The time will come
When, with elation,
You will greet yourself arriving
At your own door, in your own mirror,
And each will smile at the other’s welcome,
And say, sit here, Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self. ~ Derek Walcott*
Aging, and the fixation with our appearance, for those of us who are contemplatives, may seem a shallow, banal preoccupation. It may be an embarrassment to admit that we are stumbling in this particular underworld of suffering. Yet, the paradoxical truth is that the spirit lives in this juxtaposition of the superficial, the mundane, and the revelation of the sublime. Whatever causes pain, suffering, and a sense of futility, is the perfect vehicle for a heart opening and is worthy of our attention.
“There is an adversary who isn’t fair,” reports a fifty-five year old woman who is planning her son’s wedding, “and that is Aging.” She’s been an attractive woman all her life but now she looks in the mirror and sees a face that does not correspond to the image she has of herself in her own mind. She is conflicted; she is a smart woman and doesn’t believe that she should be preoccupied with the changes she’s noticing in the mirror, but she is. She decides to do something about it. In other words, her first attempt to cope is to try and regain some control. She decides that she’ll train at her local gym and be proactive, but during the course of her training she breaks her ankle! It would seem the universe has another plan for her! She is forced into inactivity. She begins to ruminate and notices that she’s struggling with depression; she believes her life is slipping away with her youth. She doesn’t want to capitulate to the American frenzy of seeking youth through cosmetic surgery and injections of one sort or another, yet a part of her feels disadvantaged by this choice. She doesn’t know what to do as a sense of hopelessness penetrates her body in the form of passivity and lethargy and her thoughts in the form of self-doubt and criticism. She and her mirror are in a dialogue that is leaving her empty and self-alienated. As she lies immobilized literally and figuratively, she is unable to distract herself with the illusion of control, and she begins to connect with her feelings of helplessness.
The ability to find answers to the aging dilemma varies from one individual to another. Women who are obsessed with their bodies and use them as self-esteem tokens have a harder time relinquishing the emotional energy they place on that aspect of “who” they are. The awareness that this is important to intelligent women further evokes harshness as they recognize they are their own worst enemies when it comes to objectifying themselves. So, they are stuck in their self-rejection on two fronts: body and mind.
Fragility and vulnerability are aspects of the aging process. We notice that we are not in control of what is happening. Denial, which allowed us to ignore this inevitability, is eroding, and we are facing ourselves just as we are—fragile, ephemeral beings whose bloom peaks and then begins to wither. In that noticing, in that awareness of sadness and loss, there can be compassionate containment. A moment of noticing and taking in our experience is different from narcissistic self-absorption and self-pity. The story of the fifty-five year old woman begins with her conflict with aging and concludes with her awareness of her helplessness. Once we create some distance from the experience we can build perspective by landing on what’s really happening and finding ways to just allow the truth to exist. Perspective cannot be achieved without a witness or observer who is “neutral” when it comes to the attraction we have to our “story.” Because we are hooked in our drama, which includes thoughts and emotions, it is hard to get out of our own way. It’s as if we’re mesmerized by the belief that “what is happening” is the only truth, but it is simply what we’re focusing on in the moment and it’s all in our head, but it feels so absorbing, so real!
Naturally, there is an ebb and flow in our ability to disengage from emotional reactivity (which is our human condition, our fragility) and begin to accept our own helplessness in the face of aging. There are times when we cannot transcend our grief. We are not failing in our practice because we feel emotionally stuck. There is no need for self-recrimination and judgment. Instead, we accept the space and process in which we find ourselves. Just because we understand the law of impermanence, just because we have the tools of meditation and letting go in the out-breath, does not mean that we can affect comfort. It is hard to be in the aging wilderness and yet it is this wilderness that ultimately influences our compassion and humility, our ability to slow down and take in what it means to be human and share it with others.
Without answers, we mortify our pride, our unrelenting need to be in control. In vulnerability and humility, we find ourselves gravitating to the company of others who share the same questions, who share the intimate knowledge of a similar experience. Community, in this case a group of women who are experiencing the same aging dilemmas, becomes important. We want to be in community with other women–not because something shameful is happening but because we are evolving through our shared laughter and tears into compassionate lineage holders of the aging process. We share this rite of passage as a badge of our courage and find a deepening friendship with ourselves in this process. We learn patience together as letting go requires genuine readiness and an open heart. It is this readiness and open heart that influences our acceptance of the inevitable.
* This quote is from: Sue Monk Kidd’s, When the Heart Waits, Harper Collins: San Francisco, 1990. I use her book in my “Wise and Wild” women’s groups. Her writing reflects how holding our tensions and conflicts help define us by breaking free of the chains that create clinging to “false gods”—one of them being that our self-esteem relates to how we appear to others.
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