What’s Aging Got to Do with Spiritual and Emotional Growth?

A hell of a lot, it seems!

When I was a child, my Mom taught me what it meant to age gracefully. She came from a family of many aunts. Between her mother and all the aunts, she grew up with examples of aging gracefully as well as examples of aging in disgrace. Aging disgracefully meant resenting the aging process so much that others had to deal with that resentment poured out on them. Aging disgracefully meant being generally angry most of the time. Aging disgracefully meant one was obsessive about one’s looks. Aging gracefully, on the other hand, meant one was pleasant, agreeable, and available to others. Aging gracefully meant always looking one’s best but with a humble attitude. With all the women in the family, Mom found examples of both kinds of aging and it really captured her attention. I understood that she intended to age gracefully and she expected me to do so too.

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Several things about this jump out at me. Most of the aunts were born in the 19th Century. My grandmothers were born during the first decade of the 20th Century. Mom was a teenager in the late 1940’s/early 1950’s. I was a child of the 1960’s, becoming a teen in 1973. These were not eras when psychology was well respected or counseling readily available. Rather, psychology was suspect and women, rather than being encouraged to explore their psyches, motives, and desires, were expected to be pleasant, agreeable, and available to others. Mom’s basic thesis was that women who aged gracefully continued to keep their anger and resentment repressed, making them pleasant, agreeable, and available. And in regard to physical beauty, at least in our family, the elders who were able to remain pleasant aged more beautifully than the ones who were victims of their own anger and resentment.

My cameo

I grew up thinking my Mom and I held the secret to aging, but I was wrong. Volunteering and working in nursing homes from the age of sixteen, I learned to be comfortable in the presence of the elderly. Spending several hours each week for years listening to nursing home bound elders share their life stories with me helped me become even more comfortable with folks my grandparents age and older. Mom was proud of me and she herself was always comfortable with all ages of people. But it turns out there is more to struggling with the aging process than dealing with anger and resentment. Even surrounded by loving and supportive family and friends, there are feelings like fear, terror, desperation, loneliness, and hopelessness associated with the aging process long before the possibility of residing in a nursing home becomes a possibility. These are feelings that lead to anger and resentment when they can’t be felt and processed.

empty chairs in garden everything covered in pink cherry blossoms

Something caught me by surprise with my own aging.  After spending years slowing down my pace to match the pace of the elderly, I hadn’t fully appreciated the fact that they walked slowly because everything hurt. It wasn’t until my own extensive osteoarthritis at mid-life and other chronic pain and inflammation made me go slow, giving me a humble ah-ha moment, that I understood. The aging process can bring a person to their knees with the vulnerability it forces one to confront and unwillingly share when it is on display in public places.

In regard to my self-esteem and sense of attraction, that aspect of aging has been a journey. At thirty I gave up wearing makeup except for a little blush because my eyes and skin are sensitive and I was tired of feeling uncomfortable. I always admired natural beauties and, since I’d previously tended to overcompensate for a lack of self-esteem with lots of mascara and eye shadow, at thirty I decided to take the plunge and live life with my natural face out there. I managed to handle that transition successfully. And I remember thinking this would also help me one day when I was older…it didn’t.

Me holding Faith

Thinning skin, age spots, wrinkles, and curly red hair that was already dry becoming dryer and gray with age challenge my notions of natural beauty. And then there is post-menopause with a thick middle getting larger and thicker and nothing I can do about it. I can lose weight but the body proportions will still be out of whack. I know there’s plastic surgery available but, like Barbra Streisand, I’m too afraid of the knife to give that a go. Besides, older women who have “had work done” seem to experience an alternative way of growing old.  No matter how tight or high you pull the skin and muscles, and no matter how you tackle the face with color and shading, the shine, sparkle, and elasticity of youth are gone. I want to make peace with it.

And that’s where spiritual and emotional growth come in ~ making peace with all of it.

The word in my spiritual journey that keeps presenting itself to me as vital is the word “grace.” Today I read this from Thomas Merton in his memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain, “The only answer to the problem is grace, grace, docility to grace.” Now Thomas discovered grace as the answer to what he considered to be an ill-spent youth. I’m finding it to be the answer to the “problem” of aging – a problem that can be answered but not solved.

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My default in regard to what’s happening to and inside my body as I age is to fret about it and dread all of it getting worse. At 54 I often feel much older than I am and that is genuinely frightening. It puts me in touch with the fear of death and dying – especially at bedtime. It isn’t the healthiest frame of mind with which to go to bed when getting enough quality sleep is also a challenge of these latter years.  In addition to the bodily concerns, there’s the reality of no longer being relevant to younger adults. In the last four years I’ve gotten used to more people than ever before in my life looking through me as if I don’t exist, being surprised when I speak up because they hadn’t really taken in my presence, and not caring about my opinion or experience.

All of it is enough to make a person feel broken, humbled, even humiliated over something they cannot control. However, that is a direct line to spiritual and emotional growth!

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I’ve heard it from so many spiritual and religious leaders and learned it for myself as well. If we allow it, our suffering gives us the opportunity to become spiritually and emotionally mature adults. When we give up resisting what makes us suffer, when we’re willing to accept life as it is, grace – the underlying grace that is always present – shows up in our conscious awareness, helping us treat ourselves, our situation, and others with more loving kindness. Though sometimes such surrender can lead to breakthroughs and real changes, more often than not the surrender helps us live more peacefully with our situation as it is.

Suffering is a matter of the individual’s interpretation. When I consider it as an opportunity to surrender to the suffering while being open to the possibility of change, the suffering goes away – even if sadness and hurt remain.  That is grace. It is the bedrock of growing emotional and spiritual maturity. And with aging, rather than change being about looking and feeling young again, robust and profound changes come through personal growth. Growth that helps me be a blessing to others because it gets me out of my head with its worry and fear and plants me back in Life with a new freedom to exist in a new way with others, myself, and my limitations.

It seems I am still learning to age gracefully. And that the learning curve may last until I reach the grave – or the mountain side where my ashes will be scattered. That’s fine. There is genuine comfort for me in continuing to grow and in continuing to grow up! It is a very real, concrete fact that I cannot turn back the clock. But I can continue to grow. That is also real. It is grace, and I agree to it.  

Blue & Ivory young hygrangea hidden in leaves lit by sun

 

The Ego Loves Autopilot

Every now and then on this path of enlightenment and the death of the ego, I have an “ah-ha” moment that later seems obvious and mundane though nevertheless relevant. The latest such “ah-ha” moment is actually appropriate to this time of year, what with New Year resolutions and all. I don’t much believe in resolutions because, in reality, they seem to be made in order to break them. However, something has been nagging at me for a year to change and I haven’t been able to wrap my resolve around making the change until just recently.

(c) wet leaves bokeh Brownsburg-Chatham_2014

Three years ago when I began a new master’s program I found it easiest to study away from home. But libraries weren’t what I wanted and neither were coffee shops. Bojangles and Arby’s fit the bill though. They had the particular food and drink I wanted in an afternoon snack to accompany my studies and, in these mountains we live in, the nearest ones had nice views. But a year ago I gave up that particular master’s program as it became clear to me that it and what I would’ve done with the degree were not a good fit for me. I didn’t, though, give up my almost daily jaunts to my favorite fast food places. The only difference was I was reading different kinds of books – inspirational books, novels, memoirs, autobiographies – books I wanted to read instead of assigned reading! Heaven!

But here’s the thing. While in school the daily get away’s to study were fueled by necessity and by the fact that school studies give a body an appetite! Reading for pleasure doesn’t cause the mental taxation that makes a body want to eat. So by continuing my routine, I was eating food I wasn’t entirely hungry for and getting away like that most days of the week became an escape. But an escape from what? I like my life at home…didn’t need to escape that.

Joseph & Daisy walking in winter backs to camera

I’ve drawn two conclusions about this. One is that going out for an afternoon snack and reading is a way of escaping myself. All my life the approaching dusk of each day creates tension in me if I’m at home. Parsing that phenomenon would have to be a separate blog entry! For now, let’s just acknowledge it is so. I realized that by ending errand running with a stop for a snack and reading around 3:30/4 p.m. meant I got to “escape” dusk. But more than that, I got to escape the tension dusk created inside me; which meant I got to escape something fundamental about my psychological and emotional make up. That’s why I refer to it as “escaping me.” But no matter how much I acknowledged this fact and wanted to change it, I couldn’t.

Then I had an additional realization that took root inside and is now blossoming. Heading out for a snack and to read had become one of my autopilots. It was something I desired every day that required no thought, just action. And it was something that made me feel special, safe, and secure. That’s a big conversation going on inside around a seemingly innocuous occurrence. So it got my attention.

snowy street

The ego loves autopilot. When we’re on autopilot, the ego doesn’t have to worry and doesn’t have to work. Happily for the ego, autopilot does all the convincing necessary to keep us asleep – to stifle our attempts to awaken. That right there is where the rub is – where I can negotiate change. I immediately decided that “escaping me” via snacking and reading most days of the week was autopilot and therefore something I could disengage. However, disengaging would take daily discipline. It’s one thing to turn off a plane’s autopilot. When it comes to humans, disengaging from autopilot takes time. It means releasing one habit by replacing it with another. In this case replacing it with a new habit that is healthier yet challenging.

This doesn’t mean I won’t ever take myself out to read a chapter or two of whatever book I’m currently reading. And I may, like other writers, learn to love writing on my laptop in public places. The mind works differently surrounded by sound that doesn’t pull on the reader or the writer – and for some that is a very good and creative thing. In fact, most of the time my reading inspires me to pause and write  - even on napkins if I’ve forgotten to bring a notebook. So there is creative stuff going on out there in the privacy of public places. But the autopilot aspect of it has been burdensome to me for some time and, too, I feel a call to face this part of me that is made nervous by being at home as dusk falls. 

January sunset fiery sky

What does this have to do with the death of the ego? Disengaging the autopilot shakes loose the belief that the ego is solid – undermines it with the truth of its illusory nature. To the extent that dusk puts me in touch with a spacious emptiness inside, an ungrounded, death-like place that feels like the Great Unknown – well, that’s a ripe opportunity to awaken a little if I’m willing to just be with it. As Adyashanti has written:

“Human beings have a drive for security and safety, which is often what fuels the spiritual search. This very drive for security and safety is what causes so much misery and confusion. Freedom is a state of complete and absolute insecurity and not knowing. So, in seeking security and safety, you actually distance yourself from the freedom you want. There is no security in freedom, at least not in the sense that we normally think of security. This is, of course, why it is so free: there’s nothing there to grab hold of.

The Unknown is more vast, more open, more peaceful, and more freeing than you ever imagined it would be. If you don’t experience it that way, it means you’re not resting there; you’re still trying to know. That will cause you to suffer because you’re choosing security over Freedom. When you rest deeply in the Unknown without trying to escape, your experience becomes very vast. As the experience of the Unknown deepens, your boundaries begin to dissolve. You realize, not just intellectually but on a deep level, that you have no idea who or what you are. A few minutes ago, you knew who you were—you had a history and a personality—but from this place of not knowing, you question all of that.

Liberated people live in the Unknown and understand that the only reason they know what they are is because they rest in the Unknown moment by moment without defining who they are with the mind. You can imagine how easy it is to get caught in the concept of the Unknown and seek that instead of the Truth. If you seek the concept, you’ll never be free, but if you stop looking to myths and concepts and become more interested in the Unknown than in what you know, the door will be flung open. Until then, it will remain closed.

As we sometimes say in the mountains, ’nuff said. :-)

Sun breaking over Mountains, Mist, Sunset 

Stress at Christmas on the Road to Enlightenment

Christmas cloth Angel for Shutterfly“So this is Christmas…” and I am bent out of shape over everything that won’t get done in time for Christmas day, over the deep desire for peace and quiet that can’t be realized till Christmas is over, and over the wreck my office-at-home will remain until I finish wrapping gifts. Bah humbug!

I have to laugh at myself because I experience this angst every single year. And every single year I make it worse by judging myself for it. The longer it lasts, the more I judge, the deeper the shame mires me down, down, down…

Guilt, anxiety, and shame are the ego’s tough task masters. Today I realized that whenever I’m feeling guilty, anxious, or shamed, I have already judged myself.

 

  • When I feel anxious over what I’m not getting done, I’ve already judged myself and found me lacking.
  • When I feel and act like a child, I’ve already judged myself and found me unworthy.
  • When people disappoint me, I’ve already judged not only them but myself as well.
  • When Christmas doesn’t live up to my expectations, I’ve judged myself for not being perfect. Even though I know perfection isn’t possible.

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Peace, stillness, and equanimity are what I crave. When I’m bent out of shape I’m looking to my environment to give me peace, stillness, and equanimity. But I don’t have to wait for it to show up there for me to have it internally.

Much like returning to the mantra in meditation, feeling bent out of shape, guilty, anxious, and shamed can all serve as cues to settle and make another choice – the choice for inner quiet and equanimity no matter what’s going on in the environment or how full my to-do list is.

Ann Voskamp said the same kind of the thing in the poetic way she has when she posted this on Facebook this morning:

“There is no need to produce or perform or perfect. Simply become a place for God. That is all.”

~ Ann Voskamp

Man, oh man, I love that! “Simply become a place for God.” Let go of the little ego-god up in the mind that stomps around and tells us we’re rotten for not being perfect and then still and know – be with – the One who loves us down to the marrow and back again.

I am simply becoming a place for God this Christmas (and in the days that follow). How about you?

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Playing ’til Dark

A Garth Brooks fan since day one, I’m enjoying his new album, Man Against Machine. A line from the song “Send ‘Em On Down the Road” lassoed my imagination today. The line is “And when that girl broke my heart, we just threw that baseball back and forth ’til dark.” The song is about how parents want to shield their children but they have to practice letting go at each stage of the children’s lives for their children to thrive.

Sallie in life jacket & towel on dockThe thing that caught my attention, though, was the scene of tossing a baseball in the front yard until dark. Playing until dark. It’s something that we did as children from the first warm spring days until autumn cooled off. And if there was something interesting enough outdoors in the winter, like playing in snow, we had that till dark. And if we were just having a blast, my dad would let us extend the time ’til “dark-thirty.”

Coming in at dark, smelling of child-at-play sweat and grass, was always bittersweet. It meant outdoor play was over and time was short till bath and bedtime when the day absolutely had to come to an end. I’ve never wanted to give up the day. The hours between supper and sleep are the shortest of all. But playing ’til dark teaches children discipline. It teaches us that there are cycles to each day and each season. It teaches us to tolerate disappointment as well as tolerance for the inability to control nature. And it gives us the gift of anticipating a new day. In fact, nothing quite grounds a soul like playing outdoors till the sun goes down.

Teenage girls in standing swing at TLA square danceAs is perhaps true of most of us, these days a lot of my “play time” happens on devices. I’m especially fond of Instagram. There I can load up a photo from my phone and then scroll through the posts of those I follow till I reach the last picture I posted. Where Facebook and Twitter are agitating, Instagram is calming. All three plus email are such an easy way to check out. But checking out isn’t the real goal of play or recreation. Play and recreation, whether invigorating or relaxing, are meant to connect us to ourselves and others  in ways that refresh, restore, and renew. Honestly, nothing I can do on my phone, pad, or computer refreshes, restores, or renews (not even writing!).

“Playing” on devices doesn’t need dark-thirty to bring it to an end. If anything, playing (or working) on devices can keep us up ’til all hours of the night, disturbing our circadian rhythm, thereby damaging ourselves at the cellular level. It’s dangerous fun this innocuous cyber connecting.

Turning my attention away from my devices, even getting my nose out of a book, and turning instead to life going on around me has become a spiritual discipline for the level of opening, deepening, and grounding it provides. It also creates opportunities to connect with others. I think I’ll add to it creative ways of playing ’til dark that ground me in my humanity and my relationship to nature…

wrought iron Butterfly dusted in snowFor years now on snow days the days begin and end out there in it – hunting down photographs. It’s fun, it’s sweaty, it’s work and play. I love it!

Before we have a generation of adults for whom playing till dark seems archaic, let’s reintroduce ourselves, our children and grandchildren to the past time of outdoor fun that we hate to see come to an end at the close of day. It will ground, connect, enliven, restore, refresh, and renew us and them.

Happier Than I Have Ever Been

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have noticed that I’m happier and funnier than I’ve ever been in my life. It so surprises me that I sometimes wonder if I’m lying to myself. Are these expressions of happiness and humor covering up something dark and shadowy? I routinely stop and ask myself that question and the answer is always, “No. I think you’re genuinely happy.”

dogwood leaves 2014I find it odd to be as happy and content as I am because these days I have less with which to work to make happiness happen. For instance (and for me), post-menopause is accompanied by health issues that, while not life threatening, do threaten to shorten my life. I don’t have the energy, stamina, or oomph I once had to get done the things I set my mind to. These days my body has to catch up to my thoughts, which happens a couple of hours into the day. And my body needs to slow down and begin preparing for bed earlier than I’m used to, which means I have a less flexible body and fewer hours in the day with which to work.

Pompas grass Instagram Heart Shape almost in center Lit from behindAnother thing I experience as “lack” is the discovery that I am no longer relevant to much of society. On the basis of age alone and unless they are family or friends; people in their twenties, thirties, and possibly early forties don’t give a hoot about my opinions or experience. Sometimes even when I am giving a young adult my full attention and verbalizing appreciation for their opinion or experience, what I have to offer to the conversation falls flat because my attention isn’t required in their lives.

And then there are commercials. In addition to commercials targeting a younger population, when someone my age pops up in a commercial it’s either an ad for fiber or the female my age is a hippy grandma who is apparently the bane of her children’s existence. Living as sustainable a lifestyle as possible in Asheville, NC, I find that particular satire does sting a little.

So with these age related minuses, why am I so happy?

1.)    Because my friendships are golden, I no longer spend time with people or organizations in order to be considered a nice person. I spend time with people I want to spend time with who want to spend time with me because we love and care about each other.

2.)    The health issues put age related things like laugh lines, wrinkles, and age spots in perspective. Youthfulness isn’t about looks, it’s about how you feel. Putting attention on increasing flexibility and ease of movement makes me fret less about things like silver in my hair.

dogwood berry shadowed on leaf 20143.)    In 1997 the stars aligned and grace poured down bringing me spiritual teachers who helped me understand that I didn’t need to be afraid of my feelings. They taught me how to embrace them without being a victim and without blaming others for them. For the past seventeen years, taking responsibility for my feelings has been a constant contribution to my happiness.

4.)    PMS is OVER! I no longer spend two weeks out of every month monitoring my emotions and emotional responses to people, places, and events for fear of overwhelming others (or myself) with needs and limitations that flare half of every month. And I no longer suffer for three – five days with debilitating cramps that pain relievers barely helped.

5.)    The best part of PMS followed me through post-menopause. Those two weeks every month were when I was most aware of needing to set boundaries. Having a supportive personality, I was a “doormat” to too many people and organizations throughout my young adulthood, I am no longer anyone’s doormat and I no longer “suffer fools.” When someone is rude, condescending, or manipulative with me, I stop them in their tracks without remorse. I’m very clear that if someone’s relationship with me suffers because of their arrogance or immaturity, that’s their issue. My issue is setting healthy boundaries. As a former doormat, this is huge in the happiness department of life.

fuzzy weed in autumn off white, rust, gray colors6.)    My relationship with extended family members is in a real good place. Less and less do I need to work out childhood issues with anyone. And when I catch myself projecting my stuff onto others, I catch it pretty quickly and process it on my own so the current relationship can be healthy.

7.)    I’ve always lead an active life style, but this past spring I finally embraced weight lifting with Super Slow Weight Lifting personal coach, Abby Cain, at Rock-Bottoms, Inc. – a Super Slow studio here in Asheville. In spite of various health issues, Super Slow weight training increases my strength every week. It is awesome!

8.)    My spiritual path is a big reason I’m happy. My relationship with God has always been the ground of my sense of connection to others, to myself, and to the earth. It sets me up to be spontaneously grateful for every good thing, person, circumstance, insight, and expression of love and grace in my life. I am most comfortable in my own skin when I feel gratitude and my spiritual walk keeps me there.

salmon colored leaves a bit of sky9.)    My step-children are doing well. I don’t have my own children but I remember the summer I knew I’d become a mother. When we entered each other’s lives, having been a step-child (and step-grandchild), I knew how I wanted to be with them. I wanted to be their friend and a caring, compassionate adult in their lives on whom they could depend. I did not need, nor did I expect to be a parent-figure. As both were young adults, friendship was a real possibility. And it worked. But there was one year when I discovered I’d crossed a threshold becoming a full-fledged step-Mom. They each courageously faced challenges that year that meant late night and middle-of-the night calls caused heart-stopping breath-holding till we knew they were OK and/or how we could help. Their safety and happiness matter to me in a way I’d have only known had I had children of my own. And now there are grandchildren to love!

10.) We’re downsizing. Joseph and I have decided we can wait for the day when we have to let stuff go from our lives or we can be proactive now and benefit from the lack of attachment. Downsizing isn’t easy. It is slow-going and challenging. Every item we pick up and consider giving away or selling is something that has meaning and memories attached to it. I doubt we’ll opt for a complete Zen decorating makeover; but making life simpler, in the long run, makes our lives happier.

11.) Professionally, I am embracing my desire and need to create with the written word. I’ve set aside personality assessments and what I “should” do based on gifts and talents and, instead, have given myself permission to follow my heart’s desire, which is to write.

Yellow leaves Bokeh effect Tender in center12.) Of course, my husband, Joseph, is the biggest and best gift in my life for the past sixteen years and he will continue to be that gift for as long as we both live (and likely beyond that). Our love, friendship, and shared spiritual path give our lives meaning and create the space for happiness and humor to play between and around us.

Getting to this place of happiness didn’t come overnight. It isn’t a guaranteed aspect of aging. I spent about five years being quite anxious about this aging process, fearful I was feeling much older than I should and what that implied for the future, hating the wrinkles, age spots and the changes in my hair, struggling with existential angst and a dark night of the soul that lasted a good couple of years. Somehow, those twelve things listed above fell into place in such a way that grace was able to move and lift the anxiety with which I’ve struggled.

Now that I’ve thought about it and made the list, I sure will attend to these things, though. Perhaps at any age but for me right now, happiness boils down to healthy relationships and letting go of attachments. Happiness has found me and I intend to continue to make her feel welcome!

autumn mountain road wlow lying clouds