MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
In a lovely quiet section of a large American city, a young architecture student was preparing a Zen garden for a new season after a long winter. As he worked, an old monk sat on a bench across the road watching him. The young man raked up the leaves that had covered the ground and spruced up plantings and bushes. He gathered the leaves into a large tarp and tied it up and pulled it far off to the side.
He looked over toward the monk, whom he knew was a well-known teacher of Japanese garden design. The monk stood up.
“A very nice garden,” the monk said.
“Yes,” the student responded. “So you approve?”
“One thing is missing,” the monk said. The student helped the aged monk walk over into the garden. The old man went right up to the tarp, pulled on the rope, and let the leaves pour into the garden and blow in the wind. Then he looked at the newly disheveled space and smiled.
“Beautiful!” he said.
Wabi-Sabi is the Japanese aesthetic in which imperfection, age, brokenness, and a run-down appearance are considered beautiful. This is not strange to the modern eye, which also appreciates furniture that has dents, scratches, and layers of fading paint. A weathered barn isn’t entirely unlike a person who has had a full life, and Wabi-Sabi is a good place to begin discussing the two basic aspects of a human being: the passing of time and ageless mysteries.
We, too, may develop dents and scratches, and we, too, may be beautiful nevertheless. As we go through both the satisfying and the unsettling experiences of our unfolding lives, it helps to keep in mind a simple phrase: “the beauty of imperfection.” Age offers good things and bad things. And so we need to appreciate the value of an imperfect life.
A Zen master might say: “Aging happens.” Our task is to be there for the aging, no matter how it shows itself, rather than fight it. Fighting anything makes it into an enemy and then it looks worse than it is. Keep working against aging, and before long you will have lost the battle.
The secret to aging is to face the loss of youthful beauty and strength, and from there use all the resources we have to be creative, positive, and optimistic. Whenever I use the word optimism, I think of the Roman goddess Ops and the abundance she gives to humankind. She was the sister and wife of Saturn, the very archetype of old age. Abundance herself, Ops is there to make our aging wealthy and pleasurable in the deepest ways.
As a psychotherapist, I can help people best by encouraging them to be where they are. I don’t mean accepting a bad situation that needs correcting, like an abusive marriage, and I’m not talking about surrender or resignation. But if a person fights his situation without knowing what it’s all about, he is bound to lose in the end.
For example, I worked with a woman who kept saying she wanted out of her marriage, which she felt was intolerable. But year after year she did nothing about it. She told me how friends and family members tried to convince her to leave, which only kept her frozen in place. I felt she needed to really be in the situation before she could leave it. I made a point not to speak in favor of ending the marriage, but rather to help her know where she was. Eventually, she stopped complaining and evading and simply got a divorce. Later she told me how happy she was with her decision, and she thanked me for helping her. Yet all I did was accompany her in her long and painful decision making, as though I were breathing in sync with her every breath.
It’s similar with getting older. If you fight it and complain about its downside, you may be miserable for the rest of your life, because aging is one thing that doesn’t get better. If you can be with it now, then you will be equally at peace when you’re five years older. If you can just be with what is, you have a good starting point and a base. Then you can do other things to improve your situation. Don’t get lost longing for a past golden age, and don’t yearn for a different future. Let the leaves spill out over your ideals, and then see the full beauty of your life.
In all my work, following a long line of teachers, I look for the deep stories, the mythologies, and the eternal, archetypal themes that lie beneath the surface of ordinary experiences. We are not people simply dominated by time with its unwanted effects. We are ageless people, too, participating in a mysterious and wonderful process in which our eternal, unchanging selves—I prefer to call it our soul—become more visible over time. This is the key sign that you are aging and not merely spending time—gradually you discover your original self, your own pristine way of being.
Aging is an activity. It is something you do, not something that happens. When you age—active verb—you are proactive. If you really age, you become a better person. If you simply grow old, passively, you get worse. Chances are, you will be unhappy as you continue the fruitless fight against time.
We tend to see time as a line that inevitably moves along monotonously like a conveyor belt in a factory. But life isn’t so mechanical. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote a simple line that could change the way you look at aging:
The soul’s advances are not made by gradation, such as can be represented by motion in a straight line, but rather by ascension of state, such as can be represented by metamorphosis,—from the egg to the worm, from the worm to the fly.1
Ascension of state. I imagine this ascension as a series of plateaus, initiations, and passages. Life is not a straight line but an array of steps moving from one level to the next, each level possibly lasting years. Often the ascension to a new level will be inspired by an extraordinary event, like a sickness, the ending of a relationship, the loss of a job, or a change of place.
Notice that Emerson could be speaking of a butterfly emerging from its worm state, a theme in the ancient Greeks’ use of the word psyche for both soul and butterfly. We start out small and not too pretty, and we emerge in our older years with the beauty and wings of a butterfly.
By “ascension of state,” I think Emerson means that we go through a series of phases or plateaus. When I look at my growth over the years, I focus on special events: leaving home for religious boarding school, ending my experiment with monastic life, being fired from a university position, marriage, divorce, the birth of my daughter, success with books, surgeries. These events mark the steps, but each one occupied a long period in which I grew up and aged. My soul emerged over several distinct, well-defined periods.
One more point about the structure of aging: As you move from one phase to another, you don’t completely leave behind the phases that have occurred before. They don’t go away; they are always available. This makes for a sometimes complicated life, but it also adds richness and resources. You can tap into the experiences you had when you were a child, a young person, or a middle-aged man or woman. Your youth is available and accessible. Even your personality, or more deeply, your very soul, is made up of many ages and many degrees of maturity. You are a layered being. You are many ages at the same time. Crossing through all these layers is a corresponding law: There is something in you that is not touched by the brush of time.
What Does It Mean to Age?
When I use the word aging, I mean becoming more of a person and more you over time. I keep an image in my mind of cheese and wine. Some get better with the simple passage of time. We set them aside to rest until they are ready. Time improves them, as an inner and invisible alchemy transforms them and gives them taste and flavor.
Human beings age in a similar way. If you let life shape you, then as time goes by you will become a richer, more interesting person. That is aging in the style of cheese and wine. In that sense, your very purpose in life is to age, to become what you are; essentially, to unfold and let your inborn nature be revealed. You let your ageless self, your soul, peek out from behind the more anxious, active self, trying hard to be successful through planning and hard work.
Notice, too, that in this way of thinking, aging in the deep sense may happen anywhere along the way. You may be thirty-five and have an experience, learn some facts, or encounter a fascinating person who helps you evolve a step further. You age, in my meaning of the word, in those moments. Your soul ages. You take a step further toward being alive, engaged, and connected with the world. Even infants age. Some toddlers are quite aged. Some old people haven’t gotten far in the aging process.
Growing Older Without Aging
Some people grow older in years, but their interactions with the world remain immature. They remain focused on themselves. Empathy and community elude them. They can’t open their hearts to another person. They may hold on to anger and other difficult emotions that took hold early in life. They have experiences but don’t grow up. They have birthdays but don’t age.
As a writer, I sometimes run into people who don’t want to bother with the difficult process of aging. An aspiring or even published author will ask me to look at her work. I read some of the words and feel that they haven’t matured yet as ideas or craft. This happened recently, and I told the woman that she might benefit from reading some books on style and even grammar. I think she was insulted. She told me she was attending a workshop where they promised not to talk about the basics and to emphasize exciting ways to get published.
Sure enough, I looked at the workshop website and found the statement: “We will not be dealing with the dull basics but will stress techniques for creating a brilliant writing career.” I felt that the ad was against aging. In whatever work you are doing, you need to develop the skills. You can’t just skip over them and dive into fantasies of glory and success. To use Emerson’s language, you don’t go from one state to another without a challenging initiation. You have to do your homework.
I’m aware that those last words come from an old person’s perspective and I know from my own experience that a younger, adventurous writer might want to shoot straight for the glory. I can only hope that my embrace of experience isn’t so heavy that it would turn off a young person. Ideally, you can offer your insight without wounding youthful enthusiasm.
The Art of Being Affected
To age well it isn’t enough to have experiences; you have to be affected by them. If you go through life without being touched, you may be continuously unconscious, never thinking about what is happening. You are protected or numb or simply not intelligent enough to understand what is happening to you. Some seem to prefer the carefree feeling of an empty head to the weight of being a real person.
Those who can say yes to life and engage the world grow up at every step, from youth to old age. You may be six months old when something happens to bring out your personhood. You may be ninety-nine when you make a leap into serious living—the possibility for aging never ends. You may think you’re too old to grow up, but there is no time limit on aging. But if you never age, that is a problem. So is getting stuck at any period in your life. I like to keep at hand a saying from the profound Greek philosopher Herakleitos: “Panta rhei,” or “Everything flows.”
I’ll never forget the woman in her late sixties who rushed into my therapy room one day to tell me that she had had enough. She had been raised in a rigid religious family and never felt good about herself. No matter how hard she tried to be good, she felt she was a sinner. She realized, too, that she was hard on her husband, complaining about the slightest fun thing he did. She had been strictly against drinking, dancing, sports, and just having a good time.
“But it’s over,” she said that day. “I’ve seen the light again, and it’s a different color. I’m not going to hide any longer and I’m not going to be my husband’s conscience. I’m going to live and let live.”
That day, I believe, this woman started to age in a positive way. She made a decision that some people make in late adolescence: not to be ruled by a narrow family outlook. She grew into her adulthood, choosing to no longer be controlled by the hard teachings laid on her when she was a child. “I’ve been a five-year-old all my life,” she said. “It’s time to be an adult.”
This move out of the family mythology is one of the most crucial in the process of aging. Many adults haven’t achieved it yet, and they suffer the consequences. To all appearances they grow up, but in their emotional lives they may be six or twelve or twenty-three years old.
People in their sixties and seventies may finally decide to shake the anxious, overwhelming, and burdensome influence of their parents. For years they have numbed themselves to the possibility of growing up. But once they understand what has been going on, they abandon that old pattern passionately. They get a taste of what it is to be themselves and they feel reborn.
The Joy of Aging
Let us be realistic about the downside of growing older, but positive about the joy of aging. If you find aging sad or frightening or even disgusting, maybe your imagination of it needs some tweaking. You could find meaning where before you saw only despair. You could probe more deeply and grasp the Zen parable of the leaves—bad times can make the good times beautiful. You become a real person, someone with individual judgment, a particular outlook on life and a set of values to believe in.
When you open yourself to a transformative experience, whether it seems positive or negative, your soul blossoms. It is born in you again and again. Soul refers to our mysterious depth and substance, what remains after medicine and psychology have analyzed and explained us. It is a profound sense of self, far beyond what they call ego, and it helps us connect with others. The soul offers a strong sense of identity and individuality, but at the same time it includes a felt awareness of being part of humanity. In some mysterious way we and others share an experience of what it is to be human, and we do this so deeply that, according to many traditional accounts, we share one soul.
Some people have no such expansive sense of self and can’t connect positively with others. They are more like machines than persons. These days, when our experts almost always offer mechanical explanations for experience, people easily develop a mechanical view of themselves. So for them, when they have a real experience, even a deep-seated interpretation of an experience, they feel they’re entering life fresh.
I’ve received several notes from readers telling me that they discovered that they have a soul, but only after learning about it. They needed a word for what they sensed intuitively. They needed to know that for centuries people have humanized culture by speaking of the soul. Once they discover this soul, they live differently and have a far different understanding of themselves.
Soul is not a technical or scientific term. It’s an ancient one, rooted in the idea of breathing and being alive. When people die, suddenly something is missing, a source of life and personality, and that missing element has been called soul. It lies deeper than personality, ego, consciousness, and the knowable. Because it is so vast and so profound, it requires both a spiritual and a psychological mind-set to appreciate it.
If you don’t nurture your soul, you are not aging. You may feel like a cog in the mechanics of society. You may be active, but your activity doesn’t generate a deep awareness and connection with the world around you. When you really age, you are engaged, and from that deeper taste of being a participant, your life finds purpose and meaning, gifts of soul. Now aging is a joyful experience, because you want to be open to learning and experiences as you feel the seeds of your self sprouting and blossoming in your evolving life.
Copyright © 2017 by Thomas Moore