Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Fifth Sutra

There by the wayside they met an old man with bent frame, wrinkled face and sorrowful brow, and the prince asked the charioteer: "Who is this? His head is white, his eyes are bleared, and his body is withered. He can barely support himself on his staff."

The charioteer, much embarrassed, hardly dared speak the truth. He said: "These are the symptoms of old age. This same man was once a suckling child, and as a youth full of sportive life; but now, as years have passed away, his beauty is gone and the strength of his life is wasted."

Siddhartha was greatly affected by the words of the charioteer, and he sighed because of the pain of old age. "What joy or pleasure can people take," he thought to himself, "when they know they must soon wither and pine away?"

This past year I've been up to my ass in alligators, contending with divorce, prying my body loose from a vicious addiction, and aging, along with everything aging entails for a male of our uniquely blessed and cursed species.

Divorce is ugly, even when it's fairly congenial and doesn't involve lawyers, fighting over children, and revenge. I'd rather have a broken leg than a broken heart. The pain hangs around like an untreatable illness, and there's no cure other than time.

Likewise, the pain of narcotic withdrawal is remarkably persistent. The drug seems to have a mind of its own, like a sentient monster, which is why AA describes alcohol as "cunning, baffling, powerful."

About the only good thing to say about divorce and kicking an addiction is the old saw that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. That, and the fact that for most of us, such things are simply trials to be got through, and eventually they're over.

Aging, as afflictions go, is the one that has real possibilities for positive outcomes. Of course, it ends in death, which certainly isn't amenable to a positive interpretation no matter how you spin it. But along the way, a person might be able to draw closer to some kind of perception of an ultimate truth. The cessation of desire, the end of ambition and striving, the death of any need to prove oneself -- all these things lead to enhanced possibilities, or even the probability of more accurate reflection than youth is capable of. And if fear could be banished, along with the rest of the stuff I mentioned, just think of where the mind -- all of it, conscious and unconscious -- might be able to go.

As the poet Bob Dylan sang, Yet I swear I see my reflection/So very high above this wall ("I Shall Be Released").

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