As I age there truly are many unpleasant things. There are things that I do not like, did not invite and would prefer were not here. In this list: aches and pains, the fact that I don’t know what a lot of the younger people seem to be doing or talking about, never mind the technology; the way I look; the fact that there is no one ahead of me in line and peers are dying; the fact that I did not accomplish anything near what I thought I would or get the recognition I believe I deserve; my invisibility to younger people; the stuff I have accumulated and can’t figure out what to do with; my own mind; my digestion; not having enough money; certain relationships. I could go on.
Everyone has their own growing list.
When I practice mindfulness, I name the moment as unpleasant. That’s it. I cultivate again and again the pure awareness of Moses who tells the Israelites, “Have no fear! Stand by, and witness the deliverance, which YHVH will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again. YHVH will battle for you; hold your peace.” (Exod 14:13-14)
Rabbi Alan Lew, of blessed memory, developed an entire practice based on this text. Yes, of course there is fear of decline, dementia, disability and depression. I cannot banish fear, or anger, judgment, or any other aversive reaction. But I can witness to it in this moment as a thought, or as a bodily sensation. I ask myself: “What is true in this moment?” No identity. No permanence. Nothing solid. Every mind state is passing through. When it is named, it dissolves. It does not need to congeal into a state of doubt.
I want to believe this can be a way of dealing with aging. I don’t really know. I want to trust that God’s deliverance (yeshuat YHVH – the saving power of the Universe as blessing and benevolence) will be available in this very day. I want to believe that it can be accessed when I soften the clutching of certainty and rest in the arms of Life that is so much vaster than any aversion or any doubt. I want to believe that I will have practiced letting go of small discontents and resentments so skillfully that I will be able to handle the bigger ones.
As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “The aged thinks of himself as belonging to the past. But it is precisely the openness to the present that he must strive for.” The “openness to the present” is what dissolves the hindrances. The “openness to the present” is what brings awareness (da’at) out of exile. The openness to the present is the path of practice and the path of the Exodus. I remind myself again and again, it is here, in this moment only, that I am safe, that I am at peace, that I am part of all that vibrates through eternity.
The healing of aversion is symbolized in the Passover Seder by the sweet charoset. When I chew the bitter herb it is mixed with a delicious paste of apples, nuts and honey. In working with my own mind in meditation as well as in life, thoughts and words of gratitude, blessing, prayer and chant often soften the edges of the painful moments, the dark moods, the bitterness. I find ways to sweeten the mind so that doubts, and the other habitual aversions, have less room to proliferate. This reminds me not to get caught in the futile battle of fighting the bitter with the bitter.