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

Conscious Aging in the Age of Pandemic

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“If you are invested in security and certainty you are on the wrong planet.”

Pema Chödrön

 

There is no denying we are living in unprecedented times. Our expectations of normalcy and how our lives are supposed to be have been upended. In this time of extended crisis, some things have not changed, rather they are blatantly amplified. Profound inequities based on age, race, economic status, social devaluation and “othering” have contributed to the devastating impact of COVID 19. Ageism has long led to the marginalization of older people with negative impacts on health and well being. In the face of a deadly virus, we have been told we are less deserving of life saving health care, that our lives have less value and that we are expendable. Like many of us, I feel angry and sometimes anxious and powerless. I’m grateful for what I have learned about conscious aging. It has reminded me to practice awareness, compassion, and self care to draw on my strength and resilience.

In pandemic, we find ourselves propelled into a situation we’ve never been in before. We can’t rely on what we’ve taken for granted, or the routines that have been markers of time. There is no foreseeable end date, when our perception of “normal” returns. We may feel isolated and struggle to find meaning and purpose in this new normal. Isn’t this in many ways parallel to the experience of aging? Late life is a stage of post adulthood, in which we enter uncharted territory. We may attempt to hold on to what was familiar, to our youth, to our sense of productivity. We are challenged to redefine our sense of self and purpose when the old roles and routines no longer apply. Our relationship to time changes. COVID 19 has made the prospect of death more immediate. Making peace with mortality can replace fear and give a deeper appreciation of each moment. In this more fluid time of aging, as in pandemic, we have an opportunity to explore what really matters.

This is a fertile time for life review. As I go through photos, letters and journals, I remember what has shaped me, what supported me in times of change. And, to my surprise, I feel an urge to declutter and discard many of these things from the past. I am also discovering outdated thoughts and attitudes to be released. These changing times call for an honest self-inventory, not only in regards to the ageism we’ve internalized, but also to racism and other forms of discrimination. As older people, we have an important contribution to make in shaping a new future, in partnership with younger generations.

Dr. Aisha Ahmad has written about coronavirus-inspired productivity pressure: “Now more than ever we must abandon the performative and embrace the authentic. Our essential mental shifts require humility and patience. Focus on real internal change. These human transformations will be honest, raw, ugly, hopeful, frustrated, beautiful and divine.”

Her words speak to the age of pandemic, as well as to the potential in aging. Change is inevitable. Life contains impermanence and uncertainty. Aging consciously, we can choose our response.

Evalina Everidge, IONS Conscious Aging Facilitator

(previously posted on IONS Noetic Blog website)

Seeing Aging from a Different Perspective

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“Now I become myself. Do not deprive me of my age. I have earned it.”  May Sarton

Recently, I moved into a wonderful historic building which has been converted into affordable apartments for older people. It has been a pleasure meeting other residents – our ages spanning five decades.One day I shared the elevator with a petite octogenarian who was holding onto a walker and sporting wispy purple hair, her piercing blue eyes looking back at me. She introduced herself as Grace, but added she wasn’t always called by that name. For most of her life she preferred her middle name because, she explained, her given name felt like a rebuke of how awkward, inadequate and ungraceful she had always felt herself to be. “But since I’ve gotten old, I took the name again”, she continued. “When I look back, I wasn’t all those things I thought I was, just insecure and young.”

The profound authenticity of that encounter with Grace touched me. It led me to reflect on the ways aging can let us see ourselves from a different perspective, with the eyes of compassion.

The conventional attitude towards aging is to compare our older selves to our younger selves unfavorably. The message that ‘young is always better’ is reinforced in myriad ways. Seeing older people as other than ourselves is a hallmark of ageism. Is it any wonder that many of us fear and deny our own aging? How often do we hear someone say (or perhaps we’ve said something similar ourselves) “I’m not old, I still feel 25 inside”? Yet do we really wish to stay frozen in time at an age when we are still in the process of becoming?

Certainly we have many fond and meaningful memories of earlier times in life, but there were also doubts, insecurities, necessary life lessons. Our memories are selective, and confirmed by the story we have told ourselves repeatedly about our lives. With awareness, we can expand to include a bigger story, and from that place self compassion grows. If we carry within us all the ages we have ever been, if we are a continuing evolving self, what a rich well we have available to us at this life stage.

In conversations with my neighbors and friends, we often say this is the best time of our lives. Despite, or perhaps because of, the changes we inevitably experience, we feel more true to ourselves. Younger is not more and older is not less – life simply is. And in that realization, as my new friend so beautifully reminded me, lies the grace. 

by Evalina Everidge, IONS Certified Conscious Aging Facilitator

(previously published on IONS Noetic Blog)

Photo Credit: Ashram Flower Bowl by Evalina Everidge

Going Within As We Age

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The revered spiritual teacher Ram Dass, who recently died at age 88, observed that people have no difficulty being called an old soul, but do not want to be called an old person. What a paradox!  Accrual of wisdom is viewed as a positive attribute, yet aging is denied and feared.  How can we bridge that gap? Conscious aging helps us to integrate  deeper awareness into our experience of life.

Fear of aging is linked to our learned standard that how we look and what we do is the measure of our worth and self esteem. As we grow older and our bodies change it can have a negative impact on our sense of self. When I was younger, I often had an adversarial relationship with my body. I judged, berated, and sometimes starved it, seeking an unrealistic ideal of perfection, just to feel I was okay. In my career as a nurse, I often pushed my body beyond its limits, ignoring the signals of pain and exhaustion it tried to give me. Now older, I experience chronic discomfort and other consequences. The gift is that I can no longer avoid listening to my body. I’m learning to be an ally and treat it with kindness.

As we mature, if we are open to it, it is natural to increasingly focus inward. The wisdom of the body calls for awareness that our physical, mental, and emotional rhythms differ from other times in our lives. Age can free us from old roles and also lead us to question who we are without those roles. People who have long been in an active ‘doing’ mode may find it difficult to assume a ‘being’ mode. This does not mean that we cease to engage with life in ways that are meaningful to us, or that we don’t fulfill responsibilities. It does mean finding balance between our outer and inner worlds

Another impediment to cultivating self awareness is the natural inclination to avoid difficult or unpleasant thoughts and feelings. The saying “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional” may seem facile when we feel the pain, but it is true that our thoughts and attitudes determine how we cope with the experience. Change and loss must be grieved, every response and feeling deserves its due. The practice of conscious aging helps us to be compassionately present with what we are experiencing. It can open and strengthen us in ways we may not have anticipated. The late poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen observed “there is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

Living and aging consciously is an acceptance of life as it is, and of ourselves as we are. The Japanese concept of Wabi Sabi offers a beautiful perspective to foster acceptance. The three primary principles are:

Nothing lasts forever
Nothing is perfect
Nothing is ever finished

This feels true for, as we see reflected in nature, everything is impermanent; it is both alive and dying. When we come to terms with our mortality, it allows us to live more fully. Likewise, compassion for everything we think of as imperfect lets us appreciate ourselves as we are. The knowledge that we are never finished is a reminder that we are more than just our minds and bodies. We can explore not just who we have been, but who we are becoming.

by  Evalina Everidge, A Tribe Called Aging; Certified IONS Conscious Aging Facilitator

(previously published on IONS Noetic Blog)

 Photo Credit: Evalina Everidge