Wednesday, June 25, 2014

60 and above: what next?

When I was 17 years old (1967) I tried imagining being 35 years old but it seemed so far away and so, "like," old, that I simply gave up--I couldn't relate to it. I wasn't even sure I'd live that long.....Sigh.............

In one's first half or so of life, when life seems still an open book with great hopes and promises and anything seems possible, our perspective and self-image is but an unwritten book. But in the later decades of life, we have enough life experience to gain a broader perspective on who we are, what we've gained, what we need to work on, and what's important to us.

I was chatting with a close friend who's about my age (you’ll have to guess), and we asked ourselves: “So, what’s different now? What’s this being 60 + really all about?”

I've noticed that usually the response to such questions revolve around the various things that we can't do as well, or at all, anymore, or, at least with as much stamina or endurance. And, yes, I admit, that there are times when a person's name or that just perfect word I know is right there ("on the tip of my tongue") eludes me when I need it. And sure, we joke about stuff like aches and pains and naps, going to bed early, eating a little earlier than before (catch the "Early Bird Special"?), needing more time to get out of the house in the morning and on and on.

But there's no lack of pluses to this stage of life. For example: I like the fact that I've lost a lot of commitment to personal dramas: mine, and yours! I find I can sympathize more sincerely because I feel less attached, whether to yours or mine! And by this point in life, one has seen many things by this point in life, whether yours or mine (they have begun to look suspiciously similar). Taking me seriously just doesn't "occupy me" quite the way it used to.

And you know what else is good? In many ways I am more productive and efficient than I ever was: and in fewer hours as well. Without the reduction of the internal friction that comes from my preoccupation with my likes and dislikes, my concern for doing a good job, pleasing other people and all of that "me" stuff that gets in the way of just doing the task at hand, I can plow through and get a lot more done. I find inspiration and ideas come more easily and, in the moment, I can be freer, kinder and more spontaneous than ever before.

As a life long devotee and meditator, I know that the truth, relative or absolute or whatever that is, is between me and my God (my guru, my conscience, my sense of right feeling). I am comfortable in this space which has already left at least some of the body and ego behind and below. I rejoice to see a flower, a white cloud and blue sky. Too hot? Too cold? Well, never mind, I'm still the same and I've been hot or cold many times before.

I don't bemoan what, if anything, I've lost; I rejoice in the wisdom I've earned and received, especially through my teachers (and there are many) and with the grace of God and gurus. Yes, I feel the pain of so much of the suffering and tragedy of this world but I've reconciled to the fact that, realistically and beyond my kind and prayerful thoughts and an occasional small contribution, there's nothing I can do about it. I recycle, too, but I know my recycling won't change the world very much. If I do something not kosher-green, well, I can say, "Sorry 'bout that, but look at the other good-green things I do. Besides, I LIKE trees."

I have found new priorities in my life, viz., my own consciousness. Whether I am efficient, proficient, liked or disliked, my highest priority is to remain centered, mindful, and living in the presence of God as peace, wisdom, calm joy and expanded self-awareness. I don't expect to have great visions but I am open to the possibility that my meditations could become ever deeper and that the miracle of life, which is God, will ever expand as the focus of my awareness and self-identity.

It has been well said by others that this time of life is characterized by self-acceptance. Self-acceptance is the first step in acceptance of others, and of the circumstances of one's life. That's a good thing because the "hope-springs-eternal" attitude which characterizes early and midlife has evaporated as the horizon line of the end of life appears in the not too far distance. I have to live in the present because the only choice is to live in the past and that's rather boring. (Ok, so I could live in a fantasy world of my own imagination, too, I suppose.....and many people escape to TV shows, novels, and imagination.)

Self-Acceptance can go in two basic directions: going downward, it can be a slouching acceptance of my narrowing scope of abilities, strength, mental power, or interests. This direction is like sliding towards laziness, self-indulgence, senility, and, of course, finally, oblivion.

The upward path of Self-acceptance includes the wisdom to know what is important in my life and what things are mine to do and what things are best left to others. It also means working "smarter" not "harder." Despite whatever mental challenges might appear owing strictly to age, I am more focused now than I have ever been in life. I am so focused in what I am doing or in simply being inward that I generally don't listen to or hear others who are talking around me. (If you want to talk to me, I suggest you start by saying my name first, then standing in front of me so I can see your eyes and then say what you have to say simply and clearly! I find it easy to tune out gossip, idle chatter, negativity or anything that isn't mine to deal with! More and more I prioritize the important things (like writing these thoughts?)! For many of us, this acceptance phase offers me the opportunity to step back and mentor, train, or let others step up.

I admit, however, that self-acceptance has also allowed me to indulge in "not suffering fools gladly," meaning people who waste my time or who don't listen. I think this is right to do sometimes and probably not a good thing other times. I am more likely to either say little or say directly what I think, with far little chatter in between.

Acceptance can mean realizing that it is the time of life to focus on deeper questions, issues, needs and priorities. The realization comes, appropriate to this life cycle, that I have (hopefully, presumably) fulfilled my material and familial obligations and I can now turn to more “internal affairs.” This means focusing on activities, people, introspection, or service to others that are not necessarily income producing, self-supporting, career enhancing, or socially obligatory.

My friend and I acknowledged that at this time of life, “the chickens come home to roost.” By this we meant that if during one’s mid-life of busy activities, raising children, or fulfilling social obligations, one put aside or even suppressed other longings, desires, needs, talents, or fantasies, they now rise up like ghosts of Christmas past or demons from the netherworld to haunt us with their unfulfilled, repressed, or otherwise unmet energies. These chickens can also be the accumulated physical or mental effects of a life of stress, anger, nervousness, jealousy, over-indulgence, or, better yet, the beneficent effects of a life well led. These chickens lay eggs, so to speak and we are their beneficiaries, whether of the eggs are golden or rotten.

Thus, it is time for closure, friends! Time to wrap up the day’s work, clean and put away your tools, fill out your time sheet and expense report and submit your accounting to the mystic judge of your own conscience, personality and body (wherein are lodged the fruits of your lifelong labors). And while most of us have many years left of active service, nonetheless, there is a shift of priorities and perspective.

This is a time to share one’s wisdom and skills and to share one's story. My parents generation viewed retirement as pay-back and sitting on the porch. (Well, actually mine didn't but many of their generation did.) But in today’s culture, this stage of life is vibrant and active. It has, instead, become a time for pursuing interests such as art, education in new and interesting arenas, educational or humanitarian travel or service, introspection, yoga, meditation, and other forms of spiritual seeking and service.

As the body ages and one’s faculties lose some of their staying power, it is a signal to become more inward, more self-aware, more conscious in one’s thoughts and activities. Yes, it’s time to get our spiritual house in order. A preparation for death? Well, yes, of course: death is, after all, the final exam of life.

That fact need be neither morbid nor compelling. One's duties are coming to a close and it is time to reflect, to draw the lessons of wisdom, or, in the case of those chickens, to confront some unfinished or leftover business.

We who are yogis see this time as an opportunity to meditate more and to be guided more from within (than from external karma or dharmic influences). Being thereby more centered (or at least less influenced or pressured by externals), we can see who we really are freed from outer exigencies.

In India this third stage of life (called vanaprastha) is described as being a hermit. I can't comment knowledgeably on Hindu traditions but to me it is only "hermit" in the sense that it is introspective, self-aware, and reflective. The purpose of such pursuits is, ultimately, to change from within and to bring to closure to the lessons of this lifetime. (The fourth "ashram" is sannyas - complete outer renunciation and breaking of all community and familial ties----even more extreme but certainly more obviously a "hermit" stage.)

There is freedom and release that can be associated with this stage of life. The symbol of the grandparent is one who is no longer strictly identified with what he does and is more known for who he (she) is. From doing to being, so to speak. Think of the smiling grandparent beaming his or her love to the grandchildren, to neighbors, or to shopkeepers---now freed from having to play any specific role or accomplish any specific task.

If one has lived rightly the chickens who come home bring the golden eggs of inner peace, contentment, joy, forgiveness and, yes, flexibility (the willingness to step out and do new things and become one’s true Self!).
That’s worth living for.


Grandfather Hriman