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Middle Age: Envisioning the Rest of our Lives

My dad, while he was dying of colon cancer, told me during one particularly irksome procedure over the toilet, "Darlene, don't ever get old." This remark is of course poignant only because of its unspoken aspect: In order not to age you'd have to die. My Dad often held off the anguish of his difficult aging process with self-mockery. "I'm so old," he used to say, "I knew God's parents. . . "

When I was 28 years old, I came to the San Francisco Zen Center with a definite goal in mind: entering the Nirvana of my psychedelic drug raptures and never coming out. After achieving permanent bliss-mind I could leave Zen Center, an irritatingly tedious place, and do something with my life, start a business, teach philosophy, give advice: In and out with a minimum of fuss. I never expected the tedium to give way to an exploration of consciousness so compelling, I didn't want to do anything else, and then to stay at Zen Center so long. What I'm starting to realize now is that in abandoning that early plan to hit and run, I've incidentally spent most of my adult life preparing for sickness, old age and death. A few years ago I began to notice that each spring I had the same kind of sweet, melancholy stirrings in my chest that I feel when golden light and turning leaves signal the death of summer. I noted this with some ambivalence: on the one hand, glad as usual to be pulled out of my preoccupation with meeting deadlines by the natural world, but also vaguely disturbed by this new shift in my seasonal attention.

Why am I feeling this way? I suspect because I've begun to recognize that there is a limit to how many more times these ardent bursts of pinks and yellows will halt me in my path. How many more times will I be liberated from my current suffering by the subtle fragrances that begin to sweeten winter's chilly air? When I confided these musings to a Dharma teacher during a weekend retreat recently, she nodded and said, "This is a body understanding of impermanence."

I began to want to hear about lots of other people's experiences, so my friend Basya Petnick suggested that we begin bringing middle-aged people together at Zen Center for an afternoon of talk and play, meditation, and physical movement. The first time we did this, we didn't have a solid plan; we wanted to find out what people were thinking about their aging process. . . . .We talked for awhile about how the afternoon had re-oriented many of us toward our deepest values which tend to get disregarded in the Bay Area culture's current single-minded scramble to acquire wealth and property. We also felt the stimulation of new perspectives, ways to manifest old yearnings, all of our thinking moving us further away from our youth-obsessed culture's pathology about aging. One woman's final remarks caused an epiphany in me. She said, "Our generation has seen itself as a collective since we were young. We were focussed then on community and developing new ways to live and to help each other. We'll do the same now as we age. We'll set up households together, share our resources, reinforce each other's commitments to our shared values. Whatever happens, we'll go through it together just like we did decades ago." Then someone else spoke up, "Yeah, and if we get desperate, we can always get into gangs and mug young people!"

Since that illuminating afternoon, I have been part of several more such workshops with Basya, even a six-day one with Daya Goldschlag at Tassajara this past summer. We ask people by way of introducing themselves, "What was the event or thought that made you realize you were getting older?" I think this part of the workshop is my favorite. I'm really engaged by people's accounts: resentment of the subtle ageism at work as middle-aged wage-earners adjust to having bosses much younger than they are; chagrin at the new anonymity on the street, nobody looks or flirts anymore; the shock upon the second parent's death of becoming simultaneously an orphan and the new matriarch/patriarch of the family -- the next in line to die; irritation at being offered the senior citizen's discount without asking for it; the long struggle denying physical changes by people who have been athletic all their lives; and finally for all of us, realizing that your dentist or the cop that pulls you over is younger than your 1children. The fact is that the everything we cherish, including our bodies and our way of life, is impermanent . . . . .

The only sanctuary I know of is the present moment. And as aging people, we have more permission than anyone else to fully exploit this truth. Unlike young people who are (quite properly so) in the process of inventing their identities and struggling to reify them in the world, we are in the process of giving up identifying with certain things and instead learning to become more fluid, more immediate. We are moving past identities, trying on not having a hard and fast one, kind of like practicing karate: poised, ready for anything. We have the liberty of asking ourselves: What habits do I have to change in order to live the rest of my life the way I want to? We challenge our old ways of thinking about "I," what "I" must be like or what "I" should do, and begin to live more experientially. . . . . .

My husband Tony got to 60 years old first. I asked him how it felt. He said "It feels just like I'm young, except with a bad case of the flu."


-- Excerpted from an article by Darlene Cohen which appeared in Turning Wheel, Winter 2001



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