I was once listening to an episode of Car Talk on NPR and heard a woman call in to Click and Clack with the following dilemma: she had a Honda that was running perfectly, and that had proven to be very reliable over the years. Nevertheless, she found the car boring. She found herself eyeing every Saab she saw on the road, and began fantasizing about buying one as a present for herself on the occasion of her recent 40th birthday. She knew the Saab would not be as reliable – but she also knew that it would be more fun to drive and to look at. What should she do?
The brothers did not hesitate to respond. One of them immediately came forth with the following immortal one-liner: “When you turn 40, you realize your life is basically over.” The Tappet Brothers revved up their inimitable cackle. Yes, the Saab would be more expensive to maintain, they said. Yes, it would be more fun to drive they said. If it would invigorate her with a sense of joie de vivre in the face of her impending demise, why not go for it?
I’m sure that she would have received an even more unequivocal answer had she contacted Fangio, the fictional character created by post-40 indie musician Peter Hughes as the subject of his concept album of the same name.
The Fangio album is a cycle of songs about a journey racing legend Juan Manuel Fangio takes across the Andes mountains in a Saab 900 SPG on a mission to kill notorious Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet, of course, led the US backed overthrew of the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende, who died on the day of the coup on September 11 of 1973. Allende had nationalized the copper industry in 1971 to retain more of the profits of this resource extraction for the people of Chile instead of funneling them to US corporations like the Anaconda Copper corporation. Henry Kissinger was not pleased with this, or with the various other programs of resource redistribution Dr. Allende was putting into place. Kissinger responded with his typical diplomatic subtlety, (see image at right,) a personal stamp that continues to win him vanity shots during on air broadcasts at Yankee stadium and membership in a glowing mutual admiration society with presumptive 2016 Democratic Presidential candidate Hilary Clinton. No doubt, neither Hughes nor his fictional character Fangio belong to this club.
The above live performance of one of the songs from the album shows that Hughes has retained his dark hair, skinny frame and sense of humor in a way that Kissinger can only envy. Perhaps this genetic good fortune exempts him from the anxiety over aging that afflicted the anonymous Car Talk caller, as it does so many in our culture. So should those of us with gray hair buy Saabs to keep up?
There are other ways to deal with a midlife crisis. Among the ones that is the most inspiring to me is the story of Dipa Ma, (1911 – 1989,) a Buddhist meditation master who lived in Bangladesh, Burma, and India. She is regarded as “The Patron Saint of Householders” in Vipassana circles. What is most remarkable to me about her story is that she started to practice in her late 40’s, and that she attained a high degree of awakening relatively quickly once she embarked on her journey. In a culture that makes you feel that you must identify with youthful physical beauty and get so depressed when it fades that you have to start buying nice cars to fight off a feeling of terminal decline, I find this trajectory to be quite striking.
Much of the delay in the onset of her practice was down to sexism and patriarchy. According to Awakening Truth, a non-profit run by volunteers to support a Bhikkhuni training monastery for Buddhist nuns, “Dipa Ma had grown up with an unusual and intense interest in the rituals and care of the monks. She had joined her grandmother’s regular trips to the monastery offering food to the monks and felt a keen interest in meditation.” Unfortunately, “When married she would ask for permission to go to the monastery to learn meditation and was told no, it was not the right time.” She only began to meditate after the death of her husband removed this obstacle. His death had been preceded by the death of two of their children within a 10 year period. Her grief over these successive losses had caused intense physical symptoms which doctors told her they could not cure. When she came to a temple in Rangoon to take up meditation, she was so ill that she literally had to crawl up the steps on her hands and knees to enter the dharma hall.
Part of the intensity of her grief came out of sustained pressure she had experienced over the course of her life to live up to cultural assumptions about the role of women in society and in the family. The story of her life on Awakening Truth relates this history as follows:
“Dipa Ma was born in Bangladesh on March 25, 1911 with the given name Nani Bala Barua. According to the customs of the time Dipa was married at the age of twelve to Ranjani Ranjan. One week after she was married Ranjani went to Rangoon where he worked as an engineer, leaving Dipa alone to live with his family. At the age of fourteen she joined her husband in Burma. Dipa was unable to have children, which naturally is a source of deep sorrow for any married woman, but for a married woman in the Far East it was a family catastrophe. As a result Ranjani’s family summoned him home under false pretenses and tried to convince him to abandon his wife for another who could bear him a child. Ranjani refused stating he had not married Dipa for her ability to have children. As life is often stranger than fiction, a child was born to Dipa and Ranjani many years later and her status shifted from person-non-grata to being a mother. Then, tragically, the child died. The combined grief of the death of her child and loss of status caused Dipa to collapse. She survived and some years later another child was born who was named Dipa – Dipa Ma literally means Dipa’s mother. A third child was born but died as well. Ranjani was a kind, attentive and loving man but the increased need to care for Dipa and Dipa Ma took its toll on his health and he collapsed and died suddenly in 1957.”
It is inspiring to hear of Ranjani’s resistance to the pressure to abandon his wife put on him by his family and the larger society. But that pressure still took its toll on his wife, and without him there any more, she had to bear it by herself. Fortunately, “Her meditation practice progressed very rapidly, leading to profound realization – a realization that knows the end of suffering, where the traces of ill will and unwholesome desire are uprooted from the mind. In a very short time she emerged from being a sickly, broken, dependent woman to one who was radiant, peaceful, calm, independent, deeply loving and available to others.”
This attainment was not recognized by everyone, however. Sayadaw U Tejaniya, a Burmese monk, studied with her when he was young and said that some of his fellow monks disparaged him for doing so. “What are you doing going to study with her?” they told him. “She’s only a woman.” Perhaps due to such attitudes – I don’t know for sure – she taught outside of the conventional monastery/temple structures after moving to Calcutta in 1967. She certainly didn’t agree with the patriarchs about what women were capable of. Vipassana Metta on Maui writes that she once told female students that “”Women can go more quickly and deeper in the practice of Vipassana than men because because your minds are more supple.”” Dipa Ma was not afraid to challenge the traditional Theravada doctrine that claims only men can be Buddhas. Her feminist stance, normally just an undercurrent, could sometimes surprise her students.”
She was sought out by male and female students alike because of her presence and wisdom generally, but also because of innovative ways that she taught students to practice meditation while carrying out the daily tasks of having a job and/or a family. She refused to accept the statement, “I don’t have time to meditate.” (She certainly was not soft according to gender stereotypes. When Joseph Goldstein hesitated to follow her directions to meditate for 2 days straight without sleeping, she told him. “Joseph, don’t be lazy!”) She felt that daily activities such as breastfeeding, washing dishes and walking in the hallways of an apartment or apartment building could be valuable occasions for meditative transformation, just as sitting on a cushion can be.
As a busy teacher who frequently works 10 hour days with one 15 minute break, I find this a helpful reminder. This year I moved to a new classroom that is at the end of a long hallway, located at what I call “The South Pole” of our school. I spend quite a bit of time walking the halls to get to the copy machine and other central locations. I make a conscious though not always successful effort to practice walking meditation during these times. Focusing on the simple physical sensations of the body brings the inner dialogue around what has happened in the day into relief. I’m more aware of, and therefore less caught in, my own reactions to the events of the day. And when my students call me “Old Man” because I have gray hair, I can include thoughts about aging as subjects for frequent contemplation. I might even replace them with the following novel association of sunshine, palm trees, and bhikkus and bhikkunis walking the path together. They don’t have to worry about gray hair – or hair at all for that matter!