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Combined Convention 1991 - Questions and Answers

von Sangharakshita

... or deciding on any course of action
it's very difficult I think to take into account what might be the situation in the world or the situation
with your own personal descendants, in seven generations time. It's very difficult to see even one
generation ahead. But nonetheless it's perhaps a picturesque way of emphasising that general
principle, that you must try as far as you can to think ahead and try to reflect what will be the
consequences, for instance one might say the environmental consequences, of one's actions, of one's
behaviour, here and now, in this life, in the present.

All right then. One question I particularly wanted to deal with for reasons that may become obvious.
Dhammadinnā's very kindly categorised the questions and I can't quite find it now!
"The question is about how to deal with ageing, getting old. I notice that apart from the body
changing, also the mind is affected. It gets more difficult to learn texts by heart or to
remember names and things like that. Is it good to go with it, to let go of it, or is it better to
try to keep the edge, to keep it all together as much as one can? Does giving into it speed up
the process of ageing? The question is in the area of letting go and holding on."

Well I think there's no doubt that as one does get older there are not only bodily changes, there are
also mental changes, and one of those mental changes is - I've certainly found this myself - that your
memory isn't quite as good as it used to be. It's not as bad as sometimes people think. [Laughter] I
remember in this connection there's a little incident from the life of Doctor Johnson, or rather a little
saying. He observed once that 'If a young man happens to forget his hat, no one says anything, but if
an old man forgets his hat they say "Aha, his memory is going!"' [Laughter]. So we can all be
forgetful, young or old. So if an older person is forgetful it is not necessarily just because they are
getting older, but nonetheless I think one's memory as one gets older does deteriorate to some extent
- in a way. What I personally find is I can remember very vividly things that happened ten, fifteen,
twenty, forty, fifty years ago, but things that happened last year I have difficulty in remembering in
detail. I have difficulty in remembering in what sequence they happened, but in a way that is natural
because when you are young impressions are new, impressions are fresh, so they are imprinted all the
more firmly and deeply on your mind, but by the time you are fifty, sixty, seventy, you've received

hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of impressions of various kinds, so they don't all stand out so
clearly or so distinctly, and a new experience has to be a very powerful experience to affect you very
much after all.

Let's take a common example. Suppose you fall in love when you are seventeen. Well I suppose
those of you who have fallen in love at seventeen - I'm sure some of you have - remember it very
vividly, but supposing you fall in love say, well I won't say at seventy [Laughter] though that's not
impossible, but say when you are forty-five, well it probably hasn't got that sort of - I was going to
say traumatic - effect, and it's the same with other experiences like books. You read perhaps a
Shakespeare play or you read a novel or you read some poetry in your teens. It has a tremendous
effect on you, it leaves a very deep impression and you remember that occasion when you read that
book, read that poem years and years afterwards. But a book you read last week and which you
enjoyed, you may not remember its title even this week. Because that's how it is. It's not just that
memory as a sort of independent faculty is weaker, but your whole life experience has become much
more rich, much more complex, and individual items and experiences stand out therefore much less
distinctly. And I think one must accept this. Well one has no alternative so it's better to accept it.
[Laughter]. There's not much point in struggling against it.

But I think the whole process or the whole development is meaningful also in a much deeper sense.
Human life is after all quite short, and especially nowadays there's quite a lot of experiences befall
all of us, good bad and indifferent. Life can be very rich. So it's not enough just to have
experiences. You've got to reflect on those experiences. I'm talking about ordinary life experiences
as well as say spiritual experiences. You've got to reflect on those experiences. You've got to ponder
their meaning. You've got to assimilate them. You've got to try to see some sort of pattern, some sort
of order in your life as a whole. And you can't do that very easily if all the time, even when you are
old, fresh impressions are coming and being registered just as clearly as impressions were registered
when you were young. You need a bit of a respite, and the natural process of old age gives you that.
You're not so much bothered by what is happening to you this year or what has happened say during
the last ten years, but you look back over your whole life. You see trends, you see patterns, you try
to make sense of it all as a whole, you try to understand it - without having to deal with vivid, current
impressions all the time. As I say you have a rest, you have a respite from all that, and in a way you
could say that that's nature's way of enabling you to get on with that sifting out and assimilating and
well more philosophic process of understanding your life as a whole. It wouldn't be exactly dreadful
but it would be rather difficult if your whole life through you were experiencing things as vividly and
intensely as you experienced them when you were an adolescent.

So I think when you are past fifty, certainly when you pass sixty, that sort of process of trying to
estimate and evaluate your life as a whole and understand your life as a whole should really be
allowed to begin, and you shouldn't be distracting yourself with new impressions and new
experiences of the same kind that you were having much earlier on in life.

Anybody got any comment or any contribution of her own on this score? Even if you're under fifty
you can speak up! [Laughter]

Sinhadevi: Do you think it's a good idea to decide that you're going to take a break from the
experience and reflect more anyway without it being .......

Sangharakshita: I think what normally happens is current experiences naturally cease being so

important as they were when one is young, but I think what one must try not to do is not to try to as it
were flog oneself into the same sort of state that you were when you were young. Thinking that well
if you're not experiencing things so intensely now, now that you're sixty, as you did when you were
sixteen, there's something wrong with you, you've got to get rejuvenated. That's what you've not got
to do. And just grow old gracefully, not only gracefully but thoughtfully, and reflectively, and that
can obviously be a very rich period of your life. Not perhaps so exciting in a more superficial sense
in the same way that life was exciting when you were in your teens and your twenties or even your
thirties, or even your forties, but more reflective, more calm, maybe more satisfying in a deeper
sense. So I think it's not so much deliberately entering on that process, but not doing anything to
hinder it which is what very often we do. On a superficial level trying to keep young. Well it's OK to
keep healthy but you shouldn't be trying to keep young in the sense of trying to force yourself to do
the same things that very much younger people do. That's ridiculous, whether it's on the physical
level or the mental level. If you can't remember a whole string of telephone numbers any longer well
don't bother [Laughter], just write them down instead. Don't sort of force yourself to try to commit
them to memory.

Mallika: Sometimes Bhante, you can't remember where you put the book with the telephone
numbers! [Laughter]

S: Well that really is progress! [Laughter] Sometimes you can't even remember if you've got a
telephone book. [Laughter] And when you forget whether you've got a telephone or not, well you're
almost in nirvana then. [Laughter]

__________: I find I'm forgetting who I made a date with when and I have to ask people to remind

S: Assuming that they're younger than you, or just keep a notebook. You can't remember, you can't
carry everything in your memory like one used to just because well there are so many more things
there now than there were say half a century ago. [Laughter] Well yes one can speak in terms of half
a century ago.

__________: It is a more tranquil period.

S: It is, yes.

__________: Agonizing.

S: So I think one should embrace old age gratefully ...

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