Sometimes an innocent glance into the mirror results in a potent encounter with the unexpected. Our once familiar reflection has become etched with subtle patterns that draw our attention into our own process of aging. Perhaps a sense of shock and surprise is felt at what feels like a sudden emergence of new patterns and textures on the surface of our skin. And perhaps we, for the first time, are touched by the heartfelt meaning of our own transience. This is art in its most intimate form; we all wear the skin of impermanence.
“What spirit is so empty and blind, that it cannot recognize the fact that the foot is nobler than the shoe, and the skin is more beautiful than the garment in which it is clothed?” (Michelangelo)
A Wrinkle in Time
Our aging skin offers an intimate and truthful reflection of time, that is to say, it is a visual and tactile expression of our real course in life. The changing textures and patterns emerging in our skin connect us to kairos, the depths of time and our innate bond with the natural forces of life. Our skin is imbued with kairos: the felt-meaning of time, the transience of life, and the heartfelt touch of impermanence.
As we enter into the second half of life, our sensibilities naturally shift from head to heart. That is not to say that we are less thoughtful in our endeavors, but it is to say that the character and quality of our thinking becomes increasingly more intimate with a heartfelt appreciation and fascination for life.
A wrinkle is a crease in the surface of the skin that results from the normal processes of aging. They are natural, normal, and unavoidable. The cult of youth and modern society’s degrading obsession with youthful appearances has maligned the normal process of aging. With a remarkable delusional flair, we have been manipulated to believe that a wrinkle is a foe, an enemy to be countered, and a war to be won. A wrinkle can also be thought of as a clever trick or insight; our plans are often redirected through the development of a new and unexpected wrinkle in our situation.
Our skin is a work of art in constant motion. To become mindful of how the aging process is expressing on our skin is to observe the deep undercurrents of life at work. The beauty of our skin is not found in grasping on to youthful appearances, but in its ongoing adaption to the processes of aging over time.
Beauty is not skin deep; there is no real beauty that is merely about surface appearances. An appearance is nothing more than a passing facade. Beauty lies underneath the skin, her energy radiating outward from deep within our soul. It is possible to have an attractive appearance that exemplifies a cultural assumption about glamour, yet lack any sense of beauty.
Skin can be weathered by time, its former smoothness giving way to a rich variety of patterns and textures. Aging skin reveals the artistry of experience given a remarkable and fascinating physiological expression. In a sense, the real face of a clock is our own. The texture and terrain of our skin measures time far more accurately and meaningfully than any clock or calendar can.
The Beauty of Naturally Aging Skin
Human skin is a remarkably resilient organ. It has two integrated functions, protection and connection. The first is to provide a layer of protection from sunlight, water, hot and cold temperatures, infections, chemicals, cuts, and scrapes. The second related function is to connect us to the outside through movement and touch. Our skin creates a permeable dynamic between the inner physiology of the body and the situations and circumstances we experience in the outer world.
I can’t come up with a good defense for our collective denial of aging. I don’t think we should prevent a face from serving as a visual repository of a lifetime of feelings and thoughts. To me, it seems critically important to model an acceptance of time’s forward march and the ways it naturally manifests. (Donna Sapolin in My One and Only Resolution: To Keep My Wrinkles
Skin is a remarkable system of communication; it remains immersed in a constant conversation with our environment. As a sensory system, it captures vast amounts of tactile information that helps us to interpret and react to our physical surround. In one sense, our skin is a border between our body and the world. In another sense, skin provides the means to interconnect, interact, and interrelate. It offers a freedom of movement and motion in the world.
Human skin is fascinating. It is the largest organ in the human body. It thickness is varied and it constitutes approximately 16% of our total body weight. In areas where our skin is naturally thin, for example the back of the hand, it is more easily damaged. This gives rise to the notion of a person who has difficulty accepting criticism as being “thin-skinned.” Skin cells are created in the deepest layer of the skin and then gradually pushed toward the outer edge where they eventually fall off and die. In the course of a single day, hundreds of thousands of cells die, fall off and turn to dust. Every thirty days a brand new outer layer of skin is created.
As our skin ages, it experiences three basic changes: in the second half of life, our skin will inevitably become thinner, drier, and less elastic. The loss of fat from underneath the skin tends to make us appear a little more drawn as it relaxes around our musculoskeletal system. This leads to a gradual increase in folding and sagging forming wrinkles.
We have become conditioned to believe that anything less than perfectly smooth skin is less than ideal. Of course, there is nothing wrong with taking good care of our skin. However, it is psychotic to attempt to keep our skin looking twenty-something when we are fifty-something. Wrinkles have been denigrated into an enemy, causing some to seek the extremes of surgical modification in order to feed their own addiction to youth, or perhaps more specifically, their own fears about aging, the inevitability of growing older, and the unavoidable requirement of coming to terms with their own impermanence.
The various patterns and textures that gradually emerge on our skin as we get older are direct, truthful, and honest expressions of beauty. Modern society has become obsessed with fashion so much that we equate the shallow stagnant waters of glamour with the deep undercurrents and mystery of real beauty. Beauty is not glamorous or fashionable, but it is always honest, truthful, and sincere.
Naturally aging skin is beautiful. The commercial anti-aging industry does a great deal of harm to our wellbeing. Anti-aging is a negative and damaging idea. To be “anti” with respect to aging is to live against the natural flow of life. A great a deal of anti-aging is mere snake-oil sales combined with intentionally deceptive marketing tactics entirely built on a delusional facade of “paid-for-science.”
The suffering this industry has caused is remarkable. Underneath their veneer, anti-aging industries are fundamentally ageist. Their marketing strategies originate in prejudice and superficial notions of human appearance. They manufacture and manipulate fears about aging in order to create the opportunity to sell a product or service. The aging demographic has already become the target of corporate hucksters and marketing quacks. In the end, the underlying assumptions about aging that form the foundation of the anti-aging industry are fundamentally toxic.
Time is an artist; there is a deep sense of artistry within time. There is also a deep sense of beauty in the changing appearance of our skin as we age. Senescence demands that our skin become thinner, drier, and less elastic over time. This does not mean it loses beauty or becomes less attractive.
The new patterns, textures, folds, sags, and wrinkles that emerge on our skin are symbolic of our journey through life. In a certain sense, they reveal where we have come from, not in the sense of the places we have visited, but in the sense of the space we have inhabited. Our skin also reflects the raw, primal flow of our own lifetime and asserts our belonging to the mysterious forces of nature that are the essence of our existence.
The Ecology of the Skin
I am amazed at how much the aging of my own skin constantly reveals new kinds of textures and patterns.
My skin is not a resilient as it once was. It does feels thinner, drier, and less elastic. The smoothness of youth has evolved into a memory. When cut, it seems to bleed more profusely and the healing process is slower now. Areas in which the skin is naturally thinner are most revealing right now. When I gently pinch the skin on the back of my hand, I can see that it takes longer to return to its natural state than it used to.
Even in areas where my skin remains relatively thick, for example my forearm, I can see wave-like patterns beginning to express themselves on the outer surface. They reveal my movement through life, and offer a reminder that we are always in constant motion for an unknown amount of time.
To see the beauty of aging skin is to perceive life through the heart, not the mind. The mind is too small, noisy, and confining a place for beauty to reside. We do not “think” beauty into existence; we perceive its emergence and it presence intuitively. We do not summon beauty; it calls out to us from invisible places. To be heartfelt in our presence is to see through the lens of the heart.
My aging skin has become a trusted adviser, an inspired mentor, and a profound teacher. Sometimes I feel the poignancy of its gradual deterioration. There is a sense of sadness and grief that must be given room to express itself; beauty touches every dimension of the heart. To perceive the beauty of naturally aging skin, is to find a home in the natural flow of our existence.
This is the skin of impermanence.