Mindful Aging: Three Alternative Models by Ira Rechtshaffer
I. The fact of aging is not a problem, but our ideas of aging are. Aging reminds us that we’re mortal and that time will run out on us. It’s a wakeup call that we have to ease our grip on whomever or whatever we're holding, so that we travel lightly. This gesture of surrender permits our human journey to evolve, but we have great resistance to letting go because it confronts us with uncertainty. The irony is that if we’re not able to die, in the sense of letting go, then we’re really not able to live fully. Without an ever present sense of impermanence, life is insipid. Our awareness and benign acceptance of our necessary mortality can heighten our love of life. The gesture of letting go allows us to open into a refreshing feeling of aliveness. Aging may call forth new strengths and capacities that weren't available to us in previous stages of our development. However, merely growing old does not make us wise, but the inspected life, the mindful approach to life is what gives birth to wisdom. Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to what we never give a moment's thought to. It shines a light on the beliefs that we hold dearly, which in turn, shape our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. By releasing our attachment to our beliefs we open a space where many possibilities exist. When this meditative practice is applied to the process of our aging, we expand the range of what’s possible in our journey through the seasons of our life. One alternative model for aging is our growing potential for intimacy—coming in closer to our deepest nature, to what is most intrinsic or essential. Our increasing capacity for intimacy inspires personal development towards greater depth, sensitivity, complexity and wholeness. In a nontraditional, materialistic society as ours we’re largely identified with our physical body and it’s preservation. Keeping it alive and forestalling death becomes the unspoken goal for many of us. At the same time, because of the preoccupation with our body’s appearance and our national obsession with youth, beauty, sexiness, and “market appeal”—-aging becomes a continual threat to our self image and to our feelings of social value. As we age it's not uncommon to feel socially invisible, unwanted, and unlovable. Our society does not have rituals to honor the later stages of life. We have rites of passage from birth to maturity in the form of baptism, bar mitzvah, and graduations from public school and university. There are trophies and awards for sports and recreation achievements, ceremonies for marriage and the birth of children, occupational accolades, and celebrations at retirement and memorialization at funerals. But the various stages of aging remain an ignored and overlooked series of passages. At some point we may find ourselves not looking forward to anything at all, feeling that we've lost a sense of purpose, as we wonder, “Is this all there is?” Yet, as we age we can cultivate the very qualities that our endangered world desperately needs in order to survive: wisdom, patience, tenderness, and a growing identification with life itself. We could re-imagine the process of aging as an expression of mindful or conscious evolution. Aging could be re-visioned as the gradual development of those aspects and dimensions that we've neglected or ignored on the way up the mountain of our lives. In spite of the body’s gradual deterioration and loss of some capacities, we can continue to develop an intuitive understanding that whatever we experience has some intimate relationship with our inner being, although we may not understand this at first blush. Nothing that life brings us is completely alien, but corresponds to some dimension of ourselves that is ready to receive it. The challenge here is whether or not we can trust the natural unfolding of our life and the events and circumstances that make up our world, as a lawful process and as a sign of life's intelligence. In spite of the grotesque and horrendous atrocities that go on in the world, perhaps our aging process gives us the time necessary to deepen our trust in life itself. Mature trust leads to a deepening of our capacity for intimacy both with ourselves and others, but also with the ordinary events of daily life. Taking advantage of the increased vulnerability that comes with age, we might meet the world more nakedly, with fewer defenses, more willing to explore those hidden regions, the unknown dimensions within ourselves. Bringing attention to the boundary between us and our loved ones, we could lean into that porous membrane with inquisitiveness and a spirit of exploration to notice that we’re afraid of being seen, of letting another enter into us to penetrate our heart. With this kind of inquiry we step into deeper connection and communication both with ourselves and with another, until that membrane stretches to include the other, if only for moments. We can enact the same process with ourselves. There are many areas or domains that we’ve neglected or avoided because we may have felt that there was no value in such exploration. We often get stuck in our personal development because of resistance to working through unfinished business, and because of our fear to explore new territory. We cannot move on in our personal journey until we have communicated with, accepted, and embraced the places within us that remain unresolved. This involves grieving our losses, and developing the capacity and willingness to forgive both ourselves and those who have hurt us, intentionally or inadvertently. Cultivating a feeling of gratitude for everyone and everything that has brought us to the present moment, quickens our spiritual journey. With the same quality of curiosity and joyful exploration, we might uncover pockets of memory, story, image, and emotion that has kept us stuck but which now can lead us into greater understanding and appreciation of our unique individuality. This exploration includes communication with our shadow parts and with our gender opposite qualities which we've been conditioned to repress. Only by daring to live and learn, touch and be touched by life, can we enlarge the space within ourselves to include more of the world. This process invites an endless journey into a widening identity, perhaps a new story, and an expanded conception of ourselves, including our identification with non human life. With such deepening intimacy with life, we might learn to love what was formerly unlovable.
A second alternative model of aging questions the dichotomy we make between youth and age. Through this questioning process we come to realize that the terms young and old are not really tied to specific age levels. We’re both young and old at every age. The qualities of youth and age exist within us as organizing principles that shape and are shaped by our experiences over a lifetime. To be young is to be full of promise, to be hopeful, enthusiastic, energetic and inquisitive, but it’s also to be lacking in experience and substance. Youth represents birth, growth, initiation, possibility and potential. Images of the new year, the hint of things to come, birth, and the season of spring come to mind. We’re young at any age when we tap into these eternally recurring qualities which color our outlook on life. The eternal youth is a person of any age who is at the start of a developmental process or who’s being initiated into a new chapter of life. The universal quality of youthfulness could erupt at the start of a new relationship or personal project, regardless of our age. It could also present itself when a stagnant marriage evolves to a deeper level of communication and intimacy, or when an uneventful job is energized when we suddenly recognize the possibility for creative change. Being young, like being old, has both strengths and limitations. To be young is to be lively, growing, and full of possibilities, but it’s also to be underdeveloped, impulsive, lacking in experience and wisdom. Agedness is an eternally recurring quality as well, symbolized by stability, structure, fruition and a sense of completion or closure. In age we consolidate our life's experiences which allows for a deeper understanding and appreciation of what we have lived for. Familiar images for age are of the wise old man or woman, ruins of ancient cities, eroded landscapes, winter and midnight. To be old is to be wise, introspective, unswerving, and perhaps accomplished, but it may also be lacking in energy, enthusiasm, spontaneity and playfulness. At worst, agedness could be senile, fossilized, impotent, and disconnected from the life around oneself. The recurrent capacity of agedness is a person of any age who is at the end of a developmental process or relationship, or when we come to a final perspective or conclusion about a particular matter that's taken time and effort to reach. As we age there’s a normal increase in the qualities of maturity, judgment, self-awareness, stability, breadth of perspective. But these qualities are of value only if they continue to be vitalized by youthful energy, imagination, a sense of wonder, and the willingness to be foolish and spontaneous. We feel old when a phase of our lives or a significant relationship is coming to an end and must be permitted to pass. Yet we could also feel young since endings can initiate the start of a new chapter of life or lead to a new friendship. Cultivating the mindfulness practice of letting go we invite the potential for rejuvenation and growth. All throughout our life cycle, mindfulness brings awareness to the young-old principles within us which require continual readjustment and rebalancing. The end of a period stimulates thoughts and feelings about completion, or perhaps resolution to leave what's unfinished alone, knowing that we can come back to it at a later time. The start of the new period stimulates youthful thoughts and feelings about making a fresh start, as we look forward to discovering new possibilities. To the extent that we spread our wings and dare to fly, to that degree we invoke the universal quality of youthfulness. To hang back in our cocoon of safety and security afraid to risk, we reinforce the self-limiting belief that we have become too old to start something new. Through the openness that mindfulness practice cultivates, we can continually discover the qualities of eternal youthfulness. The alternative is to strengthen the belief in our irreversible deterioration which weighs heavily on the lightness of our being. Mindful aging challenges us to discover new ways of being young and old. We are obliged to give up certain of our former youthful qualities, but by cultivating other qualities we can discover an expanded sense of personhood and a renewed sense of meaning in being older.
A third alternative model of aging understands and appreciates that the rhythms of both the natural world and our inner world unfold according to their own intelligence and timing. Here, our human life is envisioned as a microcosm of the world. The earth’s goodness and beauty is found not only in the natural elegance of her rhythms, cycles and seasons, but also in the seasons of our human life. There’s the winter of inaction, when our projects may lie fallow or our significant relationships feel stagnant — a time when we draw into ourselves for reflection, contemplation, or healing. Perhaps it’s an uneventful time when nothing much is happening in our life and we have more doubt than hope, more inertia than initiative, more melancholy than cheerfulness. Such a season invites us downward into our own depths, a place to which we wouldn’t ordinarily go. Although such an experience may not be pleasant, there’s often value in dropping down into the darker dimensions of our soul. By being willing to go there and experience our shadowy depths, we metabolize its frightening or destructive aspects, carving a place in our interior where such dark feelings can coexist with our light and bright feelings. Psychological winter does not mean depression, but may be a time when, removed from the fray of external activities, we come in close and make time to incubate what was not fully experience or understood. Spring is when we experience periods of creativity, hope or love, seemingly emerging out of the barren landscape of our psychological winter, as we find ourselves in movement with a renewed sense of energy and inspiration. We take advantage of this resurgence of energy, sensing that now is the time to ride the currents of this season and launch ourselves full throttle into our life. Rather than becoming inflated or intoxicated with ourselves, we simply recognize that we’re moving through a delightful cycle brought about by innumerable causes and conditions that have given momentum to this season. Summer may be a time when we’re flourishing, as we find ourselves extended outward into the social network of our friends, family and community. It could be a time of irrepressible optimism in love, community involvement or creative work, as many pieces of our life come together to work synergistically in our favor. Inwardly, it could be a deepening or maturing of a personal passion or project, or a relationship that’s becoming more intimate with richer communication. There might be a feeling of either high energy and effort or its opposite—-effortlessness, as if things are moving of their own. Autumn is that time in our life when we reap the results of our efforts, as the seeds that we've been germinating reach fruition. It's likely that many factors beyond our individual efforts contributed to the maturation of our seeds. If we have practiced mindfulness and cultivated heartfullness, we feel gratitude and humility, knowing that we’re the recipients of life’s generosity, and that such cycles do not last forever. Harvest is the willingness to embrace that unmistakable feeling of completion and fullness when a job is well done, having brought something full cycle to it's culmination. This season suggest a time for pause and reflection before we launch into yet another project. Autumn challenges us to recognize how we tend to flee the open space that follows the harvest to ward off feelings of emptiness and boredom. It's necessary to take in the good, and savour the well-deserved fruits of our labors. Taking time to pause and be with oneself, feeling and listening to our heart, body, and soul is the gift of mindful aging. The inner season of winter returns again to offer respite and refreshment, perhaps only for a brief period. Or perhaps this season invites us downwards into our depths where we pause to reflect, giving ourselves time and space to experience the ending of a phase of our relationship with our children or our partner, or perhaps the final stage of a project we’ve been working on for many months or years. A longer period of time may be necessary to fully absorb and integrate difficult chapters of her life. From the substance of our inner earth, we cultivate confidence and conviction that the cycles of nature and the seasons of our life have their own natural intelligence, their own rhythms, and their own unique expressions. With inner earth as our foundation, we can embrace both beginnings and endings, without anxiety and fear of failure. Little by little we learn to allow all manner of experience to coexist — the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful—- intuitively grasping that they emerge from the same soil. Consequently, we develop dignified composure when challenged by difficult circumstances especially when enduring periods of loss and defeat. We remind ourselves that difficult or barren periods are followed by periods of renewed hope, growth, and possibility, although such periods may be quite subtle. We need to remind ourselves to invoke the eternal qualities of youth again and again, while keeping our aged feet on the ground.