GROWING OLD … AND AWARE
Peter Bolland is the
chair of the humanities
department and a
professor of philosophy
College in Chula Vista,
California, where he
teaches world religions,
Asian philosophy, world
mythology, and ethics.
Bolland and his wife
Lori are members
of the Unity Center
in San Diego, where
he teaches classes
on world spirituality
and is a frequent
guest speaker. Visit
Growth is inherently painful. To grow is to fall
apart. New forms arise from the debris of the old.
What was must die so that what is can be. We
are always growing, even when we are growing
old. This is why in the First Noble Truth, Buddha
taught that life is suffering. To be alive means to
grow, growth means change, and change hurts—
unless you accept change, embrace it even. Then
your pain is transformed into awareness.
The Second Noble Truth of Buddhism lays
bare this process—that our suffering and
dissatisfaction are principally caused by our
resistance to what is. We suffer because we refuse
to accept that life is not controlled by our arbitrary
and self-serving demands. We don’t get what
we want. We don’t get to stay young. We don’t
get to not die. Once we accept the fundamental
impermanence of all forms, including our own, a
peaceful serenity illuminates the path ahead. The
Buddhists call this nirvana.
Nirvana is a compound Sanskrit word: nir
a negating prefix, and vana meaning air that
is moving, like wind or breath. Nirvana, often
translated as “to blow out,” as in extinguishing
a candle flame. It is really just a way of saying
“stillness.” It is a state of consciousness free from
the agitation of self-centeredness, craving, and
fear. In nirvana we are awash in gratitude, wonder,
loving-kindness, and acceptance. Because we want
nothing, we receive everything.
To age consciously means to understand
the full cosmic process that coming into being
and going out of being entails, not from the
perspective of a single organism, but from the
God-perspective. Being born is a death sentence.
No matter your afterlife belief system, these
forms—these awkward, aging bodies—are not
long for this world. If you have anything pressing
to do, get to it now. You don’t know how much
longer you have.
In the Phaedo, Plato’s dialogue about the final
hours of Socrates’ life, we see the philosopher’s
friends gathered around him as he calmly faces
execution by means of a long, cool drink of
hemlock. As his friends fret, wail, and moan,
Socrates remains the model of serenity and
acceptance, like the hub of a wheel around which
everything spins madly. They ask him how he
can be so cool and composed in the face of death.
He explains that the philosophic life is “training
for dying,” and that in many ways he has been
practicing for this his whole life.
The lover of wisdom, Socrates argues, works
hard to root their existence into something
deeper, something truer, something more abiding
than these fleeting forms. We don’t really know
what happens when we die, he says, and it might
be better than this mortal life. How do we know?
We don’t. So fearing death is irrational.
Five hundred years later Roman philosopher
TO BE ALIVE MEANS
Marcus Aurelius further amplified the burgeoning
stoic doctrine of acceptance. “Frightened of
change?” he asked. “But what can exist without it?
What’s closer to nature’s heart? Can you take a hot
bath and leave the firewood as it was? Eat food
without transforming it? Can any vital process
take place without something being changed? …
Human lives are brief and trivial. Yesterday a blob
of semen; tomorrow embalming fluid, ash. …
So this is how a thoughtful person should await
death: not with indifference, not with impatience,
not with disdain, but simply viewing it as one
of the things that can happen to us. Remember
how you anticipated the child’s emergence from
its mother’s womb? That’s how you should await
the hour when your soul will emerge from its
I never really liked that Dylan Thomas poem,
the one that says “Do not go gentle into that good
night … rage, rage against the dying of the light.” I
prefer the stance of Buddha, Socrates, and Marcus
Aurelius—to welcome aging and death like any
other change—an opportunity to practice letting
go of attachment and sliding into the vast and
boundless space of sacred realization.
TO GROW, GROWTH
MEANS CHANGE, AND
WE DON’T GET TO STAY
YOUNG. WE DON’T GET
TO NOT DIE.