that we really don’t know and can’t know how the next moment will turn out. Yes, we have a better idea about the next moment than we do about the next year, but even so if we pay attention we see that new and unexpected things happen continually. I have this impression all the time when I am sitting zazen. When I am sitting I feel that one moment naturally leads to another according to the law of cause and effect, but if I pay close attention I do see that each moment is discrete and in a strange way is its own universe. Or maybe it is more exact to say that the universe renews itself or newly reveals itself from moment to moment. As Buddha said, living and dying occur several thousand times a second.
Talking in this way, everything seemed very new and fresh. I don’t think either one of us felt “middle-aged.” Talking honestly and openly about the serious questions of our lives invigorated us. We both felt “freshly alive.” Putting her new book under her arm she thanked me for our conversation and told me that today really did feel like a birth-day. I gently bowed and wished her a good day.

After she left, I felt more alive and present than I had in a long time. I felt that I had unexpectedly encountered something very deep and too subtle to be experienced very often. I felt that life, even an ordinary day at work, was essentially unknown and unknowable. No matter how much we know about ourselves and the world around us there is always more to find out, more to experience. I have noticed that the more “I know,” the less I feel that I know anything. I think this is because the more we learn about things, the more we see that they are bigger than us. We eventually see ourselves as we really are, or as Buddhists we might say that we see ourselves as we really are not. Only then are we free to experience each moment of our lives as it really is. When we do this, we can approach each moment with the same awe and wonder that we do when we walk out at night and look at a sky full of stars.

Many things have changed in my life over the years, but one thing that has not changed is the feeling of awe and wonder that I experience when I come up against reality as it really is. I used to have to look up at the stars to get that feeling, but now I have learned that what I need to do is Turn around the light to shine within, then just return. The vast inconceivable source can’t be faced or turned away from. (Soanka—Song of the Grass Hut.)


From → Zen Buddhism

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