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On Aging


At Issue: Studies have shown that older people who engage in religious and spiritual practice often cope better psychologically and have better physical health than those who don’t. What are followers of our faith doing to cater to America’s 76 million baby boomers who will represent the largest group of senior citizens this country has seen?

Response: “How old is God?” A Zen teacher in his 90’s recently assigned meditation on this question to a 20-year-old college student attending his first retreat. It is not uncommon for Zen teachers to practice at Zen Centers well into their 80’s and 90’s. At our Center, practitioners currently range in age from 19 to 67.

Despite the image created by the Beat Poets of the 50’s and 60’s, Zen has tended to attract people in midlife and later years. Priorities naturally shift toward more concern about the ultimate purpose of life and how to cope with suffering, sickness and death. A spiritual tradition must respond meaningfully to these challenges if it is to be of real help to an aging population. Resources for the journey within, and support for the journey together, seem to me more important than creed, dogma or someone else’s “answers.” Meditation does not appeal to everyone, but it can be an amazingly effective tool in living each age of life with authenticity, compassion and wisdom.

Meditation–being aware, waking up and appreciating each moment– is usually possible even if someone has serious health or physical limitations. At our Center, we encourage each person to use the posture for meditation which is best for him or her, depending upon age, health, flexibility and individual needs. People may use chairs or even lie down, if sitting or kneeling with a cushion is not appropriate. Meditation is also done at home on one’s own. As we grow in number of participants, we prefer to increase our schedule to offer more times and days when a small group can come together to meditate, rather than expanding space or facilities so one very large group can meditate together on one particular day. Besides meeting at a Center, groups can also meet in homes, retirement communities, health care facilities and so on.

One of the most important Zen teachings is that there is no old age, suffering or death, but this realization usually comes as a fruit of steady Zen practice.

– Rev. Dr. Deborah Barrett

Published: February 4, 2004