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

Bringing the Light of Awareness to Our Older Lives

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CloudsRecently I watched a documentary about the exceptional life and music of the vocalist Linda Ronstadt, now 73. Living with Parkinson’s disease, wheelchair dependent and no longer able to sing, she displayed an acceptance of her current reality with her characteristic optimism and humor. One quote in particular has continued to resonate with me. She asks “People want to talk about life after death, but what about life before death? How do we want to live?” This deceptively simple question is at the heart of conscious aging.

Conscious aging is an ongoing process of determining what really matters and supporting that through our choices, thoughts and actions. While this may seem obvious, in actuality the unconscious influences we have internalized over a lifespan often keep us operating in a default mode; reacting to life, rather than responding with intention. What do we believe about age? How does that impact how we feel about ourselves and others?

Aging is not the terrain only of older people. As poet laureate and bard Bob Dylan observed, “He not busy being born is busy dying.” Yet we reserve the term ‘aging’ for people in the last third of life. This sets up a dualistic concept of young versus old, to the detriment of both. Woven into the fabric of our daily existence is the worldview that ‘old’ is undesirable, that diminishment and irrelevance are inevitable. This in turn fosters the belief that the only means to “successful aging” is to act, think, feel and identify as youthful. But by disallowing the reality of our years, we deny their intrinsic value and do ourselves a great disservice.

We all have been imprinted by what was modeled to us; children learn societal norms, including attitudes towards age, gender and ethnicity, in the first seven years of life. According to cell biologist Bruce Lipton, PhD, the activity of our conscious mind is associated with the prefrontal cortex, the seat of our personal identity and creativity. Astonishingly, the conscious mind attends to and manages the present moment on average only about 5% of the time. Lipton goes on to say that by default, the remaining 95%​ ​of our cognitive activity is controlled by previously acquired programs downloaded into the subconscious mind. Think about that…when we are not operating from our creative conscious mind, which is the majority of the time, we are operating out of habit, i.e. our acculturation.​ ​There is no doubt we feel the effects of institutionalized ageism, but rarely are we aware of the more subtle internalized ageism that molds our attitudes, beliefs, actions and choices.

Which brings us back to what it means to age consciously. With willingness, intention and curiosity, we can engage our creative mind in exploring what assumptions we hold. Noticing our internal dialogue and the things we habitually say can help reveal the ways we limit ourselves and perpetuate ageist stereotypes. Consciously paying attention to the language we use has a powerful ripple effect. Our words have power. How often, for example, do we say “I’m having a senior moment?” There are so many assumptions about age in that statement alone. I now choose to say “I’m having a human moment!” The process of challenging everything we have heard and been told about ‘old’ can lead to shifts in consciousness that open the door to a more expansive experience of aging.

I don’t want to oversimplify however. Awakening to our internalized ageism can sometimes be a sudden revelatory moment, but more often it is a gradual process, one layer at a time. Just as our habitual thinking was ingrained through repeated reinforcement, so too our conscious awareness continually evolves; requiring daily, even moment to moment, practice. Rudolph Tanzi, PhD, a recognized leader in the field of neuroplasticity, tells us that, when we change our habitual thoughts and behaviors, we actually rewire our neurocircuitry and may even alter our genes. Enabling our conscious awareness changes our brain and has a positive impact on our health and overall wellbeing.

Some practices available to assist us along the way are: kindness towards ourselves; forgiveness; reviewing our life journey to remember what has given us strength, purpose and meaning; honestly contemplating impermanence and death; identifying role models and reaching out to others. Never underestimate the power of humor as well! While there is much over which we have little or no control, we do have the opportunity for greater authenticity, connection and drawing from the deeper well of inner knowing. As the poet Walt Whitman noted in his work ​Leaves of Grass​, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Reframing aging is a radical act towards interconnectedness and transforming the narrative of life, not just for ourselves, but for all. Life is messy, aging is messy…and precious. With the practice of awareness, acceptance, compassion and peace, we can find the answers to the questions posed by Linda Ronstadt: “What about life before death? How do we want to live?”

by  Evalina Everidge, Certified IONS Conscious Aging Facilitator

(previously published on IONS Noetic Blog)

 Photo Credit: Costa Rica Sunset 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