it seems there is a relationship between a good night’s sleep and loneliness.
today is a milestone. a year since i began writing this blog. it has been an exciting experience, filled with creative energy i didn’t know i had. it has opened doors that were shut; revealed secrets i didn’t know i held in some part of my being; and brought laughter and tears easily to the surface.
It is important, as we get older, to learn how to grieve. Although this may sound self-evident, experience has taught me that it is not. In a culture that emphasizes stoicism and forward movement, in which time is deemed “of the essence,” and there is little toleration for slowness, inwardness, and melancholy, grieving – a healthy, necessary aspect of life – is too often overlooked.
on the road to spiritual eldering we may encounter a few obstacles. (did i say “a few”?) one of those roadblocks might be forgiveness. in a life of many decades there certainly have been moments of rash behaviour that have caused injury. surely words that have cause hurt escaped our mouths without thought. and no doubt, there were many moments when we caused harm to ourselves.
Forgiveness is a journey, it is not just an event. ~~ Jean Vanier, Encountering the Other
how do we undertake this journey, this step into the past and into the ongoing present? as with all journeys, preparation is essential.
a check list:
* take a breath, or two, or three; * gather together the map of significant events/the memories that arise; * a water bottle/refreshment for the body; * sturdy shoes/the deep willingness to be authentic; * and possibly an umbrella/a box of tissues; *make sure your vehicle is in good order/that you feel well enough to look with love and tenderness at some uncomfortable moments; * grab your keys/a way back to safety; * and go.
this exploration into forgiveness is a vital process in claiming our elderhood. to look at and to feel honestly into the errors in judgement, the hurtful patterns of behaviour, the attachment to being right, and the stubbornness that prevented reconciliation takes great courage…the courage of a spiritual warrior.
we gather our courage to take the first small step. we know every journey begins at a threshold. we become willing to move out of comfort into the unknown. we step into the place marked on ancient maps with the words, “here be dragons”.
not knowing and yet being willing asks us to trust in something beyond our limited self. to begin we have trust that there will be benefit in this journey. otherwise, why bother?
one of my most recent forgiveness journeys was undertaken in the context of my brother’s dying. nine years ago he received a diagnosis of terminal multiple myeloma, a blood cancer. he lived eight years after that diagnosis. he did remarkable things during those years, including being kind to me. historically, we had a relationship fraught with control, meanness, and lack of empathy. his dying allowed him to open.
i knew, deep inside, i had to forgive him if i were to let him go with grace. i did not want unresolved issues to follow him into his grave in jerusalem. i did not want to live with this particular heartache until i died. i forgave him as much for my internal well-being as well as for whatever meaningful time we had left before he died.
so i found the willingness to accept his human failings and frailty. while acknowledging that some of his actions were difficult to forgive, i could forgive the human he was.
and, at his death, i was able to grieve without holding back, to honour him in ways that were meaningful to us both, and to support his children in all their feelings about their father.
was it worth the painful journeying process? without question.
because now i am free to experience love unhindered by regret.
not to long ago i had a blood test. that fact in itself is not too unusual. the phlebotomist was gentle and caring. after filling a number of vials and withdrawing the needle she apologised for the bruise that she thought would come up.
“that wouldn’t be too surprising for 72-year old skin” i replied.
“you look great for your age. i would have never put you in your 70s!”, she exclaimed.
it happened again….the “for your age.”
what does that mean? at 72 am i supposed to look a certain way? what is the image that this kind, gentle professional holds in her head about women my age? am i supposed to look un-great?
as it happens, i drew a card from the gene pool that said i have smooth, fair skin, large blue eyes and honey-coloured hair that is undyed and not yet grey. that was the luck of the draw from a pool that often produces dark-haired, brown-eyed swarthy skinned people who tend to wrinkles.
granted, i have taken care not to smoke, drink or do a lot of drugs over the course of my life. genetics plus choices have made a difference. however, this encounter pointed out, yet again, that age has a ‘look’…a look that is not valued and held in high esteem. it is my unwrinkled face and undyed blonde hair that provoked that response from the phlebotomist.
she is one of countless millions who hold this view. she surprised me when i said, “and you look great for your age too”. she told me she was in her 50s. she is on the cusp of change, on the turning point from desirable to rejected, from valued to disdained, from respected to contemptible. she too will soon hear the dismissive phrase “for your age.”
to respond to ageism in a way that opens a door to greater awareness is one of the sacred tasks of an elder, woman or man. As the proportion of people over 60 increases we have the power, both individually and collectively, to change the image of olders.
can you imagine a time when youngers will look at us and say something like, “it’s great to see you.” no matter how we look? can you imagine a time when each wrinkle is regarded as a badge of honour? can you imagine a time when each grey hair is valued as much as gold?
these are the imagining i hold in my heart…for my sisters and brothers who are over 60 and for all those youngers who are olders-in-training.
recently, an excerpt from a retreat held on maui, hawai’i was made available on you tube. it was entitled “no fear, no death”. the teachers who held this retreat are some of the luminaries of not only the spiritual world, but the world of end-of-life care….ram dass, roshi joan halifax, frank ostaseski, and robert thurman.
in the question and answer period, following meditation and teaching, one woman asked about pain management in the process of dying and its effect on consciousness. the current desire for dying seems to be to die “naturally, fully conscious”. after frank made it quite clear that death without pain management is usually pretty horrid, roshi related an experience she had with the dalai lama. she asked him the same question.
his reply was, “no one should die in pain. mercy and compassion tell you to alleviate pain. pain does not help anyone die well.”
then he said, “subtle consciousness is not effected at all by opioids.”
there was a sigh of relief among the retreat attendees, and in me as well. if his holiness says it’s okay to have pain relief, i have his blessing on whatever pair management i might choose and so do all those i care about! phew!
then joan added another question that occurred to her in her conversation with the dalai lama. why is it important to have a spiritual practice now?
her answer (not his holiness’s) is this: to cultivate the internal architecture that conduces to the moment of liberation, the moment of merging with the clear light of death, with less interference.
there are many benefits to spiritual practice….this one might be the most compelling as we move into elderhood. to approach that movement without impediment, without conflict, without hinderance may be the greatest gift of a life well lived, fully re-claimed and joyfully accepted. these are among the benefits of the spiritual aspect of elderhood.
recently i woke up out of a sound sleep to the melodious song of a blackbird. she’s been singing outside my window daily for about a month now, providing me with the most wonderful of alarm clocks. on that day, she began her dawn chorus at about 4:15!!!
as i emerged from sleep to hear her song i also heard a voice emerging from a deep place inside my being. it said, “hold the space for good”.
if i had been walking at the time, i would have stopped dead in my tracks. i was amazed, awe-struck and a bit overwhelmed. what could this mean? how do i hold a space for good? whose voice spoke in these very clear terms?
i had been on a self-retreat at home for several days when this voice made her instruction so decisively. i had meditated more, eaten more mindfully, minimised my social contacts, remained silent as much as possible, eschewing music, computer, phone. lots of ‘stuff’ came to the surface of my awareness in this quiet time. a lot of it wasn’t pleasant…the state of the world, global warming, the marginalisation of many groups of people, the amount of money spent on the royal wedding, the rape of the earth, school shootings, knife crime, past experiences….and on and on.
suddenly, out of the sleep state, arose this voice. “hold the space for good.” in that morning's meditation i was compelled to contemplate the good…kindness, love, tenderness, deep listening , willingness, curiosity, flowers in bloom, generosity, honesty, compassion, wise teachers, surrender, blessing, friendship, breathing, joy, co-operation…and on and on.
could this be the work of an elder? have we aged in wisdom as well as years? can these values and human qualities be expressed in each interaction, in each moment? is this our spiritual practice as each day unfolds?
have you ever heard a similar voice speak to you? did you follow its guidance? is this the soul speaking? our higher self? what came from that inner counsel? was your life changed?
james hollis, a noted jungian analyst, suggests that this is the voice of our inner authority and when we heed its call we are finally living our life.
hold the space for good.
(hollis, james, living an examined life: wisdom for the second half of the journey, sounds true, 2018, ISBN 9781683640479 paperback)
a few days ago, techno-impaired as i am, i engaged in a conference call held by the conscious elders network. (http://www.consciouselders.org) the topic was “dying to live”. the conversation was lively and inspiring. it ranged from memories of people who have died, to the “paperwork” needed to prepare for our own deaths, to deep philosophical insights about afterlife and religion. i was left with a deep sense of urgency, not only to put in place the last bit of “paperwork” but also to change the way we are with ageing, dying and death.
i’m driven…a mad woman on a mission.
as i lay in bed that evening, an often misquoted and misattributed jewish aphorism written by hillel the elder, came to mind.
“if i am not for myself, who will be for me? if i am not for others, what am i? and if not now, when? “
hillel the elder was born, according to tradition, in babylon c. 110 bce, and died in 10 ce in jerusalem. he lived in jerusalem during the time of king herod and the roman emperor augustus and became the spiritual leader of the jewish people.
his title “the elder” is a light shining in the doorway to elderhood. there are so many lessons i can learn about spiritual eldering from these three short sentences. needless to say, no matter what age, lessons can be learned, and yet i felt a particular poignancy and immediacy as i sat with them in that present moment.
i must be for myself, care for myself, love myself, trust and honour myself. without this energy, no one can be for me. without a sense of my value, no one else will value me. i must speak and live my truth, or lose any sense of integrity and wholeness.
and it is as a whole person that i can surrender the ego self to be for others. i can let go of the obstacles that armour my heart so that i can be of service and can listen with compassion and care. hillel asks “what am i?” not “who am i?”. what am i if i cannot be available, be willing to challenge myself when i encounter difference and difficulty, and be open to dialogue? i would be frightened, demagogic, narcissistic, unfeeling and shut down to the possibilities of relationship.
and, “if not now, when?” i have only the now. action can only take place in the now. with the strength of spiritual connection to ground me, i can act to change how we are with ageing, dying and death. while i may not live as long as hillel the elder did, i want to die as felice, an elder who contributed to a shift in consciousness.
it is also my aspiration to live and die honouring the other of hillel’s most well-known teachings…
"that which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. that is the whole torah (the jewish sacred text). the rest is the explanation. go and learn."
thank you, hillel, for what you have given the world…and to eldering.