A Short Guide to Aging Gracefully

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Did you notice? You just got a tiny, imperceptible bit older. And there? It happened again. But instead of obsessing over each moment and its passage, a cultural undercurrent is crafting an appreciation for the process. There is a wrinkled beauty that comes with a life long-lived, some have found, and the challenges of old age offer opportunities for existential exploration and discovery. Acceptance, rather than resistance, can deepen the experience of life for old and young alike.

“There’s a whole adventure waiting to open up for people who are aging,” Lewis Richmond tells James Shaheen in Tricycle, “but they do have to get through that ‘I wish I were younger’ phase.” Richmond, a Buddist priest, meditation teacher, and author of the recent book Aging as a Spiritual Practice acknowledges that aging comes with many challenges. If we can recognize those and move beyond them, “there is something precious and new about growing old.”

An increased awareness of mortality and impermanence brings a certain amount of gravity with it. Yet this is when we begin asking the most important questions about ourselves and the relationships that define our lives. These questions can open us to growth. “There is a lot more static of regret and worry as you get older,” says Richmond, “that’s why meditation practice can really help. […] What’s real is that this is your life, and it happened, and there’s no going back. There’s only altering your attitude and perception about it so that you can go forward.”

Handled appropriately, these same realizations can enhance our ability to admire life’s complete cycle. In Shambhala Sun, Lin Jensen writes, “Aging is itself an agent of impermanence. The flesh gradually atrophies and the bones ache a little, signaling the end that is to come. I’m discovering aging to be an interesting uncharted territory to journey in.”

And what happens next? Whatever our deepest-held beliefs about life after death may be, life on Earth continues to cycle. Matter changes form. “Impermanence is midwife to the newborn,” muses Jensen, “new life springing from the womb of the old. Things rise and fall, rise and fall. In all that goes down, there lives a going up. This is reassuring when you’re witnessing the end of something.”

Still, the end is not as abrupt if we’ve shared our stories. Writing for The Good Men Project, Brandon Ferdig reveals how exchanges with his grandparents and elderly acquaintances have given him a more tangible connection to history, to the strength of the human spirit, and to fluidity between generations. Most of the time, writes Ferdig, “we gloss over the present with worry and daydream, missing the depth and truth of who we are.” Having taken the time to learn and appreciate the stories of elders around him, Ferdig has found more depth to himself.  “The elders among us relate, in the most powerful and direct way, that heartache and challenges are something everyone has to face and that anyone can overcome; they reveal how change–to people, places and situations–is imminent; that there’s so much more to each person than what we see in them today–including ourselves.”

Image by Ann Gordon, licensed under Creative Commons.

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