Norman gives a talk on Wise Aging to the Garrison Institute
Zoketsu Norman Fischer
Abridged and edited by Anne Johnson, Barbara Byrum and Cynthis Schrager
Let’s begin with a short, traditional, Buddhist guided meditation:
Return your awareness to your body and be as present as you can be. Create some space inside for reflection, for contemplation. I am going to go through a traditional series of four reflections. I’ll say each one and then leave space for you to breathe with the feeling of the reflection and then see what comes up in you in response.
The first one is: The preciousness and the rarity of a human life.
I think we all understand that life is a miracle, and we really don’t know how it happens. Among all the teeming forms of life on the planet earth, human life is unique and special in its own particular way: to have consciousness, language, thought, emotion. To be able to feel love, beauty, anguish, delight. Think of the vastness of space all around us. In other galaxies and universes, who knows how many creatures there are in this vastness like you, like us? It’s really an incredible privilege. It’s such a rare, rare thing to be a human being. So this is the first reflection: the rarity and the preciousness of this human life.
The second reflection: The absolute inevitability of death.
Everything that is born will die. We don’t know exactly when. We can never know exactly when or exactly how. But we know that it does come. Death does come. And what does this mean to us?
And the third reflection: The absolute inevitability of suffering.
I certainly hope, we all hope, that there is very little suffering that we are going to have to experience. We hope that we will maintain our health and our good state of mind our whole lives through. And that may be possible. We hope so. Nevertheless, there is no human life, even the most fortunate, that escapes some suffering. There is always some suffering. The suffering of loss, disappointment, disrespect, depression, despair. The pain of anger, anguish. Physical pain. The pain of saying good-bye to what we love. No human life escapes suffering. And what is this suffering for and what does it mean to us?
And the fourth reflection: The indelible power of all of our actions.
That means all of our thoughts, all of our words, and all of our actions in our lifetime. These all have a power. And when we come to the end of our life, no one is going to be able to accompany us all the way. We hope that we will be fortunate enough to have loved ones nearby, but they can’t come very far with us along that road. And when we are alone, it will be the state of our mind and heart, shaped by a lifetime of thoughts and words and deeds, that will be all that we have to help us face whatever there is to face at the end. How have we lived? How have we worked with our minds, our hearts? What kind of effort have we made? Can we make? Will we make?
BELL RINGS THREE TIMES.
The Buddhists like to scare us by reminding us, even when we are twenty-five years old, of old age and death. Because maybe if we think about it, if we actually think about it and imagine it, it will give us the incentive to take care of our mind and heart, to prepare ourselves spiritually for the challenges that will certainly come. Maybe this is not our story, but we have some story. And it does give you pause, doesn’t it? Will I be ready? Will I be able to handle what I’m given, with dignity? Will I be able to be there with my family and friends and with myself?
I am sure you all know the story of the Buddha’s life. He was a young person in his twenties, a very privileged person, healthy and strong, intelligent. But he saw a sick person, somebody with a grave illness. Then he saw an old person, and then he saw a corpse. Even though he was young, he realized that no one can escape sickness, old age and death. This is a common phrase in Buddhist practice: jaramarana – sickness, old age and death. Then he saw a spiritual person, a monastic, a wanderer, someone who had decided to voluntarily let go and not wait until he was forced to let go by circumstances, but to voluntarily let go. He saw a person who was devoting himself or herself to spiritual practice as a way of confronting and coping with the realities of sickness, old age and death. That’s when the young prince Siddhartha decided he too would follow that course. The Buddha became a spiritual seeker, and for forty-five years he shared his insights, until he too became old. But he didn’t die. Yes, his life ended. But he didn’t die because the definition of death in his eyes was resistance, not being willing to embrace every moment. Embracing the last moment is not called death. In Buddhism it is called Parinirvana: complete extinction.
I feel that I should be responsible to other people in my life; I should take really good care of myself and have a good life. Right? We all need to do that. We all need to take really good care of ourselves and have a really good life for the other people in our life, even if we don’t care about ourselves, thinking, It’s too late for me, I don’t care anymore! But the other people do care, so for them I better exercise every day and eat right and take care of myself. And I better take care of my emotional life and my social life. We all need to do that to be responsible to the people we love.
I think we need to reflect on these four reflections. Suffering is inevitable, death is inevitable, and we really have to get ourselves ready to face these things. If taking care of ourselves means we are pretending these things don’t come, then I think we are being really short-sighted. That’s why the spiritual dimension of our lives is so important, that we take time for reflection, that we develop strength and confidence and faith in the breath, and faith in the space that is larger than ourselves. That we realize that this life that animates us never did belong to us. And when we release ourselves to a life larger than our own, we will know what to do when the time comes. This has to be a daily practice for us, however we do it: daily prayer, daily reflection, daily meditation, daily conversation, daily looking up at the sky, daily looking at the trees, daily breathing, daily feeling our body. Every day we have to cultivate this.
I want to read to you a little piece of an essay that I wrote called Late Work. It’s about poetry. It’s from a volume of mine that recently came out called Experience: Thinking, Writing, Language and Religion. It was a very interesting experience to publish this book called Experience, because it’s a collection of forty years of essays about thinking, writing, language and religion. I guess I have been thinking about this stuff for forty years: the earliest essays are from the early 1970s and the latest essays are from 2015. During the time I was compiling this volume, including searching through my archives, an archivist was working on thirty years of my early notebooks and papers that I have been carting around. He was going to ship them off to the UC-Berkeley Library, which has my papers. So I was waving good-bye to a literal truckload of boxes—which was not that easy even though I hadn’t looked at them in thirty years. I started looking at them, when the archivist said, “Look at this!” I was amazed. Oh no! It’s all going. Now that I find out what’s in there, it’s all going! So it made me feel like I was already dead! Like, Oh, he was an interesting person. Look at that!
Anyway, this was an essay called “Late Work.” It is about poetry and the late work of poets, but I hope you will be able to listen closely and find yourself in it as well. So it begins by talking about reading, how a poet reads. But maybe this is how you read too, or maybe it has to do with other things in your life that are not reading.
For me I suppose as for any poet, reading is more than reading. It has the weight of religious vocation, identity—crucial and central to one’s purpose. For me as for any poet, reading extends life, gets a grip on it—reading is as real as life if not more.
One of the benefits of being older is maybe we will have time to read. Reading is a tremendous spiritual practice.
I am an amateur poet I hope in the best sense of the word. Writing and reading have been a love, not a livelihood. Because of this I have not had to read seriously and well. I read crookedly and spottily, meandering unsystematically according to interest, need, and chance, with no point of view to support, defend, master or attack. I have not read for much more than to keep company with poets—to enjoy a connection, different and possibly more intimate than I have had with people in the flesh, within the stream of what’s written in the language that’s shaped me. To encounter poets in their works at the depths of myself. As I have needed and hoped for. Such reading has made my life somehow more real. In the midst of it, I have found poets whose works struck me so startlingly that I have spent my life wishing I had written them—until I became finally convinced that I had written them.
That’s what writing feels like to me.
Yet from the outside, in what they now call (even in reference to poetry) “the marketplace,” that great give and take of ideas and reputations, poets have careers, points of view, territories to stake out among their contemporaries and in history. Generally an important poet is discovered to be important at some budding time of life, usually early, sometimes later. But certainly by the time an important poet is forty-five or fifty, his or her importance will have been noticed and proclaimed by those whose business or interest it is to notice and proclaim. This notice and proclamation then become the mark of that particular poet. Certain of his or her works, styles or interventions are singled out as exemplary and referenced. The poet can’t help but notice this—probably he or she intended it from the start—and then, if the poet is lucky, he or she will continue to build a body of work on the foundation of this reputation: a career, something useful in the world.
All this is objectively the case. Subjectively, poetry’s most potent manifestation is otherwise. Important poets and their important works are important. The rest (the actual inexpressible experience of reading and writing—its effect on the silent life we barely know and are living) is easily forgotten because it’s so subjective and vague. You can barely talk about it. But what’s “importance?” What is poetry for us struggling persons? Maybe important poetry is less important than unimportant poetry. Maybe what we are looking for sometimes in a poem isn’t something important but something unimportant, something private we stumble into and hear in ways we know are not so important, can’t argue for, can’t see any social or cultural usefulness in. Important poems are known, written about and discussed. We know what they mean. We know why they are important. Their importance rings in our ears.
Usually a poet’s important poetry is written early or in mid-career. Usually late works are not so important (there are exceptions to this, of course—always exceptions—late Yeats, late Williams, others). After the important works have been written, the particular genius of the particular poet having been fully developed, there comes the inevitable self-repetition (with reduced excitement). Next comes the loss of vitality and then maybe finally the terrible whimpering sounds of poems of complaint or confusion leading to the inevitable silence. Anyway, most of us prefer life, hope, energy, desire, promise, engagement (and answers) to death, despair, sorrow, grief, hopelessness (and the unanswerable)—and since this latter list is most likely to characterize late work, late work in inherently unappealing—and unimportant. Poetry’s point is to build great works for great cultures—not to dampen enthusiasm. So no, late works are not important. But if poetry like life is cumulative–the present always including the whole of the past—so there’s more resonance, more thickness in time as time in a life goes on—
You notice this when you get older, time has a thicker quality. Do you know what I am talking about? Because every minute, even though you are not conscious of it, you are living it through the entire lens of the past.
…and if poetry, like life, isn’t so much a building of something as the dwelling within a body in a place at a time—then it would stand to reason that late works would always be the most important works—even if they are unimportant.
So I think you can see how this applies to any of us in our own late work. And I think because like the rest of the world we are focused on what’s important, what’s relevant, what’s valuable, we can feel diminished when we’re not so important and relevant and valuable. But actually, what’s important may not be that stuff, and now we have a chance to find out what it is.
To conclude, I have a poem I’ll share with you. I thought it would be very appropriate for the moment. This is from a 2005 collection of poetry called I Was Blown Back. The poem doesn’t have a title.
Being old isn’t
The bodily sensations are pleasant, unpleasant
Interpreted in reference to memory
Obey the social contract of age, agreement, designation
Imputed on reading a face in the mirror
Which with advancing age
In reference to a fixture in the soul of self’s melodious repetition
Is an object of questioning
Searching look in eyes’ brightness
All ages persist as one always
There’s no old or young, but additions
In the inventory of resignations
In the fact of the face
Or as the face
In what comes and goes
In and out
So this poem reminds me of what Rachel was saying earlier. Let’s not let ourselves be captive of ideas about aging that simply are not true. Or, if they are true, they are not the only truth. Let’s not reduce ourselves to those concepts. Old age isn’t. There isn’t any old age really. It’s a social concept. It’s a designation. So let’s not pretend that it doesn’t exist. We accept that social conception because we live in society but let’s not leave it at that. Let’s go a little deeper.
Self’s melodious repetition. The person we are is like a melody, a song, that we have been singing all this time. And the song just gets better and deeper and more interesting and more complex. We keep repeating it and every time we repeat it, it’s different, when we look at our own face in the mirror or somebody that we’ve known. I’ve been married for forty years. I look at my wife and she is still twenty-three. I can see the twenty-three under the sixty-five. And it’s there in me. And she sees it in me and I can see it in myself. And that’s why we are so dismayed when we look in the mirror: I can’t believe it! I’m still twenty-three, I’m fifteen! Who is that person? Well it’s true: you are still fifteen. You are still twenty-three. Who is that person? Good question. We should be asking: who is that person, silently coming in and out the opening? Who is that? Coming in and out the opening? Forever? Forever? There is a lot here to be discovered. We will never get to the bottom of it. We will never get to the bottom of it.