Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Fulfillment of Character

"Aging is no accident. It is necessary to the human condition, intended by the soul. We become more characteristic of who we are simply by lasting into later years; the older we become, the more our true natures emerge. Thus the final years have a very important purpose: the fulfillment and confirmation of one’s character."
--James Hillman

If you have been reading my musings for awhile, you know how fond I am of James Hillman's writings on aging contained in his wonderful book The Force of Character and the Lasting Life.

Character is described as the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual, the particular attributes, traits or abilities that a person develops. The word "character" is derived from the Ancient Greek word "charaktêr", referring to a mark impressed upon a coin. Later it came to mean a point by which one thing was told apart from others. It does take time to develop one's character and to engage it fully. While some people fulfill their life expression early, for many of us it takes what Clarissa Pinkola Estes calls "the gathering of years" for our particular genius to come to fullness. I often think of the many older people who contributed so richly in their later years, engaging their accumulated character in very creative ways. Frank Lloyd Wright. Anna Halprin, Arthur Rubenstein. Albert Einstein. Ethel Barrymore, Imogen Cunningham, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, to name just a few names we recognize. These and many others who have lived long enough to develop their character also sometimes "become characters" displaying themselves in a unique way, because they are free from the confines of convention, the trammels of commerce or the concerns of fashion.

That gorgeous image of the rainbow-radiant clouds in the high mountains is for me a visual picture of the real fulfillment of character. It is astoundingly beautiful and not really of this world somehow, but a liminal image, connecting the earthly with the divine.

Beings who have given themselves up into a radiance of character deeply provide great light to all of us. I think of Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama. My own growth and development has been supported and influence by the Tibetan masters I began to meet when I was in my early 30s. It's impossible to imagine what my life would have been had I not begun to encounter, study and meditate with them. I was fortunate to help found Tashi Choling, a Tibetan Buddhist meditation center in 1978. Those early years were heady and full of levels and dimensions of instruction that continues to resonate.

Buddhists are not prosleytizers and in fact I usually keep my spiritual life rather private because it is a very intimate and important aspect of my life.

Yet how can I not recognize and acknowledge the tremendous impact that my root teacher Gyatrul Rinpoche and the other great masters I've met have had on me? I admire them so deeply. I want to mature into that level of refinement, compassion, vision, insight and lovingkindness. That to me is the most marvelous manifestation of innate creativity. Over the years, my Tibetan teachers have given me the gifts of their presence, their rarified understanding and their great kindness. They have been and are wonderful mentors for me as I continue to work on developing and fulfilling my character.

I am entering into my 71st year next week, and I sit here regarding the alchemical work that remains to be done. Is this work ever done, this work of distilling, purifying, transforming the lead into gold? Yes, I imagine that it is done one day.

Meanwhile, I swim along here in this river of existence, floating sometimes, smelling the flowers, tasting the water, looking up at the vast sky. Sometimes I'm just minding my own business perfectly comfortably, when life turns up the heat, reminding me of The Work. This blessed Work in every breath.

“We do not have to be ashamed of what we are. As sentient beings we have wonderful backgrounds. These backgrounds may not be particularly enlightened or peaceful or intelligent. Nevertheless, we have soil good enough to cultivate; we can plant anything in it.”
Chögyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism

Seven decades. Amazing.


  1. Congratulations on your seven decades, may what you have planted bloom fully in you.

    1. Thank you very much Celia. I appreciate your good wishes.

  2. I am one year ahead of you -- entering year 72 this summer. How fortunate for you that you were in a place where you could be involved with Tibetan Buddhists. What depth of character they could impart to you. Our environment so shapes us. -- barbara

    1. I am very fortunate to have the Tibetan teachers and spiritual practice in my life. Thanks Barbara. How do you feel about the 70s? I do notice more signs of aging these days. This time of life is quite amazing I think on many levels.

  3. How do I feel about the 70s? On one level I feel it is just a continuum of aging -- no magic door does one walk through. On another level I feel that one does begin to notice some physical differences. I'm sure if I did a comparative study to the different phases of my life I would be able to quote many changes but I am satisfied with the two I mentioned. One thing that I have noticed among my friends (and myself) is that they are more open to life's foibles. -- barbara