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Verse 31: The invisible disease

Verse 31: The invisible disease

Part of a series of talks on Gems of Wisdom, a poem by the Seventh Dalai Lama.

  • Fighting the aging process only brings us misery
  • Accepting the aging process and aging gracefully brings more peace
  • The suffering of aging can inspire our practice

Gems of Wisdom: Verse 31 (download)

Verse 31, “What is the invisible disease that pains us day and night? The disease of continually aging and watching health and youth fade.”

Too bad for other people that they watch their health and youth fade. It’s really pitiful, isn’t it? I mean, I’ve just been 21 for many years now…. [laughter] I don’t know what’s wrong with the mirror. You know? When I look at it, that face doesn’t look 21. I think the mirror has some kind of distorting factor in it. Yes? [laughter]

What is the invisible disease that pains us day and night?
The disease of continually aging and watching health and youth fade.

We’re all in the middle of this situation of watching health and youth fade, and there’s absolutely no way to avoid it. It happens to all of us. It doesn’t matter how many times we change our birthday. Or at least the year we were born. How many face-lifts we have. How much skin you have grafted onto your bald head. Or how much you dye the color of your hair. Or how many Botox methods you use. Aging is there. And with aging we lose our health and our youth.

When we’re young, we don’t realize what health and youth really mean. We kind of take them for granted. And it’s only when you start losing them that, instead of appreciating them, you complain about not having them anymore.

Whereas the time when we’re healthy and young is the time to really appreciate as well as make use of health and youth. And we make use of them to train our mind.

You can accumulate a lot of money for old age, but there’s no guarantee that you’re going to get there. And anyway, when you’re old it doesn’t really matter if you’re lying in an expensive bed or a cheap bed.

But if we can use our mind to generate the acceptance of the aging process…. Because what makes aging and losing good health difficult is there’s not only the physical part, but I think the mental part of not accepting that that’s coming, or that it’s happening. So okay, your body gets old, your body gets sick. That’s one level. But then the mind that says “I don’t want to be like this. I refuse to be an old person. I refuse to be a sick person. This shouldn’t be happening to me. Something is wrong with the universe. Make me well. Make me the way I used to be. I don’t want to be old. I’m afraid of death….” And so our mind rejects the reality of impermanence. And that mentality creates an incredible amount of suffering. And I’ve been able to witness that in people that I know as they age. I don’t know, maybe you see it in me. But as I said, I’m still 21, so I don’t really have that problem yet. [laughter]

But I see—especially people who were quite athletic when they were young—then when they age and they can’t do the athletic things they used to do, they just feel so depressed. I mean, there’s still so much they can do, but they can’t do what they used to be able to do. So they feel very, very depressed. Or people who are very attached to their personal appearance, and to being attractive, and they think that people like them because they’re good looking, and they’re very attached to that, then when you get old you don’t look the same way. I mean we’re all getting older and uglier. And that’s the reality of the thing. And for people who are attached to youth and beauty then the process of getting wrinkles and bags and skin discoloration and gray hair, you know? All these things…. It just becomes like they feel like they’re worthless. “Oh I’m old, I don’t matter anymore. Nobody’s going to love me….” And so then as we joke, then you go out and you get a red sports car, and you feel young again. But you only feel young while you’re driving the sports car home. As soon as you look in the mirror, as soon as you realize that you can’t get into the sports car and out of it with the same ease that you could have twenty years ago, because your body is aching…. And your muscles won’t support you getting out of the bucket seat…. Then you realize, “Hey, I’m still in the same situation.”

So I think our challenge is how to age gracefully. And how to see…. I mean, I find in the process of aging that, first of all, it’s so nice in that my body calms down. You know, you’re not controlled by hormones the way you are in your twenties. You’re not crazy like that. And then, hopefully, you’ve gotten some life experience. And while many people tend to think “oh, old people are old fashioned, what do they know, they’re not hip and with it….” Actually, people have developed quite a bit of wisdom, hopefully, by the time they’re old. If they haven’t, then it’s something that’s really sad. But still, even then we can learn from them, you know about what not to do. But for the people who have developed a lot of wisdom it’s really interesting talking to them. To ask some of the seniors what have you learned from your life. Because if we can learn things from other people’s experiences then we don’t need to go through and make the same mistakes ourselves. But when we’re proud of our youth….

You know, because at sixteen you’re almost omniscient. Do you remember being sixteen? You knew everything! Almost. There were a few things you didn’t know. But pretty close to omniscience. And it’s amazing how as you age you get dumber and your parents, who when you were sixteen didn’t know anything, how your parents get smarter, as you age. You ever noticed that?

So, if we can be less arrogant and more accepting of our own situation and others’ situation, then we can really learn a lot from other peoples’ life experience. And to become the kind of old person—if we live that long—who can really benefit others. Or even if we don’t live so long and we die younger as a result of disease, to be a kind of person who people like taking care of because we’re pleasant.

You know? Because youth and health are going to go. So accepting them and using them in our practice, not only to develop acceptance and good qualities this life, but also to motivate us to get out of cyclic existence. We need to do that as well. We may say, well okay, I’ll die and get a new young body, but you know, who knows what realm that new young body is going to be in. And anyway, who wants to keep dying and getting reborn. Better to get out of cyclic existence and take all other beings out with us.

[In response to audience] So actually our society as a whole has big influence in this because there’s a lot of money to be made by helping people to look younger or feel younger. So they create this kind of dissatisfaction with our body in us, and it’s just manipulation. We shouldn’t buy into this kind of rubbish that society’s feeding us.

[In response to audience] This is actually a good point. I didn’t bring up the whole thing about not being able to do what you did before, and so that changing your role in the family or in your career. So you know, having to retire. Or your mind starting to forget things. Or in the case of your grandmother, being very identified with being a mother and cooking, but she’s too old to cook now. So then she feels useless. Getting people to stop driving in this country is a nightmare. Seniors do not want to stop driving even though it’s very dangerous for them on the road very often. And so the whole thing of the identity changing, of, you know, “I can’t be the person in the driver’s seat …. I can’t be the mother …. I can’t be the father …. I can’t be the bread-winner …. I can’t do [whatever sports] anymore….” And so there’s a continual flow of, “I can’t …. I can’t I can’t.” And the things is, as long as our mind is still vibrant, we can practice the Dharma. Doesn’t matter what shape our body is in. So to really develop a mind that enjoys practice.

[In response to audience] Exactly. Never content. Always wanting to be older. Always wanting to be younger.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.