We begin life as a small bit of protoplasm containing everything needed to grow into a human being. We are born into infancy and grow through childhood and adolescence into adulthood. As adults we are absorbed with raising a family, earning money, advancing careers so we don’t often think about the end of life. When you’re young, you think you’ll live forever.
Achieving old age throws everything into question, and because our culture is predominantly focused on providing for the family, many enter late adulthood lacking the tools and structure necessary for an active, meaningful life. Despite our best efforts, our body decays. Nor is our mind immune to the effects of aging like forgetfulness, anxiety and depression. The kids move away and we suffer through the deaths of friends, spouses and other loved ones. We no longer occupy a comfortable place in the social pecking order. Age strips us of long-standing personal identities.
“Wholly unprepared, we embark upon the second half of life,” Carl Jung wrote. “We take the step into the afternoon of life; worst still, we take this step with the false assumptions that our truths and ideals will serve us as before. But we cannot live the afternoons of life according to the program of life’s morning for what was great in the morning will be little in the evening, and what in the morning was true will in the evening have become a lie.”
What are we to do? How are we to live? Where do we hang our late-life hat? These questions have occupied the attention of luminaries in science, philosophy, music and the arts throughout history. In their work we find as themes epiphany, liberation, relaxation, or in modern parlance, “letting go.”
Medieval German theologian and philosopher Meister Eckhart was born in 1260 and lived until age 67 – a long lifetime for the 14th century. An eyewitness to the realities of old age, he searched carefully for ways to understand, negotiate and cope with the difficulties that old age brought him. Life was sweet nonetheless: “Angels are envious of the place given humans to occupy,” he wrote.
Meister Eckhart’s basic premise is that in the late years, one must learn how to truly SEE. He saw how preoccupations in the early stages of life shape our thinking, and how this thinking becomes deeply rooted and habitual. According to Eckhart, we must break our old ways of thinking and seeing to see in a new and radical way. We must re-familiarize ourselves with our root self: our original mind.
Another luminous historical figure, Jesus of Nazareth, is quoted in the first book of the New Testament by Matthew, saying “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again, I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” (I’ll be taking a look at all the world’s wisdom traditions, regarding aging and dying, in my next column. To be fair, I’ll refrain from calling any one historical figure “savior” or “God’s Chosen”, etc.)
What are known as “Intentional Communities” represent one contemporary response. An Intentional Community is a group of people with a common purpose who live together working cooperatively to create a lifestyle that reflects their shared core values. represent one of the latest answers. Intentional communicates strive to create and maintain a dynamic, culturally viable ideal for late age lifestyles. The Fellowship for Intentional Communities (www.ic.org) lists more than 1,600 communities. There are 56 Intentional Communities in Colorado. Most look to strike a balance between introspection and engagement with others, offering the opportunity to know your own mind and the minds of others.
The principles guiding intentional communities are many and varied. Spiritual belief is the most common inspiration for launching such a community. Spiritually motivated people often work diligently to achieve their goals just like their centuries-old predecessors. Many of North America’s leading centers for meditation and yoga are intentional communities based on the spiritual teachings of the Far East. Spiritual models often involve embracing the “losses” of old age, transforming loss into self-liberation. Meanwhile, secular intentional communities are often based on bold social and/or economic order, including salvation of the planet. Like their spiritual brethren, secular groups often opt for isolation, seeking to escape the problems of the rest of the world by creating a sheltered life of self-sufficient simplicity.
In the January column I’ll review the worlds’ wisdom traditions, and the common threads found there on the issue of aging and dying, and then in February I’ll take a look at specific examples of intentional communities in Colorado and across the United States.