Growing old is not all bad. A young friend recently complained that he was unable to shake off self-consciousness about how he looked and sounded. With some irony I told him that the great thing about getting older is that as you begin to fall apart, people stop looking at you altogether. Aside from joint pain and the occasional blow to one’s vanity, age can come as a great relief, affording unexpected privacy, even when in public. Now, despite my habits of cynicism and irascibility—my personality isn’t much more than a habit after all—I can grudgingly though gratefully acknowledge that I am content.
In the days that followed the exchange with my young friend, it was a special joy to reflect on the nature of my contentment—a sense of completeness: nothing need be added or, for that matter, subtracted. Nowadays, work, personal relations, and social life sail along pleasantly enough. Until, say, I get a call from the sort of friend who likes to dangle new and shiny things before my eyes. Before I know it my competitiveness is awakened, a resentment is born, and I feel a pressing desire to be seen again, if only just one more time. Worse, the pettiness of it all deals a blow harsher than anything age can muster. In a brief moment, I have become someone who is not content. How to come back?
In “The Big Picture,” the Buddhist scholar Anne Klein (Lama Rigzin Drolma) writes about Dzogchen, the tradition in which she teaches and practices. The word is commonly translated as “The Great Perfection,” although Klein prefers “The Great Completeness,” a translation I find far more relatable. The notion that I am perfect, or even a part of perfection, is pretty tough to digest, and apparently, I’m not alone. In this month’s episode of Tricycle Talks, Klein describes an exercise that she sometimes assigns her students: sitting face-to-face in pairs, they tell each other, “You are perfect.” It’s an awkward moment; like me, the students squirm at such a notion. Yet, as I remarked to Klein, completeness is another matter altogether; it’s precisely the wholeness I experience when I am content. And what I tend to forget is that whatever state I’m in, there is no need to “come back.” A moment of awareness—always available to us—reminds me that I am already there, already whole, already complete.
Self-deprecating humor aside, practice over the years, with its ups and downs, its moments of clarity and its long slogs through struggle, its joys and miseries, has made a difference. I am far less likely to brood over my imperfections, or even consider them as such; or kick myself for taking the bait the world is in fact always dangling before us. As an exaggerated sense of agency subsides, a sweet surrender takes hold, allowing me to relax into a life that, as Klein puts it, “is backlit by completeness.”
Yes, practice has made a difference. And, maybe, too, I’m just getting old.