A report from the Slow Lane

I’ve been sick these past few days. Coughing, sleepless, and sore, my attitude has gone into the dumpster. I don’t know about you, but when I’m sick, I begin thinking more about death. During the worst of my illness, when I am desperate, tired and alone, I begin fantasizing that death is near-by.  I don’t know if it is wishful thinking on my part; I am ready for my sickness suffering to end, or, if it is some kind of dread that dying will be just as lonely, energy-less, and debilitating. In any case, I’m not my best when I’ve been ill for a while. All of this, left me thinking this week about growing old, and trying to come to terms with living/ dying.

One of the things that came to mind was about locating myself in terms of being an elder-in-training. I know I’m intent upon moving along an elder path, but I’m wondering if there is a way of recognizing movement forward. While I was sick I thought about this some more, and decided there was. I came to the conclusion that my relationship with the ‘stuff’ of my life was a good indicator. If I was letting go of stuff I was on course, and if my stuff was mostly in charge of me, I wasn’t.

Now this thought benefits a lot from the conversations I’ve heard in the last months.  Old people have sat in circles discussing their relationships with things. Each of them is facing their own mortality, knowing they aren’t what they used to be, and that they are being reduced as they age. In talking about the difficulties in facing their stuff, and getting rid of what is no longer relevant to who they presently are, they shared something of the exacting rigors of growing older. A lifetime of necessary and unnecessary acquisition was giving way to a different way of meeting the future. Letting go of stuff, was like letting go of parts of the self. It was painful, and these old people also knew, it was liberating.

Such an exquisite pain!

There is something about growing older that is so poignant and beautiful. There is so much surrender involved! The process is like moving into a series of smaller and smaller houses. Each move requires letting go of some things. Amazingly, some old people, grasp the freedom that this shedding brings. Along the way, though, is a kind of forced march, a period of loss, an era of giving up aspirations, dreams, accomplishments, hard-earned competencies, identities, and lots and lots of stuff. Wriggling out of old skins is painfully difficult, even while it is liberating.

Stuff is the detritus of a life, while the real thing is the liver — the one who has grown ripe by going through many stages and becoming multi-layered, nuanced, and complex. Losing is part of that complexity, a necessary ingredient, that liberates all of the flavors that contribute to a real richness, a bountiful character, an inner fullness. Knowing this aspect of what it means to be human, of getting to be alive, is a gift that comes primarily to the elderly. It is a gift that comes with an exacting pricetag. It is ours, it comes to each of us, but the price is high. To gain what is our birthright, we must give up everything. It is a trade that can only be made in the secret recesses of the individual heart.

In my sickness I could see all of this. I wonder if I am up to it. Can I let go of everything? I like my life now. I never imagined it could be this good, despite being disabled, poor, and marginalized. Still, I know I have more letting go to do. Everything that can be lost, will be.  Going toward the light, means lightening up. That is easier said than done.

Stuff is the most visible dimension of a much deeper process. It indicates something about how that process is going.  Meditation training should include the dictate, “I’m not my stuff,” as well as “I’m not my Body.” They are both very similar, and both things that will be left behind.

In the meantime, though, stuff is a good way to grasp where one is viz. a viz. the exacting nature of Life’s reduction of us into essence.   —  David Goff