Mindfulness and Optimal Aging
~ By Robin Avery ~
Rudyard Kipling’s “The Ballad of East and West” famously stated, “Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” This month’s column on mindfulness will delve into this notion and attempt to demonstrate that, to the contrary, East does meet West, and West does meet East in old age, and specifically in Optimal Aging.
Focusing on the Harvard study titled “Aging Well, Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life,” previous columns have presented a Western view of life-stage development based on two leading voices in this field, Erik Erickson and George Vaillant. Their theories on Optimal Aging focus on the final three stages of life referred to as “Generativity,” “Keeper of the Meaning,” and “Integrity.” I’m exploring Mindfulness in this column because I believe it to be an essential skill to successfully navigate these final stages.
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Mindfulness and Optimal Aging
Recently derided as a New Age practice, mindfulness now is everywhere. It’s being taught at companies from Google to Target. Famous practitioners include Oprah, Jerry Seinfeld and George Stephanopoulos. NBA coach Phil Jackson used mindfulness practice with two of the greatest NBA teams in recent history, the Chicago Bulls and the L.A. Lakers between 1989 and 2009. A remarkable run.
In Divine Comedy Dante wrote, “In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in a dark wood, where the true way was wholly lost.” He was describing a situation all too familiar for many aging people. Mindfulness can be a method by which one rediscovers the path.
Mindfulness is also important in improving physical health. The recent focus on mindful awareness in psychotherapy and in clinical treatment is because it improves both psychological and physical health. A meta-analysis of what some clinicians refer to as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) found that mindfulness practice as a treatment intervention may help a broad range of individuals cope with both clinical and nonclinical problems. It works with fewer negative side effects than other current treatment plans, which deploy a “fix-it” approach. This fix-it approach, aside from issues of cost and negative physical side effects, risks bypassing critical processes of self-understanding, self-acceptance, and ultimately ones vitality. The focus in this column however, is not on the clinically proven physical health benefits, but on why mindfulness is an important tool to successfully navigate life stages as outlined by Erickson and Vaillant. For a definition of mindfulness, I like Jon Kabat-Zinn: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
One of the more useful phrases that described the effect of meditation (meditation and mindfulness are inextricable), was found in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche. He describes meditation as “bringing the mind home”. This notion of bringing the mind home has profound implications for “finding your voice,” giving form and direction to one’s generativity, and discovering personal cogency and meaning in one’s life story. By bringing the mind home, the heart opens, and a reconnection to spirit occurs.
Evidence of contemplating life and old age, and considering life stage development, isn’t exclusive to western academics. Consider this Chinese poem:
On Being Sixty
Between thirty and forty, one is distracted by the Five Lusts;
Between seventy and eighty, one is a prey to a hundred diseases.
But from fifty to sixty one is free from all ills;
Calm and still — the heart enjoys rest.
I have put behind me Love and Greed; I have done with Profit and Fame;
I am still short of illness and decay and far from decrepit age.
Strength of limb I still possess to seek the rivers and hills;
Still my heart has spirit enough to listen to flutes and string’s.
At leisure I open new wine and taste several cups;
Drunken I recall old poems and sing a whole volume.
Meng-te has asked for a poem and herewith I exhort him
Not to complain of three-score, “the time of obedient ears.”
(Confucius said that it was not until age 60 that “his ears obeyed him.” This age was therefore called “the time of obedient ears.”)
In this poem we see that around the world, and for thousands of years, contemplating life stage development and old age displays shared values across the millennia and across cultures.
This famous passage is found in the Upajjhatthana Sutta, a Buddhist text circa 500 BC:
I am sure to become old; I cannot avoid aging.
I am sure to become ill; I cannot avoid illness.
I am sure to die; I cannot avoid death.
I must be separated and parted from all that is dear and beloved to me.
I am the owner of my actions, heir of my actions, actions are the womb (from which I have sprung), actions are my relations, actions are my protection. Whatever actions I do, good or bad, of these I shall become their heir.
Back in the West, Carl Jung used the term “provisional Life” to describe an attitude toward life that is more or less imaginary, not rooted in reality, and in denial of one’s true situation. This approach is not a mature coping mechanism. Mindfulness, coupled with sublimation, restores one’s true situation, and re-roots us in reality.
Next month I’ll continue to explore these last two stages of life. Finding a way to be a Keeper of the Meaning, and establishing oneself in Integrity, is most powerfully accomplished with mindfulness.
We can make our minds so like still water that beings gather about us, that they may see, it may be, their own images, and so live for a moment with a clearer, perhaps even with a fiercer life because of our quiet.
– William Butler Yeats
Robin Avery is a Wisconsin Badger, the Founder of Shanagolden Management, LLC, a Gerontologist, and Founder of OptimalAgingCoach.com. Robin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.