People tend to see birthdays as milestones, markers that indicate something more significant than the arithmetic of aging. I have occasionally fallen victim to that temptation, but I’m not leaning in that direction this week, as I prepare to enter my seventh decade. Birthday number 61 feels like nothing more than another Thursday.
Which is to say, a little zazen and a workout before breakfast, a bike ride across the river and up the hill to the office, some afternoon yoga, a visit with my acupuncturist, and dinner with My Lovely Wife. Just another day. I think it’s important as we age that we don’t make too much of the accumulating numbers or too little of the moments that combine to create those numbers.
There’s an old saying that “Life is short,” but in fact life is really quite long. Just sit very still in a quiet room for five minutes listening to your breath. It’s interminable. It can feel like the earth has stopped spinning. Most of us seldom notice this space in time; life is just too hectic. But when you do, the results can be transformative. Aging literally stops. The moment — and each successive moment — becomes infinite, yet no time passes.
“We are very good at preparing to live, but not very good at living,” writes Thich Nhat Hanh in Peace Is Every Step. “We know how to sacrifice ten years for a diploma, and we are willing to work very hard to get a job, a car, a house, and so on. But we have difficulty remembering that we are alive in the present moment, the only moment there is for us to be alive.”
When you look at aging this way, the numbers really melt away. It doesn’t matter if you’re entering your seventh decade or departing your first. Each moment is meaningful, self-contained, distinct. Nothing in the past pertains; nothing in the future matters. Your life is defined each time you take a breath.
It’s not easy to live this way. That’s why Buddhists call this a “practice.” But I’ve found it to be the only way to face the inevitable piling on of years we must all confront. So, when Thursday arrives — like every Thursday inevitably arrives — I’m going to try my best to greet it by being completely present. I can’t imagine a better way to celebrate number 61.