Old Age: No Handicap to Learning
There was an article in the Times in November 1987 by the Science Correspondent: ‘Old Age: No Handicap to Learning’. This is research that has been done in the Max Planck Institute in Germany. It said that old people change their technique of learning. They can learn as well as children in most aspects and better than children when it comes to deploying their thoughts more precisely and accurately in a new language – but not so good as children in acquiring a new accent. So it’s a popular impression that you can’t learn a new language when you’re old. Now, nearly 20 years ago I decided to learn a new language when I retired and a lot of people told me, “Not at your age, Trevor.” I persisted, and they said, “No, Trevor, no. You can’t do that. You can’t do that.” They said, “He won’t learn.” Those jeering remarks were a help later on, when I did feel tired sometimes. The point is, it was received wisdom – “Better do something else; gardening; that sort of thing.” But I did learn a language, and I’ve published two or three translations in that language. Now it’s alright, but then it was no good.
Meditation is meant to free us from this sort of bondage; illusory bondage. That would have been quite a loss to me, personally, if I’d given up. Science tells us (this); psychology tells us (that) – and then it’s in the books. But meditation is to free us. It’s not true that all the meditation systems are the same. It can get very woolly if you start thinking, “Oh well, there’s the Vedanta view here, and then the Sufis; yes, they say this too, and then the Christian mystical angle is this and this, you know. Meister Eckhart said this and probably the North American Indians, they’ve got something to say about it. It’s all somehow one.” It all becomes very woolly. It’s like being on different diets, you see? You can have a diet which says, “No eggs at all, but you can have some butter.” and another diet says, “No butter at all, but you can have three eggs a week.” You think, “Well, I’ll take the best part.”
One wants to be free, of course one does. I want to be free, free to choose. But having chosen a particular path or practice or discipline, one isn’t free then to start thinking, “Well, I don’t quite agree with that.” Having chosen, then one should persist. Nobody can say that they’ve seriously tried anything, unless they’ve tried it persistently and regularly for at least three months. If one doesn’t want to do that, then it’s probably better not to do it. Because later on in life, when one of these things could be really a lifesaver, if one’s just pecked at it and abandoned it, there’s liable to be the feeling, “Oh, yes, I did that, but…” Aldous Huxley wrote that he tried all sorts of things. He tried sitting down and breathing through the different nostrils, and he tried the Christian idea of meditating in a kneeling position, and then he tried this… It’s as though one said, “Oh, well, I tried the piano; you know – I did it for three weeks. Then I tried the cello – I did that for two weeks. I never got anywhere really.” So what I’m presenting is one system. If people are attracted to that, the thing will be actually to do it, with the intention of doing it for, anyway, three months. Then one could say, “Well, I have given it a test. I’ve given that a reasonable trial.” And if it gave no extra life, no inspiration, then try something else.
Now, the classic on meditation in India generally is regarded as the Yoga Sutras, which are read, but what you might call ‘not read’. In India, you are expected to have a very good memory. Megasthenes – he was the Greek ambassador to India in 300 BC – says there that the Indians never wrote their contracts; the people simply remembered. He said everybody could remember everything.
I did know very well an old Pundit, for 18 years. He said something that I made a special note of. I had a particular interest in this point, and he gave the actual words of the people involved, translating them from the Sanskrit; they were speaking classical Sanskrit. I made a note at this time of the conversation, because it had a particular interest for me. About ten years later, he in passing referred to the same conversation again, and he used the same words. I have a reasonably good memory, but I had also made a note, and I checked. They were exactly the same. He had a quite phenomenal verbal memory. If he heard a thing, he could remember it. Well, I only mention this because in studying the texts, the Indian texts, it is necessary to have a good memory. They expect the reader to be able to remember what went before, and what comes afterwards, because he’s expected to know it more than once.
So, it’s not very easy for us to read these texts, because we tend to get vague about what happened about ten pages further back. But that knowledge is assumed. And it’s not necessarily openly referred to; it’s just that a particular passage we’re reading has to be read in the light of a previous passage. If we don’t remember that previous passage exactly, it’s difficult to understand this present one.
There’s a practice at a special practice time, and there’s a practice for life in general. The classical system of meditation was done by a renunciate; a man who lived apart – not necessarily for his whole life – but who went apart for six months or a year, or three years; or he would have been a student studying the Vedas under a teacher for 12 years, and practising yoga. That’s to say a full-time commitment.
But Patanjali also gives what he calls Kriya Yoga, which is for people in the world. Some of the other directions, like, for instance, not owning possessions, can’t be fulfilled by people living in the world. Things like absolute non-violence can’t be fulfilled by people living in the world. We’ve got to defend our house, for instance, or have it defended for us by paying taxes and having a police force who will defend it. To be a renunciate means to surrender all human rights.
So, the ones for people living an active life in the world have three main elements:
Tapas – that’s endurance in a spirit of calm. Calm endurance, not gritting the teeth endurance, but endurance calmly.
What’s called Svadhyaya, which means a study of the texts which relate to God and the self and it also means repetition of Mantras, especially the word ‘Om’.
And lastly, Ishvara Pranidhana; the ability to surrender the fruits of one’s action – not the actions, but the fruits of one’s action – to God.
© Trevor Leggett
Titles in this series are:
Part 1: Change of Consciousness
Part 2: Practice calm endurance