Transitions are hard, and the aging process is no exception. Aging is, of course, a natural, inevitable part of life. However, for many, it can trigger feelings of sadness, fear and regret. As we grow older, certain aspects of our identity can slip away while new realities come into view. This is why aging well is both an art and a science, requiring the construction of a new, positive association with what it means to grow older.
Modern cultures can tend to push older adults to the sidelines, but many traditional cultures honor elders with ceremony and specific responsibilities. For instance, many indigenous communities in the Americas have important, clearly-defined roles for their elders. Rather than being dispensable, these cultures and communities rely upon the contributions of wisdom and the perspective that only a long life can provide. In First Nations Pedagogy, a resource created by two indigenous educators, they describe:
Elders traditionally hold crucial roles in supporting both formal and informal education in First Nations communities. They impart tradition, knowledge, culture, values, and lessons using morality and role modeling traditional practices. Elders are the carriers and emblems of communally generated and mediated knowledge… Elders are first and foremost teachers and role models. They are vital in the teaching process, from infanthood to adulthood and beyond.
When we look at modern American culture, we can see a reality that looks quite different. Rather than living in multi-generational households, many older adults move to retirement communities. Instead of leading, story-sharing, and participating in meaningful, inter-generational work, our elders’ voices are often disregarded, which can lead to feelings of isolation and depression.
In modern culture, youth tends to be unequivocally celebrated, centered, and longed for, while midlife and old age can bring about shame, sadness, and dismissal. With this narrative in place, it is no wonder why many people dread growing older; we don’t have much to look forward to.
As we age, it can be more important than ever to draw inspiration from belief systems and spiritual traditions that celebrate aging well. While our culture might currently lack meaningful narratives for our elders to step into, older traditions and spiritual teachers can help provide guidelines for aging well–– with pride and purpose.
The advice outlined below comes from a wide range of backgrounds, many of which include science in their spiritual beliefs.
1. Marianne Williamson
In 2007, this spiritual author published the book The Age of Miracles: Embracing the New Midlife, to reframe the transition from youth to midlife and beyond so that people can feel a sense of rebirth, joy, and awakening.
“It’s not that you’re deluding yourself, refusing to gracefully accept that your youth is over. You accept the limits of age, but you accept the limitlessness of God as well. Something has ended, it’s true, but something new has also begun. Your youth has not been ended so much as your prolonged youth has been interrupted — not as some bum deal that comes at the end of the party, but as your salvation from ultimate meaninglessness, your one last chance to get it right. The generation now experiencing midlife cannot stand the thought that this was all for nothing. Dysfunctional, obsolete patterns of thought that blocked the pathway to your higher destiny are being interrupted at last. And while you might be feeling a bit depressed that you’re no longer young, you’re ecstatic that you’re no longer clueless.”
2. Dr. Joe Dispenza
Neuroscientist, author and lecturer Dr. Joe Dispenza is known for bridging the gap between science and spirituality with his bestselling book, Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself. In a recent blog post entitled, Are You Old? How Your Thinking Impacts Your Age, Dr. Dispenza outlines the way our beliefs shape the way that we age.
“Simply put, changing our beliefs about aging appears to be a greater indicator of longevity than many other factors including socioeconomic background and gender. Of course, we know how we think impacts how we feel. Why then, do we continue to assign gloom and doom to a process that doesn’t have a predetermined outcome? It could be that we associate getting older with getting closer to dying. Sadly, it’s this association that sends many to an early grave. So, what do we do? The first step is to take an honest look at where you are in your life. Do you forget something trivial like where you put your keys and chalk it up to having a senior moment? Making this kind of leap without the proper evidence only further enables this habit of believing that your life is dictated by your age. Once you start reinforcing this belief system it’s only a matter of time before your body and mind start to behave accordingly.”
3. Eckhart Tolle
Spiritual teacher and author of the bestselling book, The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle is known for inviting people around the globe to return to the present moment in order to live a more joyful and fulfilling life. In his book A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, he wrote the following about aging well:
“It is precisely through the onset of old age, through loss or personal tragedy, that the spiritual dimension would traditionally come into people’s lives. This is to say, their inner purpose would emerge only as their outer purpose collapsed and the shell of the ego would begin to crack open. The emphasis shifts from doing to Being, and our civilization, which is lost in doing, knows nothing of Being. It asks: being? What do you do with it?”
4. Louise Hay
This motivational author was known for her popular book, You Can Heal Your Life, a “how to” book for connecting your mind, body and spirit for optimal health and healing. In the years before she passed, Louise Hay was living a vibrant and active life–– she published several books, expanded her online offerings, and strengthened her legacy through her charitable foundation, Hay House. She passed in 2017 at the age of 90. Here’s an excerpt from her blog post entitled Are Your Beliefs Prematurely Aging You?:
“We don’t have to become deathly ill. We don’t have to be hooked to machines. We don’t have to lie suffering in a nursing home in order to leave the planet. There is a tremendous amount of information available on how to stay healthy and live life to the fullest. Don’t put it off, do it now. When we get chronologically older, we want to feel wonderful, so we can continue to experience new adventures. We remain young. I read something a while ago that intrigued me. It was an article about a San Francisco medical school that had discovered that the way we age is not determined by genes, but by something they call the aging set point—a biological time clock that exists in our minds. This mechanism actually monitors when and how we begin to age. The set point, or aging clock, is regulated in great part by one important factor: our attitudes toward growing old. For instance, if you believe that 35 is middle-aged, that belief triggers biological changes in your body that cause it to accelerate the aging process when you reach 35. Isn’t it fascinating! Somewhere, somehow, we decide what is “middle age” and what is “old age.” Where are you setting that aging set point within you? I have this image in my mind that I am going to live to 96 years and still be active, so, it’s very important that I keep myself healthy.”
5. Deepak Chopra
Perhaps the most well-known spiritual leader of our time, Deepak Chopra, is an author, public speaker, alternative medicine advocate and meditation teacher. He wrote the following about aging:
“The ‘normal’ experience of the body and its aging is a conditioned response—a habit of thinking and behavior. By changing your habits of thinking and behavior, you can change the experience of your body and its aging.”
Although the teachings above come from different traditions, they all concur that aging well is not only possible, it is a co-creative process that invites you every day to decide what you’d like it to mean.
It’s also important to mention that aging well is possible whether you consider yourself “spiritual” or not. This major point–– that mindset has a significant impact on aging–– has been underscored in multiple scientific studies and books. So the bottom line is this: aging well can mean whatever you’d like it to mean. If you imagine yourself at 90 doing yoga and swimming in the ocean, you can start to live your life, today, in a way that supports that belief. This can have a powerful effect on both our mindset and physical body–– contributing positively to both our day-to-day health and longevity.
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