Tuesday, March 31, 2020
The revered spiritual teacher Ram Dass, who recently died at age 88, observed that people have no difficulty being called an old soul but do not want to be called an old person. What a paradox! Accrual of wisdom is viewed as a positive attribute, yet aging is denied and feared. How can we bridge that gap? Conscious aging helps us integrate deeper awareness into our experience of life.
Fear of aging is linked to our learned standard that how we look and what we do is the measure of our worth and self esteem. As we grow older and our bodies change it can have a negative impact on our sense of self. When I was younger, I often had an adversarial relationship with my body. I judged, berated, and sometimes starved it, seeking an unrealistic ideal of perfection, just to feel I was okay. In my career as a nurse, I often pushed my body beyond its limits, ignoring the signals of pain and exhaustion it tried to give me. Now older, I experience chronic discomfort and other consequences. The gift is that I can no longer avoid listening to my body. I’m learning to be an ally and treat it with kindness.
As we mature, if we are open to it, it is natural to increasingly focus inward. The wisdom of the body calls for awareness that our physical, mental, and emotional rhythms differ from other times in our lives. Age can free us from old roles and also lead us to question who we are without those roles. People who have long been in an active ‘doing’ mode may find it difficult to assume a ‘being’ mode. This does not mean that we cease to engage with life in ways that are meaningful to us, or that we don’t fulfill responsibilities. It does mean finding balance between our outer and inner worlds.
Another impediment to cultivating self awareness is the natural inclination to avoid difficult or unpleasant thoughts and feelings. The saying “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional” may seem facile when we feel the pain, but it is true that our thoughts and attitudes determine how we cope with the experience. Change and loss must be grieved, every response and feeling deserves its due. The practice of conscious aging helps us to be compassionately present with what we are experiencing. It can open and strengthen us in ways we may not have anticipated. The late poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen wrote “there is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
Living and aging consciously is an acceptance of life as it is, and of ourselves as we are. The Japanese concept of Wabi Sabi offers a beautiful perspective to foster acceptance. The three primary principles are:
Nothing lasts forever
Nothing is perfect
Nothing is ever finished
This feels true for, as we see reflected in nature, everything is impermanent; it is both alive and dying. When we come to terms with our mortality, it allows us to live more fully. Likewise, compassion for everything we think of as imperfect lets us appreciate ourselves as we are. The knowledge that we are never finished is a reminder that we are more than just our minds and bodies. We can explore not just who we have been, but who we are becoming.
Together we can explore the places that scare us and the inner wisdom that helps us to navigate them. I hope you will join in to celebrate our changing and growing lives.