“How terribly strange to be seventy”, said Paul Simon in a song. Of course, he was probably still a teenager when he wrote that, so the terrible aspect is certainly age related. But he was right; it is terribly strange to be 70+ but mostly because many lifelong restraints are laid to rest. The challenges of old age are strange and numerous. They may not include wealth accumulation or career advancement, but may include physical limitations and how to let things go without simply giving up. Where there's sorrow and grieving and regret, it can be a challenge to follow the suffering.
Then sometimes there is a poignant wishing to be somehow helpful to a younger generation; and I must say that the current crop of us older boomers take a lot of heat for having left a world rotted and exploitative to the point of self-annihilation. And I feel it too, a resentment and fury which justifiably arises in those who now must massively restore or perish.
Post war, we were all beguiled through a process Buddhism calls 'the obstruction of the knowable', something essential in us which excludes certain possibilities. Greed, hate and delusion are the worst of these. It is 'knowable' that racism, gender inequity, exploitation of resources, greedy capitalism and other discernible destructive trends are harmful to society. All comprise our current crises and none have been given any restorative generosity. Meanwhile, even as these knowables emerge as issues, there is resistance.
Recently a young woman named Qaeeza Ramji wrote a wonderful article, “Eliminating fear can begin with building community” in the Times Colonist. She portrays a vision of the possible for us all with genuine insight and wisdom regarding fear and how it works in human life and as a societal energizer. She suggests several necessary steps and behaviours that would alleviate much of the harm that unbounded fear is doing. Let me say, it is time well spent to find and read it. If many young people are of like mind with Qaeeza Ramji this is extremely encouraging and hopeful.
Qaeeza’s prescriptive recommendations remind me of what Buddhists call the 'Path of Preparation' which follows on 'bodhicitta', the idea of awakening. She singles out fear as the root of modern social problems and thinks such fear can be alleviated by kindness, inclusiveness, etc. Her generation seems awake to the subtle and gross harms of racism and the rest. But the antidote to fear itself is not compassion, it is meditation. Kindness and knowledge are antidotes to indifference, ignorance etc.; all hugely important. But to alleviate fear one should meditate. One thing my generation knows and has seen, is that even the best of good ideas and intentions can and will be hijacked by the forces of greed, ill will and ignorance, resulting in human suffering.
It is a critical thing to live life in accord with sound principles. Ethics are necessary. But there is also the dimension of an embedded guidance that skews toward the scrupulous more than the meticulous. Here's what I mean: to be scrupulous implies an attention to detail based on an intention to do no harm to anything you value. It has a Latin root for weighing and measuring. Meticulous, though almost a synonym, derives from a Latin root, metus, (fear). Fear is an excellent motivator in a dangerous moment but allies easily with unwholesome behaviours and becomes harmful. Finding the right balance between scrupulous and meticulous is how an individual or a movement resists the obstruction of the knowable.
Wayne Codling is a former Zen monastic and a lineage holder in the Soto Zen tradition. He teaches Zen style meditation in various venues around Victoria. Wayne’s talks and some writings can be found on his blog http://sotozenvictoria.wordpress.com
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* This article was published in the print edition of the Times Colonist on Saturday, Sept 12th 2020