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Not Just Nincompoops

photo by Laura Chenoweth

photo by Laura Chenoweth

Thinking about Aging
Column: Aging in Shambhala

by Judy Lief

I used to think that the spiritual path in some ways was just trying to get to the insights that come with aging faster. When you’re younger it’s so hard to get to that point of just relaxing a little bit, accepting yourself a little bit, not trying so hard all the time.

In meditation practice there is a sense that, when you are on the cushion, you are really a luminous nobody. You’re not trying to do anything or prove anything and when you are, you just label it thinking and then you come back to your luminous nobody. That sense of relief, that you’re not struggling all the time, is a quality of our being that’s going to be very important to us when, on an outer level, we may very well be struggling with illness, pain and loss.

When I think about aging, I think about support that we’d like to have. And yet, we can’t really count on having a lot of support. So there’s a call in practice to make re-acquaintance, and to really get intimate, with our inner resources that we will need when things are difficult.

It comes back again to the very simple question: What am I gaining and what am I losing? What is aging teaching me? What am I learning?

One thing I noticed about the Vidydhara, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, that stands out more as I get older, is that I never heard him complain about anything, ever. He had opinions about things, but I never heard him just complain.

In terms of my friends now, as we get older, there is a lot of complaint, there is a lot of woe is me. What do they call it? The organ recital; everyone has an organ they can talk about, and what happened to it.

You could say, of course, there’s a lot to complain about, there’s a lot to feel bad about. There’s a lot to fear. How do we deal with that fear? That is a basic question that comes up in different forms at different stages of life.

As well, there is the question: How do we honor the elders and our heritage that they represent, those who’ve come before. We’re not really good at any of that in my humble opinion, so how can we do so?

I think the other thing that becomes very clear on the path at a certain point is that we’re taught many things; we’re taught all sorts of views and schemes, we’re taught all sort of practices and we do our best to understand our tradition. Yet at a certain point it becomes very clear that you and your individual path can only be generalized so much. You reach a point where you have to forge your particular path within what you’ve been taught and what you’ve inherited.

In the traditional literature there is said to be a point where, as you are practicing, you need input, you need support, you need to have a teacher, you need something to surrender to, and you need to gather as much accurate information about the tradition as possible. But at a certain point you have to have the confidence to find your own way.

That has been termed the “inner guru”. At a certain point we have to mature in the sense of saying to our self: “Okay, I’ve taken this all in, now what do I actually experience, what do I actually believe, and am I willing to go with that? With all respect and with all confidence, what is my particular mark, what is my particular insight, what is my path within all of that?”

That’s really difficult. In a way it’s like taking away the training wheels. Training wheels, in this case, are there to support us so we can reach the point of truly trusting our own wisdom, our own insight. We see and hear what we actually see and hear. We don’t have to pretend and we don’t have anything to prove to our self or anyone else.

This is a real possibility and an incredible benefit of aging. It is really poignant and also liberating. With aging you reach a point where you can cut through, rather than looking for authority or looking for someone to tell us what to do. You don’t need to look for someone to approve of what you do, to boost you up. You can drop that kind of tentative quality of asking ‘is that okay’, or ‘did I say the right thing?’

You can say the hell with it. It just is. It is okay, and I’m okay, and that’s the way it is. Take it or leave it, it’s wonderful. So all you codgers and long-in-the-tooth, nattering nincompoops, I think in fact you’re at a very powerful point where you can do so much for the sangha, for your fellow practitioners, for younger folks and for older folks.

It’s a time to integrate, a time to bring it all together, and there isn’t that much time. There isn’t that much time, and that’s fine.

Excerpted and lightly edited from a talk given by Acharya Emeritus Judy Lief in January 2013 at the Boulder Shambhala Centre. The video of the full talk is available through Shambhala Online.

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Judy LiefAcharya Judy Lief is the editor of The Profound Treasury of the Ocean of Dharma, and has been a teacher for more than 30 years in the Buddhist and Shambhala traditions. A close student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Lief worked with Trungpa as executive editor of Vajradhatu Publications, and from 1980-1985 as the dean of Naropa University. Lief also authored Making Friends with Death: A Buddhist Guide to Encountering Mortality (Shambhala, 2001), and has been presenting classes and workshops on a contemplative approach to death and dying, as well as the teachings of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, since 1976.

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3 responses to “ Not Just Nincompoops ”
  1. Tsondru Namhka
    May 20, 2013
    Reply

    I heard Trungpa Rinpoche complain once. “I wish I could be a blade of grass instead of a King!” He was quite whiney about it at that moment.

  2. Love what you have written here. In the Buddhist tradition, complaining is seen not to be ok. Yet, complaining may arise because we actually marginalise the part of us which is fearful, suffering and in pain. If we momentarily and internally truly took our complaints more seriously, rather than moaned about them, we can quickly work through them and let them go. Or have great compassion towards ourselves or others complaining, they would dissolve.
    Yes, I feel that truly trusting and following our own path and heart and bringing our authentic eldership to benefit others is the current challenge of us not being 21 anymore! and maybe only 21 years to go, if we’re lucky.

  3. Robert W French
    May 15, 2013
    Reply

    Thanks Judy for this article. You were one of the first teachers I had when I started my path. Thank you. (:-)


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