Conscious Aging Is An Inside Job

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Several months into the year of Covid, one of our town librarians delivered handmade cards from local elementary school children to the residents of my building. The card I received was decorated with purple flowers, glitter, and stars and read in big block letters: Keep Your Head Up and Your Heart Strong!! The word heart was underlined three times. I taped it to my kitchen cabinet for encouragement and as a reminder of resilience.

As the days turned into weeks and the weeks to months, I saw the card’s message daily and the words began to take on a deeper significance. I am one of the nearly one-third of older people in the United States who live by themselves, approximately 13.8 million according to the US Census Bureau. I am very grateful to have a safe space to live and my basic needs met, a privilege all too many do not have. For many of us, isolation has only been amplified by the Covid pandemic. I am fortunate to have a circle of friends to support me. I’ve always been comfortable with solitude and stillness. Even so, I have found that my prolonged time alone has challenged me to confront myself and my memories, emotions, and judgements, on a daily basis.

In Conscious Aging groups, we talk about shifts that occur naturally as we age. One of these shifts is from a productivity-focused “doing” mode towards a more contemplative “being” mode. Even though I was cognizant it isn’t an either/or shift, in our dualistic culture that’s how many perceive it. Deep down I thought of this “being” state as something to be achieved, like Zen mastery, that would bestow an unruffled sense of peace. The reality of the pandemic taught me otherwise. I learned that “beingness” is not a passive state, but is continually in flux. And, in that state, uncomfortable feelings can arise — feelings we humans characteristically avoid through distractions.

Initially, my response had been to distract myself with projects, virtual meetings, entertainment, food — whatever I could do to retain order and a sense of control. Then I thought of the message on my card: Keep Your Head Up. I began to see the words as a reminder to stop and notice, to be more fully in the moment. I paid more attention to my fluctuating moods, feelings and thoughts, without the rush to distract or push them away, acknowledging all that was present felt very vulnerable at times. It also led me to develop a more honest relationship with myself. Gradually, I eased up on established routines and let myself be more spontaneous, while listening to the needs of my body. The things I had done to distract myself became activities I chose to do, rather than an escape.

Self-compassion is foundational to conscious aging. Aging, like the pandemic, offers both difficulties and opportunities. Both challenge us to live with uncertainty in new ways. The second part of my card — Keep Your Heart Strong — reminds me that when I connect to my heart with kindness and accept the truth of the moment as it is, there is the potential for insights, resolution and growth. It is not a passive state, but one in which I can choose my response. One that can foster empathy and a sense of connectedness, guiding me towards action and change. Buddhist teacher, Frank Ostaseski, observed “Wholeness is not perfection, it means no part left out.” Can we lovingly accept all of our imperfect selves? Can we embrace old? Keep Your Head Up and Your Heart Strong.

Evalina Everidge, IONS Conscious Aging Facilitator