Ageing Mindfully

An ongoing adventure

Image: Nikita Tikhomirov - Unsplash

The current pandemic has highlighted what is happening for me as my body and mind ages. It is not that my faculties are all disappearing, just that they are more readily overwhelmed by “little life” as distinct from the “Life I’m living” (or that is living me). First, let me say that I do not have a religion although I'm open-minded about the idea that there is a higher purpose or that perhaps I’m here for a particular reason. But what happens just is, and it’s up to me to adapt by accepting and surrendering. A good lifetime friend died recently and I was able to visit him in hospital beforehand and say to him “You are on the threshold of a huge adventure, like nothing you’ve had before because no one really knows what happens after death.” Even though he couldn’t reply I like to think that he heard my message. We are all going to pass through the “death zone”, some earlier than others. What happens then is still shrouded in mystery despite near death experiences described by survivors.  The odds just get shorter that it will happen to me in the next decade  ̶  it could equally occur tomorrow. Best to be in neutral observer mode or even better in acceptance mode for what happens. Forget about the ego-enhancing things people seek out until they die. Forget about completing that one extra experience on the bucket list. Be profoundly grateful just to be here in this body right now as a part of the Nature or Life Force of this planet.

I should also add that I am of Māori descent. When Māori men become elders (or kaumātua), theoretically we become respected. Leonard Cohen’s description of the stages of ageing ends with men being merely “cute”, or perhaps just irrelevant. I have been self-employed for most of my life, having been displaced from various positions in the world of work. I resolved to stop putting my hand up for new roles which I knew I’d be unlikely to be considered for seriously, despite having the experience. While this allowed me to retain my integrity and self-esteem in a political world, the end result was that my wisdom was not often acknowledged or even accepted as a kaumātua. Then along came the pandemic with its lockdowns and enforced home stays, and gradually the whole edifice of the economic system has fallen into disarray. It was time to rediscover what my underlying values for Life as distinct from little life were. I found that little life was still very intent on grabbing my attention at the expense of my creative, or Great Life with my natural inclinations being overwhelmed by the trivia of small things and ideas. It was only in the midst of Nature  ̶  forest bathing perhaps  ̶  that I began to see clearly how economic growth and capitalism had become irrelevant compared with the greater values of Nature, in terms of coping with a pandemic raging around the world. A Spiritual Master, YanchiJi told me when I was particularly despondent “Gerry you can never be irrelevant to yourself.” I realised that this was of course true. I would always have that inner core, a touchstone to find options that were right for me.

So how does this play out for me as I age? I now realise that ageing is not about acquiring more knowledge and experience, but about understanding the wisdom I have and acknowledging it as important for mindful living. As an example I discovered long ago that I was interested in seeing how things turned out even if at the time they were not necessarily pleasant. I would watch movies to the end, not wanting to walk out early. Thoughts of teenage suicide were replaced with “what if the worst doesn’t happen?” I once told a passing acquaintance that nothing very bad had ever happened to me. My partner said “That’s not true! What about your broken marriage and having to fight for access to your children?” Which of course was true, but this acknowledgement didn’t seem to define who I  ̶  or my True Self  ̶  was. I was more than all that. It does however enable me to stand in empathy with friends who were also having hard time. I’ve found that I can empathise and share another’s pain, by walking in their shoes for a while.

What have I learned about ageing? It’s about dealing with the changes in my body that naturally occur with age: tiredness, lack of stamina, memory issues, significant health issues. These are a fact of life but needn’t define me. As the body gets old and its faculties fade and as the pains of old age blossom, some people try to fight these feelings. I prefer to at least accept and even surrender to my frailties - notice and diagnose them but not let them define me. I still have good long term memory but increasingly my short term memory needs to take a break as information filters through, which is annoying and means allowing time, maybe only a few seconds, for it to arrive.

Secondly time seems to be a major factor in coming to terms with failing faculties. I was diagnosed with osteoarthritis in my knee after a slight accident 15 years ago. Although it’s inconvenient it’s not debilitating, and I keep it at bay with Ashtanga Yoga and rest.  Thirdly, attitude is important, and I find the ability to sleep soundly despite the itches of Grover’s Disease or the attempts by the mind to derail sleep, is a boon.  I am generally a realistic optimist. I can fly on a plane  ̶  as an engineer and former pilot  ̶  and mull over and accept the risk of flying and equipment failure as “just one of those things that might  happen.” Accept that death could be an outcome of anything that happens to me, but that the odds are unlikely. I remember someone who had been in a bad car accident saying that as he saw the car approaching in the wrong lane he thought “this is going to hurt” as his way of pre-empting the inevitable pain and injury - he survived. We need to have great compassion for the body and what it does for us in our lifetime.

As our Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said many times during this time of trial “Be kind to each other.” She could have added be generous and even willing to sacrifice the body for someone else’s  wellbeing  ̶   a child or someone in more strife than yourself.

[Source: Gerry Te Kapa Coates, Managing Director, MNZM, Whai Wānaka Limited. Gerry has been a professional engineer in a career that has morphed into environmental  issues and writing poetry while trying to ensure that the fallout from the pandemic results in a new awareness for the world]