Mindful aging is the skill of observing new things about the presence, influence, and effects of aging in ourselves and others. Our modern assumptions, ideas, beliefs, and cultural narratives about growing old are too small for us to inhabit. Our thinking about aging is often hijacked by fear, negativity, and ageism. The authentic experience of aging is a source wonder, curiosity, and fascination. Mindful aging is a skillful means to embrace the process of growing older in order to cultivate a deeper understanding and appreciation of the natural flow of all life.
When we ignore the presence of aging, we ignore the primal experience of life. The word “mindless” has two basic meanings. Mindlessness describes a lack of awareness, insight, and understanding; it is a failure to notice new things. To act mindlessly represents a loss of perspective and context while acting and reacting in habitual patterns of behaviour that serve to confine and constrict our experiences. In this sense, mindlessness is a toxic form of negativism.
The second use of the word “mindless” is to level an insult with the intention of pointing out stupidity or a lack of intelligence. This is unhelpful way to think about mindlessness that prevents us from understanding the real nature of our conundrum.
It is interesting to note that word “mindless” can be traced back to the Old English “myndleasum,” which means “insane.” In other words, mindlessness is an addiction to chaotic activity that creates the illusion of purpose. The end result of mindlessness is delusion; it is a state of outrageous busyness in which we feel as though we can never get enough done. In this sense, to live life mindlessly is to exhaust ourselves in activity that does not enlarge and broaden our experience of life.
“We also become mindless when we hear or read something and accept it without questioning it. Most of what we know about the world or ourselves we have mindlessly learned in this way… When we are mindless, we are trapped in rigid mindsets, oblivious to context or perspective… When we are mindless, our behavior is rule and routine governed. Essentially we freeze our understanding and become oblivious to subtle changes that would have led us to act differently, if only we were aware of them. (Ellen Langer in Mindfulness and Mindlessness)
A prominent symptom of mindlessness is distraction, that is to say, our ability to focus and concentrate on one thing at a time has weakened. The modern banner of mindlessness is multi-tasking, a delusional state of mind in which we fall prey to the nonsensical belief that we can do more than one thing at a time. Multi-tasking is a direct descendant of mindlessness. It is not possible for the brain to hold more than one thought in the same moment.
Mindlessness makes automatons out of us, that is to say, we live out our lives in mechanical, habitual, and routine ways. It is human nature to seek out the comfort of the familiar over change, even if the familiar has become boring, unfulfilling, and harmful to our own wellbeing. To live mindlessly is to become confined by our own inertia.
Boredom is style of inertia in which we do not know what to do with ourselves. It feels as though our presence in life has become frozen and lost its sense of flow. Ironically, boredom thrives in the midst of relentless activity and “busi-ness” that only serves to exhaust our ingenuity. We become agitated, anxious, and worn out by the monotony of an increasingly violent and accelerated lifestyle. Boredom embraces a feverish sense of motion that has turned against itself in silent outrage.
Mindlessness encloses us in increasingly tighter circles of frenzied activity, and we struggle in a world that has become too small to support us. We intuitively sense a sense of dis-ease with our present course of life. As much as we attempt to hide ourselves behind external rewards and material acquisitions, the deep undercurrents of aging never leave us alone and eventually frighten us back into the midst of life.
Ultimately, mindlessness is a source of pain and suffering. We find ourselves feverishly reacting to an endless procession of doing while the feeling of being in the world becomes more and more fragmented, illusive, and alien. In its darkest form, mindlessness causes of a catastrophic loss of perspective in which we become so addicted to self-serving minutia that we forget how to live.
The Feeling of Life Passing Us By
One of the most profound and difficult sources of regret in life is the feeling that life has passed us by. We feel as though crucial parts of our life have been buried and remain unlived. At the same time we are shocked by the startling recognize that our time here is running out. One of the most powerful and poignant forms of regret occurs when it is expressed by a person on their deathbed. Sadly, there comes a time for some of us when regret is the only option remaining.
To feel as though life is passing us by reveals an adverse relationship with time. It is strange to consider that time is always with us, yet the moment we attempt to grasp it, time has quite literally passed right by us. The word “time” is just a label, but the phenomenon of time is imbued with an endless sense of awe, wonder, and fascination. Time is also the realm of impermanence, transience, and change. These are the core elements of time that we tend to fear the most.
A river is a beautiful metaphor to creatively express the passage or flow of time. We can never step into the same river twice not only because the water is constantly flowing, but also because each time we step into it we are never quite the same person. If the water stops flowing, the river ceases to exist. Like the river, every aspect of our life-time is completely fluid and coming from an unseen source it relentlessly moves toward an unseen destination.
Time is always passing by and we can never step into the same moment. Our time in life disappears into something we call the past; our present circumstance has arrived from something we call the future. But both past and future are products of the imagination; both past and future are always imagined in the same moment they pass by us. We are as fluid as the water in a river.
The fact that we exist in time means that our experience of aging is one of constant motion toward an unseen destination. However, we also know that this motion does not go on forever. We are destined to experience aging for an indeterminate amount of time, and then finally disappear. Our own flow of time is finite; our presence is here is transient. But the river will continue to flow in our absence.
We often live life on automatic pilot and navigate through our days without being aware of what is happening in our lives. Our habits and routines can become so deeply ingrained that we move through the endless stream of busy-ness as if we were asleep. With the increasing speed and violence of living in modern society, our habits and routines become a mode of bare survival. Modern progress has become enslaved in a trance of collective somnambulism.
And then suddenly, often somewhere in the space of midlife, comes the mysterious wake-up call from an invisible place. Perhaps it is time itself that infuses our awareness of impermanence. Maybe the feeling of senescence in our body begins to warn us of time that is fleeting. Sometimes a person will feel as though they have experienced a “wake-up call” from the soul that quite literally shocks them back into “reality.”
Death is a cessation of motion, the final conclusion of aging, and the end of our time. When we live as though we will live forever, we have forgotten our true nature and suffer from a profound sense of mindlessness. To contemplate aging is also toopenly invite consideration of death; to dismiss our own transience as being too morbid and unpleasant is to succumb to the tyranny of fear. To seek guidance from death is to create the potential for new possibilities in life – while we still can.
Even though it is always right there in front of us, our life can feel as though it is passing us by. Perhaps we feel the internal angst of having wasted our time pursuing the frivolous and superficial. It may be that we suddenly feel the length our age and are bewildered as to how we arrived at this point in time so quickly. We can be surprised to find ourselves much farther “down the road” than we had realized.
One of the most excruciating forms of pain and suffering is the feeling that we have wasted our life, that our life has remained closed, confined, buried, and unlived. We look back into our past and feel as though an incredible expanse of time has now become lost and irretrievable. We look ahead and intuitively sense that our time remaining is now closer to the end than the beginning. And we have become trapped in a cell of our own design.
“The physiological results provided evidence for a simple but invaluable fact: the aging process is indeed less fixed than most people think.” (Ellen Langer, Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility)
Mindfulness is contemplative art that has a rich history across many cultures and traditions: “Mindfulness technologies have been applied in human endeavours for thousands of years. They have been found of great value by Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Christians; in India, Asia, Europe and America; in the far past, in the Middle Ages and in modern times.” (Luis Felipe Morales Knight in Mindfulness: history, technologies, research, applications) Words that are often used to describe mindfulness include awareness, attention, discernment, focus, clarity, presence, concentration, meditation, and contemplation.
Mindfulness is a form of direct observation, intentional awareness, and creative investigation of our own thoughts, emotions, feelings, memories, situations, and circumstances. The purpose of developing mindfulness is to improve our ability to notice new things, to expose our preconceptions, to challenge our assumptions, and to take action based on new observations. Rather than being a meditative practice, I use mindfulness to describe an active state of mind that is focused on enlarging and broadening our perception of something that is important to us.
A wrinkle can become a source of fascination and wonder about aging. By observing it closely, we may find ourselves coming into contact with our fears about growing older and therefore have an opportunity to actively expose hidden assumptions and preconceptions about aging that are damaging. We may discover that our hidden bias toward maintaining the facade of youth to preserve our “good looks” is wholly false. Simply because something is youthful in appearance does not make it beautiful.
Mindful aging is a form of self-directed learning and discovery about what “growing old” really means. There is an exploratory and imaginative dimension to mindful aging; we discover the strange and unusual in what was once familiar and commonplace. For example, we might bring mindfulness to a wrinkle that we have suddenly noticed on our face and begin to quietly observe our own reactions: What am I really noticing? What immediate reactions do I have? Where do they come from? How do I feel about this wrinkle? What should I do now?
“People say that what we are seeking is a meaning of life. I don’t think this is what we’re really seeking. I think what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive.” (Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers)
The experience of being alive is infused with aging; there is no form of life that does not experience aging. In other words, to be alive is to feel the constant presence of aging in body, mind and spirit. Aging is our most intimate connection the natural world; it is a source of unity and essential belonging with all life everywhere at once. The very essence of elderhood originates entirely in nature.
We know that the experience of being alive is finite. To complicate our situation, the experience of being alive is embedded in an impenetrable mystery. We cannot know with any certainty how long we will live. We witness how an unexpected disease can suddenly change the entire experience of a person’s life. And this fragility of existence is at the very heart of our experience of life. The future is an unreliable companion.
To be mindful of aging is to build a deep and courageous relationship with the impermanence of time. Mindful aging thrives in the midst of fierce truths from which there is no escape. Instead of ignoring the sometimes harsh inevitables of life, we embrace them as a means to elevate our experience of being alive. Our task is to hold a conversation with aging, rather than treat ti as our adversary.
Mindful aging is a skillful means to accept, understand, and work creatively with the experience of aging. When we walk into the frontiers of aging we inevitably encounter opposing qualities as joy and suffering, courage and fear, contentment and anxiety, acceptance and ageism, wisdom and ignorance, fascination and boredom, empathy and avoidance, independence and dependence, care and negligence, hope and despair, as well as belonging and isolation.
Mindful aging is a means focus our awareness and efforts on the natural, beautiful, and sometimes harsh experiences of being alive. It helps to lift us out of our cultural somnambulance, seek freedom from the crushing inertia of our assumptions, preconceptions, and addictions, and move out into new terrain.
Ultimately, mindful aging is a means to foster a deep sense of connection and relationship with the natural and universal frontiers of life itself.