Finding Gratitude in the Process of Aging

Many older adults talk about aging gracefully. But Zoketsu Norman Fischer, who spoke at a recent virtual event, believes the discussion should evolve to focus on aging gratefully.

“Through our practice of gratitude, we can imitate our teachers and go forward with our lives, come what may, whether it is suffering or joy, arriving or leaving, in the spirit of gratitude.”

Fischer, renowned poet, author, Soto Zen priest and founder of Everyday Zen Foundation, spoke recently to a group of Enso Village depositors, sharing his insights and poetry, and answering questions during the event titled, “Being Old Isn’t.”

Senior practices mindful aging in flower garden

Gratitude through mindful aging

As Fischer explained, appreciating the aging process involves aging mindfully. As older adults, we are all concerned about aging to varying degrees. One thing about growing older is we may not have as much to do, which gives us time to think and reflect on how we got to this point.

We may find ourselves asking, how did the time go by so fast? “This is a secret about aging,” Fischer told the group during the Dec. 12 group video chat. “You don’t really age. Time just becomes elastic. If you pay attention to this fact, you become grateful because you survived, you’re still here. No matter what your life has been or has not been, you made it to where you are, and you’re here now.”

“Buddhism shows us life is impermanence,” he said; absolutely nothing stays the same, not even for a second. But there is no ‘thing’ that changes; there is just change. Therefore, aging is a concept, an idea, a convention.

This doesn’t mean we’re dismissing the reality of aging, however. Much in the world is built around the construct of aging, and there are very real changes associated with aging, such as illness, loss of mobility and loss of our loved ones.

But knowing this doesn’t need to limit us or make us sad. Instead, we can learn to appreciate the people who still surround us, while acknowledging there are also people in our lives who are no longer here with us.

Acceptance shows aging can be positive

Aging does have its advantages, as Fischer pointed out to attendees: “When we were young, we were busy building something: a bank account, a career, a family, a home, a life, a persona. But we did that, and that’s built,” he said. “Maybe we built really strong and it’s holding up well; maybe it’s starting to fray around the edges. But regardless, we did that. Now is the time for appreciating everything.”

Fischer went on to say that when we tell people we are 80, this means we are also 70, 60, 50, 40, 30 and so on. We know what it’s like to have been all these ages, and those ages are still there, inside of us. “There is wisdom in this that younger people can’t possibly possess.”

Discover the possibilities of an “inspirement community”

Participants of the call asked Fischer about vulnerability in aging, and how they can help others in the aging process. How does one address the suffering of aging?

His answer is to live our lives in such a way that we face what comes, and we recognize what’s pleasant and unpleasant.

“Aging has suffering that goes along with it, both emotional and physical. Being with suffering, being in the present moment, ready and accepting what comes, we’ll learn how to age.”

There is a sense of aloneness to aging — yet there’s also a sense of intimacy in being able to talk about it in depth with others over a long period of time.

Fischer said one of the virtues of living together with people once Enso Village opens is the possibility of having deep conversations with each other, where residents can learn from each other and hear different perspectives. That observation prompted one attendee to say that  she thought of Enso Village not as a “retirement community”, but an “inspirement community” which Fischer wholeheartedly agreed with.

“Enso Village promises to be a place where people are willing to have these conversations. People want to learn about aging and let that learning be a benefit for other people facing it now and in the future.”

As Fischer closed the conversation, he asked a question for all attendees to contemplate: Has aging brought you closer to gratitude? This is a question deeply worthy of exploration — one every person can contemplate on their own, and if they choose, as a future resident at Enso Village.