Plan B Nation bookshelf: Aging as a Spiritual Practice (+ book giveaway)

“Aging is depressing,” a friend announced, after seeing Iron Lady, the new Margaret Thatcher biopic starring Meryl Streep.

This is no doubt true, at least for some of us, some of the time. But even more to the point is this salient fact: It happens to all of us.

Given the inevitability of growing older, it seems sensible to give some thought to how we can mine this experience for whatever good it contains. In this spirit, I was drawn to read Buddhist teacher Lewis Richmond’s new book Aging as a Spiritual Practice: A Contemplative Guide to Growing Older and Wiser (Gotham Books 2012).

Richmond’s message is twofold: On the one hand, everything we love is destined to change, age, and pass away. On the other, “every moment brings with it new opportunities” if we can only stay open to them.  In writing this book, he set out to help us do just that.

As Richmond sees it, our goal should be flexibility—physical, mental, and emotional—qualities that research has linked to longer and healthier lives. With this end in mind, he offers an array of Buddhist-infused meditations and tools along with sharing his own life story and those of others, including several inspiring examples of “the extraordinary elderly.”

Richmond stresses that the challenges of aging aren’t limited to those on the far side of middle age—and may not even correlate with chronological age. “I’m twenty-seven, and I’ve suddenly realized that I’m growing old,” wrote one correspondent.  “I’m seventy-three, and I’ve never felt younger,” wrote another.

But while our inner experiences may differ, there are common denominators. “Aging is not just change, but irreversible change—for better or worse,” Richmond observes. Some may find this insight depressing, but I found it strangely liberating. If you’re anything like me, you spent a lot of your young adulthood leaning into the future, striving to create the conditions for whatever life you thought would make you happy. For me, an upside of reaching middle age has been an enhanced capacity to live in the present moment (which, as the Buddhists have told us for millennia, is all that we ever really have).

I was also struck by the extent to which the skills Richmond says we need to successfully navigate aging have much in common with those needed to successfully navigate Plan B Nation, regardless of age. For example, Richmond talks about the importance of creating new identities to replace those we have lost—as true for a newly unemployed as it is for an aging retiree.

In particular, I liked this exercise. I plan to try it. You might want to try it too:

Make three lists. In the first, include what has been lost in the last three or five or 10 years (you pick the time frame).  In the second, include what has been gained. In the third, include new possibilities for replenishing your identity.  And with this last list, Richmond urges, “Reach as high and as far as you can.”

Note: Gotham Books has kindly provided an extra copy of Aging as a Spiritual Practice for me to give away. For a chance to win the book, leave a comment below.  At the bottom of your comment, please indicate you’d like to be entered in the drawing by typing the word “giveaway.” The drawing is next weekend.

Copyright © Amy Gutman. All rights reserved.

18 thoughts on “Plan B Nation bookshelf: Aging as a Spiritual Practice (+ book giveaway)

  1. Thanks to everyone who read & commented on the post–wish I had a copy of the book for everyone. This week’s winner (drawn from my literal hat) is (drum roll) Kate Lucas.

  2. Lost–fear, depression, low self worth. Gained–attitude, courage, health. I LOVE getting older. To me another birthday means another chance at my best life. I turn 37 soon and keep referring to myself as “almost forty”–I guess I never got over that childhood belief that older kids were just cooler. And I haven’t lost anything from childhood that was worth keeping–I still ride my bike, color with crayons, and occasionally skip instead of walk. I expect the next three years to be the best three years of the first forty of my life.

  3. I retired from carpentry in the fall of 2008 because my body said, “Enough!” I was 62 years old. The day after I retired I signed up for a multimedia class at CCSF. The next semester I took Photography for the Web and designed and built the web site above. During the summer 2009 semester I started taking a film making class there, and have been at it ever since.
    A month into that first multimedia class I woke up one morning filled with fear. The words fear and faith went through my mind a couple of times and I knew that they couldn’t exist together. I remembered that I had a book by Sharon Salzberg called “Faith”. In it she says that faith is an action verb in Pali, Latin, and Hebrew (to faithe) and it means to take the next step. That, for me, has been the antidote for fear.

  4. That “three lists” exercise is intense! I’d love to check out the book — please enter me in the giveaway.

  5. Here is the exercise off the top of my head: Lost–holding back on letting folks know when I feel dissed. One very dear great aunt Saidy. A better figure (referring to the ratio of boobs and hips to waistline. Young children, as they are now all really young adults. And finally, one full-time job with a two-hour commute each way. More frequent contact with dear friends, many of whom don’t understand blogging, prioritization or time management. Gained–lots of new friends, relationships which have sprung up related to blogging and living online. More experience and enjoyment of comedy improv. Some great vacations with my Mom. A sense of the bittersweet quality of losing one’s mind at age 85. More day-dreaming about what I’d like to do when I retire. More reaching out to friends I have lost touch with over 25 years. High reach–a successful business with some zeros behind the dollar sign. A commitment to working out more regularly. Deeper worship. Greater joy with a partner. Letting go of expectations of my children, and allowing them to be who they are.

  6. The topic is one I’ve spent some time pondering. With aging, like adversity, a Buddhist perspective is invaluable. Thanks for bringing this book to my awareness, Amy! (Please enter me in the book giveaway! : )

  7. At 53 I “lost everything,” as they say. My house, my business, my place-marker on my personal Monopoly board. I figured if I was shedding everything else, why not also shed the concept of “they?” (What they might think … what they might say.) As I reinvented myself, I realized I felt richer than I ever had in my life … far richer than when I had big salaries, all the perks and all the toys. I strapped on just the pieces of my former life that brought me joy. I gave myself permission to embrace my 50s for what they were: MY years. And (surprise, surprise!) my 60s are even more glorious … each day a new adventure. Shakeups are good. (giveaway)

  8. When I think about all I have lost in ten years it is overwhelming. I have also spent many an hour, day, month going back to things I miss. Things I enjoyed in childhood that were clipped to get onto more important practical things. So now I give myself permission to stew in impractical things and learn what I want to learn.
    I wish I could have shed the expectations without shedding the beloved people.
    Please enter me in the drawing.


  9. Sounds like an interesting book – I’d like to have a chance! (giveaway)

  10. It’s been said that we perceive time to be speeding up as we age, so that even as we strive to live in the moment the moments seem more fleeting. One of the loveliest books I’ve read on the theme of aging and adapting gracefully to unexpected change is Penelope Lively’s latest novel, “How It All Began.” (Please enter me in the drawing.)

  11. Enter me in the drawing! Here is the thing: I don’t mind getting older and WISER. What’s depressing is getting older and demented. But even that may lead to better awareness of/ appreciation for the present moment….

  12. Can’t wait to read it. I lost a working ankle, but I gained new professional competencies and recognition, and a sense of my own power to change unhealthy situations. I look forward to more opportunities to grow professionally and personally.

    P.S. Please enter me in the drawing.

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