Buddhasasana Home Page
English Section

Sylvia Boorstein: Meditation and Spirituality

Catharine Reeve

Third Age Media

Life's truth is in the moment, says Sylvia Boorstein, 60, a nationally known teacher of Buddhist meditation. Boorstein is the author of three books, all published by Harper San Francisco: It's Easier Than You Think: The Buddhist Way to Happiness (1995); Don't Just Do Something, Sit There: A Mindfulness Retreat Manual (1996); and That's Funny, You Don't Look Buddhist: On Being a Faithful Jew and a Passionate Buddhist (1997). She holds a doctorate in psychology and has been a practicing psychotherapist for 30 years. She and her husband, Seymour, live in northern California and have four children and six grandchildren.

Below, Sylvia Boorstein speaks on meditation and spiritual issues especially relevant to Third Agers. She was interviewed for this article by Third Age writer Catharine Reeve.

Third Age: When you describe your spiritual path, do you call yourself a Buddhist?

Boorstein: I am a Buddhist, and I am a Jew. People seem to think that it's not possible to have two religious paths. My parents were Jewish. I live a traditionally Jewish life. Twenty years ago, I was encouraged to go to a Buddhist mindfulness retreat. I was very much inspired and changed from having heard what the Buddha taught. When I say I'm a Buddhist, it means, "inspired by the teachings of the Buddha and changed by the practice of mindfulness."

Third Age: What is mindfulness? Is it like meditation?

Boorstein: It is. The practice of mindfulness is the practice of paying attention in every moment of one's day. It's the balanced recognition of the truth of the moment. What's going on right now, how do I feel about it, what are the options available to me, what will be the wisest course in terms of not creating suffering for myself or other people?

Mindfulness is also a capacity of mind that everybody has. It isn't a mantra or a visualization, it isn't about having a mind empty of thoughts. It's one of those things that we need to remember rather than learn how to do, which for me is really an important differentiation. You needn't think, "Uh oh, I can't do this."

Third Age: People who are practicing mindfulness often concentrate on their breath. Why?

Boorstein: In the mindfulness classes I teach, we sit quietly for 40 minutes, then we talk for another hour. What people are doing when they are sitting quietly is trying to pay attention moment to moment to their experience. The practice is to try to stay awake and aware of the breath coming in and out of the body and the sensations of the body.

Third Age: How do you see spirituality changing as we move into our older years?

Boorstein: I was 40 when I went to my first retreat. Most people there were in their twenties. I had children their age. I was self-conscious about being old. Now the average age of the meditating community has gotten much older; I'm 60, and I think I am in the middle now. There are people in the class who are 80, 90. We're living longer. People are discovering, especially people struggling with difficult losses in their lives, that there is some sense of greater understanding, greater connectedness that they are missing.

We're in that period of time when we start to lose friends and family, when our children are growing up and living their own lives, often with difficulty. One of the real pains of later adulthood is needing to say, "My child whom I love and care about so much is having this difficulty that I can't fix as I may have been able to when he or she was younger." We try to be compassionate towards our children even though they're not living the way we want them to, and we need to be compassionate toward ourselves even though we can't give up wanting to try to change them. People sometimes feel "I can't let go having it the way I want so maybe this means I'm not spiritual because I can't let go, because I can't say it's in God's hands or whatever. If I were really a spiritual person, I could do that."

A fundamental truth of the relational life is that, when people we care about are in pain, we suffer with them. We do a wonderful service for ourselves if we have communities where we can tell each other our pain, rather than saying, "I'm fine, I'm fine" and feeling spiritually somehow inferior because we're suffering.

Third Age: As we get older, we often see someone we love very dearly who is barely able to function and is losing physical and often mental abilities. We hear them ask, "What good am I? I just sit in this room all day." Would you comment on that from a spiritual perspective, on how we can be helpful, and what will help us if we lose our own ability to function?

Boorstein: We serve a purpose in people's lives, no matter how limited we are. When we appreciate how relational our lives are, it gets easier to get older. My father's second wife had Alzheimer's quite seriously by the time she was 55. We used to go to a mall together--talk about spiritual things! We'd walk around and admire the clothing and the colors, because you don't have to have a memory to do that. You can go out to lunch with someone who doesn't have a memory at all, because you're just having lunch. All I had to learn was how to do just that moment, as if we hadn't met her before.

It was good for my children, who were all late adolescents. We all took turns being there for her. They learned how to relate in a fearless way to what is an unusual situation. And they also learned about compassionate response. Sometimes a person feels, "I'll be such a burden on my family as this gets worse." And there were certainly ways in which it was very painful and difficult, but also ways in which she really taught us kindness and compassion.

Later, when my father was quite close to the end of his life, a nurse burst into tears and said, "I'll miss him so much." She'd known him only four weeks and in a very compromised situation. She didn't know that he was a great linguist and a great scholar and a wonderful storyteller and a great joke teller. I thought, "That's really wonderful, if we have the capacity to fall in love with human beings just because they are human beings, not based on their particular skill or capacity." I learned from that story that the usefulness we serve is that somebody could love us. That's a great use.

Third Age: Is there anything you want to add about ways that we as Third Agers can contribute to those around us?

Boorstein: I remember as a child that there were downtimes in the culture. The stores were closed on Sundays. And the rest of the week they closed at 5 o'clock in the afternoon. If you needed something in the grocery, you waited until the next morning, or you borrowed it from a neighbor. If you sent someone a letter, you had to wait three days before they got it.

We don't have downtime anymore, and our organism isn't made for that. Mindfulness is a Sabbath of the mind, a rest from the past and the future. You can't knit in a hurry, you can't fish in a hurry, you can't dance in a hurry, you can't make love in a hurry. There are certain things one does to be present in that moment. Not to get over it, just to do it.

This is one of the pieces of expertise that older folks might teach the rest of the culture, because we know downtimes. We can say, "Let's just go for a walk; let's just sit on the porch and talk." These are the moments in which one becomes wise. You have to have a little space to become wise. You don't become wise on the run.