The Spiritual Work of Aging
Sep 05, 2015 03:02AM
By Juliette Jones
“To know how to grow old is the master work of wisdom and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living.”
Perhaps you remember certain phrases or quotations that your mom or dad oft repeated during the course of your upbringing? I have come to think of these as “parental mantras” which settled into the depths of my subconscious and continue to serve as signposts along my path of life.
My mother brought me into the world at age thirty-nine – a chronology considered late in life for childbearing, especially during the 1940s. She lived a philosophy of inner freedom, adventure and strong mindedness well into her elder years. I think her strong vitality was the reason she got so many questions about her chronological age (many of which wouldn’t be considered politically correct), but she wouldn’t have thought to take offense. She simply used such questions as teaching opportunities. “Age,” she would say, “is just a number.” Her attitude and the way she lived life had a profound influence how I view the aging process.
Increasingly, we live in a culture that treasures youth and eschews the social clock of aging. Economic productivity and social achievement roles are prized, and fewer proclaim the value of the “golden years.” This isn’t true, however, in extended family cultures where the social support system embraces natural roles for elders based on inclusiveness and respect.
Alienation across generations is something of a cultural pathology, and in the modern West, alienation from nature has contributed to this problem. In a world dominated by technology and man-made projections, we have sadly lost our connectedness with nature and the feelings that once made us feel close to plantings, harvests, birth and death, as well as to the innate meaning of the aging cycle.
“The limitations and distortions of our core vision of what it means to be a person in our culture become starkly evident in old age. If to be an old person is to suffer abandonment, disappointment and humiliation, this is not a geriatric problem. It is the disproof of our whole shaky pudding, technology, science and all. If our old people are empty, our vision of life is empty.”
– Robert Kasselbaum
In the East (particularly India), certain cultural traditions still define and emphasize the tasks assigned to social roles according to age – childhood through twenty (student), twenty through forty (the tasks of adulthood, raising children etc.), forty through sixty (spiritual study) and beyond this, complete freedom from social roles. According to this view, the importance of spiritual deepening is emphasized as one advance in years. Old age is counted as an achievement leading to freedom, rather than a disability.
In the East, the physical body is seen as a vehicle for the ripening of awareness, and is “dropped” at the time of exit – a vehicle for the purpose of sojourn on planet earth. As with Christian mysticism, it is understood that one must lose the physical to gain a greater life. Internal preparation for change and loss is understood as an extremely important task, especially in the latter cycles of life. The goal is to become deeply aware of the “that” within the self that does not change in the midst of cycles of change, and to be present in the face of change without fear. This is a great art and, fundamentally speaking, cannot adequately be put into words but has something to do with realizing a profound state of inner awareness.
“In the modern West, life is generally spent denying aging and death. The material world emphasizes bodily reality over inner life and material productivity. There is a price to be paid for the neglect of depth perception and practice. For those who have spent their entire lives denying the reality of aging and death, it is difficult to embody a different view after a lifetime of looking the other way. The profound challenges inherent in aging and death are intense, and quite beyond the comprehension of the ego. Die in the morning so you need not die at night.”
– Ram Dass
All cycles in nature have purpose, and winter is no exception, but there is great advantage in seasonal preparation. Recognizing and honoring this stage of life has exceptional value. Rather than seeing “old age” as an obstacle, it is possible to see it as a template for spiritual discipline and practice. Transformation, letting-go, contemplation, compassion, sharing, life-review and completion of projects are the tasks of eldership. Not everyone receives the chance to become an elder, and in this may provide opportunity for a master work.
“At fifteen, my heart was set on learning. At thirty, I stood firm. At forty, I had no more doubts. At fifty, I knew the will of heaven. At sixty, my ear was obedient. At seventy, I could follow my heart’s desire without overstepping the bounds of what was right.”
The nature of aging has to do with time, as well as the ability to transform through the physical, psychological and spiritual dynamics of life cycles. As people get older, they often start to think they have less of a chance of succeeding based on age. People who think this way are more likely to give up since they tell themselves it’s already too late to change or accomplish. Add to that a person who is older may have already formed false beliefs about life and success, and once someone harbors negative beliefs about himself or about life, it is more likely he will prove himself right.
The ability to flourish during the last half of life is not based on chronological age. Success in life has much more to do with strong belief, passionate desire and preparation. My first formal spiritual teacher, the late Dr. Sarah E. Akens, used to say, “There’s no such thing as competition. We can all be the best we can be!” In today’s world, this may appear untrue from the standpoint of the ego, but is anyone truly competing against others in the unified field?
Every person is born to this life with many purposes they are here to accomplish. When it comes to success and the ability to excel in any endeavor, the best practice is to build a habit of “being the best that you can be in any and every endeavor.” This mentality is common among successful people and can be used as a daily yoga in every phase of life. Another good habit is to brush negative thoughts aside with the hand of the mind or to put negative thoughts in neutral gear, using the image of a stick shift in a car.
Is it really that rare for people to exhibit accomplishments later in life? Napoleon Hill, author of Think and Grow Rich said this: “I discovered, from the analysis of over 25,000 people, that men who succeed in an outstanding way seldom do so before the age of 40, and more often they do not strike their real pace until they are well beyond the age of 50. The average man reaches his greatest capacity to create between 40 and 60.”
There are numerous people who don’t reach real success until quite advanced along the “line of time” Maybe you know someone like this? Many well-known late bloomers have interesting success stories. For example, Morgan Freeman was born at a time when discrimination was in full swing. He had always wanted to be an actor, watched movies constantly and pursued his ambitions passionately. However, initially, he didn’t succeed and wound up with a different career. Nevertheless, his dream would not leave him so he tried once again, reaching his first success at age 50 and winning an Oscar at age 67.
I assume most people know about Grandma Moses who should be an inspiration to every artist. She was 76 when she took up painting and began selling her creations for two or three dollars apiece. She became so successful, however, that she soon sold her work for thousands of dollars. Posthumously, some of her paintings even sold for over a million dollars.
Peter Mark Roget was famous for authoring the Thesaurus which he published at the age of 73. He even had the disadvantage of coming from a family with mental illness, but this hereditary set-back did not dissuade his desire to leave a legacy. Finally, Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada founded the Hare Krishna movement at age 69, an immigrant from India who started with only 50 dollars, a pair of symbols and the desire to spread the teachings of Lord Krishna.
“The success stories of different people all over the world, across all age groups, are the same. Names change, but the story remains the same. If a person believes in himself, keeps trying, does his best, gets rejected then, after some time, someone recognizes his work, he becomes successful.”
– Tony Robbins