Ageing is a hard time for us all. I use the word ‘us’ intentionally, as now or later, it is all of us. It is very hard to watch as one by one our powers weaken and abilities deteriorate, quickly or slowly. We may feel abandoned and sidelined by others whose attention is focused on getting on and achieving in a predominantly youth culture. Frequent health issues keep us concerned and occupied with medical matters. On top of that, there may be expectations from others, be it family, friends or society, that somehow we are there to look after them – whether it is aged parents or grandchildren, whether babysitting or giving away presents, money and possessions. And there is a struggle in relation to our role. Too often it is as pensioners who are ignored, dependent and rather useless, and at best do not cause young people too much trouble. Which tends, unfortunately to be the standard Western model.
But there is another possibility entirely: to arrive in old age skipping nor crawling. To be feisty, energetic, and full of the spice of life. To enjoy this time as a time of freedom from cares, freedom from ambitions, expectations, and concerns. To be delighted that we are not part of the endless race for success and achievement. To live lightly without too much thought of tomorrow. To appreciate all the life wisdom that we have accumulated and donate it freely to others, and usually receive in return the honour and appreciation due to us. To enjoy and share the memories and stories that we live by, and at the same time to be the holders of culture, and preserver of skills, values and ethics. To radiate steadiness and bring confidence to younger folk that have lost their way, and to be the ‘wise woman’ or the ‘tribal elder’.
If that is our aspiration, we have to start early. Ageing begins at birth. Its just that we don’t notice it as such. To age well we have to live well. It takes practice. If we spend our whole lives busy, ambitious, demanding, full of expectations and needs, it is not easy to switch channels in such a drastic way, and let go so completely and joyfully in older age. We have to practice letting go before that. In a way, since ageing is loss of powers, loss of capacities, and loss of many other things, there is dying in it – dying to what was and to our imagined needs, and to what we think we have and don’t want to lose. Practice then means practicing to die a bit during our life, to genuinely live with les grasping on to things and to life itself. One meditation teacher described this well after he contracted Alzheimer’s disease. He said : ‘You have got to get your dying done early’! On the level of mind and body, preparing for ageing well is about living with simplicity and harmony in relation to the world. If you look at the lifestyles of communities or individuals who tend to live a long time and are healthy and energetic into old age, they generally engage in physical work, are not overweight, eat little and regularly, don’t use industrial or processed food, and are not under stress or subject to a great many contagious diseases. Science backs this up, and confirms that one of the main ways that we can increase our lifespan and general health into old age is to eat less – to reduce the amount of calories and chemicals that our body consumes and then has to get rid of. At the same time if we are active in our life we will be more likely to continue that into old age. It is interesting that science has failed to find any one herb, remedy, pill, vitamin, food supplement, or drug that can substantially prolong life, but has confirmed repeatedly in many studies that restricting food intake is the one change that really can prolong life ‘safely’.
It happens that my doctorate is on the way cells age, and I have written many scientific papers and a book on the ageing process. What stands out is that there is no one mechanism or a program that controls the ageing process – it is more the lack of program. As we age, more or less everything gets more chaotic, uncontrolled, unregulated. It is as if evolution has designed us to reach maturity and have children, and then after that loses interest – liked a car that is designed to go for 300,000 Km., but after that everything seems to go wrong. If that is the case, then wise ageing is to get more mileage out of this body by using it carefully, without stress, burnout, over-consumption, toxins and extremes.
Much of this preparation is of the mind, not the body. And the mind that ages well is a mind that is cheerful, positive, curious, kind and attentive. So these are the qualities of mind that we need to sustain in our life, to keep them when we are older. This is not the mind of a couch potato. This is not the mind that spends most of its waking hours either working in front of a computer or sinking in front of the TV. What we do with our mind really matters – to what we direct our attention, and what habits of mind we develop. I am a great believer, for example in different forms of meditation, to give focus, balance and steadiness of mind, to reduce fear, and runaway concerns. Meditation not only brings concentration and inner peace – it also embodies those qualities of mind we mentioned. If we see our inner landscape clearly with our inner eye, we are no longer controlled by it. We can be more free and see the truth of things, and this brings us much ease and joy. ? I remember during a course on meditation I was teaching to elderly people, during one particular session there was a wonderful sense of peace and deep quiet that kind of took us all over. After the session I asked how it was. One lady said: “Do you realise what a relief it is just to rest in awareness of breathing? I was not a 70 year old lady, I did not have arthritis, I did not have a crowd of noisy grandchildren and demanding family. I was just breathing. I was at peace”. For example, one of the big challenges is coping with change and loss. With an ability to be a ‘fair witness’ of the changes that happen to us, we do not identify with them so much (‘my problems’) and we will tend to take our changes easily, to take things as they come. Embracing our changes also includes embracing health and sickness. Nature is being expressed when we are born, when we age, and when we die. We don’t need to take it personally. Here is part of a poem I wrote on my sister’s 60th. Birthday: This is a a great age If we don’t hold on too tight, Turning to our life, Filling the circle with warm colours, Love inside boundaries The circumferences, That no longer quite protect us But are breached in unexpected places Which seem like aches and pains But is the sweet vulnerability Of the world getting in, Through gaps in our defences. This dialogue between health and sickness, Is like 2 neighbours arguing, Across a fence full of holes, That divides the same garden
Once, so the ancient texts relate, the Buddha as an old man was being given a massage by his attendant, Ananda, and another monk. They too were old at this time. As they gave him a massage, the Buddha exclaimed: ‘Look! How the skin is falling in folds! How amazing!’ They all laughed. ‘Look’, he said, ‘how the flesh is so dry and withered! Isn’t that something!’ ‘Yes’, they replied, ‘Amazing’, and they all laughed. They were like little children looking at their changed selves with surprise and delight, not old depressed people complaining and worrying about their bodies. Part of this freedom to flow with change, is to live in the present moment. In a deep sense, in the present, there is only moment by moment experience, which is spontaneous and immediate, beyond time. In the moment, truly experienced, there is no ageing, no measuring no comparing to what was and no concern about what will be. It needs us to let go. To surrender to whatever the moment gives us. We need to give ourselves permission to stop struggling, to get out of the battle. This is what allows the moments of grace which, after a long life behind us, we deserve. This is the wisdom of age - a life rich with experience culminating in peace, reflection and full presence. It is this wisdom that makes us role models to younger people.
It goes further than that – is not ageing the time when we can leave behind our duties and concerns and devote ourselves to our inner life, life of the spirit. In India there are traditional life stages – the first quarter (20-25 years) is growing. The second is establishing a family and working. The third is gaining wisdom and preparing for departure, and the fourth is to leave home and wander the land in search of spiritual awakening. Maybe we don’t want to physically wander the streets of London, New York or Tel Aviv. But we can fly free, like a great bird soaring over the landscape of our life, and do it right where we are!