“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
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