In the elderly, two sets of values operate simultaneously: the desire to stay active and to maintain a sense of self-worth in the eyes of others, and the desire to withdraw from social commitments to a more leisurely, contemplative life. Although this inward-turning is viewed by some as antisocial, a problem to be solved or worried about (“I used to be so active, what’s wrong with me?”), it seems to be a natural by-product of aging. This isn’t a paranoid drawing-inward, it isn’t being afraid of the world, but rather a kind of deepening that seems to result from the nearness of death, and the desire to reflect on what life is all about.
It is important to create opportunities for doing that – to build some time into our lives to consider our deepest questions about who we are, where we are, and how it all makes sense. It’s a great feeling to be able to open the door to mystery and reflect on the deeper significance of life. Slowing down is the only way to take advantage of this opportunity.
I receive a lot of letters from spiritual seekers who tell me that they’re lonely on their path, live in small towns and have no one around with whom to share how they’re feeling. They’re looking for fellowship, a community of like-minded Souls with whom to voice their concerns about the deeper issues surrounding aging, the mystery of death, and how to remain conscious in the face of physical, social and psychological challenges. Community is vital to help us reorient ourselves to a spiritual perspective. It helps to have fellow seekers in your life who can help you to stay on-track, and who remind you gently when you seem to have lost your way. Being in the company of people engaged in conscious-aging practice helps strengthen our resolve, and helps us stand firm against the cultural message that conspire against elder wisdom.
It’s important for us to seek out opportunities for connecting with others on this path of wisdom, and when this isn’t possible, to find other ways to cultivate some means of staying connected. Books are an excellent tool for maintaining such support; in the years when I traveled a great deal and couldn’t always be in the company of others on a conscious path, I kept a cache of reliable book-friends with me: the quotes of Lao Tzu, the Dhammapada or the Gita, as a lifeline to wisdom. I have a very dear friend whose grandmother is a Christian Scientist; although a very worldly person, she reads the literature of her faith every day without fail, and has done so for many years. Although her family is worried that this faith might compromise her willingness to accept medical treatment as she gets older, this lady seems quite happy, and uses her spiritual studies to remain grounded in a Soul perspective.
Our relationship with the world at large shifts from “outer” to “inner.” We learn, as our worldly roles fall away, to place emphasis on connections of the heart. We come to recognize and honor our relationships with family, friends, and the greater community. Although we may remain active in our communities, we do not forget that old age is a time for reflection and inner work. Free of the pressure to achieve, and of the masks we’ve worn to operate in society, we focus our attention on remaining mindful of each precious passing day, and on not becoming entangled in the voices of our Ego. Equipped with this wisdom we find ourselves free to live more creatively than ever before. We create our lives from a place of equanimity and peace, from the quiet spaciousness of being awake, and in love, among all living things.
– Ram Dass, excerpt from Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying
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