I have a recurring memory of meeting for an interview with one of my spiritual teachers. How many years ago did this meeting take place? I think several, perhaps even a decade has passed. I was struggling with memories around personal and family wounds over-taking me during my contemplation and meditation practices. My teacher responded by asking me not about the memories that were intruding upon my practice – not about the content—but, rather, about the contours of my practice. I don’t remember what I described about my practice. But I do remember the dharma she offered to me; it was advice in the form of an aspiration. She said: I wish for you more opportunities to encounter the empty and groundless nature of reality, as you spend a lot of time in the realm of relative experience and self-cherishing.
I’ve been pondering my ongoing misgivings regarding the anti-ageism activism I’ve been engaging in for the past quarter-century (at least). My misgivings feel fierce but hard to pin down. I often feel possessed by the conviction that much of the work on ageism isn’t quite getting it right, that there’s something problematic about the framing of the issue, there’s something problematic about the impulse to privilege ageism above all other forms of bias and discrimination. I’m sympathetic yet grumpy with the idea that because aging is a universal human experience, something that we are all doing across the life-course regardless of the many ways in which we are diverse, that this is the idea around which we can organize and engage in anti-ageism education and activism. The assertion that when we engage in ageism toward older persons we are discriminating against our future older selves is a potent idea, one that connects to the work I’ve been doing for at least twenty years around imagining and befriending our “future older selves” as a practice for more deeply engaging in one’s own life-long aging journey, as well for opening up space for curiosity about (and perhaps greater empathy for) others’ aging journeys.
I’ve seen many people experience profound transformations in their consciousness about aging and old age as a result of engaging in an intentional relationship with their future older selves (as well as their previous younger selves). I’ve never tested whether this practice leads to a reduction in internalized or externalized ageism – this has never been an explicit purpose of the practice; rather, my fundamental aim in inviting others to engage in deep reflection (and sometimes discussion and writing, too) about their imagined future older selves is because it offers a creative way into experiencing ourselves as emerging, always-developing beings and aging as a dynamic, multi-faceted life-long process.
The universality of aging is a potent truth – it is dharma. But I think in the context of anti-ageism education and activism we may hold some confusion about how best to harness this truth. (I myself share this confusion.) What is the texture of this truth and how might we embody and enact it? Touching the universality of aging feels to me to be connected to the “empty and groundless nature of reality” that my spiritual teacher entreated me to become more intimate with.
Aging is also a deeply personal experience which is embedded in the context(s) – times, places and spaces – in which one is situated and shaped by (often over-determined by) one’s positionalities such as gender, class, race/ethnicity, ability, nationality, generation, and more. Contexts and positionalities contribute to the tremendous diversity of how aging unfolds and is experienced over the life-course. The diversity of aging experiences – the exquisite particularity of how we travel through the life-course — feels to me to be connected to the “realm of relative experience and self-cherishing.”
We often get mired in the “realm of relative experience and self-cherishing,” possessed by and obsessed with the particularity of our experiences traveling through the life-course and confronting (and being confronted by) our aging. We feel betrayed by aging – how our bodies and minds change in ways that feel out of our control. We feel wounded by aging…or perhaps it would be more accurate to say wounded by ageism, those reductive and damaging messages which are projected and internalized. Our aging wounds can become totalizing forces, unconscious and under-theorized and thus potentially huge blind-spots. Aging wounds…. wounded by each other, by the culture, self-inflicted wounds. Oh, I’m barely scratching the surface, there’s so much more to be explored here!
My strong and abiding take-away, which has been confirmed multiple times now in the context of the many informal and formal conversations I’ve facilitated about age, aging and ageism, is that our suffering around ageism has to do with the relative realm, not the universal realm. Our suffering has to do with feeling stuck, misunderstood, hemmed in, reduced, out-of- control, confused, disappointed, bereft of hope…. fundamentally aggrieved that the aging journey, which is the human journey, is a journey toward ultimate destruction of the self. The stronger our “self-cherishing,” the deeper and more intense our wound.
Aging unfolds over the potentially long life-course and involves a balance between gains, losses and stability of abilities and functioning across multiple domains: body, mind, spirit, social roles and relationships. This is another important bit of dharma.
When we foreground our aging wounds, when we focus on ageism, we tend to activate our fears of the many losses that inevitably visit us as we travel through the life-course (As Kunitz pleads in his poem “The Layers,” How shall our hearts be reconciled to its feast of losses?). Being human is to be vulnerable and at risk of losses no matter our age or life-course stage. But it is when we enter the land of later life – old age – that these losses and vulnerabilities become unavoidable and most intense.
There are also many gifts – gains – that may come with traveling through the life-course. Every life-course stage and age is characterized by its special gifts. Part of the work of understanding and ending ageism and expanding aging awareness is to discover and celebrate the gifts of different ages and stages, to create the causes and conditions for these gifts to be appreciated and shared within and between generations. But what are the gifts of different ages and stages? Can we say that there are shared universal gifts, or are gifts made manifest in diverse ways at the individual and communal level and, thus, in the “eye of the beholder”? I’d suspect that there are gifts which are both shared and particular.
One of the challenges in talking about “the gifts of aging,” which is often the antidote offered by anti-ageism workers addressing the “losses of aging,” is to do so without perpetuating a positive aging stereotype such as older people are wise in place of damaging negative aging stereotypes such as older people are senile. My friends, a stereotype is a stereotype, even if it is positive. How do we imagine the gifts of old age — or any age — without doing so in a totalizing, reductive way?
This is all so complex, isn’t it? And we humans seem to not prefer to dwell with complexity. And yet, I suspect that dwelling in complexity is the secret to muddling through all of this. It surely feels like the answer to the question of how to reconcile my heart to its feast of losses.
Dwelling in complexity – in this case the complexity of the aging journey – requires me to explore the ways in which aging is simultaneously an empty and groundless phenomenon, and a deeply personal experience of self-hood.
Complexity is the dharma of aging.
- Originally published on geropunkproject.org