Moving into the advanced years of life is no longer the same as it was for our grandparents or parents. The old adage, “you are only as old as you feel,” should be changed to, “you are only as old as you think.” Increasingly we are learning that our thoughts and ideas about aging strongly influence how we view ourselves as we age and how we treat others of advanced age. If we have negative ideas of what “aging” looks like, we are likely to grow old more quickly.
The beginning of a tailspin
To illustrate, let me tell you of my experience. In 1997 my 90-year-old mother died. My husband and I were then serving as ministers in the Ananda Church in Palo Alto. During the last three years of my mother’s life, she lived in a nearby nursing home, surrounded by people in their 80s and 90s. I spent a lot of time with my mother during those years, visiting two or three times a week. Paramhansa Yogananda writes that “environment is stronger than willpower.” Being in that nursing home environment so much, I began to feel about 80 years old myself.
Shortly after my mother’s passing, my husband and I moved to Seattle to serve at the Seattle Ananda Center. Six months after our move, I turned 65. Coming on top of the move, and at a time when I was already feeling older than my years, this birthday sent me into a tailspin. The thought of being old enough for Social Security payments and Medicare — things I had been dealing with for my mother for many years — meant I had grown old and hadn’t even noticed. It was a shock!
Soon my body started falling apart. I developed arthritic pains in my hands and feet, as my mother had. My knees and my back started aching. A wisdom tooth extraction resulted in a gland infection in my jaw and I developed “dry mouth” syndrome. Suddenly I understood why my mother always had a piece of hard candy in her pocket. According to doctors, “dry mouth” is often a symptom of aging.
I finally get the message
But these ailments were merely the little indications that time had taken its toll. The big learning experience came as a result of my teaching yoga postures at the Seattle Center. Somehow I managed to aggravate an old injury in my left shoulder and I developed what’s known as a “frozen shoulder.” I could barely move my shoulder without pain. Amidst many prayers and affirmations, I searched for several months before I finally found a physical therapist who could actually help me, an “older” lady who worked me very hard. It took many months of therapy but I overcame the “frozen shoulder” completely, and I learned that if you are willing to put out the effort, you can heal almost anything.
My successful experience with physical therapy was a turning point in changing my outlook on getting “old.” Several years and a few more physical symptoms later, I finally got the message: I don’t have to consider myself OLD.
I was in the final stages of learning this lesson when, in 2001, my husband and I moved to the Ananda Sacramento Center. Later, when in need of a boost, I decided to go to India with Gyandevi Fuller to trek in the Himalayas. That trip not only launched me on a track of deeper meditations and longer seclusions, it also showed me that the human body is capable of doing almost anything it sets out to do.
I had a similar experience a few years later when my husband and I went to Peru with students from the Ananda College. As an “aging” lady, I didn’t know if I would be able to keep up with a group of young people climbing mountains. But I discovered I could keep up very well and also fully enjoy the experience.
“It was so good for my mind”
Even so, there were still a few lingering misconceptions I needed to get rid of. Several years before, I had noticed I was becoming more forgetful. It was becoming harder and harder to remember what I’d done even a few moments before. Here again was perhaps another sign that I was “getting old.”
Then my husband and I went on a diet and we started counting calories. Counting calories throughout the day was a lot of work, with or without a calculator, but it was so good for my mind! My mind became much sharper and much less forgetful. My calorie-counting experience suggests that it doesn’t matter very much how we exercise the mind so long as we do so. Paramhansa Yogananda recommends two other ways to keep the mind exercised: 1) reading good books with full attention and 2) making the mental effort to assimilate what we’ve read.
Don’t lose “half the battle”
Now that I am 79, healthy and well, I’m amazed at the resiliency of my body. Looking back, I can see where the downhill slide started – in the mind! I had embraced the thought-form so prevalent during the years I was growing up: that the retirement phase of life is the beginning of the end, and that it was “all downhill” from there.
Paramhansa Yogananda poses the question: “why do some elderly people remain youthful while others do not?” He explains: “Aging starts primarily in the mind. When the thought enters your mind that you are getting old and you permit it to take hold, you have lost half the battle.”
According to Yogananda, the second half of life is a time when we should be “in fuller possession of our faculties and talents, zestful for new worlds to conquer, and eager to pass on whatever wisdom we have gleaned.” The 19th century poet, Robert Browning, said it well:
Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which
The first was made.
The wonderful potential of aging
As we move into the last decades of life, it is crucial that we look at the wonderful potential they hold for us. A positive attitude and a willingness to do our very best in all circumstances can transform our lives, regardless of calendar years. This is one of the main lessons I learned from my treks through the mountains of India and Peru.
People in their 50s and 60s may sometimes complain “I must be getting old!” but the growing number of people who are intensely active in their later years shows that we can be mentally and physically “in shape” at any age. Swami Kriyananda and many others at Ananda are living examples of this philosophy.
Now in his eighties, Kriyananda maintains the same busy schedule of travel, speaking, writing, and counseling that he did forty years ago. By his example, Kriyananda has shown that age and physical limitations are irrelevant; no matter what our age or circumstancesm we can still live serviceful lives that benefit others. I can also think of at least two dozen people in the various Ananda communities who, in their 70s and 80s, are still playing vital, active roles.
“What is going on here?”
In 1700, when the world moved into Dwapara Yuga, we entered an age of ascending consciousness. Swami Kriyananda writes that one of the indications of an ascending Yuga is a general increase in longevity. The average life expectancy in 1900 was 50. During the 2400 years of Dwapara Yuga, the average life expectancy will increase to 200.
This general increase in longevity is already becoming evident, worldwide. We see evidence of it in news articles on people getting their college degree at 85 or 90; when we hear of people continuing their careers into their 80s; or when we read about a retired lithographer who, at 87, has taken up the art of trapeze flying. Even people who are unaware of the Yuga concept start to think: “What is going on here?”
Slowing the aging process
Great yogis in India have lived to advanced ages, irrespective of the Yuga. Swami Kriyananda speaks of having met yogis in India more than 140 years old, including one Dariababa, a 144-year-old yogi with black hair and a strong body, who knew Lahiri Mahasaya. Kriyananda says, “Many, many yogis have lived in their bodies for a long time because they are in tune with the divine energy and have absolute control over their minds and bodies.”
The example of these yogis underscores the importance of devotion and spiritual practices in slowing the aging process and increasing longevity. A very important benefit of the retirement years is that many of us have more time to be alone with God and to deepen our commitment to the spiritual search. I have found Yogananda’s Energization Exercises and meditation techniques to be powerful aids in this process.
The mind: a powerful ally
Looking back, I realize that my life has never been so rich and full as it is today. When I changed how I viewed the aging process and learned to forget myself by focusing on serving others more joyfully, all the aches and pains disappeared. Eating more healthfully and “listening” more carefully to my body’s needs also proved important. I am now able to take regular seclusions and devote myself more fully to my spiritual life. Through it all, my mind has become an ally and an invaluable tool for unearthing the “gold” in the “golden years.”