By accident I read the letter you so kindly sent for me to forward to a loved one. As it happened, you only mentioned at the end of the letter that I was to send it on and that it wasn’t meant for me (although from the addressing of the recipient as “My Dearest Heart” I should have guessed that it was not really from a secret admirer). Although I have forgotten the personal and intimate details of the missive, there is one sentence that has stood out in my mind since I so carelessly perused the contents: “I am also fed up with the aches and pains that have recently appeared in my body and the troublesome habit of forgetting things; this aging business is a drag”. I have found it so applicable to my own present (as I have now passed 70 and am well on my way to 71), that it got me thinking and, as I understand that you are suffering the same sort of frustration which I too often feel when faced with the natural aches, pains and molestations that come with our age, I wished to share the following thoughts with you.
Seeing as I have long been practicing a method (The Work of Byron Katie) that allows me to love what is, accept reality and take life on life’s terms, the question arises of whether or not I have to love the discomfort, pain, illnesses and obvious frustrations of aging along with the rest of “reality”. Up till now, I have not found much love for my aches and pains, or for the way the mind obliterates certain words, names and, sometimes, entire memories leaving a feeling of deep seated powerlessness. Obviously, this is not so simple: it is not easy to age. On close examination, I find myself going to war with what is happening to my body and mind, and –mind- it has barely begun.
Never the less, when I read your above-quoted sentence and, in spite of identifying so completely with your thoughts and feelings, found myself wanting to give you a piece of advice (Dear Sir, your life would be so much easier if you just accepted the inconveniences of aging) I was forced to face my own rebellion with the self-same situation. So I went quiet for a moment, and listened inside to what my deeper self was saying: “Love, you have only two ways to age: fighting and bitching the whole way right up to death, or loving every minute of it. Which way are you going to choose?” It was definitely time to do The Work.
As I sat, the stressful thoughts came rushing into my open mind: “My body shouldn’t hurt”, “my thyroid should behave itself”, “the arthritis in my knee should go away”, “the torn ligament in my shoulder should heal itself”, “my skin should stop drying up and wrinkling no matter how much cream I put on it”, “my chin shouldn’t sag like a turkey’s neck”, and finally, “I shouldn’t age” (meaning, of course, I shouldn’t age with this discomfort and general decomposition, not that time shouldn’t pass, my fight with reality does not go that far).
Probably because it more or less sums it up, I chose the general statement: “I shouldn’t age” including within it all the nasty stuff that that three-letter word can contain. When I look closely at this statement asking myself if it is true, I immediately find that it isn’t: for one, the other option (not aging) is unacceptable because the only way to do that is to die young. Also, aging is what apparently solid objects –like the body- do without exception and it implies in all cases the deterioration of whatever before has evolved to maturity. Mountains rise, age, get worn down and eventually get evened out sometimes going through seemingly excruciating transformations in the process; trees, the squirrels that inhabit them, birds that nest in their branches… all age. Reality is what it is, and aging, like growing, maturing (hopefully) and reproducing are all part of it. Can I think of any person I have known that has done this (age) without discomfort, pain, illness and general decomposition no matter how slight? Silence. My direct experience is that of everyone I have known that has gone before me not one has escaped some form of “physical undoing”. Therefore, I can safely presume the statement “I shouldn’t age” is not true.
So, how do I react, what happens to my life, when I believe the thought that “I shouldn’t age” and I begin to get all these small but bothersome aches and pains, and the general degeneration of tissues that causes the unbeautiful baggy, wrinkly effect? Meditating upon this question, I noticed I felt sad, fearful, and angry; there was tension in the shoulders, in the throat, in the pit of the stomach: heart heavy, teeth clenched, forehead contracted. And the stories that popped into my head: “this can only get worse, it won’t ever get better, my life from now on will be miserable, I can’t do what I liked doing before, I will end up in a hospital racked with pain”. And then more: “I must be doing something wrong, I am not eating the right food, doing the right exercise, taking the right medicine; I am with the wrong doctor, dietician, trainer; I am helpless, I am powerless, confused, very angry. My body is a bitch, it is no good, and I hate my body”. Stress, psychological and emotional pain apart from the physical malady; confusion, depression, yuk! By the time I finish observing how I live when I believe that thought, I am on the verge of suicide: best be done with it!
So, now in a gentler tone, I ask myself who I would be if I didn’t believe that I shouldn’t age? What would my life look like, how would I live in this body with its aches, occasional pains and general decomposition? I sit and wait for the mind to quiet and then I experience what happens inside when the mind is still, without this story. I feel relaxed; the stress has gone. The shoulders slope gently, the throat opens, the brow relaxes, the hands unclench. Then I perceive a friendly sensation towards the body surfacing from somewhere below the heart, the chest opens as if space itself had entered; I definitely feel loving and friendly towards this body as if it were a child, my child who is sick or has a pain somewhere, and I embrace it. Without that thought I realize that I will love caring for this body as it ages, I will help it go softly into those end times and I will be at one with it.
So I notice that I experience stress when holding the thought to be true (“I shouldn’t age”) and love, openness and care when I don’t believe it. Therefore, I deduct that it is the thought producing all the stress and not the aging. Perhaps aging is like the last month of pregnancy, most times so terribly uncomfortable that all fear of childbirth disappears before the urgency to get that thing out! So as life in old age becomes more and more uncomfortable, one might also look forward to leaving it, and the fear of death most certainly diminishes. What a friendly Universe, I think to myself!
So I am actually finding that the opposite might be truer: I should age. Other reasons come to mind. Aging, pain and illness lead me gently (or not) away from worldly distractions and not only allow, but actually invite me to attend more to the essence of my soul. In order to find the acceptance and patience to go through this period with dignity and grace, I must strengthen the resilience of my spirit, so that part of the work of transcending life I do while still living and conscious enough to appreciate it. Old age and its discomforts remind me every day to begin preparing for the shift, the big one.
A slow decadence –rather than a sudden demise when one is in full health- allows for my loved ones to prepare for my absence and this too is kind. Everyone is forewarned and therefore we all have time to make amends, express our love, say our goodbyes in many gentle ways and really leave in peace.
It also allows me time to wind up unfinished business of whatever kind I have been putting off, to arrange everything that needs to be arranged, to draw closer to those I love, to allow myself to receive the care that up to this time I usually have dispensed to others, and to practice patience and letting go.
And if, as in some cases, the mind decides to slip away before the body goes, what is the problem? The very thought “I shouldn’t age” will be erased and life will turn me into that loving and kind soul who can be with her body with no negative thoughts that might stress it. Without a mind to tell me there is something to be fearful of, what in the world would I fear of death?
So the sadness and frustration and powerlessness have been replaced now by peace and acceptance, a quiet curiosity and a confidence in what will come. After all, didn’t I birth two children in spite of all the discomfort and pain? So what is the difference in letting the Universe “birth” me to the other side?