Saturday, February 12, 2011

Growing Old: The Inner Work

Fifteen years ago I was 55 and I was drawn to begin some of the inner work of aging. I didn't think of myself as old then. In fact the idea of being old scared me terribly. I knew I was unprepared for it. It occurred to me that I should begin some kind of investigation that might increase my self understanding. So I started an archeological excavation into the beliefs, patterns, conflicts, aspirations and dreams that have formed my memories and my ideas of myself.

I didn't know it then, but I had begun one of the tasks of aging--life review, part of which is seeking the meaning of one's life. The artifacts I've unearthed in my digging have borne quite a bit of scrutiny and reflection over the years. I've traveled through a lot of difficult territories. I'm sure you have your own versions of these places in your heart and soul and you know as well as I do that some rivers can be rather difficult to ford, some shadows hard to face and befriend. I've found that this work has been full of healing; it's led to the softening of long-tied knots, with the help of the waters of empathy, forgiveness and compassion. Life review is a practice that continues to be full of blessings, insight and surrender. I'm a believer.

According to Carl Jung there are 7 tasks of aging:

1. Facing the reality of aging and dying
2. Life review
3. Defining life realistically
4. Letting go of the ego
5. Finding new rooting in the Self
6. Determining the meaning of one’s life
7. Rebirth – dying with life

As you can see, these are serious pieces of earthly business. Letting go of the ego, for instance. Not exactly a Bingo level activity, though I'm sure it could happen playing Bingo, especially if you'd done some prep work.

Defining life realistically--what does this mean to you? I read it as the task of adjusting to the current situation of one's body and mind, which may be different from what it was at 25 or 45. Facing the reality of aging and dying, now that is something much denied in our society where so many people continue to try to pass for young into old age and live in denial that they will ever die.

To me finding new rooting in the Self means going deeper, spending more time in contemplation and reflection. I have to confess that I've never really understood the phrase "dying with life" described in the 7th task. Maybe I am just not old enough yet.

I had a visit with a good friend last summer. She is a keenly intelligent, very spiritual woman who now resides in an assisted living residence because of neurological difficulties. She describes aging as "an exercise in letting go and accepting."

"It's moving into a different state of being," she tells me, "shifting the focus from the outer world, releasing the worldly cuccoon, just unzipping and stepping out. It's very liberating, coming to some level of essence and finding contentment with what is."

My conversations with her remind me that the tasks of later life are quite spiritual in nature. Even if a person continues to be active and engaged in the world, there's a natural turning within as one ages. Unless of course, one remains infatuated with activity as an end in itself which seems to be such an obsession in the modern world. Then one can miss out on the harvest opportunity that the later years provide.

In his book Nature and the Human Soul, Bill Plotkin comments "True adulthood, or psychological maturity, has become an uncommon achievement in Western or Westernized societies, and genuine elderhood nearly nonexistent." Plotkin describes our society as pathologically adolescent, divorced from nature and soul. To Plotkin, real maturity is not based on chronological age; he defines maturity as living in a profound, ecologically aware interconnectedness with nature.

Living a long time is a blessing, and those who live a long life and also enrich the world with their wisdom, patience and balance bring an even deeper blessing. Maturation takes inner work. Inner work requires spending time in reflection, contemplation, healing, meditation and prayer. Quiet time. Slow time. Time in Nature. Which our society, so obsessed with production and materialism, both longs for and disdains.

In her book Slow is Beautiful Cecile Andrews describes how slowing down and living simply encourages community and individual happiness. That sounds and feels just about right to me.

I like to imagine/visualize/feel a society filled with elders who are slow and deep as beautiful old rivers, slow and rooted as beautiful old forests, elders who are deep, loving, firm, wise and fierce when need be. Sending blessings on your head and heart. May your inner and outer works flourish.


  1. Such a thoughtful post Gaea, thank you. There's a couple of things the phrase "dying with life" brought to my mind. First, I think going through life changes, frightening, enlightening, and occasionally profound we alter spiritually. Sort of like creatures who grow by shedding their skin, or shells. We drop those inner confinements as we grow and like those critters are tender and vulnerable at each passage but come back hopefully stronger and wiser.

    Second, I realize the end of my life could be tomorrow (as it always could have) or twenty years from now and that it is important to me appreciate each space as I'm in it. As long as I'm breathing and can string two thoughts togehter, I hope to live each moment with as much life as possible.

  2. Celia, thank you for your suggestions about dying into or with life. I appreciate these perspectives you are describing here. Renewal and intensity. Hmmm.. I can relate.

  3. As the French philosopher and mystic, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said: we are not human beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having a human experience. I think that is what dying into life refers to. When we have finished our mortal trials, we will die into our spiritual, real life.