The Zen Buddhists have a concept they refer to as “beginners mind” which means having and maintaining a spirit of openness and eagerness towards the study and practice of a subject, even if one is very experienced. As one teacher puts it, “in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” Youth is often praised because it is said they are “open to new ideas.”
But praise of the beginners mind comes into conflict with the praise of the elderly which are the guardians of the old knowledge. They are the expert mind developed over the decades. Experience is supposed to allow the person to weed out the bad ideas over time, and keep only the things that are true and good. The elderly are said to be peaceful because they just know and so aren’t troubled with all the meaningless things and thinking that obsess and distract the youth.
So, which is better; an open beginners mind or a mind made up by experience? And more importantly, is it possible and desirable to be an old beginner? Can the older mind and body open enough to learn new things?
We’ll be hearing more about older beginners because around the world, the average age of several populations is rising. People are living longer and having fewer children and so in Japan, for instance, people over the age 60 make up a third of the entire population! Many of those people are going to want to do and learn new things. Should they do these things, and what are the limits? Are there things that older people should not do? When do you call it, and say “I’m done, I’ve learned everything new that I’m going to.”
The issue arises regularly for me because of the late age when I took up Brazilian Ju Jitzu (BJJ). This is a very aggressive sport that is also referred to as competition grappling. Two competitors wrestle until one submits the other through a choke or some painful bending of the arms, wrists, knees, legs, or feet. If there is no submission after 6 minutes, points are calculated and a winner is declared. Fundamentally, it’s fighting, and the training is grueling hard work, most of which is live training matches. I stepped on the mat for the first time at age 52.
I am a beginner at this, and after two years, am starting to catch on. So far, I’ve suffered only minor injuries, but I’ve seen some bad injuries, mostly through falls. In my estimation, what holds me back is my cardio. The drilling is so exhausting that I run out of the will to resist after a short time. I wasn’t doing this when I was 25 so I don’t have a baseline of comparison to a younger version of myself.
The same holds true with my computer science studies. I’ve been pouring through courses in Python, Full Stack Web Development, Blockchain and other topics where I wish to direct my career, and it’s difficult. Computer Science falls under the heading of science for a reason. I was not doing this at 25 either, and so I don’t know if age has worn the sharp edges off of my intellect.
Might I will be unable to really be sharp and competitive at these things. I don’t know. Am I wasting my time?
It’s easy to say, “Yeah, go for it! Age is just a number!” except that age isn’t just a number and there are a multitude of things to consider. Do older people take up time and resources learning and doing new things in a resource finite world? If I learn new things but never use them, if I take them to the grave, am I depriving someone else of knowledge that they’d use for an extra 50 years?
There are a raft of issues associated with people living longer and healthier, and no templates to follow. For example, are there ethical issues associated with older parents? I see that Bridgett Nielsen has recently given birth at age 54. Is this a problem? What if she lives for another 40 years? In what way is anyone harmed other than she is taking up medical resources? Does that matter? Surely, she pays her fair share.
Older men have been fathering kids for centuries by taking on younger women, but this seems to have fallen into disrepute, at least in the West. Was it ever good for a seventy year old man to sire children?
There seems to be real discomfort all the way around when it comes to older people and sex. There is some age at which a person is, apparently, to cease to be a sensual and sexual being. The word “creepy” has seeped in to the culture, at least in regards to men, if they are sexually interested past an age that is hard to determine, but it’s very young. An older woman who is sexual and feminine is the object of mostly cruel jokes. It’s as if older people are to cloth themselves in ugly ill fitting clothes and just disappear lest they make others uncomfortable.
But if it’s not sex, it’s just something else so, what are older people supposed to be doing with their time now? The times have changed drastically, not just in terms of how long people are living but also the condition of many people past 50. These people have no role models. My Dad had been married to my Mom for 25 years when he was my age. He had been working in the same mill for 30 years. There is no way I can template from him.
It comes to a choice; accept your age and adapt to the behaviors that are associated with it, or throw convention aside and go for something new, unprecedented, atypical for ones age.
Harry David Stewart of Ageist Magazine has made his choice and made it widely known. “Live Fast Die Old” is the motto of his burgeoning organization and it is dedicated to promoting a new demographic category he refers to as ‘Ultra Adult”. These are people over 50 who are living their best life, are aspirational, are moving forward, who have more in common with younger people today that older people of yesterday. Ultra Adult fills a descriptive niche that has been populated with mostly pejorative terms or mildly condescending descriptions like “senior citizen” or “over the hill.” Stewart has a background in advertising photography and he has schooled the industry on its outdated marketing images and messaging about people over 50.
There seems to be a great deal of celebration regarding the mixing and line blurring in a number of human categories. The mainstreaming of gays, the acceptance of women in traditionally male roles, the prioritizing of “diversity” in all places comes to mind. And yet, one can sense a sort of patronizing attitude towards people past a certain age, and it’s high time that came to a shattering end. I’ve never asked for and don’t want any insincere “respect for the elderly” gazes from younger people. My strengths and weaknesses, as they manifest themselves over time, are my business. I just want to be treated equally and live my life in the sunshine, which I expect to last a long time.
One day, I will go down for the dirt nap, as my parents did, and my grandparents, and many of my contemporaries. Being older means you know a lot more dead people than you did when you were young. But that day is not today, and when it comes, that last sunrise, I’m going down swinging for the fences, and I hope I won’t be alone out there. I’d like to carry a beginner’s joyful mind to the very end.