Estimated reading time: 11 minutes
You can run from aging but you can’t hide, so the inevitable question is, how are you going to meet it?
Will you meet aging with avoidance, rigidity, or resignation on a mournful protest through your remaining years? Or will you enhance the quality of your remaining lifetime, no matter how long it may be, meeting aging with acceptance, curiosity, resilience, and gratitude?
This is a critical question to ponder as there is no denying that aging brings challenges – many of which you would rather not experience! During my career as a psychologist specializing in treating mid-life and older clients, everyone who arrived at my consulting room shared a path of determined pursuit of the magic beans that would inoculate them from the pains and sorrows of life, only to experience continual disappointment. I will not bore you with a recitation of my own and my clients’ failed attempts of searching for paradise, as they would simply mirror your creative efforts, and you know what your futile endeavours have been!
The reality is that there is no way to transcend this human existence, a life that Buddhism accurately characterizes as comprising 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows. But be clear that aging is not all bad news: advancing years not only brings ‘memento mori’ as a reminder of our mortality but also offers ‘memento vivere’ as a remembrance that we must fully live the time still available.
Aging, therefore, can be a gift — a gift of conscious engagement with time, providing the opportunity for personal growth and development to become whole and authentic.
However, what is needed to realize this potential are practices that unwrap the gift of agency, the understanding that you can impact your day-to-day, moment-to-moment experiences in ways you may never have thought possible.
Mindfulness and Jungian psychology are two such complementary health practices. Jungian psychology explores and investigates conscious and unconscious blockages to living a full and authentic life. It allows the skewed perception of yourself to be unmasked, facilitating an expanded sense of self called individuation. Mindfulness hones your skills to focus and consciously experience each moment of your life. Mindfulness sensibility allows you to experience each moment with awareness and intention to develop a more accepting and compassionate response to whatever arises.
In essence, the goals of both practices are bold — they invite you to expand your consciousness to be aware, experience, and accept whatever is occurring in the present moment. They both provide skills to become a better friend to yourself and therefore offer the potential to meet and embrace both aging tasks — to remain aware of your limited existence while fully living each moment of your life.
Following a mid-life crisis, I stumbled upon Jungian psychology and mindfulness over 35 years ago. After establishing a successful psychological consulting company with offices in five cities across Canada, I fell into a depression. My personal and career life achievements felt empty and barren. While this felt shocking at the time, it should not have been surprising, as a dream I had several years earlier uncannily foreshadowed this impending crisis:
I am with a group of followers in a large wood-frame building that is empty of furnishings except for a glass display case. The male leader of the group, unable to continue living his life as he had, sweeps his arm through the case, smashing his trophies and icons of achievement to the ground. Weeping deeply, he buries his head in his hands and falls to his knees. With no awareness or sense of control over where his life will now lead, feelings of despair and resignation fill him as the building explodes into flames.
Through a lengthy course of Jungian psychotherapy, which illuminated how much we all function through unconscious processes, I disentangled myself from a life barren of connection with my true self. It allowed me to understand and gain insight into what contributed to my struggles, including defences, projections, personal shadows, over-compensation and the limited persona I lived within.
My newly attuned capacity to hear what my authentic life offered led to a ten-day silent mindfulness retreat. High in the Sangre de Cristo mountains outside Taos, New Mexico, I began to embrace the gifts of compassionate, present-moment awareness. It allowed me to begin cultivating an attitude of non-judgment, impartially witnessing whatever arises and anchoring my mind in a new, more stable foundation. It offered me the skills to ‘meet’ whatever occurs with a sense of equanimity rather than reflexively grasping, pushing away, embellishing with stories, or blindly reacting emotionally.
From these beginnings and through the ensuing years, I have continued to face the mysteries of everyday existence, positively enhanced through the twin lens of Jungian psychology and mindfulness meditation.
My personal journey later morphed into my professional life as I completed a doctorate in clinical psychology with a specialization in Jungian psychology as well as further training in mindfulness through the University of Massachusetts Medical School. My clinical work transformed into a novel practice marrying Jungian psychology with mindfulness addressing complex issues mid-life and older clients presented.
Since retiring from my clinical practice in 2017, I volunteered to develop and continue to teach a mindfulness program specifically addressing concerns of hospice bereavement and palliative care patients. Most patients are between fifty to eighty-nine years old, with many having never heard of mindfulness before enrollment. The benefits expressed by participants have been very gratifying. Despite their considerable personal losses, these aging individuals have found ways to meet their sorrow and pain while experiencing life courageously and wholeheartedly.
Common evaluative comments include feeling “grounded; more peaceful; confident; kinder to myself; settled; appreciative and accepting of life.” Many observed that they “gained valuable new tools for not only my grief but my life in general.”
Just as in my journey, what hospice patients found so powerful in applying mindfulness and Jungian psychology practices to life’s experiences is that it invites you to consciously live this life, your precious life, in the most healthy, satisfying, and meaningful way possible. Melding these two approaches together in nine weekly educational sessions coupled with ongoing practice offers the possibility of a compassionate way of being during your mid-life and aging years by inviting you to create an engaged and vibrant personal connection to three aspects of time’s inescapable presence:
The first invitation is to maintain your understanding that there is no stopping time — our life clocks are ticking! Mindfulness or Jungian psychology does not claim magically to create or extend time since that is impossible, for as Napoleon reminds us, “You can ask for anything you want except time.” This invitation for ongoing awareness of time passing is remembered by evoking the rhetorical question, “If not now, when?”
The second invitation concerns your experience of time — figuratively and literally to wake up to the unfolding nature of each moment. A 2010 Harvard study found that, on average, we are NOT paying attention to what we are experiencing 47% of the time!
This is a critical finding because attention turns out to be the brain’s boss — all cognitive and emotional activities follow where you put your attention. As the Jedi master, Yoda, succinctly concludes: “Your focus determines your reality.” With our Western culture’s emphasis on personal responsibility, realizing how little control you have over where your attention is focused during your waking life is sobering!
And this inattention to the task at hand does not just leave us basking in blissful fantasies or memories, with the Harvard study’s frank conclusion aptly summarized in its title, “A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind.” We end up missing our life, missing it moment by moment, leaving us feeling dissatisfied and unhappy!
Many years ago, I was fortunate to realize my dream of owning a horse. Fionn was a beautiful tri-coloured filly who, although very gentle, was not yet trained. While I had ridden horses for many years, I hired a younger (and more courageous) cowgirl to do the first rides, and when the initial rodeo of bucking and rearing ended, I was excited to continue her training. As I swung my leg over the saddle during my first ride, I was unsure whose heart was beating faster — Fionn’s or mine! But as my hands tightly took hold of the reins and my legs pressed to her girth, a disturbing question abruptly popped into my awareness: “Who was in charge here?”
Well, it didn’t take long to realize that Fionn was in control! She was the one who decided to go forward or back, to the right or the left, burst into a run or stand still, and occasionally kick front or back legs. Instead of expecting to lead this 1,500-pound animal around the paddock, my only job became breathlessly holding on tight. I, who was supposed to be in charge, had no say in the matter with the unplanned but sobering conclusion that I was just along for the ride.
In my daily life, I do not want to ‘just be along for the ride,’ with my attention slavishly pulled from one thought to another, one feeling to another, one physical sensation to another, one sight to another, or one sound to another! Missing life moment by moment is not a life worth living. Mindfulness invites us to take charge of our attention by training our focus to be present where we want it, when we want it, moment by moment.
The third invitation involves establishing a new relationship with time. Being aware and present during pleasurable moments is not likely difficult for most people. However, the task becomes learning how to be in a relationship with all of life, including the more complex and challenging experiences that often accompany the aging years. Knowing how to meet these inevitable provocative events will, in no small measure, determine the overall quality of your aging life.
Mindfulness recognizes and honours these three invitations through its definition of paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, to all you experience with an attitude of acceptance and non-judgment. It is a simple concept to understand but requires training to enjoy its benefits.
Mindfulness and Jungian psychology do not promise to transcend human existence. Instead, they offer a proven learning process to transform your awareness, experience, and relationship of moment-to-moment events and encounters, especially those of a more challenging, sorrowful, or painful nature.
COVID-19 brought the reality of life’s fragility and time-limited nature into glaring focus. During the pandemic, I elected to share with a broader audience what I had gleaned from my personal and professional experiences by writing a book titled Moonlight Serenade: Embracing Aging Mindfully.
Weaving together the benefits of mindfulness meditation and Jungian psychology, I articulate a path to meet aging years boldly, confidently, and wholeheartedly.
Through an unflinchingly honest but compassionate tone, I guide the reader in developing and cultivating a personal practice of mindfulness awareness. In addition, through Jungian psychology exercises, I advocate for the reader to explore and experience an attitudinal transformation of their relationship to aging life.
The title of my book envisions moonlight as an archetypal motif representing and illuminating the aging years. Mindfulness meditation and Jungian psychology practices are self-sung serenades, encouraging you to lovingly court and support yourself through this natural, inevitable, often trying but potentially rewarding process beginning in this present moment.
Hanging on my wall at home is a wood-carved Coast Salish First Nations mask titled “The Man Who Bumped Into The Spirit.” It depicts a human face with the left side looking very much alive, its eye open and mouth slightly upturned in a contented, calm, and satisfied expression. In contrast, the right side is incapacitated with a paralyzed and painfully contorted look that includes a closed eye, flared nostril, and droopy mouth. While the art piece is ambiguous as to which side has “bumped into the spirit,” there is no doubt that the man’s life is altered in a comparatively dramatic manner through his encounter with powerful energy.
I see the contrasting images of contented versus contorted expressions within this one individual as highlighting your choice in how you are going to meet your aging years. While this is your life, and you are free to choose, I have always interpreted the left-sided aliveness as touching the spirit of mindfulness and Jungian individuation, exemplifying the quiet confidence of composure, calm, trust, and confidence that I associate with these intentions.
Learning how to live the adventure of an authentic life is not easy, and in truth, at times, I have found it challenging. However, based on my life explorations, as I enter my eighth decade, I believe this is a way of being that facilitates meeting advancing years in a healthy, resilient, and more satisfying manner. To this claim, I offer the wise words of an unknown Tibetan poet whose suggestion for a good life mirrors the gifts of mindfulness and Jungian psychology practices. In each moment, all we have and what proves to be all we need is:
“One hand on the beauty of the world
One hand on the suffering of all beings
And two feet grounded in the present moment.”
[Adapted from Moonlight Serenade: Embracing Aging Mindfully, by Gordon Wallace]
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