By Loi Eberle, MA, CPC, CPFC
In some sports, athletes who reach the month of their birthday, ‘age up’ and are no longer eligible to compete in their age division. This both creates new barriers and opens up new opportunities. In some ways it is the situation for the large percentage of our nation’s population who are joining the ranks of senior citizens. There seems to be a pervasive attitude that aging up means a dwindling degeneration that involves loss of capacity, memory, and eventual dementia. Fortunately there are some who recognize that each person has a range of choices that can profoundly affect their journey through the process of aging. An increasing number of uplifting examples exists of those who are consciously choosing to live with intention and balance.
The English comedian, actor, radio host and activist Russel Brand talks about our need to “re-align our cultural narratives.” Given the power of imagery and its influence on belief systems and behavior, it might be wise to attend to his message in regard to aging!
Lillian B. Rubin’s book From 60 On Up: The Truth About Aging in America confronts us with our avoidance of the word ‘aging’ and our denial of its meaning and declares that the beliefs and attitudes of the youth culture are so centrally American that it makes us greet old age with dread. And yet, some form of aging will necessarily occur if we want to remain alive! As the clock ticks, we’re all getting older. Many people in their 60’s are now taking care of their over-80 year old parents while wondering if they will have time while still healthy to do what they’d dreamed of in their youth. People who retire from the work force have more time for new interests or travel, yet don’t necessarily have the money to indulge in them. Though there may be more time for friends, those friends may be dying or moving to where their children live or withdrawing from socializing. Some might start a new career yet may find that they want to draw more inward, to be more reflective, less materialistic. The long habit of pushing to the next big thing competes with the natural drawing inward that seems to occur as we age.
In her review of Rubin’s book, Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D. notes: “the uncomfortable truth that Rubin states again and again throughout her book: We may be living longer but we’re still getting old. Denial of that fact makes people who are feeling their age also feel inadequate. Denial of that fact gets in the way of creating social policy to address the new reality of people living longer. Denial of that fact sets us up for economic disaster unless we find alternative ways (besides Social Security and Medicare) to support those who can no longer work and care for themselves…. We baby boomers are the generation that once declared, ‘The personal is political.’ In the next 20 years, 78 million of us will enter the ranks of old age; 26 percent of the population! It’s a big and potentially powerful political voice! She admonishes us to get out of our collective denial and to take charge now by changing public policy and cultural attitudes toward aging. Good “aunty” that she is, she speaks from her advanced position and tells us that our best hope is to get busy.”
Fortunately, we are broadening our perspective about the possibilities involved in the aging process. The Institute of Medicine recently reported about the emerging concept of cognitive aging, acknowledging the importance of this issue for our nation’s public health. In some ways, the fact that they state the need for the nation to better understand and maintain the cognitive health of older adults confirms their knowledge that there are ways to actively maintain their cognitive health. [“Cognitive Aging: Progress in Understanding and Opportunities for Action” by Dan G. Blazer, MD, MPH, PhD1; Kristine Yaffe, MD2; Jason Karlawish, MD] The authors state: “Cognitive aging is a lifelong process of gradual, ongoing, yet highly variable changes in cognitive function that occur as people get older. Some cognitive functions decrease predictably, such as memory and reaction time, whereas some other functions are either maintained or may even increase, such as wisdom and knowledge.” They conclude that some cognitive domains may not change, some may decline, or some may improve with aging, and there is the potential for older adults to strengthen some cognitive abilities.
‘Healthy aging’ is getting more attention as people begin to learn that there are things that can be done early in life that will affect their later years. For example, “biological” ages varied markedly among nearly 1,000 adults evaluated at calendar age 38 in a longitudinal study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [by Belsky and colleagues, whose work is summarized in the Dunedin Study.”] The Journal of American Medical Association, April 15, 2015 states: “Cognitive aging is not a disease or a quantifiable level of dysfunction… Animal models of aging demonstrate that neurons do not die with aging, but their synaptic structure and function are diminished, particularly in prefrontal cortical regions… The brain ages, just like other parts of the body; cognitive aging is not a disease; cognitive aging is different for every individual (there is wide variability across persons of similar age); some cognitive functions improve with age and neurons are not dying… hence, realistic hope is inherent in cognitive aging; patients can take certain steps to help protect their cognitive health.” Their conclusion that this finding is important suggests the possibility that one can improve one’s cognitive health.
Norman Doidge, M.D. writes in The Brain’s Way of Healing, ”One of the core laws of neuroplasticity is that neurons that fire together wire together, meaning that repeated mental experience leads to structural changes in the brain neurons that process that experience, making the synaptic connections between those neurons stronger.”
This idea is stated even more boldly by Dr. Steven Rubin: “Perhaps the best chance for realistically preventing dementia is by using the brain – keeping the synapses sparking and generating new buds of energy… preserving cognitive function is by nourishing our roots, our limbs, and our hearts…. Failure to exercise, poor eating habits, and isolation from meaningful activities lead to disuse atrophy, a medical term for body wasting from lack of use. Brain tissue withers if it isn’t active. Perhaps the wisest medical advice of all is “use it or lose it,” as applied physically, mentally, sexually, socially and spiritually. Otherwise, one risks developing SOYA: [Dementia Due To] Sitting On Your Ass.” [Autumn Leaves: Aging, With and Without Demenita by Steven Rubin, M.D.]
Two of the founding figures in the human potential movement George Leonard and Michael Murphy write in their book The Life we Are Given about the great capacity for growth that all human beings possess. They tell us: “Through the transformative practices of the kind presented in [their] book, we can share the most fundamental tendencies of the world’s unfoldment – to expand, create and give rise to more conscious forms of life. Like evolution itself, we can bring forth new possibilities for growth, new worlds for further exploration.”
What is the source of this knowledge to be discovered? The Katha Upanishad teaches:
“Finer than fine, greater than great, the Self hides in the heart of the creature… Seated, he journeys far off, lying down, he goes everywhere. Realizing the bodiless in bodies, the established in things unsettled, the great and omnipresent Self, the wise and steadfast soul, grieves no longer.”
Murphy and Leonard suggest that the Upanishad alludes to the “inexorable emergence of ever higher organization from matter to life to humankind… at the heart of it, is the unfolding of hidden divinity. Evolution follows involution. What was implicit is gradually made explicit, as the spirit within all things progressively manifests itself.” Quoting the words of the Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo, “Apparent nature is secret God,” the authors go on to state, “The recognition of a reality ordinarily hidden but immediately apprehended as our true identity, our immortal soul, our “original face,” our secret at-oneness with God, is implicit in much Buddhist, Hindu, Platonist, Christian, Jewish, and Islamic thought.”
Leonard and Murphy explain that the practices of transformative growth described in their work began with our ancient ancestors, and can be adopted by anyone. They call them ‘integral’ because they include our entire human nature – body, mind, heart and soul.
Ken Wilbur has continued this line of thinking in his research and writing over the last thirty five years, developing an “Integral Theory of Everything.” In addition to the numerous books and educational materials he has written, Wilbur has most recently condensed these ideas into an ‘Integral Life Practice.’ He includes practices for the body, mind, spirit and shadow dimensions that are taken from premodern, modern, and postmodern approaches to growth and development, compiling them in “a larger framework that uses – and makes sense of –all of them. Modern practices include scientific studies of human growth and ways to induce it. Postmodern practices include a pluralistic and multicultural composite map of the human territory – the territory of you – and ways to include [and not marginalize] all of the important dimensions of your own being [physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual – in self, culture, and nature].”[Integral Life Practice: a 21st-Century Blueprint for Physical Health, Emotional Balance, Mental Clarity and Spiritual Awakening, by Ken Wilber, Terry Patten, Adam Leonard & Marco Morelli].
After elaborating on how to integrate this variety of practices into one’s life, the authors conclude: “It is said that grace and blessings are indistinguishable from good luck. And the more we practice, the luckier we get. We make our luck by continually bringing ourselves forward into the process of practice…It is the same universal Suchness you were all along, from the beginning. In the fulfillment of your journey, you are liberated to be the one you always already were – with nothing attained that wasn’t the case all along.”
Many years ago George Leonard wrote in Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment: “Perhaps we’ll never know how far the path can go, how much a human being can truly achieve, until we realize that the ultimate reward is not a gold medal but the path itself.” Stating that “lifelong learning is the special province of those who travel the path of mastery, the path that never ends… at the heart of it, mastery is practice. Mastery is staying on the path.” As the years go by, his words remind us: “If our life is a good one, a life of mastery, most of it will be spent on the plateau… the long stretch of diligent effort with no seeming progress.” Although there may be little in our upbringing, schooling, or career counseling that teaches us to value, and even love the plateau, he attempts to comfort those of us who have worked for years to achieve the unreachable goal of excellence, by stating: “Recognition is often unsatisfying and fame is like sea-water for the thirsty. Love of your work, willingness to stay with it even in the absence of extrinsic reward, is good food and good drink.” The various teachers are reminding us that all these growth and transformative practices are not really about achievable outcomes, but rather, are various ways to learn to appreciate being on the plateau. They encourage us to recognize that we already have the gift of the opportunity to be allowed the chance of being ‘on the verge.’ By accepting there will not be an ‘arriving,’ we can deepen our awareness and appreciation of the amazement of the plateau – the journey of the life each of us has embarked upon.
David Brooks, an Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times and recent author, of “The Road to Character,” says it so beautifully: “The stumbler doesn’t build her life by being better than others, but by being better than she used to be. Unexpectedly, there are transcendent moments of deep tranquility. For most of their lives their inner and outer ambitions are strong and in balance. But eventually, at moments of rare joy, career ambitions pause, the ego rests, the stumbler looks out at a picnic or dinner or a valley and is overwhelmed by a feeling of limitless gratitude …”