While ageing is inevitable, getting old and dull is not. We do not have to turn into petrified zombies complaining about our aches and pains, wandering around in a sort of daze, or relegated to the rocking chair. Now that many of us will live thirty years longer than our grandparents, it’s important that we find meaning and purpose in a time of life that was once viewed only with dread. The secret may be to realize a simple truth: that we are not our bodies.
Many older people have experienced this puzzling realization. From the outside looking in – from the face in the mirror – we see an aging person; but inside, we feel we are the same as ever we have been. It’s a paradox that dramatizes the gap that exists at every age between how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us; as the poet W. B. Yeats wrote, “Only God, my dear, /Could love you for yourself alone/ and not for your yellow hair.”
We Americans are obsessed with how we appear to others, yet despite our habit of externalizing our self worth, we want to be known and loved for who we truly are, but that raises a challenging question: If we’re not how we appear, who are we really?
In youth, our physical attributes tended to direct the storyline. Pretty or handsome, sexy or buff, tennis pro, tango dancer, we reach retirement still identifying with our yellow hair, our golf score, our youthful figures, only to encounter terrible feelings of loss as hair turns grey, figures grow plump and our athletic skill drops. Is aging nothing but loss and grief? What on earth can be the point of it all?
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, beloved guru of the aging to sage-ing movement, sees these losses or “diminishments” as an essential part of the journey at this age:
I believe that coming to terms with these diminishments is a major developmental task of old age that helps awaken the elder state of consciousness, with its promise of expanded mental potentials, spiritual renewal, and greater social usefulness.
For him, new mental and spiritual powers become available to us as we age, powers that will bring us untold benefit, that often inspire us to be of service to others; that is the purpose and the bounty of these extended years.
Herein lies the opportunity so often missed upon entering the halls of age. By turning within, we discover great reservoirs of deep spiritual wisdom. We may experience what Florida Scott-Maxwell calls the “incandescence” of advanced age; the light of the inner flame seems to grow more intense as our identification with the body begins to release its hold. As we begin to realize that we are not the bodies, we discover that we are, in essence, this bright flame. We have the capacity to discover what is uniquely our own, and allow its flooding warmth to radiate through our bodies, where it will actually help alleviate the body’s aches and pain, bolster our immune systems, and strengthen our vitality. For just as the body’s wellness frees the spirit, freeing the spirit can invigorate and heal the body, helping us to lighten the load of whatever ailments and nagging pains are likely to besiege us as we advance toward our eighth and ninth decades.
But how do we get in touch with that salubrious flame? Many of us enter our sixties having lost touch with our essential selves. We have spent decades meeting other people’s needs and conforming to their standards of performance; pursuing careers, raising families, and investing our energy in important financial and social accomplishments, we may have forgotten how to dip into that inner reserve of energy. The psychic scar tissue of untended emotional and psychological wounds, put on the back burner long ago, may also be blocking our access to the fresh inner spirit that yet burns, unseen, deep within us.
The first step is to believe that this inspirited inner being has value, and that getting in touch with it is the most important thing we can do at this time of our lives; for without spirit, we are not fully alive. Without spirit, we drag through our remaining days, bodies heavy, senses dull, and our interest in life all but extinguished. This lifeless state is exactly what we feared old age would be about. Now we have entered it, carrying our years like a burden, seeing nothing ahead to move us into the future except, perhaps, the inevitable end. But believing in spirit, we aspire to revitalize it, and we begin to look for the open door.
The second step is to allow ourselves to feel what we feel.
We are a society that emphasizes the positive. We prefer people who are cheerful and optimistic, chiding one another for being down. Yet as Miriam Greenspan writes in her very useful book about the dark emotions, Healing Through the Dark Emotions,
We can’t begin to change until we recognize where we are. We need to know what is not going well in our lives, what is blocking our spirits and dampening our joy, so that we can figure out what we need to have or to do to make this new period of our lives one of growth and fulfillment.
As we move consciously into that dark, heavy place, exploring it, looking into hidden corners and digging beneath the surface for our buried treasures, we will need inspiration to keep traveling this difficult path. What lifts your spirits? When is the last time you took a walk in the forest, picked up pebbles at the beach, listened to music you enjoy, played with a child, painted with oil pastels, danced around to popular music? Does prayer work for you? Singing in the church choir? Reading spiritual texts? Or poetry? What about a massage?
From here, the inner work may take you deeper, into territory more difficult to navigate. You may find you need a mentor or a guide, a good therapist, a counselor or a coach. If you are dealing with buried, unresolved trauma, there are many forms of bodywork that will help you release the scars that lie buried in the tissues. Releasing these containers of dense energy helps us open to the greater self that has been hiding all these years behind old fears, negative expectations, and dull ways of thinking about our lives.
Three other tools are readily available to us, at little or no cost: the practice of focused attention, whether in meditation, yoga, tai chi or chi gong; regular exercise, especially exercise in the fresh air; and good nutrition.
The opportunity for growth may arrive in dreary attire. Sometimes when we shy too far away from confronting difficult emotions, life will trip us up, forcing us to delve deep inside to liberate the buried self. It may be an illness, or a divorce, something planned or completely unexpected, a change of career, a move to a new place. These challenging and even unpleasant circumstances may actually serve to free us from old baggage and open new doorways to experiences we did not realize were still available to us. Many times depression itself is the trigger that shows us some kind of change is needed. What is it we wanted from our lives that we forgot? Where did we leave ourselves behind in favor of a job or a relationship that demanded we try to be like someone else? What does this time of life offer us?
Finding the little light inside is very much the mission of our mature years. We’ve come to a critical juncture; the choices we make here may very well determine how we engage with the unique challenges of this last act of our lives. Will this be a time of stiff denial or straightforward decline? Or, to use a concept advanced by Marc Freedman, can we turn this cherished, extended time – this gift of age — into an “encore” that brings together all the themes of our life in fine culmination?
We can’t avoid aging, but when we begin to view this time as one of rich harvest and deep personal growth, we can live to be 100 without becoming old.
Stephanie Hiller is a writer and a life coach who helps people navigate this new territory of extended lifetimes. She lives in Santa Fe.
Category: Life Transitions