The Initiation of Ageing

In our own times we are living far being the age reached by most of our forebears. This is a new thing socially, and even governments are having to rethink policies and the economics of it.

But it is also a new thing for us individually. Many of us do not have the ready made responses to it handed to us by our own family. What often happens is that we try to take into this new dimension attitudes relevant to early periods of our life, or attitudes extracted from morals and ways of life lived in past ages. So we see people having radical plastic surgery, hormonal replacement, drugs to aid sexual performance, and other practices attempting to prolong youth – or the appearance of youth. We see this when the elderly try to relate in ways as if they had the motivations, life situation or needs of the very young. But with the accumulation of experience that comes with old age our relationship with the world changes. If we are lucky enough to retire with a reasonable income, yet another world of possibilities opens to us that were in most cases never there in earlier years. However, underlying all that are other physical and psychological activities that bring radical change.

It helps to understand this if we look back to the changes we met during adolescence and then the middle years. As we approached adolescence our body and hormonal system went through enormous shifts. Under the impact of such new currents of changed hormones our body transformed. And underneath that obvious level of change, massive psychological shifts and adjustments were taking place also.

Dreams, giving us insight into these underlying processes of our maturing psyche as they do, during teenage reflect the challenges being faced at a personal level. Challenges such as learning how to deal with the drive that pushes us toward relating to the opposite sex. Many do not manage to make this shift, to meet this challenge, and may go off into adjustments or avoidances such as anorexia or homosexuality.

What is important here for the subject in hand, is not whether you agree with that, but whether you can stand witness to the fact the processes that led to whatever direction in life you took at that time were largely spontaneous. The pressure to change arose from within. It came from the release of a hormonal, glandular and brain shift. What you did with it in particular; how you responded to it may have been more personal, more idiosyncratic. Perhaps you deviated from the norm in some way.

All of that we see as normal, as natural, as an outflow of the natural processes of life itself. But strangely, in Western society anyway, many people do not look at ageing and the changes that arise in the same way. An enormous fight takes place in many of us to ‘stay young’, to do battle with the internal forces that lead to ageing. And what I want to point out is that the natural processes that underlie adolescence and the flowering to full womanhood and manhood, are also at work in ageing.

Gardeners who work with seasonal plants can see this each year as they watch the seed burst into life and extend itself in growth – (conception through to birth and childhood.) Then comes the movement toward forming buds. (Adolescence in the move toward being fertile.) After this a most extraordinary period of beauty and physical fullness follows as the flower opens and is fertilised. (This is wonderfully seen in the bursting fullness of young breasts, the longing to be fertilised and to fertilise expressed as ‘love’ and the production of ones own seeds.) But after all this the plant slowly dries out and dies when it has reproduced, or attempted to.

That is nature at work. It is also nature at work in our own ageing. And just as there were underlying psychological processes at work deep in the psyche preparing us for adolescence and full maturity, so these same processes are at work as we age.

This preparation for ageing and dying are as full and rich as the movement toward maturity and procreation in whatever form it takes. We are, at this level, initiated as deeply into death as we are into life. The experience of it is just as rewarding and compelling as the growth toward womanhood or manhood. But unfortunately, in our attitude of seeing ageing and death as some sort of enemy that rips away all that is wonderful and of value, many of us run from these inner processes, and fail to work with them or even be aware of them.

Perhaps if some of what is met is outlined though, it might be that you can recognise in yourself some of this amazing journey.

Self awareness – being reasonably aware of what we meet physically and in our life events – means that what happens is felt as deeply personal. To understand this consider the example of the plant given already. Imagine, if it had self awareness, what it would feel as its blossom forms, and its flower unfolds. But really you don’t need to imagine it, as you know from personal experience what it felt like as your body unfolded its potential and your flower – your genitals – became functional in a new way.

Each of us met that process in a personal and slightly, or radically, different way.

When it comes to ageing we also experience this very deeply – but again each in our own way. For women in particular their flower withers in menopause. But for men and women there is a loss of much that was incredibly important and satisfying or painful in the middle years prior to the time the body starts to radically change.

So a sense of loss or losing is one of the first things met. And this can emerge in each life in different ways. For some it is loss of physical ability. For others it is loss of social standing, or work opportunity, of ones children, a meaningful role, of sexual attraction. But above all it is the loss of an identity. It is the loss of the concepts of our self based on a younger, more vigorous and sexually fertile person. So in most cases it presents us with an identity crisis. The question of who we are confronts us in an almost mythologically dramatic way. In other words we are the hero or heroine who has made this long journey, fought many battles, faced monsters and challenges, and now, having completed the tasks, instead of the golden fleece or the holy grail, we find an empty cave or an inner void.

If we haven’t in fact fought the battles and faced the monsters – managed to mature into a full man or woman and achieved either procreation or some social or even financial success – the void we face will be very immediate and powerful.

Nevertheless, the initiation into ageing and dying has reward for all of us, not simply the glorious in battle and motherhood.

This is a critical point on the journey of change. Perhaps the reason it is so critical is that although adolescence has been met billions of times in our race, and patterns of behaviour are etched into us regarding it – either genetically, socially, or through behavioural responses we learn from family – meeting advanced old age is new.

However, there are still trails left by people in the past. Tribal people especially gradually developed rites or rituals helping the individual to work with the process of ageing and dying.

Often, when people meet the identity crisis of ageing and the emptiness of losing what is falling away, they attempt to return to an earlier time in terms of behaviour. They may still try to be as sexually potent as in the past. Very often they attempt to develop a relationship in the style of a time when they were capable of having or fathering children. They want a relationship full of the promised future and ‘romance’ that had real meaning when they were younger. They may want to become – or maintain or return to being – an important figure in their society or family. They may want to maintain the same role with children, with work, with opportunity, that they had in earlier times.

But times have changed. When you age you are a different being and have different opportunities. Your glandular system is bringing you a different perception of life, a different response to events.

Just as the preadolescent gets glimpses of the years ahead in what their body is doing, so the ageing person gets glimpses of what we can call death – an identity, a consciousness, a personal awareness not completely identified with the body. Although it is not obvious, if it can be faced and experienced deeply, the wonder of that new identity, what Buddhism calls the diamond body, the imperishable self, is there in the emptiness, in the void, in the empty cave.

This new experience of oneself, not easily attainable, but there waiting if we dare, can be described as nakedness. In India there is a tradition of there being four stages of life, and the last stage is named as that of the sanyassin or renunciate. This may sound very outside of our way of life. But if examined it is simply a description of what we face in ageing and meeting death. Gradually we are stripped of the many things we took to be our real self – our potency in the world; our sexual attractiveness; our role, our power to move things. If we can face these things falling away we come to see that they are no really who we are in essence – and the essential self is what we might call a naked being – naked in the end even of a body.

Yes – the initiation into ageing and dying is an introduction to the loss of physical life. You are allowed to look beyond the boundary and experience the bliss of being unburdened by all the weight of the body and its responsibilities. You consciously know the wonderful freedom, while still alive, of that nakedness.

Just as earlier years prepared you for adolescence and maturity, so now there is a process readying you for ageing and dying. It takes a bit more in conscious participation than the move to adolescence, but it is there working in you.

There are many ways of working with this process, of honouring and learning from it. Perhaps the first step is of course to acknowledge it as a force in ones life. This means honouring the ageing process and trying to listen to what is unfolding in you and what it tells you through your dreams and intuitions.

These intuitions or growing pains can easily be repressed, or drugged away with prescription drugs. Here is one man’s description of one such experience of his ‘growing pains’.

I went through a sort of emotional collapse at this point in my life, because my whole orientation toward independent survival had led me to avoid any prolonged ‘love’ for a woman. I have often thought that the love that has never faltered and been no effort is that for my children. That is probably one of the factors making it such a difficult experience for me when they grew into adults.

At one point I dropped into a blackness, an emptiness of meaning and motivation. I realised on the other side of that wall how I had learned to love ages ago. It was simple and I was doing it already. At that time I felt strongly that all the new breed, my children especially, would need to learn how to die. It was like a process of transformation such as a caterpillar goes through. In our life today there are stages of growth and points of massive transformation as one period of growth ends and another stage begins. Learning to die is a method of passing through the transformation into the next stage of growth, and I was carving a path for my children if they attempted the further stages of growth.  Nick.

To expand on what Nick says, his emotional collapse was an experience of letting his old self die, and also learning to let go to it to make way for a new self. For him this meant letting go of love as he had known it – a possessive love for his children on which he had built his identity. This new love he saw he had begun to learn in past years. But being able to die, to let go of the past and the identity of the past, is what he felt was a great and important skill.

David, during a waking dream met the following.

My breathing sometimes becomes very slow and that is happening to me now. It seems even at times as if it has stopped, and everything becomes very still. As this is happening I feel this is what it is like to be dead. My body is so still  it disappears, and all that is left is bodiless awareness submerged in enormous emptiness or space. Space and great quietness. It feels like my body has given up life, becoming incredibly still and empty. There is a paradox in this experience because it feels as if I, my sense of self, has melted away, and yet there is still a very definite experience of existing. I suppose what has stopped is what I have called movement. The movement of thinking, of feeling, of longing or hoping for things. The constant rising and falling of the chest, the sense of movement and activity of the body, usually immerses our consciousness in a world that we take to be all there is. This experience of death where the body is no longer moving allows consciousness to spread out or to know itself as spread out beyond the edge of the body and the enormous sense of location that breathing and movement and physical sensation gives us.

When you lose your body you can begin to move around in another dimension of experience. Without the body you exist in the world of the dead. But I am just a learner in this world and I need to take time and allow myself to experience it. I need to be in this experience for a while to learn. For months I have felt this quiet emptiness and falling away of motivation. It has felt to me as if I have lost everything. This wasn’t painful or frightening, but it was disconcerting. It did feel as if the usual things that interest us/me in life, that entrance us with life’s events and experiences, had dropped away. And of course in this present state I was now more fully experiencing, that is exactly what had happened. Everything had dropped away. All the activities of life, or its inducements, had fallen away. My body had gone. It was dead. All that was left was empty naked awareness, without form, not even in a dream landscape. So I asked myself what is there to find? What is this condition? Is this empty quietness an eternal situation? Is this it?

We call this reality death. And often that has an awful face for us. But I am feeling it as joy, a most wonderful joy. It is here in the darkness I am experiencing – that joy. The waves of this gentle joy flow through me. It is like floating in a subtle ocean and my consciousness, my being, is gently lifted and moved by the waves of this quiet joy.

The waves of that joy are big, lifting me high in a coloured spectrum of rippling, vibrating radiance. My being is the waves. I am myself waves of rippling sparkling radiance. At the same time my awareness can switch back to what is happening with my body, and it is shaking, vibrating with energy flowing through it. As this happens it really seems as if my body is being absorbed into the energy. This feels to me as if my body is melting and becoming part of the emptiness that is rippling through me, that is me. The great waves of life are absorbing my personality. It is being broken down just as our body breaks down food we eat and digest. It is drawing me back into itself.

Yes, there is a path already opened for us to take if we allow it into our waking life. It has been formed by the many who have already lived, aged and died. If you care to take it you will meet them, and you will hear them say, “Welcome home!”

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