We all know the Buddha’s basic story. Although his father tried to protect Siddhartha, prince of the Gautama Clan, from anything unpleasant (dukkha), the young man ventured out from the palace and witnessed old age, sickness, and death. He also encountered a spiritual seeker trying to learn how to escape the endless cycle of dukkha.
Siddhartha left his wife and newborn son, and the hedonistic ways of palace life, to live instead as a spiritual seeker, renouncing possessions and begging for his sustenance. He followed some of the leading gurus of his day, plunging for a while into severe self-deprivation. Then, through meditation and introspection, he came up with his own spiritual path, which he called the Middle Way, avoiding the extremes of hedonism and deprivation.
Now as the Buddha (the awakened one), he taught non-attachment: Don’t cling to pleasure or pain, and don’t cling to the avoidance of pleasure or pain. By clinging, you bring dukkha on yourself. By meditating, living mindfully and wisely, and acting with compassion, you take control of your own mind and your own mood.
Buddhists often say that old age, illness and death are certainties, and we’ll avoid dukkha by understanding that. But old age is not a constant. Many of us don’t live long enough to get there, and others live there for much of their lives. While there’s some dispute over how much lifespans have changed over the millenniums (yes, that’s the correct plural), there’s no question that many more of us today do experience old age.
In the United States, some 10,000 baby boomers retire every day, and if we have reached retirement age (mid 60’s), it’s likely that we’ll live on average another 20 years. About one in ten of us have another third of our lives to live. It’s widely accepted that few of us have planned adequately for the financial consequences of our lengthy old age, and I’d add that few of us are prepared emotionally and spiritually.
Among my spiritually aware friends in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, I’ve begin to notice an ability to let go of clinging to their false hopes for themselves, but an inability to let go of thinking that their children should live pain-free lives. (I know I’ll never win a Nobel Prize, but if only my child takes that physics class...)That means more dukkha for my friends and their children.
During my decade in the financial services industry, I often told parents not to be so attached to funding the accounts for their children’s education that they failed to put enough into their retirement plans. Now my spiritual advice is the same.
Financially, if you spend your retirement years broke and hungry, your children will feel the strain — never sure whether they are doing enough for you. You may encourage them to let go, but they may not be able to.
If you spend your 40’s, 50’s and 60’s grasping for the life you want your children to lead, you will plunge into greater dukkha for yourself and encourage your children to do the same.
There’s a reason why, on airplanes, they tell you to put an oxygen mask on your own face before you put one on your child’s. You will do your child more good if you are calm and at peace with yourself.
The compassionate thing to do is to start with yourself. Be a good example. Take care of yourself by not clinging to your children’s future or your own.
— Mel Pine (Fearless Lotus)
Copyright 2016 © Mel Harkrader Pine