The Zen of Aging

Crystal Spider Web

Crystal Spider Web

Through most of my thirties, I spent my dreamtimes following cobbled streets that angled into mysterious alleyways and climbing wide stone steps that descended to destinations I never reached. In the mornings, I’d hurriedly make breakfasts and the kids’ lunches and wait for the bus to take me to the subway and then into the slab of concrete office building where I did psychological research at the University of Toronto. Through long Canadian winters with skies the color of cement, my eyes would ache for the green hills and shining rivers of Someplace Else. I never actually put such thoughts into words. I only felt them.

I think a lot of us do that when we’re in the middle part of our lives. We put our heads down and show up and get dinner on the table and try to remember about the goodness of life when we can get the time. Meanwhile, some compass needle is turning and turning inside us, seeking for somewhere or something that feels true.

I didn’t know that I was searching for something. I never actually got that far. All I knew was that what I needed didn’t seem to be where I was.

As often as I could, I went looking for what was missing. Usually, I traveled with my Korean Zen Master, Seung Sahn Soen Sa Nim. Our ultimate trip, the one I took after I eventually left my position at the university, was around the world in 80 days (on an airline special.) There were six of us, including Soen Sa Nim: five Buddhist monks and Zen dharma teachers, joined at times by Buddhist ladies wearing short grey robes (Korea), assorted students wanting to travel with a Zen master (India, Khatmandu), writers, poets and others too varied to name.

We slept on down comforters laid upon heated monastery floors in the Korean mountains, circumnambulated the sacred Bodhi tree in India, and chanted the Heart Sutra in St. Mark’s Square in the rain. Teaching retreats across Europe, we settled like squatters with our hot plates and kettles. At night we slept in aged velvet flocked bedrooms in London and during the day taught dharma in the polished wood resonance of university halls. In Poland we slept on apartment floors, side by side with our students, and woke to give retreats in vast high school gymnasiums. Shifting from our long grey robes in Seoul into dresses and suits for dinners with Soen Sa Nim’s students in Paris and Rome, we were always moving, barely able to keep track of the exchange rates and eating customs for each new day.

If ever there were an advanced course for someone who believed the answers lay outside herself, who thought that happiness lay in some special place with some special person, this round the world Zen was it. If I longed on Tuesday for the exquisite silence of the mountain monastery we’d had on Monday, Tuesday’s noisy dinner party with its dozens of tables and endless courses (Leave no food on your plate! You will insult our hostess.) was misery. If I secretly delighted in being able to blend into our gaggle of grey robed Zen students and monks, free from my old tiresome identity, Soen Sa Nim would announce loudly to his wealthy supporters. “Ah, this is my student, Shari. A very famous professor from Canada. Very important!”

Laughing and shaking his big stick, he’d shout at us to let go of all our positions, opinions, preferences. “Don’t be attached to your I-My-Me!” he’d say. “Only go straight. Don’t Know! Soon your mind will be clear like space. Ten thousand miles— no clouds. Ten thousand miles—blue sky.”

I wish I could say that I got it then. That in 80 days I really did find my blue sky mind. But no! I developed a powerful new attachment– to non-attachment. Strolling through my neighborhood in Toronto at dusk, looking into the lighted windows of the stone mansions of Rosedale, I’d looking pityingly at the people who lived inside. Caught! I’d think. Trapped in their thick walled tombs, surrounded by stuff.

As if Stuff were the problem. Somewhere along the way in the thirty years since then, I’ve stopped regarding furniture and houses and the color of the sky as encumbrances to my freedom. And I’ve stopped trying to leave home. Sitting in the dark this morning, I look out of my back window as the first rays of the sun bring the redwoods into form. A truck going past on the street below slips a soft rush through my open window. Sipping my ever present cup of tea, I marvel how good it is to be in the dailyness of life.

How did this happen? How did I go from longing to leave home to feeling at home so much of the time? At home doesn’t mean this house, this little corner of land next to the marsh in Novato, California. It means: here. Being here, in the middle of my actual life. It means not having to go or get or do something else somewhere else. So to say I’m at home is a sort of code word for being at ease, being open to what happens to be unfolding through me in the ordinary moments of my days. And the surprise of it, the blessing of being at home like this to whatever happens to come down the pike is that simply being is pure pleasure. When you feel at home like this, there isn’t any thing you could do, anything you need to know, and way you need to be that would make it better.

* * *

I imagine how my younger self with react to this point of view:

67ish self: Life’s really good now, you know. Just being here, drinking tea, watching the finches fly around the bird feeder. So rich and fulfilling.

30ish self: Oh for god’s sakes!

67: I wish I could tell you what it’s like not to feel something’s always missing, not to think you have to do something or get somewhere to be fulfilled. I wish you could know now what’s possible for you as you grow older.

30: Yeah, and I wish I could believe you, but I don’t. The truth is that your life looks boring to me. Where’s your ambition? I’ve got ambition pumping all the time, to make things happen, to help people, to, you know, get enlightened.

67: I know.

30: I feel like I have to really go after what’s important, be totally focused because if I’m not, nothing will happen. It’s not all about me. It’s about doing good things in the world and my spiritual practice and being a good mom and a good friend.

67: The thing is, the sense of who you are and how you have to be the center of all that doing starts to ease up after awhile. You find out that things develop without your having to force them. If a door opens, you walk through. If it doesn’t open, you can knock. If it still doesn’t open, it’s not your door.

30: If it doesn’t open, I’ll keep knocking and shove or kick it open. I’m not a quitter. I don’t walk away!

67: I remember.

When I was still in my thirties and forties, if anyone had told me I would feel the way I do now, I wouldn’t have believed them. I never dreamed that my older self would be experiencing reality in ways that I could not fathom.

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  1. joan fenold says:

    Hi Sherry,
    I’ve heard of you for so many years now and just found your blog through an email from Roger Housden.
    So just read this sharing of yours and felt understood…also watched the film…I’d love to meet you…
    At the end of October I will be starting the two-year program through Spirit Rock…”Heavenly Messengers…”
    I am 72 now…for the past 8 years I’ve been practicing awareness with Everyday Zen…Norman Fischer…
    feel very grateful for this…I look forward to reading your book…Warmly, Joan

    • Hi Joan,
      I’ve heard of you too, so it’s lovely to get your message and also to hear that you’ll be starting the Spirit Rock program and have been practicing Zen for many years. So many common currents. I hope you enjoy Ripening Time and would like to meet you too.

  2. Leonaine Dixon says:

    I just found you after all these years that have flown by after Your first book which I devoured and gave away as quickly asi read over and over……I am now 77 and recently retired for the 2nd, 3rd time and really trying to get through this but I must do something phase, not easy, I so look forward to your new book……thank you for writing……leonaine

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