Monday, April 7, 2008

This, Too, Shall Pass

A few weeks ago, I gave up meditating on my zafu. It seems that my various body parts have aged at different rates, with my knees being at the front of the pack! The simple fact is that these two joints are much happier when I meditate sitting in a chair. This is just one of the reminders that, at age 52, my body is moving forward as planned on its trajectory toward dissolution.

I don’t find that fact morbid to acknowledge. If there is any truth to the assertion that we are spiritual beings having an earthly experience, it would seem that remaining cognizant of the transitory nature of our lives is, in fact, essential. The changes that come with age can thus become important reminders that everything, including oneself, will pass away.

It is quite a common human experience to become a bit flummoxed when one’s body begins to change. We all know the confusion adolescents often feel as puberty grabs hold and carries them off into adulthood. The process of physical decline that becomes apparent in mid~life and accelerates into old age is often disturbing as well. The fact that these changes carry us toward death adds a unique flavor to the challenge and puts us right up against what we really feel about the cycle of life.

I used to say, only somewhat facetiously, that I had no problem with getting older, I just never expected my body to change. It’s easy to acknowledge in the abstract that we’re all going to die. But when we see evidence of that fact in process through the aging of our bodies, it is another thing entirely.

The changes that come with age are simple reminders that we will not be long in this world. We can greet them with angst and do our best imitation of a poor sap in the throes of an unconscious mid-life crisis~~doing battle with the inevitable or attempting to avoid it through numbing or distracting ourselves with vapid new forms of entertainment. Or we can use these realities to nudge ourselves into a greater awareness of Spirit.

As the process of aging becomes irrefutable, many of us begin a period of evaluation. Are we living as we feel called to live? Does our life accurately reflect our core values? What aspects of our experience are working for us, and where are we holding ourselves back? What changes are we ready to make?

Approached with wisdom and intention, this mid-life questioning can bring a rich and vital reorientation, essential to allowing our inner spark to continue to shine brightly. As the process extends further, however, a subtle change may begin to take place. We may no longer simply reevaluate our life, but begin the process of letting go of it, or rather, letting go of the parts of it that are extraneous to soulful living. We can pare down, bit by bit, moving closer to that which is essential, to that which is true. The deterioration of our physical form can, if we let it, be the catalyst for this shift.

Sometimes growing older feels like a continual process of letting go~~of expectations, of illusions of control, of loved ones who move away or precede us across death’s threshold, of egoistic plans that show themselves finally to be empty of heart, of the self-image and schemes we’ve spent the first half of our lives creating, and yes, of our attachment to our physical being. This process accelerates in old age, and it seems wise to me that it does. During this time we are moving closer to the point of letting go completely~~of this body, this identity, this world. If we’re lucky, we might arrive at our death free of all but a rich and vibrant spirit.

I have a 98-year-old friend who talks with me about spirituality. I didn’t meet Jeanne until she was 82, so I don’t know what she looked like in her younger days. However, during the many silences that weave their way through our conversations, I gaze at her face and see a beauty I feel certain has grown deeper over the years. Yes, her body has aged~~her eyesight and hearing are failing, the condition of her lungs makes the simple act of breathing a challenge, and her once strong dancer’s body is now mostly confined to a wheelchair. But Jeanne radiates a loveliness and grace that has not been diminished by age. Her dancer’s soul remains and has grown more radiant, I suspect, as she has let go of much that is superfluous. In those moments of silence that envelop us, I see that Jeanne has relinquished more than physical weight. She has jettisoned much of what is unnecessary, and continues to discard more as she threads her way toward death.

The image of a hot air balloon comes to mind. Ballast is the material that provides stability to these vessels; throwing it overboard allows the balloon to rise to greater heights. I find this a lovely image for the process of conscious aging. Having become steadier within ourselves, we are free to discard what has now become simply extra weight. Thus, we soar higher...and higher still.

The physical changes of aging are simple facts speaking of what is true~~our time here is limited. If we’re wise, though, we will recognize these facts as the attention-getters they seem designed to be. It is important to take loving care of these bodies, our constant companions, so they can continue to support our living. It seems imperative, though, to also perceive the message behind the aches and pains, the hot flashes, the memory issues, the lowered energy levels. We will be movin’ on down the road relatively soon; given the possibilities of illness, natural disaster, and accidents, that time might come sooner than we think. It, therefore, seems essential that we not forget where we’re going, how we want to get there, and what condition we’d like to be in upon arrival~~whenever that might be.

I don’t mean to minimize the challenges inherent in such an endeavor, either for ourselves or as we watch our loved ones die or struggle with difficult illnesses. This afternoon I will attend a funeral of a dear man, dead in his early 60s from a virulent cancer. I love two women, recently widowed much earlier than expected, and a third who is now placing her husband in a nursing home due to advancing Alzheimer’s. As a psychotherapist, I understand that grieving and railing against the inevitable process of death and loss is a necessary undertaking. But when the anger is spent and the tears shed, where are we? What do we have? An acceptance that this is the way of life: birth, blossoming, maturity, decay, and death. Our emotional reactions will not change one thing about this succession, just bring an honest acceptance of it. These things will come to pass, whether or not we greet them consciously. And in that conscious greeting are gems that remain hidden should we turn our backs.

And so, my knee joints are giving out. They are simply at the forefront of an inevitable physical decline. Their deterioration brings with it an opportunity to practice letting go. Now, I let go of my beloved zafu, of my attachment to the image of sitting serenely (or not!) upon it. And as I do so, I realize I am flexing my letting-go muscles. There will likely be an untold number of letting-gos between now and the final one. Hopefully, by the time I arrive at my death, I will be well-versed in the practice, so that my ultimate departure will be a celebratory event that I am able to welcome with grace.

This, too, shall pass away~~whatever this might be, whenever that passing might come. So, here’s to greeting the inevitable signs of aging as reminders that our time in these bodies is limited. May we ultimately greet each one with warmth and another slight shift toward Spirit.


Loanne Marie

PS. There will be no change in this blog’s name. From the Chair, just doesn’t have the same ring!

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