Wisdom and the Rose-Apple Tree

I have spent a considerable amount of time speculating about whether we get wiser as we get older, and – if so – can that wisdom be communicated?  But what if the end of learning, of trying, of experience, is to simply realize what we knew in the beginning?  Stay with me.

After the future Buddha had pursued years of ascetic training and sacrifice, he was still not enlightened. He asked himself whether there might not be a better way.  Immediately he had the memory of sitting as a child under the shade of a rose-apple tree watching a ploughing ceremony his father was participating in.  He remembered the relaxed joy and communion his younger self felt with the world around him and immediately knew that this was the way to Enlightenment – back to that simple childhood awareness.

I recently came across this quote from a Japanese Zen master (thank you Tim Miller) who was writing just a few days before his death about how he had finally come to faith and resolution about life:

One might ask if it wasn’t just an accident that I came to faith after engagement in strenuous study, but I would say it was not an accident. It was essential that I should do it this way. My faith has within it a conviction that all my self-power efforts are futile. But in order to be convinced of this futility of self-power, it was necessary to exhaust all my intellectual resources and get to the point where they would not reassert themselves. This was a most strenuous business. Before I reached the end of it there were quite a few times when I thought I had acquired a religious faith. Yet, time and again my conclusions were shattered. As long as one tries to build up a religion on the basis of logic and intellectual study, one cannot escape this difficulty.

This idea that one only understands by “giving up” or looking back to what one knew before one started comes up again and again in wisdom literature.  We could recall the motto of Socrates:  “I know only one thing–that I know nothing.” One might think of Job, who tried to figure God out, only to be struck down in simple awe at the end.  Or Saint Teresa of Avila who entered joyful trances as a child by twirling around with her brother chanting “Forever, ever, ever” – a level of contemplative ecstasy she only came back to in later life. But it would seem that we must go through the process of trying to get there.  But (and this is one of those big buts), then, we must step back.  I have often talked about the value of quiet and reflection in old age, and maybe that is the purpose of such reflection.

Then there is my friend Spinoza.  Spinoza wrote an entire book (Ethics) trying to use the geometric/logical method to figure out the nature of man and the best way to live.  It is full of axioms, propositions, and postulates.  It is a great book.  But in the end, we get this: “The greatest striving of the mind, and its greatest virtue is understanding things by the third kind of knowledge.”  And what is the third kind of knowledge?   It is intuitive knowledge.    And yet, the last paragraph of the Ethics cautions us: “If the way I have shown to lead to these things now seems very hard, still, it can be found.  And of course, what is found so rarely must be hard.”  So it would seem that Spinoza agrees with my Japanese monk – study hard and then – step away?

One of my favorite pieces by Spinoza is the manifesto he wrote as he started out as a young man.  It delineates what he was looking for (“knowledge of the union existing between and mind and all of nature”) and how he is going to live and work as he gets there (great rules of life).  As far as I can tell (and I am no Spinoza scholar), he followed those rules and tried to find out how humankind fit into the scheme of things. He studied hard, thought much, and wrote it all down.  But he ends up by talking about intuition.

Here’s a story.  When I went back to piano lessons as an adult, I told my wonderful teacher that I loved to play but had no ear and was almost incapable of memorization.  After a few lessons, he told me I was mistaken – he had been watching me play and said I seldom looked at the music.  I did not believe him.  I believed – to some extent still believe – what I was told as a child.  You have no ear.  Maybe the trick is to clear away things we were told, not keep adding to the logjam of debris in our minds.  To let go.  Clear the decks.  Get back to the rose-apple tree.  It’s not easy though.

Fiction reading for this week is a new story, “Reflections,” which thinks about ways that our younger selves can (sometimes) pull us back to our centers.   It is about physical reflections and mental reflections. Enjoy.

The Truce of Saint Benedict and the Rules of the Road

You, who are on the road,
Must have a code
That you can live by.Teach Your Children,” Graham Nash

Two recent conversations got me thinking about Saint Benedict. One had to do with whether older women (like me) should color their hair. I stopped the dye jobs a few years back, after months of dissuasion from my hairdresser (who had a financial interest) and my daughter (who presumably had my welfare at heart). They wondered: Why would I want to look old, to give up? In the recent conversation at my yoga group, I shared that going gray had been wonderful – no cost and no monitoring of the root line. The group was evenly divided on this topic. The other, much more serious discussion which brought to mind the good saint, was about a friend who had died despite fighting “the good fight” for a very long time. Death was the metaphorical enemy and our friend had “lost.” And why did this all remind me of Saint Benedict? For him, old age was not a battle, it was a truce.

St. Benedict lived a very long time ago, dying around 547. He founded small monasteries which eventually became a religious order and wrote the Rule of Saint Benedict, a set of guidelines noteworthy for its humanity. In the Prologue to this little volume, Benedict tells us that if we grow old it is by way of a truce with God, so that we may have time to “amend our misdeeds” and “to safeguard love.” A truce, not a war. Old age has a purpose for the good saint – one that should not be forgotten or (presumably) fought against.

When we fight old age and death against all odds, what are we fighting against? The universe? The inevitable? Is it heroic (and surely it seems so sometimes) or is it… a waste of the little time and energy that we have? Everyone must answer this question themselves within the context of their situation. But as we have learned the hard way in the United States, not all wars are worth fighting. But how to know what to do? Instructions might be nice.

If you look at St. Benedict’s slender Rule, you will pass a worthwhile hour. For his monastics, he set out the guidelines for life in a simple and humane way. He tells them how much they should work, read, rest, pray, drink. He counsels them on how to treat the young and the elderly (both with kindly consideration). I wish I had such a guidebook for my life. Many authors give us only questions (and this is a topic in itself which I will tackle next time, because it is my belief that the right questions might be even more important than the right answers). St. Benedict looked at his beliefs, and his experiences (not all of which were good), thought and prayed, and then wrote his Rule. It has lasted a very long time indeed. The rule is not primarily about faith – Benedict surely had faith, but his rule had more to do with the day-to-day experiences of eating and working and living with others and ourselves.

Others have written rules. The Old Testament tried to get the major rules down to ten; the New Testament further winnowed it down to one. Philosophers tried writing rules; here is Spinoza:

Yet, as it is necessary that while we are endeavoring to attain our purpose, and bring the understanding into the right path we should carry on our life, we are compelled first of all to lay down certain rules of life as provisionally good.

Note that even Spinoza’s rules were provisional. Parents have rules. As children, we used to joke about the “Rules of Dad,” which were not provisional and covered everything from politics to what time dinner should be served. Our society has rules of etiquette and political correctness. We have game rules and laws of the land. But as old age envelopes us and death approaches, I wish for a manual for this last period of life. And not the Art of War. I know that if I fight I cannot ultimately win, but I would like at least to be graceful in my capitulation.

Of course, to write rules, one must have an idea of what one believes, what one’s aims are. The definition of Credo is “statement of beliefs or aims which guides one’s actions.” Do you have a Credo? I am not talking about a religious creed, although for people of faith this might be the basis for a personal one. Writing a Credo would seem to be a worthwhile exercise and something perhaps we should all undertake just to see if we could put our operating principles into words. And then the rules would follow – “to attain our purpose,” as Spinoza asserts.

This week I have provided the first chapter of The Order of the Stock Farm Jesus, a novel I wrote a few years ago. It’s about an older women and a little girl who embark on the project of writing rules for life. Enjoy. And try writing your own rules.

Smile for Spinoza

When  thirty-two year old Jonathan Swift wrote the resolutions after which this blog is entitled (“When I Come to be Old”), he included the determination “not to be peevish or morose, or suspicious” on his list. At the end of his list he confessed he feared that, although he set up rules for his senescence, he “would observe none.” And so it was. Jonathan Swift was not a happy old man.

I got to thinking about positivity and cheerfulness as I read the cover article on this week’s NY Times Book Review, entitled “Put on a Happy Face,” which reviewed books that took an optimistic view of the world (a difficult task in present times, but apparently not impossible). In particular, it made me muse about the value of cheerfulness in old age, and it reminded me of something Spinoza said.

Spinoza led a hard life; he grew up Portuguese Jewish community in Holland, but was ex-communicated by his own people for his philosophical work. In his Ethics (1677), he strives to outline a rational basis for life, in the course of which he demonstrates the value of …cheerfulness. “Cheerfulness cannot be excessive, but is always good; melancholy, on the other hand, is always evil.” This makes sense to me. In the previous section, Spinoza had elaborated on how he came to his conclusion: “Joy is an affect [emotion] by which the body’s power of acting is increased or aided. Sadness, of the other hand, is an affect by which the body’s power of acting is diminished or restrained.” In other words, it makes sense to be happy, cheerful, positive. Cheerful people have more energy, more “power.” Sadness weighs us down, “restrains” us.

I remember an older man I worked with who was somewhat inept and clumsy, and not too awfully bright. But he was a ray of sunshine each and every day. Everything was going to be terrific, he thought you looked great today, and wasn’t it a beautiful day? Jim’s concrete contributions to the team were minimal, but no one ever suggested getting rid of him. His emotional support was priceless. The tag I use on my e-mail is from Thoreau and sometimes reminds me of Jim: “To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”

Old people do not have a reputation for being particularly cheerful. Old men are often characterized as grumpy and old women as crabby – not universally or accurately labeled, yet the stereotype is there. A question worth exploring might be: How does one maintain an attitude of optimism and cheerfulness as one ages, when (perhaps) the joints hurt, the teeth ache, the mirror mocks, and the pension is not keeping up with inflation?   I don’t think it can be done if we are fighting what is happening to us; warriors are not cheerful. But (perhaps) if we can accept the ride down, we might consider some words of Rilke:

And we, who always think
of happiness as rising feel the emotion
that almost overwhelms us
whenever a happy thing falls..

There can be, I think, happiness in the fall if one does not insist that one is not going to fall (while all the time headed down the rabbit hole).

Spinoza infers cheerfulness is its own reward. It increases “the power of acting.” And the people around us like it. But it is not always easy. “Smile though your heart is aching” advises the words of the song by that sad little tramp, Charlie Chaplin. Cheerfulness can’t just be a façade, nor can it be a blind optimism. You need to believe that there is some happiness in the fall, and you have to believe in the efficacy of a smile. And if your smile is not initially wholly sincere, an habitual cheerfulness might actually lead to a happier life. And that would certainly be something to smile about.

None of this is meant to minimize the effect of clinical depression or deep and justified sadness. But our attitude toward life is worth examining once in a while. This week’s story (“Snickerdoodles”) is about an older person who sees a vision of a more positive life (with Chaucer’s help) in the midst of change and loss. Her revelation comes while baking cookies; we will have to find our own catalyst.