There is a massive industry dedicated to selling the idea of anti-aging. Anti-aging is a notion which plays on the illusion that if we can stay cognitively sharp, physically fit and wrinkle free we can stop the aging process. It does not take a whole lot of logic to find the flaw in this. Look no further than the mythological personification of our anti-aging obsession, vampires. Not surprisingly, in current fiction they are depicted as ideal beings more than monsters. Anti-aging is a ridiculous notion perpetuated by the very people who profit off of it.
If we recognize the ridiculous and insidious nature of anti-aging, does this mean we should stop going to the gym, eat whatever we want, cancel our hair appointments and delete our Lumosity app? These are all anti-aging propaganda ploys right? Yes and no. Like most social issues, there are not clear, hard lines which divide the anti-aging and embracing-aging worlds. A softer approach is needed as well as a perspective shift.
Anti-aging becomes toxic and increases our suffering when we equate our ‘bodies’ with our ‘selves’. When we judge ourselves on how many gray hairs we have, how many pull-ups we can do, how many things we can multi-task, we place our self worth in one very fickle part of ourselves, our body. The anti-aging myth is all about our bodies and it encourages us to define our value based on our bodies performance. Our bodies are many things, transporter, communicator, worker, but they are not us. They are the vessel the “us,” or our psyche, or soul or whatever term works for you is housed in. Our bodies are our means to communicate with the world, to interact with it, to be in it. There is not a wisdom tradition I am aware of that says our body is us. This distinction is important. When we recognize that we are not our bodies, we also recognize that our value does not lie in our bodies. Our worth is not measured by our appearance or ability; that is a myth perpetrated by marketers trying to sell you stuff.
Once we can remove our value from being attached to our bodies we can ask: what then are our bodies if they are not us? They are ours. By this I mean that while we are not our bodies, our bodies are our own. Our bodies are a precious gift that allow us to be in this world, to be able to communicate and form relationships and grow. From this perspective taking care of our body has a different purpose. Yes, move often and eat lots of vegetables–not because you are afraid of aging, but because you value this body you have been given and want to be able to interact with this amazing world for as long and as much as possible. With this lens one can look at the barrage of tools aimed at anti-aging and see which can be pro-living and which are truly anti-aging, which is really anti-living.
Coloring your hair can be an act of self-expression or it can be anti-living if you are hiding your grays because you feel they take away your value. Going to the gym to pass as younger is anti-living, going to the gym to improve our balance and bone density so we can walk for longer in life and in more places is pro-living. Use this lens to differentiate between self-care and self-deprecation. By the same token, when parts of our body begin to fail, as they will if we are lucky to live long enough, remember we are not failing, our vessel is just beginning to prepare us for leaving it. This loss can be grieved but it is not a failure. We are designed with wisdom, our bodies are wise teachers if we are open to them and listen.
Take care of your body but do not align your value with it. Your body is a vessel for consciousness, take care of your vessel but do not equate your value with your vessel.