If you look at your body and you’re over 70 or 60 or for some, 40 or earlier; all of us perceive aging differently and think of ourselves as “getting old” at a different age. And you see wrinkles and you feel aches and pains which before you never knew existed. And you wonder if you have some illness. You might have an illness. But the malady you’re experiencing, if you think of it that way, is aging. Is change. Is impermanence.
Aging is an illness only if you fear it. Only because you label or were taught to label wrinkles as something to fear, or pain or change as something to fear. But then, the fear is of fear itself. You fear your own sensations. You battle with your own body. And this can be awful. It makes any pain you experience feel worse.
You might have this idea of yourself. But the idea you like best is of a young woman or man. Our culture teaches that youth is beauty. So the aging self is seen as a younger self decaying, falling apart. So you never see your self as she or he is, now. You see only falling apart. And, truthfully, even that image that you had of yourself back when you felt young—that wasn’t very real, either. Do you think any image, any abstracted idea of a you, could encompass all that you are? You knew back then that your reality exceeded your idea of you, so even in your twenties or teens, you were nervous about your self and who she or he was. Even as a young person you suffered from thinking of change as something to be feared, and you labeled parts of your self beautiful or handsome and others as awful or not-to-be-perceived. You walked even then with a shadow.
So, what do you do? Understand this. Look back and perceive all the changes you have gone through and know that everything changes. If everything changes, even your fear and ideas can change. Notice what is deeper in you than your ideas. Your thoughts, that sensations of aging are symptoms of illness, are there primarily to reveal how you are thinking and how you are creating a sense of suffering. When you feel sensations of fear, when you start sweating and your stomach tenses and feels like the contents of a castanet played by some hyperactive child, these sensations are telling you about themselves, not you. They are saying: you are holding fear, but you are not fear. You can release it and put your attention elsewhere. Notice it. Greet what arises with as much openness as possible, then let it go. When you are open to whatever arises, this means you stop fighting your own life. You feel freer, more joyful. Is it easy to be open to change or to others? No. But noticing how this emotional process works is important.
And there is no way to age “correctly.” There is only doing it honestly, with kindness and the recognition that everyone—everyone, hopefully, goes through this. Look around you. We are all wrinkling.
When I was 66, after practicing Karate for 37 years or so, I felt that I was finally beginning to understand how to practice Kata—not that I could put this understanding into words very well. A Kata is a pre-arranged series of movements, each of which has meaning in terms of self-defense. Katas are at the heart of traditional martial arts practice, yet the part that I had the most difficulty doing well. Suddenly, there was good focus in my practice and a feeling of flow of movement. The judge who used to sit on my shoulder and make snide comments had, for the most part, disappeared. It was just the Kata. And I enjoyed doing it. There was pain, but it was just part of the practice. It is so wonderful to move in a way that accepts whatever shows up as just something new to perceive and greet. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does, I love it.
And to do this in a class, with teenagers—to discuss aging, discuss how we look at our selves and our bodies—can be liberating. To discuss what we fear most means that even what we most fear can be faced directly. Now that is an education.
*Next week: Dreams and reunions.