"Let me keep my mind on what matters
Which is mostly standing still
And learning to be astonished"

~ Mary Oliver ~

Monday, May 20, 2013


Spirit Rock retreat offered by Anna Douglas, James Baraz and Eugene Cash
May 13 – 19, 2013
A summary by Ada Glustein

How fortunate I was to be able to attend this retreat at Spirit Rock, California.  For a week we "sat" in a beautiful rotunda, the outdoors surrounded by trees, wildlife, sunshine and fresh air.  The food was all vegetarian and very high quality.  Each of the participants in the retreat was over 55 years of age and shared in an assigned task during the week so that we all had opportunities to give and to receive.  Below, I've summarized the content of the retreat, and the many learnings that I have taken from the teachers and fellow practitioners.

“People are working longer.”  “People are living longer.”  “Practising mindfulness meditation together is reducing the aging of our genes, cells, brain, and cognitive capacity, a huge impact on human consciousness.”
In light of current research on aging, our years beyond the stress and responsibility of a work life give us time to devote to our spiritual life.  We can look within and reflect, using the Dharma teachings as our road map.  While useful at any age, the Dharma can give us insight into the challenges we face and the questions we ask as we explore the meaning and purpose of our lives.

As we take refuge in the Buddha, we are asked to acknowledge that we have wisdom ourselves; honour that potential and availability.  Taking refuge in the Dharma, we can explore the truth of how things are, without judgment or fixing, trusting that life gives us just what we need at every stage; show up fully, see things as they are.  Taking refuge in the Sangha, the community of all those with whom we practise and all those who have gone before, provides us with great company and support for this time of opportunity in our lives; receive and contribute with others.

Emphasized throughout the retreat was awareness of our own experience. Our culture is obsessed with products for anti-aging and  remaining youthful; condemns and excludes us for being “over the hill,”  no longer relevant or mentally incompetent.  If we keep a beginner’s mind, open to what comes, we remain vital, alive.  Possibilities still abound.  If we accept the prevalent cultural definitions, there is little freedom, and if we define ourselves, even as experts, seeing all, knowing all, we also close off opportunity and possibility.

In exploring our own experience and reality, we took an investigative approach.  The teachers led us in some contemplative inquiry both silently alone and in groups of two or three. We examined such questions as: 
  • What are you aware of at this time of your life? Right here, right now? Your experience of thoughts, worries, fears, body sensations, the sights, sounds, tastes and emotional states of aging?
  • What do you know about practice and waking up?  What do you not know?
  • Who would you be without your story?
Through group interviews and individual interviews with the teachers, through our inquiries and investigations and through the Dharma talks given daily, we came to better understand and gained insight into our many and varied experiences of aging:

Seeing the impermanence of all things – (anicca) -- learning to love ourselves in this uncharted and changing territory of the aging body and in our changing identities.  Are we kind and appreciative of these changes?  Can we see beauty in the weathering?  Are we stuck?  Haven’t we learned anything?  Do we have fixed expectations of wisdom? Who am I now?  Do I think less of myself for having to walk slower?  Or “sit” on a chair?  Do I still identify as “the smart one in the family,” or “the mediator” or “the clown” or “the baby”?  We need to see the power of our authenticity and vulnerability, the losses and the letting go of those identities which have defined us in the past.  Can we open up in kindness to the flaws and beauty of the goodness that is the essence of who we are? Even in death, the body continues to change.  Impermanence, though leading to uncertainty, also means possibility and opportunity.  Death follows naturally on aging and illness in our later lives.  This is how things are, universally.  To open to this truth is to open to liberation – Anicca vata sankhara.

Seeing the truth of suffering – (dukkha) – to recognize our pursuit of the pleasant and pleasureful, our clinging to how we think things should be – to know that all things “arise and they pass away” – Are we stuck in an endless cycle of searching for the fountain of youth?  Strangely, “absence of pleasure is a pain to the young, while absence of pain is a pleasure to the old!”  Do we remain obsessed by desire all our lives?  When is enough enough?  Can we let go of our treasures, diplomas, gifts, papers, beauty, cognitive ability, memory?  Perhaps all we need to keep is a wholesome way of being in the world.  Taking care of the aging body in the West is remembering to take our pills – but the heart/mind is more important to care for.  Ram Dass says, “Aging is suffering when you haven’t made friends with change.”

Learning not to take what is not self to be self – (anatta) – We construct our “selves” into fixed identities, solid beings, but these constructions may not be true.  Who are you right now?  What beliefs do you hold as truths of yourself as you age?  “I’m done.”  “It’s over.”  “I’ll never be worth anything now that I am old.” “You can’t expect me to change at this stage of the game.”  These are stories.  Just as we constructed such stories of ourselves in the past:  “I am young, energetic, have prowess and skill.”  We thought it would last forever.  When is the moment of death?  Does our self end with the last breath? With the last heartbeat?  When the brain stops functioning?  Or when my name is spoken for the last time on earth?  The “story of me” will one day disappear into the vast silence.  How do we relate to that silence?  The self remains a mystery, with no location, no neurological evidence.  The search for self results in “not finding” and “not finding” is the “finding”.  We may be only processes – no thinker, no teller, no taster.  Identity is a view, a description, a conclusion.  Can we release the burden of all those words?  How does it feel to do that?

The retreat ended with the beginning of a fresher view on aging and death.  Birth-and-Death are forever connected.  We experience them with each breath we take.  They are part of practice.  The Maranassati Sutta,  mindfulness of death, tells us to pay attention to the reality of birthing and dying, in ourselves and in others.  We misunderstand that our form will last forever, but we do know that everybody dies.  “Of all the mindfulness practices,” we are told, “mindfulness of death is supreme.” “Use our lives to prepare for death.”  Death is a mirror to give meaning to life.  

 With understanding, we can choose to live a life of virtue, contemplative understanding and wisdom as we move more and more into harmony with the way things are.  Coming face-to-face with death, we can see our impermanence.  It doesn’t really matter if we hang the picture, or get the latest iPhone, or worry ourselves sick over what to make for dinner.  What matters is our moment-to-moment awareness, the recognition of our momentariness, the arising and the passing of it, and the living reality of now – the only moment of life. Death is inevitable.  We are uncertain of when.  The Dharma can help us to handle this time of life skilfully.

The Sage
From the Sage’s Tao de Ching by William Martin

The sage does not retire from life.
The sage retires from unhappiness.
Images of silver-haired couples,
strolling on golf courses and basking on resort beaches,
distort the idea of retirement.
Retirement is about doing what we should always have been doing:
Living freely and happily with joy and compassion for all.
You do not need to add to your IRA (RRSP) for another five years 
in order to retire.
Retire now!
Retire from worry.
Retire from the pursuit of possessions.
Retire from complaining.
Retire from the strain of seeking security.
Retire from unhappiness.
Enjoy the moments given you.
Love the people around you.
Live the life offered you.