BOOK REVIEW: AGING FOR BEGINNERS— May 2019

Reviewed by  Jane Tompkins

Not everyone who grows older wants to know more about the aging process. Getting old is enough to cope with, the thinking goes, so why borrow trouble? But some people, including me, feel the need for help. Philip Roth is supposed to have said, “Aging isn’t a battle. It’s a massacre.” I tend to agree.

Most treatments of the subject of aging are unrealistic and shallow, in denial about aging’s more distasteful realities. Of the several books I’ve read on aging, the most spiritually uplifting was a short book by the Catholic theologian Henri Nouwen (with Walter J. Gaffney) called Aging: The Fulfillment of Life. I recommend it. The best all-round was Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi’s  From Aging to Sage-ing, which covers a variety of subjects from both a spiritual and a material perspective.  But for practical advice on how to cope with aging’s most daunting aspects—anxiety and depression, grief and loss, loneliness and helplessness, thoughts of death—by far the most helpful book I’ve encountered is this one by Ezra Bayda with Elizabeth Hamilton.

These authors don’t flinch or turn away from bad news. It was a relief to read their descriptions of how it feels to lose your place in the world, see your importance dwindle, your contacts shrink, your abilities wither, and to live daily with fears of what will be next—illness, pain, and death. Acknowledging the truth about the sufferings of age is the first step in learning how to meet them, and facing things honestly is what Hamilton and Bayda do.

The ideas that dominate the book are Buddhist in inspiration. Bayda, a teacher for many years at a Zen Center in San Diego, has taken the wisdom of the dharma and applied it to aging. The focus is not on how to give life meaning and stay connected to the world by joining groups, volunteering, and taking courses, or on how to prolong life through exercise, good food habits, proper supplements, and getting enough sleep. Rather, it focuses on the changes that take place in the inner life when one’s physical, emotional, and social supports have altered or vanished completely. An early chapter contains clear and useful instructions on deep relaxation and meditation, practices basic to cultivating the kind of awareness Bayda advocates bringing to every aspect of aging. Individual chapters contain helpful guided meditations to use in working with anxiety, depression, grief, and loneliness—emotions that are bound to arise in response to the changes that occur in later life.

He tells us not to use busyness and distraction to get ourselves through the hard parts and instead recommends turning towards the difficult circumstances that threaten to overwhelm us, because when welcomed they lose their edge, and because suffering, when consciously entered into, brings inner growth, deepens the heart, and widens one’s capacity for experiences of all kinds—including joy, love, and gratitude.

With his emphasis on saying “yes” to trying events—the endless doctor visits, medical tests, invasive procedures, and unpleasant treatments we’re all familiar with, for instance—Bayda challenges us to embrace these things as part of a learning process, encouraging us to simply be with what is happening here and now. He urges us to get over our sense of entitlement—the notion that life should necessarily be comfortable and pleasant, and the expectation that things should go our way. He urges us not to ask “Why me?” but rather “Why not me?” and to remind ourselves that pain, suffering, and death happen to everyone, and are a natural part of life, just as much as pleasure, comfort, and ease.

The level of awareness he asks of the reader is demanding. Sometimes, as I read, I caught myself  thinking “yes, but isn’t it important to have fun? there’s more to life than being aware of uncomfortable thoughts and feelings.” And there is. But his point is that allowing the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings to be met and processed—and he gives his readers a lot of help in doing this—not only makes them more manageable but is also what enables us to experience happiness and elation. Perhaps the most outstanding chapter, from a practical point of view, is the one on physical pain, which the author has undergone a great deal of himself. His detailed account of the ins and outs of managing chronic pain—an exquisitely difficult task—leaves one grateful for the several techniques he offers for dealing with it—thoughtfully formulated and grounded in experience— and thankful for his humility in admitting his own inability to use them from time to time.

The book is not only about dealing with difficulty. In the final section Bayda envisions old age as an opportunity for healing and renewal. Overcoming repression and meeting troublesome issues head on is a prelude to learning how to recognize our deep connections with other people and to the world around us, relaxing our hold on old self-images and broadening the sense of self. The book is really a down-to-earth spiritual guide to living in general. If its tone is unrelentingly earnest, we can forgive him, since his aim, pursued with great care, kindness, and diligence, is to bring us happiness and to relieve our suffering.~