These days I frequently find myself sitting in wonder and confusion as to where my life has gone. My logical mind tells me that I have now lived three score years and seven; I have memories and momentos that help to inform the reality of this, along with the wear and tear on my body and the changes in my appearance that mark the passage of the years. From that reality it does seem a long time. The advancement of so many technologies and the changes in cultural norms that I have witnessed throughout my life also provide a perspective that supports that whole view.
Yet here I am, temporarily but frequently lost in an alternative reality in which I still feel like a young person whose life is not finite; destined to certain death, yes, and yet strangely outside of time, living in an eternal now that gives an illusion of unchanging youth. In this way I catch myself feeling about 18, in ageless, unblemished.
I know I am not alone in having these experiences. Perhaps we all feel this way when we drop into a particular kind of inner reality. (When I reflect on my dreams, for example, I seem ageless in them). I know it as an awareness that springs from deep inside me, as though my soul hasn’t aged along with my body, and a realisation comes to me, even as I am writing this, it seems to me that our souls do not age in the way our bodies do.
People talk about ‘old souls’ when they witness young children expressing wisdom beyond their mental age, but my sense is that our souls are outside of time in the linear sense, and rather than ageing, they mature according to each person’s particular life experiences, or, in the case of young children, their experiences in previous lives. (Where else could such precocious wisdom come from? But that is a debate for another time.)
I can see how my life has provided a series of lessons, some of which have enabled me to learn and grow, others have left me none the wiser and therefore needing to repeat a pattern until I reach a new level of awareness. This growth process is happening through strivings to achieve, through the challenges of pain and loss, through the affairs of the heart, through service and importantly through grace.
When I experience my life from this meta perspective I feel held and at peace with myself through a level of acceptance of what is. But when I am faced with the stark limitations of my ever-aging body and mind, I find myself struggling to accept the inevitable decline in stamina and strength, in mental agility and in memory. I am frustrated daily by the restrictions and limitations on my activities and achievements. It requires a level of humility, patience and self-acceptance that do not come easily. Life becomes a practice in mindfulness, setting appropriate boundaries and allowing time for rest, which can lead to a refining and maturing of the soul. Paradoxically, we become more child-like and free. The Dalai Lama is a wonderful example of this. In the absence of the disciplines which enable this process we can so easily become negative, bitter and cantankerous – the archetypal grumpy old man or woman.
I am trying to age gracefully and experience life from my soul’s reality, while honouring my aging body’s truth. I appreciate that, as a man, I do not face the same cultural pressures imposed on older women for their looks and appearance, but it is still a challenge and a big lesson in humility.