I just returned from the Great Vow Zen Monastery in Clastkine, Oregon, a community of lay and ordained people who gather to practice Zen Budhism in the Soto/Rinzai lineage, with sprinkles of Tibetan and Theravada traditions. The monastery has a Jizo Garden, a memorial garden to the dead and a shrine of vows, a place where one can leave tokens of our deepest aspirations. There I had an experience I would like to share here for its relevance to a theme that I often encounter in my sessions with older individuals, especially women, a deep-seeded conflicted relationship with the aging body.
For six days I made the monastery my home and engaged in the Zen Buddhist monastic life-style of simplicity, silence, self-awareness and heart-centered effort. I sat in Zazen or silent meditation, I chanted until my heart jolted, at times with joy, at times with profound sadness, reminding me of the conflicted nature. I paid attention to every morsel I put in my mouth, and was more in tune with the breath, the things my eyes saw, the sounds around me, and the things I touched. I was particularly drawn and attentive to the invitation, a common practice for this community, to be mindful of leaving things ready for the next person—as if I had not been there. I went to the monastery to deepen my practice in mindful eating and conscious living in an attempt to aid my own life and the lives of those I work with.
Part of my approach to psychotherapy is to embrace it as a spiritual practice, which then requires that I cultivate self-awareness, simplicity, right nourishment, and silence in order to revitalize myself and therefore be able to be there for others. The cultivation of calmness, open-heartedness and awareness allows me to both investigate my self as well as my connections to others and to be a better travel companion in the journey of life. I consciously embrace a willingness to work with the difficulties that centering and being aware often present us. Such willingness does not always come easily; I have to work my way through a lot of setbacks and redirect myself to what is meaningful and important. It is this focus and attentiveness that helps me in the process of being human.
This time, as I prepared for my trip to Oregon, perhaps overwhelmed by the deplorable political climate we are living in, not just here in the USA but throughout the world, I felt spent, tired, weary and terribly anxious about boarding a plane for fear of a disaster. Often, when my soul is not at peace, I tend to develop a fear of flying. This is rather disturbing. I begin to act in undesirable ways. For instance, I arrived at the monastery with a pronounced need for comfort and a feeling of entitlement that is now, as I recall it, rather embarrassing. I found myself wishing for what I couldn’t get—a spacious, soft bed, a private room with a bathroom, easy access to the Internet, a working phone, in other words, all the things I was not supposed to get there and which I had agreed to forego.
Fortunately, it took only about twenty-four hours for me to return to my agrarian self and become one with the simple life of the monastery, which included taking a walk to the public showers at five in the morning. By the second day I found myself happily skipping my way through a rainy morning and into the shower, feeling grateful for having a body that could walk, feel the cold and the breeze. That same body bent in yoga poses to then fall into deep breathing meditations before heading into the kitchen for a hearty breakfast. But silence does often bring a deep, and possibly troubling, awareness of things. I began to feel all the weight of my 53-year old body, noticing the many ways in which the same body that was aiding me in doing the activities I described above, had shifted shape, now with more flesh in parts where before there were mostly curves or bones. The narrative of disapproval began to play almost instantly and insistently in my head. My inner bully sprang up like an ugly genie!
A few days into my stay, I went for a silent walk into the Jizo Garden. As I entered it I was greeted by the open arms of the Virgin Mary and other divine female figures surrounded by different Jizo images made by the residents of the community. I eased into a walk that changed something in me. As the religious mystics who understood gnosis (knowledge) as something that happens without the mediation of an official religious figure, and which leads to salvation, I too sensed that there was an immediate connection with the surroundings that, if not a direct path to salvation, had a transformative power. The presence of the feminine was so palpable as I walked that I felt given permission to celebrate myself exactly as I was. Sophia, wisdom in person, was walking along with me. Embracing aging as part of conscious living struck me as a divine insight.
The funny part of this is that in my early thirties I wrote a masters thesis about Aging Gracefully where I proposed ideas on handling the changes in the body with grace and acceptance. Up until my mid-thirties I worked with aging individuals, instilling hope and pride into the process. Now I find myself suffering from the very pains I intended to protect others from. There is a part of me that believes there is nothing wrong and a lot right with aging and the aging body, yet another part that buys into the idea of youth as the ideal for human beauty. Then Sophia breathes her wisdom into me saying youth is beautiful and even powerful, but it does not mean that aging is ugly, unattractive and something to avoid at all cost. We cannot judge aging by the standards of youth, simply because they are two sides of a coin. One is not better than the other.
What I found in the Jizo Garden was an invitation to work with the emotional part of aging, now firsthand. I am committed to the practice of embracing who I am becoming and to not compare myself to the younger version of me. I am willing to stop bullying myself into beauty and instead accept the beauty that is already in me. I am determined to unhook my sense of self from a younger version of me and to build up a more psychologically flexible stance where a healthy self-image does not depend on how young I look but on how compassionate I am to myself. This, of course, does not mean that I simply abandon the body, giving up exercise and attention to healthy eating habits. This combined with full-awareness of how I am “interbeing” are an important part of conscious living.
Our culture sells us the promise of instant rejuvenation by so many means, too many to cite here. Everyone is selling us a product that magically removes or erases aging as if it were a disease. Rather than striving to drink from the fountain of youth I want to invite aging women and men, and myself, to drink from the fountain of wisdom. Such action can, no doubt, silence the critic in our mind. We cannot stop the biological process of aging but we surely can change our relationship with the body as it ages. When we do, a new meaning of beauty comes forth, one I find irresistibly sexy. Here is my vow, a token of my deepest aspirations to end the war between the body and aging and to cultivate ways to keep Sophia as the bright light guiding us to our last breath.
Marianela Medrano is a counselor and Dominican writer living and practicing in Stamford, CT. She writes poetry, essays, and creative non-fiction; with publications including essays and four books of poetry.