“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.
© 2012, amy gutman. All rights reserved.