Getting old isn’t easy for a lot of us. Neither is living, neither is dying. We struggle against the inevitable, and we all suffer because of it. We have to find another way to look at the whole process of being born, growing old, changing, and dying, some kind of perspective that might allow us to deal with what we perceive as big obstacles without having to be dragged through the drama. It really helps to understand that we have something — that we are something — which is unchangeable, beautiful, completely aware, and continues no matter what.
In this quote from Ram Dass, and in his book Still Here, I believe he is inviting us to “grow old gracefully,” which involves living authentically and experiencing that deeper joy within that comes from our connection with the Divine. Sounds beautiful! However, growing old gracefully often requires a true transformation of how we view life, and how we live life.
As we grow older friends and family members are dying or moving away, our health is deteriorating, we no longer have our youth or our career, eventually our house and other possessions are being sold or given away, and the prospect of dying is right around the corner. Pretty grim picture – right?
Understandably, our tendency is to resist the changes that are happening in our life, and to close out the world around us. It is easy to get caught up in the pain of fear, sadness, anger, and other states of mind that these changes can bring.
But perhaps there is a way of using these changes that life brings as an opportunity for personal growth and spiritual awareness. This is a time when we have a special opportunity to open to our inner process and bring greater clarity, meaning, and peace into our lives.
Speaking from experience, I have found that in general aging has been quite an adventure. Only, instead of an exciting external adventure, the adventure has been an inward journey of exploring the obstacles that have prevented me from truly being present in the moment and realizing the sacred dimensions of life.
Much of how we are in life has to do with our own inner process and how we see the world. By being present with our thoughts and emotions, we can ease the suffering within ourselves and respond to the situations in our life more clearly and effectively.
Rather than seeing ourselves as victims of circumstances we can realize that much of the abuse is coming from within. We can learn to watch the habits of the mind and gently open to the painful feelings that we tended to run away from in the past.
The aging process can be an opportunity for a true transformation. In order for this transformation to occur, we must be willing to be present with what is happening in the moment, which includes opening to our internal process.
Opening to our inner process involves letting go of our expectations, being free from the expectations of others, examining our belief system, and not getting caught up in our own or others’ criticism. Whenever we find ourselves ruminating about things we can’t change, we can consciously and compassionately observe the negative patterns of our mind.
When we feel frightened, angry, jealous, or lonely rather than reacting to these feelings, running from them, trying to analyze them, or medicating them, we can simply observe and give them space to be, sensing how they feel in our body and watching our mind. This enables us to let go of the grip they have on us, allowing a deeper joy to emerge that is beyond pleasure and pain.
Debbie Ford writes, “Be caring and compassionate to yourself. Ninety-nine percent of the abuse that happens is going on internally. If we want an external change we have to start inside ourselves.”
As elders we are preparing to leave this life and when we depart we will be leaving everything behind. So, by opening our minds and our hearts to the losses in our lives we are learning how to let go of how we want life to be, and are becoming more aware of the wonders life has to offer in the moment. We can choose to go within, quiet our minds and access the Divine presence.
Ram Dass writes, “The desire to control change is our greatest obstacle to wisdom… As wise elders, we come to know the Ego has no control over anything, and so we begin to rest in the mysterious present and let the future unfold as it will.”
As we age, and life changes around us, to the extent that we are able to let go of the need to control the events and people in our lives, we are able to realize that we are more than the limitations of our body-mind.
Anthony De Mello in his book Walking on Water says, “Many old people have never lived and have never tested all the sweetness, depth, and riches that old age brings, because they have never left their youth, strength, and vitality behind. The best is still to come…”
I remember working with a businessman who had a major stroke. He was unable to walk or talk and he only had the use of one arm. As he became more accepting of his predicament he discovered that he was able to draw, and he was good at it! He found that his artistic talent was so good in fact that his paintings became famous worldwide.
Not everyone will find hidden talents as they grow older but I do believe that as long as we open to life as it presents itself we gain a wisdom not available to us in our youth – a wisdom that comes from quieting our minds, opening our hearts, and embracing our inner experiences.
When we are young we want to gather knowledge so that we can learn how to act in life. We process information and act accordingly. Whereas as wise elders we are observing life and seeing what truly matters in the scheme of life.
In our earlier years, we focused mainly on doing--- getting married, buying a house, raising a family, and building our career--- there wasn't much time for simply being or reflecting.
During the last phase of life, we have more time to reflect on the nature of life and death. Aging with awareness prompts us to ask the hard questions in life such as: What happens when I die? How do I prepare for death? What conflicts do I need to resolve within myself and with my relationship with others? Who do I need forgiveness from, and whom do I need to forgive? How can I more fully love? How can I become more in touch with the Divine?
In contemplating these questions we deepen our relationship with ourselves and with others, and realize how important it is to use every moment as an opportunity to cultivate love.
Aging can be a very rich time for exploring the inner world, for being with nature, for forgiving and loving, for letting go and allowing, for opening to death and appreciating life.
Aging with awareness requires being present in each moment and being willing to open to life and all of its complexities. The process of playing one's part in life and then letting go of the effects of one's actions is emphasized in many of the world's scriptures (e.g., the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita).
Given that we have become attached to persons and things of the world, letting go is a process that involves grieving the losses in our lives. Each time we let go there is a sense of freedom, a sense of liberation.
The psyche has a remarkable ability to renew itself. In all of our deep transitions, our crises and conversions, we are challenged to let go of something so that something else may be born. These occasions are periods of great confusion and hurt. Often we feel alone in our collapsing world.
In this quote by John Welch the “something else that is born” in opening to this process of aging, is a deeper level of gratitude, patience, compassion, confidence, fearlessness, authenticity, harmony, joy, inspiration, and peace of mind.
The value of aging involves the journey within. Meditation, contemplation, prayer, journaling, reading inspirational works, and dream-work are all means that one can use to enter and explore one's inner space.
Ram Dass tells us that: "Without acknowledging the soul level or cultivating a soul consciousness, we are like passengers trapped on a sinking ship.”
As elders we can use the aging process as an unfolding opportunity to gain deeper wisdom, cultivate a soul consciousness, and open to the fullness of life rather than resisting the pain and contracting into our ego –selves. In aging with this awareness much of the needless suffering is eased and we can open more fully to the richness that spirit has to offer.
Love and Peace,
Partially taken from our chapter on Aging with Awareness ~ Ron Valle, Ph.D. and Mary Mohs, M.A.
(chapter in Schlitz, M., Amorok, T., and Micozzi, M. (Eds.), Consciousness and Healing: An Anthology of Integral Approaches
to Mind/Body Medicine. Elseveir, 2004.)
Ram Dass (2000). Still Here: Embracing aging, changing, and dying. New York: Riverhead Books.
Anthony De Mellow, Walking on Water New York: A Crossroad Book The Crossroad Publishing Co.
John Welch, O,CARM, Spiritual Pilgrims: Carl Jung and Teresa of Avila New York: Paulist Press
Mary Mohs LVN, MA, RYT,