Feb 16, 2012
Aging as a Spiritual Practice, by Lewis Richmond
Here is a mindfulness practice from Lewis Richmond’s book, Aging as a Spiritual Practice: Think of your life and its major events as a horizontal line. Your past stretches to the left of wherever you are on that line; your future stretches to the right. The events that stretch into the past are clear and unchangeable; the future is blurred: you don’t really know what events will eventually occupy that line or how long the line will eventually be. Think of this as horizontal time.
Title: Aging as a Spiritual Practice
Author: Lewis Richmond
Publisher: Gotham Books
Available from: Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.co.uk Kindle Store, Amazon.com, and Amazon.com Kindle Store.
Now let’s move from horizontal time to vertical time. As you breathe in, imagine your breath moves up in a column from your cushion or chair. Breathing out, imagine the breath sinking down into the same place. “This vertical movement doesn’t go anywhere in space,” writes Richmond. “It doesn’t move from a certain past to an uncertain future. It just rests continually in the same spot.”
His book is full of interesting practices and ideas like this one.
When I read the title of the book, with its sub-title “A contemplative guide to growing older and wiser” I feared the worst. Would this book be drenched in denial and in piousness?
No piousness, I am glad to say, and no denial of reality. Lewis Richmond writes with honesty, clarity and humanity and his book contains much to interest readers of all ages. Actually he sounds like a guy you could sit back and have a beer with though as he’s a Zen Buddhist priest I assume he’ll be having the green tea.
He notes that we age one breath at a time. “When you observe your breath, you are not just passing through time; time is also passing through you.” No denial there but his concept of ageing one breath at a time adds a new dimension to mindfulness of breathing and to acceptance of what comes to us.
He is full of interesting perspectives like this. Consider non-judgemental attention. “… most people in the second half of life are paying close attention to the body in term of stamina, vigor, skin care, diet, weight loss, and attractiveness. But how many of us pay attention to our bodies without judgement? How many of us actually experience our bodies just as they are?”
That’s a fascinating question to bring to our mindfulness practice – and not just for those in the second half of life.
I was particularly taken by his “pebbles of life” practice. This comes from a fellow Zen priest who keeps a bowl of pebbles on a shelf beside a statute of Buddha. Each pebble represents a week of the rest (as he estimates it) of his life. Every Monday morning he removes a pebble from the bowl and returns it to the driveway he took it from.
This strikes me as an excellent way to cultivate an appreciation of the passing weeks but of course it involves turning towards the passing of time with death at the end of the journey. When I described this practice to a mindfulness class, all agreed it sounded like a very good idea. Then they began to change it around: how about using the practice to mark the passing of the year with a pebble for every month? Or how about putting a pebble in the bowl for every good experience we have? I was fascinated to see how quickly the need to escape from the contemplation of the ultimate ending of life asserted itself – and I have to admit that I haven’t yet gathered up the thousand pebbles I would allow myself for my own bowl.
Throughout his book Lewis Richmond tells stories of his own health and ageing experiences, of the experiences of others and explains aspects of Buddhism with admirable and enviable clarity.
In our era in the West, ageing has been described as a financial time bomb waiting to explode. People who grew up as the culture began to worship youth, now find themselves growing old. Those of us who are in the second half (or fourth quarter) of life must find a way to navigate our way through time bombs, the demands of the culture and our own health issues.
Anyone who wants to navigate with clarity,humour and mindfulness will enjoy this book.
His previous books are Work as a Spiritual Practice, Healing Lazarus, and A Whole Life’s Work.