There is a great difference between knowledge and wisdom. They are not the same. As we age, we can accumulate a great deal of knowledge. If we are very fortunate, we also connect with wisdom. And this is, by far, the most important.
The United States is a youth oriented culture. We promote and admire the beauty of young bodies. And why not? They are beautiful. But as our own bodies grow older, this can be a problem. There are entire industries single-mindedly devoted to the attempt to keep aging bodies still looking young: wrinkle creams, botox, plastic surgery, hair dyes, hair transplants, and the list goes on. What it all comes down to is another attempt to deny reality. All bodies age. This is natural. When we reject this simple obvious truth, we suffer.
Some bodies age sooner and more obviously than other bodies. But all bodies age. All bodies change. And all bodies die. This is reality. We may have a great deal of knowledge about all the ways western science can slow down this process. But when we deny the reality of this, we suffer. And this is not wisdom. Wisdom is seeing reality as it is and accepting that reality. Because of our conditioning, it is common to wish and even believe that reality can be other than it is. We may even have knowledge showing us how these imaginings could be true. But this is not wisdom.
As our bodies age, many people become disturbed by these signs of aging: another gray hair, a receding hair line, another wrinkle, less flexibility or strength, an incapacitating injury or disease, loss of memory, the death of loved ones. Because of our conditioning we may believe these things are not supposed to happen or won’t happen. They come as an unpleasant surprise. Wisdom prepares us for all these things. If we age without wisdom, we will have many unpleasant surprises. This is why my aunt said after her husband developed Alzheimers, “Old age isn’t for sissies.”
It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care for our bodies and keep them as healthy as possible. That’s common sense. But don’t deny that aging happens to everyone and that means it will happen to you. Learn to accept reality as it is. This is wisdom.
My father was a very talented athlete. He continued winning tennis tournaments against much younger players even into his seventies. But at seventy-eight, he quit. I was playing with him the day that happened. His body simply said, “Okay. That’s enough.”
We love to hear stories of marathon runners, like Jamie Kelly, who was still running the Boston Marathon in his seventies, or model Christie Brinkley who still looks young at sixty-two. This encourages our fantasies that we too will never age if only we do the right things and buy the right products. We believe this will make us happy. But that’s not wisdom. Wisdom knows this will not make us happy and, instead, this denial of reality will simply create more suffering in our life. If we can’t complete a marathon in our seventies or look like Christie Brinkley at sixty-two, we’ll feel as if we have failed. And the more we continue denying reality, the more we must fail. Fantasies are not real. Reality will always upset our fantasies. That’s not a buzz kill. That’s its job. Wisdom knows this and does not indulge in fantasy. Wise people accept reality as it is and avoid the suffering that comes from living in a fantasy.
I love climbing the red rocks around Sedona, especially Cathedral Rock. I have an intimate connection with those rocks. If you think a rock is just a rock, you don’t understand rocks or reality. From the first day I arrived in Sedona six years ago, I heard this koan: “The rocks and you are exactly the same. There is not an inch of difference between you.” Where this koan came from I could not say exactly, from an inner voice or perhaps from the rocks themselves. I know now that the koan came from wisdom. And this wisdom is in these rocks just as it is in me. It is the same wisdom. It is not only available to those of us who have lived through many moons in this life. It is as available to an eight-year-old as it is to an eighty-year-old. It does not come from knowledge. It is always present everywhere. It is often that those of us who have a few more years slow down a little and spend a little more time in silence. Here is where wisdom is found. When we are young we may be a bit too busy conquering the world to notice that we are not separate from it.
Those red rocks are no longer young. They are no longer growing. Pieces are falling off, crumbling. Their age may be well over a million years. Twice they were under an ocean. I am only sixty-seven. But the difference in our ages is only relative. It is unimportant. We are the same. I do not reject or ignore the crumbling nature of their current life cycle any more than I reject or ignore my own. It is simply what life is. And the absolutely exquisite beauty of all of it has not gone unnoticed. This is wisdom.
If we want to have a happy life, especially as our bodies grow older, don’t focus on the myriad ways technology offers to maintain an appearance of youth. It is a losing game and only ends in suffering. Instead focus on wisdom. This is what the rocks have taught me. After a million years or so, they should know something. 🙂