Legend has it that Prince Gautama, who later became the Buddha, led a sheltered childhood. His royal father only wanted him to see the beautiful, happy, and uplifting things in life. When he was a young man, he went out walking with his courtiers and caught sight of an old man, bent and decrepit. On a next walk, he saw a man crippled by disease. On a third walk, he saw a funeral procession with the corpse carried on a bier. And so he discovered the existence of old age, disease, and death. This shocked and dismayed him so much, it triggered his desire to leave his sheltered life at the palace and discover the secret of the meaning of life. Which, as we have learned, led to his eventual enlightenment.
This is a wonderful allegory, that brings home our innate fear of old age, disease, and death. Understanding and honoring these fears, and the existentialist questions they evoke, is one of the biggest steps we can take towards embracing our true nature. The challenge here is twofold: first, we don’t want to admit that we are afraid of growing old and sick, and eventually dying. At the same time, deep down inside, we know for sure that we are terrified of the idea.
I’m no exception. I will never lose the horror of the image of my once beautiful and talented mother, crippled by Parkinson’s Disease and Lewy Body Dementia. When I think of growing old, I immediately respond with, anything but that image of my mother! And, in the meantime, my body grows irrevocably old. Joints grow stiff, energy levels fall, and life slows down.
I want to grow old gracefully. I’m not entirely sure what that means, but I would like my mind and body to stay sound until it’s time to let go of life in this body. There are ways of doing this. It means continuing with daily gentle exercise, like tai chi, walking, and dancing. Making sure that the blood and lymph system continues to function properly, the bones stay strong, and the muscles keep some of their toning. It means eating properly and making sure the body is receiving the vitamins, minerals, and amino acids it needs.
Of course I can always be struck down with an unavoidable disease. But that’s no reason not to take care of myself. And do I? Do I practice what I preach? Ah, there is the crux…
It is so easy to tell myself that it doesn’t matter, that heathy living doesn’t make a difference, that every day should be lived to the fullest. Much easier than the confrontation with my fear of a decrepit old age and the need to do something about it.
These are the moments that being gentle with myself is important. Taking good care of my body is the ultimate expression of loving kindness to myself. May we all feel that loving kindness for ourselves. May we all age gracefully.