In the American culture, especially in southern California where physical appearance and beauty are highly valued, aging is not exactly something most people look forward to. Those who can afford to, sometimes undertake expensive procedures to attempt to maintain their bodies’ youthful appearances, despite their inability to stop time or the aging process. Botox, hair dye, laser treatments, and face lifts are just some of the popular procedures in the ever expanding field of anti-aging. Why are we afraid to age? Why can’t we let nature take its course without feeling anxiety?
The anxiety we feel as we age and come closer to life’s end, may serve as a wake-up call that we are not using our time properly, and call us to take spiritual action. As we age, we face the reality of our mortality. In our twenties, it is easy to ignore the ticking of life’s clock. We live for the moment and feel immortal. Later in life, we start to feel the limitations of the body, experiencing aches and pains, and decreased energy, strength, and endurance. We undergo the loss of loved ones. We look in the mirror and wonder where the twenty year old face we once had went. In a culture that emphasizes youth and beauty, such ex¬periences can be scary. We subsequently try to cling to our youth through these anti-aging treatments.
In comparison, other cultures embrace aging as a natural part of life. The Chinese, for example, are well known to revere and care for their elders. Gray hair is a sign of wisdom, not something to be ashamed of. As another example, Ayurvedic philosophy divides life into four stages compared to the seasons – the spring of youth, summer of young adulthood, autumn of older adulthood, and winter of old age. Although spring and summer are warm, flourishing, and pleasurable, winter also serves its purpose and has its beauty. Similarly, although youth and early adulthood are joyful, productive times, slowing down in the winter of old age serves a valuable purpose and is to be embraced, not feared.
Spiritual realization is the goal of life in Vedic and Ayurvedic cultures, and one is taught from a young age onward that the body is a vehicle for the soul – a vehicle that when used properly, can drive one to the destination of self-realization. In such a culture, striving to maintain the external youthfulness of a naturally aging body would seem unnecessary or even folly, because the focus is on the ever youthful, eternal spirit. The human body is a sacred gift. The human mind is capable of deep thought, questioning, philosophizing, and reflecting, unlike the minds of the animals. We can seek the purpose of life, and become conscious of our relationship with God. One should cultivate spiritual practice through all life stages, but old age is a time to focus more exclusively on turning inward. After retiring from the busy life of earning a living, one has more time for introspection, reflection, and meditation. Another important task of elders is to share wisdom learned throughout life with the younger generations (if they will listen).
In cultures that teach their youth to value and accept the aging process, peo¬ple are not so bewildered when signs of aging appear. Each new wrinkle and gray hair can be seen as sacred reminders to use time wisely and focus on the spirit. A spiritually prepared person can walk bravely into the winter season. In the winter, we don’t pretend that it is hot and jump into the cool sea. We put on a coat and sit by the fire. Similarly, in the winter of old age we should not attempt to act like we are twenty, reliving spring and summer, or trying to reverse the aging process. Rather we should be prepared, put on the protective winter coat of our spiritual practice, and experience the joy of aging. Instead of using laser treatment to counteract the aging process, try some pure spiritual mantra chanting to awaken your eternal self – the soul which never ages or wrinkles.
Mahat Tattva Dasa
Just received a hand written, snail mail, letter from a reader:
NOV 14, 2011
Today is my 64th birthday. Coincidentally, I just finished reading the wonderful article in the OCT/NOV issue of 16Rounds – called “The Joy of Aging.” Thank you for one of the most sensitive, right-on-the-mark pieces of writing on the subject I’ve ever read.
I’ve long been weary – and amused – at the perpetual attempts made at staving off old age … by celebrities, politicians, and my very own neighbors! Besides the obsessions with external “fixes” like botox, surgeries, etc. – some are also fixated on “preserving youth” (not possible!!) by OVER-exercising. A god example would be the “over 80” categories in some marathons. Or, attempts to keep weight inordinately low. (As if that would translate into looking younger!)
I follow Buddha’s instruction of walking “the middle Ground.” So that, on this, my 64th birthday – I’m most grateful for the love in my life; for my continuing good health; for the endearing “good habits” that I’ve developed over the decades; such as walking (moderately) and practicing yoga (very simple movements) – and eating vegetarian.
No, I do not “look 30” – nor do I “look 50”!!
I might even have some wisdom to impart – but as you suggest – few would listen.
I’ll offer some anyway! After 64 years on the planet, I’ve learned that only one thing matters: BE KIND.