Facing The Spectre Of Ageing And Death
Growing older involves many difficulties. Most of us face multiple losses as partners, siblings and friends die. Loneliness can become a real and heavy presence. We may worry about becoming dependent or a burden on others, after a lifetime of independence; or seeing our mind crumble and fade with dementia.
The decline of youthfulness and good health, the awareness of inching towards death, can leave us feeling afraid and ashamed. We may deny the changes in our body, or put huge energy into fighting them at every turn, trying to retain any scrap of vigour and youth. We may try to ignore the instrusive thoughts of having less and less time left in the world. But there somehow remains a shadow over life, which looms whenever the usual distractions drop away. And still the process marches on inescapably.
However, as Herman Hesse wrote, “The task of being old is as beautiful and sacred as that of being young”. Some older people seem unbothered by the slow decline of the body, unafraid of death. They seem able to meet the whole ageing process with cheerfulness, wry humour, and a genuine lightness of heart. So how do they do it?
Growth And Blossoming Don’t Have To Stop As We Age
Psychologists refer to something called the “end-of-history illusion”, which is the natural human tendency to think we have completed all our changing as a person, and we will now be absolutely stable and fixed as a character in the future. The older we get, the more likely we are to think we’ve ‘arrived’ at this kind of end-point.
In reality, regardless of age, we are always changing in one way or another. In fact, neuroscientific research has shown that although the brain undergoes some natural ageing processes over time, it never loses any of its original ‘plasticity’, or flexibility. This means we never lose our capacity to change.
But the way we change depends partly on what we pay attention to. Modern western society promotes a view of the elderly that focuses on wrinkles, frailty and ill-health – so our understanding of ageing often becomes constellated around this. What might life feel like if we focused instead on the potential for wisdom, confidence and character in old age? Thinking differently about ageing can have a transformational impact on our wellbeing.
Meeting The Body With Kindness
The ageing of the body, with all its sagging and wrinkling, can be very difficult to face in a youth-obsessed world (and can hit women particularly hard). Older people of both sexes often feel invisible to younger generations, unwanted by society.
This is much tougher if we have a lot of resentment around what we are losing. Dwelling too long on fading youthfulness, or complaining too much about declining health, can end up leaving a very bitter taste in the mouth.
It can be helpful instead to cultivate an attitude of curiosity and kindness towards what is happening to the body. This means being alert to changes as if we were noticing them in a friend – and considering how we might treat them kindly.
So if we notice things like slower reflexes or loss of hearing, we might think about how we can adapt and care for ourselves as these progress. If we find we have different digestive needs, we might choose to change our diet in response. If our balance begins to falter, we might be able to adjust the way we walk.
Embracing A Subtler Sensuality
Older people often consider themselves no longer fit to be desired. They may feel ashamed of the ageing body. They bury their own desire, and relegate their sexuality to the past.
Of course, older bodies don’t have the same exuberant beauty of the young. But even as the body withers, sensuality remains fully present. And this means immense physical joy is still possible. Loving touch with a partner becomes less about visual stimulation, and more about the pleasure of skin-on-skin softness. Less about satisfying urgent desire, and more about luxuriating in the warmth and presence of another body. We can experience an incredible depth of emotion at the tender cradling of hands, the unhurried joining of hearts.
Opening ourselves to the joys of this kind of slow sensuality in our later years can put a spring in the oldest step. As the famously long-lived islanders of Okinawa put it, in the song they sing each morning: “The warmth of the heart prevents your body from rusting”.
Cultivating A Natural Mindfulness
Our natural pace changes as we age. There is less pressure to pack a hectic schedule into each day, and everything seems to slow down.
This unhurried pace is fertile ground for a natural mindfulness to spring up. When we aren’t so busy, it’s easier to notice the body’s delight in the warmth of sunshine, the coolness of a glass of water. We have time to observe the subtler aspects of life, and meet them with wonderment and curiosity. We can pay attention to those around us, welcoming connection in all its forms. A calm, grounded sense of aliveness can begin to permeate our experience.
Once we allow it to arise, this new sensibility becomes keener with age, naturally increasing while the body diminishes. Even small interactions such as witnessing a child’s smile can bring enormous pleasure. By directing our attention to the small experiences that make the heart leap, even the oldest face can light up with radiance and joy.
Choosing Freedom Of Heart
Some people spend a lifetime trying to comply with what they feel they should do. This concentration on duty or conforming can be very honourable… and it can also shackle our energy and sap the joy from life.
But what if we’ve done enough time? What if we no longer have to live under the ‘tyranny of the shoulds’? Maybe tradition, the expectations of family or society, our own preconceptions, can all be shrugged off or simply left behind.
Setting down these old burdens, becoming less worried about what others think of us, can feel like a huge weight has been lifted. We can feel a great lightness of spirit as we realise we are free to consider what brings real meaning and joy to the heart.
Choosing to cultivate this sort of freedom can be like exercising a muscle that we never paid much attention before. It may take some time and perseverance to make it a strong habit. But it pays back many times over. With practice, despite the ageing of the body, we can regain a natural, youthful buoyancy of the heart.
These Really Can Be ‘Golden Years’
Approaching the end of life does not need to be feared. The transience of life is part of what makes it special. Instead of spending our time rebelling against the wrinkles and aches and slowing-down, we can look at things differently and discover wisdom, unhurried sensuality, and personal freedom.
The richness of all this comes not in spite of, but in tandem with acknowledging the multiple losses of ageing. It happens when we meet the ageing process face-on. Then, much to our own surprise, we may find ourselves growing older with confidence, courage, and genuine joy.