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Have you noticed there are certain things you can’t do as easily as you could when you were younger? Have you ever felt resistant to the inevitable changes that come with age? Have you put thought into your own mortality?
And have you considered that perhaps all of this can contribute to a greater sense of spirituality?
Although I am in my thirties and not yet approaching my senior years, I was interested to read this book because I often feel this desire to cling to youth, coupled with a fear of what it will be like when it inevitably slips away.
I appreciated Richmond’s refreshing perspective on the benefits of growing older, and his honesty about his own experiences with illness, aging, and transformation.
From the book jacket:
Incorporating illuminating facts from scientific researchers, doctors, and psychologists on aging’s various challenges and rewards; Richmond explores the tandem of maintaining a healthy body and healthy relationships infused with an active spiritual life. Using this information, we can pay attention to our own experience of aging through the lens of our emotions, and adapt accordingly, inspiring opportunities for a joy that transcends age.
To enter to win one of three free copies of Aging as a Spiritual Practice:
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1. In many ways, we live in a youth-driven culture. Do you think this has affected our ability to embrace aging, and recognize and appreciate the benefits?
Yes, to some extent. When I did my early research for the book, I found that most of the books about aging were actually about postponing aging—exercise, diet, yoga, cosmetics, and so on. This emphasis mirrors the consumer culture which advertises these remedies to older people, who then internalize the message that it is important to stay and look young as long as possible.
The honoring of elderhood as an important life stage both for oneself and for one’s community is a legacy of a previous era—though I think it is coming back, and I hope to contribute to that renaissance.
2. What are some of the other factors that contribute to our fear of aging?
Fear of illness, fear of death, fear of dementia, fear of being poor—these were all known by ancient Buddhist writers as universal “great fears,” at a time when the average life expectancy was probably 35.
So it is natural to fear these things, but it is also possible to courageously face up to them and not let them have the last word. Each adversity brings opportunity, each fear offers gifts.
I try to strike that balance in the book. Research shows that flexibility is a key ingredient for the success of the “extraordinary elderly”—people who do not let their worries and fears stop them from enjoying life to the fullest.
3. What, would you say, are the some of the benefits of growing older?
In the book I cite a large research study concluding that on the whole people in their fifties and sixties are less stressed than people in their thirties. The study of 300,000 people was adjusted for socio-economic status, finances, gender, race, religion and many other things, so this result is real.
Why, the researchers asked? They had no firm answer, but they suspected that it was because people who have lived longer have more experience dealing with adversity. Life experience is a hard-won treasure; there is no shortcut to it.
My own respondents cited many other benefits—freedom to wear what they wanted, grandchildren, travel, pursuing long-deferred dreams, giving back to community. I would add to this list the perspective to contemplate spiritual values and the deep meaning of it all.
4. What advice would you offer to someone is struggling to embrace aging in fear of being devalued by society?
I would say, “Don’t let others define you. Be who you are.” Or as my Buddhist teacher Shunryu Suzuki often said, “Stand on your own two feet.”
Also, enjoy the friends you have and don’t hesitate to make new ones. Friendships of long standing are a powerful bastion against the facile opinions of a youth-obsessed society.
5. In your book, you wrote about coming to terms with the irreversible changes that age brings—things we lose that we simply can’t get back. While this is true for all of us, some people seem to accept this more readily without letting it lead to bitterness and depression. What do you think enables some people to accept this, while others resist and grieve their former selves?
There is a good deal of scientific research about this which I cite in my book. Optimism turns out to be somewhat genetically pre-determined, but it can also be cultivated, even by lifelong pessimists.
To some extent the Buddhist-oriented contemplative exercises I offer in the book are partly a means to cultivate optimism. “Reframing”—the capacity to see a difficult situation in a more positive light—is a measurable factor for increased happiness as you grow older.
If your bad knee means you can’t jog anymore, take up swimming! Or more deeply, rather than dwelling on the losses of aging, focus on its fresh opportunities. I interviewed many professionals—doctors, nurses, geriatric specialists, psychiatrists—who make this approach the main focus of therapy for their elderly patients. They tell me it really works.
6. You also explored how elders formerly had certain roles to play in society, such as passing on stories, sharing wisdom, and caring for their community’s children—roles that are less relevant in our modern culture. Do you believe that creating a strong internal sense of purpose is an essential part of healthy aging?
I firmly believe that “elderhood” is innate, and I tell several true elderhood stories to illustrate that. In other words, elderhood is designed to awaken in us at the very time we and our community need it.
I think the wisdom aspect of all religions—Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, and others—come out of this lore of elderhood, passed down through innumerable generations.
At one time the community recognized elderhood in all its facets and honored it. Now each of us has more responsibility to create our own domain of elderhood. That’s one of the reasons I wrote the book, to offer tools for that.
7. What are the main ways in which aging can actually help us deepen our sense of spirituality?
Aging means, first and foremost, the growing awareness that our time is limited, that everything we love and care about, including our precious selves, is destined to pass away.
One of the main things Buddhism teachers is that this need not be a depressing realization. On the contrary, knowing our own and others’ fragility is a great gift aging brings, because we can clearly see how precious everything is, and how important it is to take care of what we have.
Aging is also a time for a more patient, quiet life—a natural environment for a spiritual and contemplative attitude. That’s why each chapter of my book offers a contemplative exercise, and the last three chapters describe a “day away”—a guided one-day personal retreat.
8. In your book, you shared some of your own experiences dealing with illness and facing death. What are the top lessons you’ve learned about coming to terms with our own mortality?
I had cancer when I was 36, and a brain infection at 52 which no doctor thought I could survive. From a medical point of view I am a walking miracle. I still wake up every morning with a sense that I am lucky to be here at all. That is the great gift of my otherwise terrible illnesses.
Another gift is how I can help others who are ill; they come to me and consult me simply because I have been there. These days I do not fear death. For two weeks I was in a death coma, though I was aware and conscious inside my head. I had no fear there. I felt comforted and filled with light.
At one level my illnesses and their long recoveries took 8 or 10 years out of my life. At another level they have been my greatest teacher. Would I like those 8 or 10 years back? People ask me that and I have no answer. We only live once.
9. What is the main message you hope readers take from Aging as a Spiritual Practice?
I want people to come away from the book feeling good about growing old. I have blog respondents who say things like “Aging sucks. It’s terrible. The wrinkles, the fatigue. I hate it!”
OK, I understand. But read the book. I acknowledge that point of view; I have a whole chapter about it. The bad stuff is not the whole story. The whole story is far richer, it is the tapestry of the whole human adventure, start to finish.
Our species has been birthing, living, aging, and dying for perhaps a million years. We know how to do a whole life and that wisdom is written into our hearts and our DNA. Look within, all that knowledge is there. Look without, and see the whole human community traversing this terrain together.
One thing we get to learn as we live out the fullness of our life is how important love is. Focus on that, and aging is not so bad, really. In fact, it’s pretty good!
You can learn more about Aging as a Spiritual Practice on Amazon.
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