“Love is when the soul starts to sing and the flowers of your life bloom on their own.”
~ Rabindranath Tagore
Ageing is not just a matter of reaching chronological or biological milestones that we call ‘old’, but a discreet process of change/s across the life-course commencing at conception. Ageing entails a series of transitions across life stages until decline and sure death. Never in human history have we had such a diverse range of human experiences transitioning into old age. Evidence of this can be found not only in general population ageing statistics (more of us are living far longer!), but the stories from older people I have had the pleasure of meeting, interviewing and reading about from articles, Seniors groups, tweets and profiles from many over the age of 50! This includes actors, advocates, politicians, academics, scientists, directors, nurses, stay-at-home Mums, stay-at-home Dads, folks living with cognitive impairment, homeless folks, folks with special needs, folks from our LGBT community, folks struggling with mental health issues and some folks readjusting to life after being in prison. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing stories from all kinds of interesting lives that reach well beyond our 40s and 50s! Some stories speak to the shock of a declining body, some speak of the frustrations of ‘becoming invisible’ and many others convey a sense of peace that comes with getting a handle on life in their state of ‘post-bloom.’
Part of the ageing journey is that of the mind. The ‘ageing self’ rests in many ways on stories in our minds about our ‘self-identity’ built-up over time of who we once were, who we are, or who we are going to be ‘when we retire’ (if we retire). Depending on our outlook, we can see ourselves shaped by negative life events, or remember the ‘positive events’, or a smattering of both. My ageing story is not so much about the details of my ‘life story’ – y-a-w-n! But rather, my ‘ageing story’ is one of transformation and about turning my attention inward to a deeper understanding of life, the self and realizing what is already here and now: a beautiful sense of the fullness of life, love and the connectedness to everything. This may be what spiritual teacher Adyashanti describes as ‘realizing what is and always has been the case’ – [like ultimate reality], what Eckhart Tolle describes as ‘The Power of Now’ and what Marianne Williamson describes in her book as a ‘Return to Love’.
Part of my ageing journey has been about looking back at life’s moments with an adept ability to transform earlier experiences and ‘a-ha moments’ (as Oprah calls them!) into ‘teaching moments’ to assist others who may be struggling with transitions that I recognize from my ‘younger self.’ I am now able to review awkward painful past experiences that probably stemmed from a place of unconscious drives blinded by the need for some sort of ‘identity’ cultivation and validation. It is with the benefit of hindsight and a capacity to look back on our lives, failures, victories or achievements that we are reminded of Carl Jung’s famous comment: “Until we make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate!”
Lessons from Childhood, Adolescence and Young Adulthood
Childhood for me was about finding my emotional ‘life raft’ in the shifting social landscapes of different countries and places I called ‘home’. As the daughter of a diplomat, I moved many times and grew up in many different cultural settings. I made childhood friends in Paris in the 70s, more friends in my teens in Canberra and Washington in the 80s, Manila and Madrid in the 90s in my twenties, and of course many friends came into my life when living on and off in my homeland – Australia throughout my childhood and adult life.
In the 1980s, like most adolescents, I had memories of several awkward, embarrassing or shameful experiences relating to a defense or protection of my ‘self-identity’ or ‘self-image’. When I think back to it now, I realize that most teens’ fragile egos are still budding with a heightened sense of self-awareness and self-consciousness, and I was no different. Many teens today are arguably in a worse situation with social media and have an on-going battle with their ‘imaginary audience’ [syndrome]. This is the phenomena where you feel as though everything you say or do may be scrutinized and judged by all you encounter. When, it is likely, in reality, only a few we encounter who may be scrutinizing things about us in trivial ways. It is likely that they move swiftly towards a projection of their angst onto the next person or situation. This is likely the case with social media rants too! Either way, it is probably that these judgmental thoughts people hold are only fleeting! According to developmental psychologists, the ‘imaginary audience’ is an actual thing! Not yet having a sense of wholeness as a teen, I probably looked towards friends, childhood crushes and boyfriends longingly to fill the emotional void that my insecure teenage-self felt, which went on for some time, well into my 20s. Feeling validated by the love of ‘an-other’ perhaps lead me to some ‘less than optimal’ relationship choices. However, regret is futile and as the saying goes – it made me what I am or what I know today!
“To love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
Ego-projects, attachments and the ‘unknown self’
Sometimes, our ego-projects get the better of us and makes us blind to the impact we have on others. I have had my share of being hurt and acknowledge that I have, in my youth, also hurt others in friendships and relationships by sort-of wielding my inept ability to relate on an emotional level with others. In later years, I’ve found the wisdom about being hurt and hurting others of Vietnamese Monk, Thich Nhat Hanh that resonated deeply. On this point, the writes: “To love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love.” This makes sense, especially in the context of our various ‘attachment styles’ that we adopt, largely from our ‘infant-parent’ connections which forms automatically and at the level below conscious awareness. These attachment styles play out later in various ways in our adult relationships; like who we attract into our lives and who we are attracted to. Psychologist John Bowlby did much work on this area of developmental psychology and best-selling author, psychotherapist and speaker Esther Perel writes “Tell me how you were loved and I will tell you how you make love.” We may find in hindsight that how we love may result in who becomes our ‘wound mates’ (from spiritual writer Jeff Brown would say) and who becomes our ‘soul mates’? Some say there are no soul mates and other attest to our soul mate being ‘our best teacher’ (Zen) and are synonymous with being our ‘wound mates’! Either way, we become ‘unstuck’ and continue our journey when we realize that wholeness is likely to be found in a sense of self-acceptance. Peace comes when we accept ourselves enough to neither cling to, nor push away relationships because of deeply entrenched unhealed attachment behaviors.
My 30s were characterized by ‘inner-work’ and/or ‘inner-awakenings’ described by some as likely ‘soul messages’ that were often in conflict with societal messages. Societal and cultural ideas that seemed to clash with my intuitive instincts included who and what I should look like, what I should do for a living, what would make me a ‘good wife’ a ‘good mother’ or even a ‘good person’. As I continued my journey inwards, societal or cultural messages began to lose their influence on me and I had a deeper yearning for understanding life’s purpose which led me to a decade or more of intense study in psychology, philosophy, personality and ageing.
“Like many others in their 40s, the idea of becoming middle-aged would wreak havoc with my self-identity and self-confidence….”
My 40s was a ‘re-education’ of sorts and a celebration of my intellect. My new-found knowledge intersected with this awakening and realisation that I ought to live life more from a ‘point of stillness’ found in a new love of meditation. I gained this kind of ability to sit with my own thoughts and let them settle into a calmer state from attending drop-in Buddhist meditation classes. Like many others in their 40s, the idea of becoming middle-aged would wreak havoc with my self-identity and self-confidence and like many others a fear of becoming insignificant dominated my thoughts, actions and behaviours. This fear came into being, like a self-fulfilling prophecy in the loss of several key relationships when my ageing, like everyone else really became apparent – like middle-aged weight gain, a less youthful appearance and the everyday stresses that came with the many responsibilities in mid-life. However, I learned that people rarely ever really leave you fully. They come in and out of you lives in relationships that often re-configure themselves into friendship or other ways of being in relationship. As one of my favourite authors on ‘grounded spirituality’ often reminds us in the midst of feeling abandoned:
“Sometimes it has nothing to do with us. Sometimes the one who leaves is just not ready to hold it safe. Sometimes they know something we don’t- they know their limits at that moment in time. Real love is no easy path- readiness is everything. May we grieve loss without personalizing it. May we learn to love ourselves in the absence of the lover.”
~ Jeff Brown
In full bloom @ 50
A close friend and former lover commented to me upon my 50th birthday; “I’ve really enjoyed knowing you over the last 10 years, you’ve really blossomed!” I pondered what a coincidence this was because I had actually planned on including something about blooming in older adulthood as the topic of my current blog, because that was indeed how I was feeling reaching 50! I recently shared a post I came across on facebook page called ‘Midwives of the Soul’ about ageing:
“Ageing is no accident. It is necessary to the human condition, intended by the soul. We become more characteristic of who we are simply by lasting into later years; the older we become, the more our true natures emerge. Thus, the final years have a very important purpose: the fulfillment and confirmation of one’s character.”
~ James Hillman
My article for living life in full bloom was due to be written and published around my 50th birthday in January. However, life seemed to speed up and slow down all at once in the past few months. After a year-long battle with pancreatic cancer, my dear mother slipped away from us a few weeks ago bringing home the fragility and impermanence of life.
If Mum taught me anything, it was that we are both human and the divine simultaneously. One of her favorite photos she had framed and hanging in my folks living room was of the milky way and a quote she loved was by Carl Sagan “The universe is consciousness becoming aware of itself.” This brings to mind the teaching of Jeff Foster, a modern-day mystic from the UK to ‘honor the wave, but remember the ocean.’ Spiritual teachers and authors may refer to this consciousness as our ‘higher self’ or the stream of consciousness that is ‘the witness’ to our mind-stream of thoughts, while others say there is no lower or higher self, there is but one Self or one awakened thing. The popular website Brain Pickings offered a curated works of Jack Keroauc from a state of stillness and expanded consciousness on Kindness, the Self Illusion, and the Golden Eternity:
“I have lots of things to teach you now, in case we ever meet, concerning the message that was transmitted to me under a pine tree in North Carolina on a cold winter moonlit night. It said that Nothing Ever Happened, so don’t worry. It’s all like a dream. Everything is ecstasy, inside. We just don’t know it because of our thinking-minds. But in our true blissful essence of mind is known that everything is alright forever and forever and forever. Close your eyes, let your hands and nerve-ends drop, stop breathing for 3 seconds, listen to the silence inside the illusion of the world, and you will remember the lesson you forgot, which was taught in immense milky way soft cloud innumerable worlds long ago and not even at all. It is all one vast awakened thing. I call it the golden eternity. It is perfect.”
~ Jack Keroauc
My experience of this is that we are both the self that occupies a form/ the body in the ‘here and now’ and the un/conscious mind-stream of stories about who we are too. We realize as time passes that we are not just these things; if we listen deeply from our ‘still point’ we are able to reconcile all aspects of ourselves which brings great comfort and a deep sense of peace that comes with self-acceptance.
Ageing can be a process of building up more of a self-identity through unconscious mind-stream activities. These activities are often embellished by internalized stories of shame, triggers and reactions to life experiences. However, wisdom is about letting these stories go (especially our triggers) and the things that no longer serve us, or prevent us from realizing a more ‘Whole Self’. Later life might be characterized as ‘post-bloom’ in the biological sense, but can be a stage of meeting ourselves in deeper places of conscious connection with our true nature. As modern-day mystic and Catholic Priest Father Richard Rhor asserts “‘the small self’ (‘false self’ or ego) is not bad, we should not and cannot get rid of it, but can recognize that it is just very incomplete.” Wisdom with age recognizes that we can embrace this paradox that we can be the small self and the true Self at once – and realize that we are ‘consciousness becoming aware of itself.’
Our later life is about decline in many ways, but we bloom into a more whole being when we let go of fixating about trivial things, material things or external events beyond our control. Fulfillment, which may or may not encompass a sense of ‘happiness’ is indeed when the flowers of our lives bloom on their own, and to be born anew is letting go of the self-identity that clings to ‘the material’, or our ‘younger form’. – Seeing through young eyes again (‘beginners mind’) requires accepting our eventual decline. There is no other option – the only way out is through!
In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“Be not the slave of your own past…plunge into the sublime seas, dive deep, and swim far, so you shall come back with new self-respect, with new power, and with an advanced experience that shall explain and overlook the old.”