Saturday, June 10, 2017

Turning the Tide

There is something that distinguishes elders from those that are merely older. To me, this distinction is important, because I think it has a lot to do with the state of old people in this culture. Gray folks are treated like human refuse, when in fact, they embody what appears to me to be a central miracle of Life. The old ones, when they have escaped the de-humanizing clutch of the market place, are the fullest embodiment of Nature’s intentions for we humans.

I am referring to the organic shift inwards that takes place in old age. For those that already have an inner life (which some develop much younger) the transition to elderhood is much easier, than for those who have assiduously avoided the challenges associated with “inner” disturbances. Journeying through the looking glass, into a new, more inner-defined life is still hard. It is nearly impossible to those who have learned to sidestep inner stirrings.  The difficulties of metamorphosis are significant, becoming a wiser gray being is daunting, especially to those who have avoided the light within, out of fear of the darkness.

The drive for economic viability, for a favorable place in the herd, for fitting in to a dysfunctional system, makes looking within rare. The developmental tendency to look outside for cues about how to be — is hard to give up. The psychic cost of clinging too long to that strategy, is a reduction of confidence in the internal changes that accompany old age. When wrinkles and gray hair appear, interior alterations begin. For most, this natural flux is an exacting transition. Nature stimulates a shift that throws many people off.

Some refuse to adjust. For them, old age is a series of humiliating and undesirable insults. But for those with an inner life, or who are willing to develop one, the acquisition of in-sight is especially delightful. The winds of change are at one’s back. Nature assists, and Life becomes something else, something unexpected.  A ripening occurs, and a fresh set of possibilities, arise.

This brings one to the turning point. The tide turns, and living becomes more miraculous, and more assuring, when the stirring within is linked to larger processes of Life. The Earth turns on its axis. Human life also turns on an axis. Each are oriented by Nature, and in the case of a minority of humans (elders), happiness follows.

Elder life can be the most fulfilling part of existing. It is the era when one becomes fully. The gratification of completeness, of being in the flow, of becoming entirely oneself, of being desired by the Universe, is so satisfying that it should be known. Our kind could relax.

Being carried along, by the tide, is a heart-opening experience. It puts to rest all haunting uncertainties. The specter of not fitting in, of not having a home, of being born a mistake, goes away. Belonging is an organic reality. Life knows what it is doing, and elderhood is everyone’s proof.

The tide is turning — old people cannot help manifesting this important fact of existence. Culture prepares us badly — but Nature corrects anyway. Getting old is a chance to notice this from the inside out. The tide turns. 

The Green Fuse

“The force that through the green fuse drives the flower”
                                                                                                                           Dylan Thomas

There is a force that hasn’t gotten adequate recognition. Elder’s lives are too easily categorized and dismissed — because what drives aging is so hard to perceive. I’ll say more about how this happens later, but for now, I just want to concentrate on the fact that the later stage of human life is infused with the energy of Nature. Dr. Bill Thomas is fond of saying “aging is growth.” I’d like to amplify that perception, by pointing out that what drives human life, the force behind it all, also drives the aging process. The force that created humankind creates old age.

This perception came home to me through a friend’s relationship with his new grandson. In his love for this new member of his family, he was touched by an awareness, which has tremendous application to the respect that elder life deserves. As he watched this newborn, and marveled at his growth, he could see the elemental energy that drives all development.

He noticed that as his grandson aged, he became more aware of the environment around him. He began wriggling, and unconsciously leaning out to touch whatever attracted his attention. Slowly he began to acquire the capacity to grasp. From there he learned he could pull those things towards his inquiring mouth. My friend was captured by the recognition that this was all happening naturally, without effort, much consciousness, or guidance.

To his credit, he connected the instinctive movements of his grandson, with what was happening in his own life. New awareness and capabilities were emerging.  As he aged, he was being changed! Unbidden, he was going through a maturational process. He was being altered! He could see that he, and his grandson, were related, by more than blood — there was something, a force — that caused them to unfold themselves.

This force, the life-force, has shaped old age. The greying stage of life is something intended. It is part of the pathway of Life, an element in the design of things, which we humans do not understand presently, any more than the infant knows why it is reaching out. Late life is not what it has been thought to be (decline and demise) — it is Life bringing about a new phase of being.

The general pressure that modern life has put on Nature, the mechanization of every aspect of living, the time crunch, all have supported a terrible conceit. Hubris has taken over human perception. The assumption that we know better than what animates us, colors what we make of life. Mistakenly, we tend to think it is our efforts, instead of this force, the force of Life, that makes us more human.

Old age has been viewed through a human-created lens. It has been misperceived — shrunken into a shriveled up caricature. It suffers from a limited viewpoint. Seen through the lens of life, something new is unfolding — a ripening of the human spirit is taking place — a flowering of wild energy.

An animating force moves us. We are it. We can cooperate, appreciate what we have, learn, be renewed beings, even have evolution at our backs. To do so, however, we have to give up the idea that we are separate from this animating Mystery. Life prevails, as it will. No matter what we identify with.

The old are evidence. Through stages of growth— We are continuously cued into what matters. 

Mystery Haunted by Lucky

Something is going on here. I can feel it. I always have. Early on, I thought of it as magic. In adulthood I thought of my recurring sensation as a kind of childish wish fulfillment, and wouldn’t let myself indulge in awareness of it very much. But now, as I’m getting older, growing more sensitive and aware, I can feel it more. It’s like a kind of soul-tingling. I know, though I can’t prove it, at least not in any kind of conventional scientifically acceptable way. Something is going on in my life, and it appears to me, that something is going on with we humans, here in this place.

I don’t know what it is, but as I’ve aged, the tingling has grown into a kind of satisfying unknowing. There is something delicious and totally odd about having this feeling grow with uncertainty. The less I know, the more convinced I become. This must be some kind of trick that is inherent to growing older. I think this sense has to do with my declining fear of death and my sense of happiness increasing. Something is happening!

I don’t know if others are experiencing it. It’s probably too vague a sensation to talk about, but my level of intrigue is deepening. I keep finding that the surprises in my life seem to be adding up, making a sum I can’t ignore.

I’m not very enamored of the world’s religions. I’ve experienced some very pious and humble practitioners of these religions, but all of the ideologies behind them have been too rigid and certain for my taste. Some weird combination of Buddhism and twelve-step wisdom has come the closest for me, but I find myself fonder of not-knowing. There is something about mystery that just sets the winged delight of my soul free. I seem to thrive with uncertainty, ambiguity, and paradox.

And it is a paradox for me, to find myself enlivened by not-knowing, and a growing sense that something is going on. I’m enamored by the crazy miraculousness of this world, and the heartbreaking horror of it. I’ve been around long enough to have seen both of these facets of existence, morph into each other. And, instead of getting cynical about it, I find my sense of wonder and awe growing.
When people come to me with the tragedies they are suffering, I now have a guilty sense of joy. I’m not a sadist. I just know that growth all too often comes through those same tragedies. I’ve lost all sense of balance. Instead, I have something else — an unexplainable reverence for Life. Mystery just seems to be pouring through all of my broken expectations.

I am constantly overtaken, surprised by my innocence. Somehow, I’m way past naiveté, and filled with expectancy. I like it here, I’m often nonsensically afraid, and at the same time whimsically sanguine. I know it’s not me, and I feel somehow implicated. I’m probably as broken as a human can be, and strangely whole despite that. Life has served me up a mystery deep enough so that I can fall in, and drown, all while being buoyed up.
I don’t deserve any of it, but I feel like I am here to experience all of it — the wrenching pain and the unexpected joy. But, most of all, the sense of wonder, I am now endowed with.

There is something going on here. I don’t know what it is. Reality seems to be some kind of amniotic sac containing and growing me, through pain, inexplicable companions, and thrills I would never have signed up for. I am all too often too overwhelmed by the dizzying pace of all this commotion, to fully grasp how fortunate I am —  to be part of the something, that is going on here. 

Saturday, April 22, 2017

A Sacred Symmetry

There is something woven in to the design of the Universe that positively captivates me. When I think of it, I can relax and rest in that awareness. Now generally, I would say that I have this feeling when I recall the web of Life that surrounds and includes me. And, while that is true, the realization that comes to me, when I recall how well prepared I am for the rigors of this journey through the Cosmos, tends to make me break out in a kind of thrilled happiness.

It seems, as I am getting older, that I am discovering that the Universe has supplied me with all the capacities I need to meet this life.  They are drawn out from inside me, by the circumstances of my unique existence. I experience this as a sacred symmetry.

Let me explain, if I can. I know that most folks have a hard time bearing this crazy and difficult life. There is more than enough hardship to go around. Loss is everywhere. Grief enters in to all of our lives, stealing our confidence, and leaving we humans vulnerable and aching. I’m not extolling a Pollyannaish belief that Life is totally benign. After all, I know in a very personal way, how much Life can strip one. Still, I find great relief in knowing that built-into this seemingly savage existence, is something so incredible that it balances all of the heartache it generates.

There is something inside of each of us, deep inside, that rises closer to the surface, when we are adequately challenged.  This something is mysterious and way beyond our control. It doesn’t seem to answer to our entreaties, prayers, hopes, and desperation. It seems to have an agenda of its own. We don’t get to have any control over its vicissitudes. In some ways, it is the inscrutable mystery of it, which is so infuriating and beguiling.

I don’t profess to understand. I just have had enough of a taste of it, to know I am “Lucky,” and to feel rather miraculously happy. The lack of understanding comes across in my inability to describe, satisfactorily, a phenomenon I know exists.  All I can do, is bow down, and acknowledge the unknown existence of something that has broken me into a greater wholeness.  I am more, because something saw to it that less provided.

I think it interesting that it took me most of a lifetime to even notice. Now, I think of this awareness as one of the gifts of aging. It appears that I had to have a lifetime of experience, and some of it not so good, to begin to perceive how lucky I truly am. I call it luck, but I know now, that it is the way of the Universe. I exist, and so, this part of existence, also exists within me.

I have long wondered how it is that we humans, in our scientific stupor, seem to have overlooked the remarkable intelligence that fashioned our bodies, and this incredible world we get to live in. We are just beginning to understand, that we don’t really understand much of what we have been endowed with. It is, as if the Universe, has some kind of immune system that operates through each of us. Evidently, Life has planned for the difficulties that besiege us.

Anyway, I live with a kind of re-assurance. Maybe, some hardship needs to befall mankind, to make more evident that something in the Universe has got our backs. It certainly seems like we have to get ourselves so thoroughly caught in a trap of our own making, to get, that this sacred symmetry exists between all of creation, and what mysteriously creates us.

Something wants us, enough to make us possible. It supports us enough, so that we get to live out our own perfect imperfect nature. I have come to see that mix of things as a sacred symmetry, a relationship between the whole and one of its parts.

Self - Soothing

Last Monday morning I woke-up knowing something was off. It didn’t take long before I realized it was me. I didn’t want to get out of bed. I didn’t want to face my morning workout. Ever since I had the stroke and lived through its long, difficult aftermath I have had bad days. In more recent years I have come to refer to these dark days as “grief days.” When I have one of these emotionally painful days everything gets more difficult, and I feel the weight that presses me to the Earth.

I had a lot of depression in my early life, but I found all of that disappeared when the stroke changed my life. Everything I knew changed, and depression became grief. Since then, in lieu of chronic pain, I’ve had chronic awareness, and that has resulted in me occasionally being overcome by grief. Monday was one of those mornings.

It was hard to get out of bed. I only aroused myself, because I had my Monday morning call with the members of what I call my WOW group. I didn’t know it, and this reveals how Lucky I am, but a miracle was on its way to me.

I had the good sense to be honest about my situation, to the old people who phoned in, for our volunteer conversation through the Senior Center Without Walls (SCWW). We have been talking with each other for nearly 2 years. I knew most of them were disabled too. I also know they are old like me, shut-ins too, people on the margin, looking for a little companionship to relieve the isolation most of us experience. I spoke to them about having a grief day, and assuming they had bad days too, asked them what they did to soothe themselves when it happened?

It was a stroke of genius, landing on this topic, because the conversation it stimulated was so poignant and touching, so profound and meaningful that I find myself moved to share some of it with you.  Remember, these are some of the most marginalized and neglected old folks that exist. They are in their 80’s and 90’s, and yet unknowingly they practice some of the purist coping mechanisms that we humans are capable of. For most of these old folks this was the first time they had ever talked about anything like this.

The conversation quickly turned to the issue of connecting with others or not. For many people, a bad day, defined differently by different people, led to withdrawal. For some it led to reaching out for contact. Other strategies emerged; these included food, chocolate, praying, reading the Bible, family, gratitude and humor. Not everyone could practice all of them. Some of the most poignant sharing came from those currently living on the edge and teetering from the heaviness of great uncertainty.

It was a good discussion about a significant difficulty. But, then it veered off and became a compelling, even inspiring conversation about self-love. One women spoke up, somewhat apologetically, and recounted a recent fall. She told of laying on the floor, checking herself out to see if any part of her was broken. She felt the wave of fear break over her. She managed on her own to get up, and go on with her life. What she wanted to share was what happened later. At some point, she stopped, and felt for herself, and began the most significant part of picking herself up. She spontaneously visualized herself laying on the floor, and extended to her broken fearful self, all the love and compassion she could find in herself. She reported that she had mobilized her own heart, and the love she had received from others, on the behalf of her own human-ness. The silence on the line indicated how much the group was affected by what she shared.  She reported holding herself, and captivated all of us.

This recounting can never capture the poignancy and vulnerability of that resonating moment, but it served to remind me, that I had known such a time in my own coming to terms with my fragility. Being human can sometimes be an ordeal — a loneliness so profound, a hardship unendurable, a blessing disguised as a difficulty — a challenge that obscures the opportunity. Her fall brought her heart home.

We all need to know, given this dark time we are living in, that there is always someone to love in the darkness. We all need to know, that the most heartbreaking and fearful circumstances, can mobilize what is best in us. Caring deeply and compassionately for oneself is the heart breaking open for Life, it is Creation carnate. She was apologetic — afraid she was revealing some selfishness — whereas we, the speechless listeners, only wished this kind of love was available to all of us.

It is. There was a time when Xan and I thought this capacity, self-compassion, was the hallmark indicator of elderhood. Since then we recognized that self-loving, of this kind, essentially differentiates the journey from a kind of arrival. Many of the old have discovered this is one of the gifts of aging. It is available to anyone, at any time, but it is those who have borne significant hardship, significant life, who are most likely to know of the effectiveness of self-love as a self-soothing capacity.

An Emergent Strength

I’ve noticed something. A capacity that is important. I completely missed it a couple of years ago, when I was writing The Evolving Elder. Now I think I was hasty, or not yet mature enough, to grasp what strength it takes, and that is available to some, to open up, and meet the world as it is. Because I can experience it now, perhaps I have grown. I want to reflect upon the way vulnerability becomes a strength. Of all the unlikely developments that occur, it seems the most unlikely would be the emergence of strength from a sense of weakness.

Mind you, I don’t think that this particular strength, the ability to meet reality in a vulnerable way, is restricted to elders. I do believe it emerges in response to life experience, but I don’t assume that the rare combination of hardship and the sensibility it engenders comes only to the old. Life is profuse and diverse enough, that anyone can be cast into a situation that grows this attribute. Since, I do think it is a product of life experience, I suspect it is more likely to occur to those who have been around the block most. But, I know Life is capable of generating it anywhere.

Why is this important? Well, first of all, to counteract the assumption that vulnerability is a sign of weakness. Then, more importantly, so vulnerability can take its place in the pantheon of Life’s gifts to we humans. In this case, I’ve come to see vulnerability as an essential quality of emotional, maybe even spiritual, maturity.

The ability to walk into threatening places is not fearlessness — it is rather the capacity to bear pain, fear, and anxiety for the sake of growth. That which grows one, is fraught with these difficulties. Maturity comes with a cost. Initiation always contains its ordeals. If there isn’t enough pain and death anxiety around then only pseudo-initiation occurs. The process might feel good, the words around it may seem on-target, but nothing of genuine spiritual and emotional significance is really occurring. If one doesn’t experience the vulnerability of potentially perishing then one can know that the risk factor is not high enough to generate genuine results.

When I think of how Life has grown this capacity in me, all I have to do is think about the apprehension that rose in me the first time I held, and looked at, my daughter. Then, I knew my heart was overcome with love for what could die.  I felt elation, love, hope, and a painful sense that Life was changing my orientation forever. As a first-time parent, I was thrust into a more exposed, and complex world.

The vulnerability I felt then was very different than the vulnerability that I experienced earlier in my life. Like everyone else I had very human parents, imperfect and sometimes insensitive. I have experienced the vulnerability of being exposed, of being unseen or unheard. All of these conditions cause pain, they leave debilitating holes, and they rain havoc upon relationships. They create a kind of susceptibility, a cliffhanging feeling of immanent peril.

I call it the vulnerability of being small. It takes another kind of vulnerability to be big.
Lately, I’ve come to see the enlarging power of grief. Connecting with the larger process of Life is an audacious thing. It means accepting so much. The pain and vulnerability of existence rushes in, and Life vibrates with uncertainty. A kind of radiant fragility, a fiery susceptibility emanates from the core of it all. What exists, in an explosion of energy, passes from existence. What is, is lost, to make possible what follows. The gains of new life are intimately linked to the losses that make them possible. This is a kind of magnificent vulnerability that is an innate strength. It is in us, a power of the Universe, coursing through our lives, just waiting for the recognition that comes to those who dare be big.

Grief and praise are linked in some cosmologies. For good reason. The vulnerability that is a strength, is derived from an experiential realization of this paradoxical relationship. The hardships of Life sensitize one. They bring home the deepest purpose of suffering — what one losses carves out a gain. Stepping toward this kind of awareness is a courageous act that takes strength, not the kind infused with certainty, but the kind that aches with the uncertainty. Vulnerability is the price of playing in the big league.

Maturity, as I have gotten older, isn’t what it used to be. Vulnerability is an ability, one that amazes me, and infuses me with pleasure.

Forced Growth

I am indebted to a woman who has suffered for many years with M.S., and who is now old, disabled and shut-in. She gave me the words that title this piece, and described an amazingly poignant experience I now want to focus on. She was reflecting, with a group of old people, on the difficulties associated with self-care. She spoke of taking care of oneself in the midst of the very conditions that age and infirmity thrust upon us, then she mentioned how these things had “forced her to grow.” Being the kind of person I am, I heard her, and began to reflect upon what all she meant by that comment. I want to share some of these reflections with you, because I believe they reveal the painful, miraculous and paradoxical nature of human life.

As an older person, I have slowly become aware that things I used to assume, are not the way I had made them out to be. This is one of those learnings, I experience from time to time. Because she was able to give voice to her awareness of forced growth, I was able to take it in. And what I am taking in —  is changing my awareness; awakening me to just how complex and incredible existence is. She basically shared her burgeoning awareness — that the tragedy that befell her — was the very same painful and shocking experience that had forced her to grow.

“Another fucking growth experience.” How often have you heard that expression? How often have you used it? We have the awareness that growth experiences can be uncomfortable and unpleasant, but do we really know that even tragedies like illness, disability and accidents have that same growth potential folded within them?  Out of the fire and ashes, a transformation can occur. That may seem like an abstract possibility for some lucky few, but is it really a possibility for the rest of us? Yes. And here’s why.

For many years she dwelled in the heartache of having her normal life snatched away from her. It was a long time of deep and agonizing loss, of loneliness, of anger and hopelessness. She didn’t know it, for all she could experience was the ache of grief and hardship, but something else was also happening. The very burn of painful loss was delivering a sensitizing awareness; a world was opening, as her familiar one dissolved. The scalding reality of loss carved out a new consciousness.

It took her awhile to recognize it, to believe that something good could come of something so bad. Then, she thought she was crazy for a while. But, eventually, she adjusted, and came to accept the fact that she had become more aware, sensitive and compassionate. Being broken down, by Life, had made her more whole.

What impressed her the most (and me, having gone through my own phoenix experience) was that the changes that took place, had occurred, without any effort or intention on her part (or mine, for that matter). She didn’t change deliberately; rather, she was changed by what she had gone through.

In reply to the question “why,” comes this answer.  There is a kind of molting that human beings go through, sometimes dramatic (like the traumatic experiences we had) but mostly just inconvenient, dismaying and uncomfortable. These “fucking growth experiences” mostly are accompanied by an experience of dread, but they turn out to be blessings in disguise, molting human-style.

Knowing this, which most of us begrudgingly do, doesn’t make the experience more pleasant or endurable. It doesn’t lead to praying for hardship, nor does it mean truly embracing those undergoing this kind of struggle. But this kind of awareness could provide a balm to the fear that haunts human activity. There is a maturing aspect of who we are. We don’t have control of it, but we can rely on it. It is human to molt into shape.

It might be useful to remember this tendency, this aspect of human nature right now. Life has our backs. Sometimes (maybe times like this) things have to get worse, before they get better. Everything has to be in doubt — the possibility of death brings about the possibility of Life. Nature regularly and faithfully forces growth, not out of malice (though it looks that way for a time) but out of a terrible kindness. Forced growth is that terrible kindness, or as Ram Dass calls it, a “fierce grace.”

Considering the possibility that evolution is at my back brings ambivalent feelings.  I like the idea that I may grow just because I am alive, but I am chagrined when I face the existential fact that I may be grown in ways I would not choose. I am always surprised that I am equipped for such vulnerability and adaptation.