Hidden Gifts of Aging

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Buddhist teachings tell a story that the Buddha encountered “divine messengers” that changed his destiny. At 29, he left protected life in the palace and encountered old age, illness and death for the first time. Like young Prince Siddhattha, we may be out of touch with these realities, preferring to imagine we will live forever. But these messengers can shock us into seeing a path beyond the superficial and beyond our heedless reactivity to the 10,000 sorrows and 10,000 joys of life.

We face many of the same challenges that humans have always faced although history and culture have shaped how we think about aging in modern times.

In these times of existential threats, we can define anyone different from us as dangerous. Those who remind us of our own death can certainly pose a threat. Even elders can define themselves as “not old,” and take extreme measures to act and appear young. And many elders complain of feeling invisible – not seeing them is another way to deny old age, illness and death.

I recently heard a moving story about a dying woman who said that she gets to choose love over fear in every moment. That “choosing” resounds beyond conventional time making an eternity of each moment. We are all aging if not actually dying and if this dying woman found she had a choice, perhaps we do too.

I invite you to consider that there are hidden gifts that can come with the terrible blessing of aging. Elders experience so much suffering, so much reason to anticipate suffering and they see it in their elder friends, yet they can report experiencing greater happiness than when they were younger. What is going on here?

I began to sense that aging can bring real gifts during six-week tea and dialogue workshops I offered elders during my internship in Lesley University’s Mindfulness Studies program. These elders were so open and direct, so supportive, so eager to really listen, and quite creative. They were also so appreciative of each other and what they had to offer each other that it turned out to be one of the sweetest experiences of my life.

Farmer and Farmer note that conversational skills may actually improve with age – elders tell narratives that others judge to be more interesting than those told by younger adults. Pipher found that elders tend to value honesty. In his TED talk on “The Neuroscience of Social Intelligence” Bill von Hippel mentions that older adults may not censor themselves about what might be considered socially inappropriate topics. While this might be considered a liability in some situations, speaking the vulnerable truth provides access to our fundamental interconnection. According to the Committee on Future Directions for Cognitive Research on Aging, elders appear to be particularly sensitive to emotional aspects of situations, including interpersonal ramifications of problems (Stern & Cartensen, 2000, p. 31).

In Older and Wiser: Classical Buddhist Teachings on Aging, Sickness and Death, Soeng, Ambrosia, & Olendzki provide commentary on several Buddhist teachings related to equanimity noting that elders may live more in the moment and may have learned the futility of wasting time and energy in overreacting. Aronson cites evidence that contrary to what younger adults might believe and fear, elders can actually experience reduced anxiety and increased life satisfaction. She notes elders may no longer care what others think about them, bringing a new and most welcome sense of freedom.

With age can come enhanced wisdom and compassion – less judgment, less denial of reality, more appreciation for every precious moment and more choosing love over fear. Sharing tea with a sensitive, caring and wise elder (who may very well be an excellent story teller) seems like a very good idea in these challenging times.

Gathering for Tea

Tea plant

The Camellia sinensis plant is used to make tea all around the world. Perhaps that is not surprising given tea’s many significant health benefits. Research has also found that drinking tea can elevate mood, support focus and enhance creativity.

We do not simply drink tea, we create art and rituals around it. And they can be quite stunning. Watch this short slow motion video of portions of a Japanese tea ceremony by videographer Jeffrey Klein.

An elevated mood and greater ability to sustain focus would likely amplify the benefits that connecting provides for our social species. With both tea and social connection supporting wellbeing along with the enhanced creativity that tea makes possible, it is no wonder that sharing tea became a focus for special equipment and gatherings all around the world…

United Kingdom,
Japan,
China,
Taiwan,
Korea,
Russia,
Senegal,
Vietnam,
Colonial America

And drinking tea quite informally is always an option. But while some of tea’s benefits can be had by drinking it alone at your computer, why not enhance those benefits even further by offering to get tea for others or by inviting others to take a break to share tea with you? It is always tea time somewhere.

Beware False Refuges

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While we can find and create true refuges for ourselves, we need to be very careful about clinging to what is NOT ACTUALLY TRUE. Our minds not only are subject to negativity bias that has us paying attention to what stands out as potentially threatening (whether it is or not), but we also seek out those who confirm our biases, in a phenomenon known as confirmation bias. When times are difficult, the desire for the truth to be other than it is can have us preferring our wishful thinking and finding in it a false refuge.

This can have us out of touch with reality in distorting cubes that reflect back our false assumptions. These may feel like refuges. But being in such a false refuge is dangerous as reality has a way of finding us anyway, and we may spread false assumptions causing further harm. Not only that, but clinging to false refuges can keep us from true refuges that can provide badly needed genuine support. Compassion requires we be careful for our own sake and for the sake of others’ wellbeing.

Mindful bloggers can speak up for the truth and work at questioning and checking out what they think is true. Curiosity matters. Testing assumptions matters. Science matters. We need to keep questioning whether what we are being fed is the truth. The worst case is no longer caring and that way lies manipulation by evil doers and chaos. Mindfulness matters. Even if we can never know the absolute truth, we can take steps to avoid getting lost and trapped in fantasy that is actually a form of hopelessness.

This radio episode, talks about how mindless bloggers can contribute to a very dangerous trend to spread misinformation:

“The misinformation virus

Discovery
In this online age, the internet is a global megaphone, billions of messages amplified and shared, even when they’re false. Fake science spreads faster than the truth ever could, unhindered by national boundaries. Mainstream scientists are struggling to respond. The science journalist and writer, Angela Saini, is fascinated by how bad ideas spread and in this programme she investigates the very real impact of online scientific misinformation. From the dangerous anti-vaccination campaigns to those who deny the reality of climate change, she assesses the scale and extent of the threat we face. And she discovers the sinister world of deliberate disinformation where an army of bots and trolls work to sow dissent and confusion in the online space.
Producer: Fiona Hill”

Beauty & Imperfection

With its seeming love for the one-of-a-kind and constant change, the natural world can be quite worthy of our detailed inspection. Even an oddly unique, or broken and incomplete natural object can be so beautiful it can take our breath away. There is a story about Sen no Rikyu, a famous Japanese tea ceremony master – he shook a few leaves onto the moss after a tea garden was cleaned a bit too perfectly. Leaving a few fallen leaves on the moss points to the wonder and mystery of reality as it really is.

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We care about others’ approval because we need others in order to survive, and that can have us wanting to be perfect. But perfection in the abstract is a rather odd concept when you think about it. Toward what end? And according to what standards does it operate, anyway? What matters to one person may not matter at all to another and different cultures value different things.

I have found that people actually love it when we accept ourselves, imperfections and all, and when we can be open about feeling vulnerable at times. Those who can accept their own imperfections tend to have an easier time accepting them in others which can be a great relief given how much we tend to fear being negatively judged.

Japanese tea ceremony teaches many lessons through the actions involved in sharing tea while engaging with various objects. For example, a beautiful tactile tea bowl like the one made by my Japanese tea ceremony teacher, Giselle Maya, may be misshapen or have imperfections in its glaze that resulted from a collaboration with the kiln fire. Irregularities and burnishing from age and use can add great depth to beauty, something that we can learn to appreciate in each other as well as in tea bowls, even mended ones.

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The Japanese concept of “wabi sabi” embraces imperfection. It recognizes that since everything is constantly changing, perfection is impossible, except in perfect moments as Beth Kempton notes along with wonderful examples in her Wabi Sabi: Japanese Wisdom for a Perfectly Imperfect Life.

I find that looking for a beauty that embraces imperfection can provide great solace. At times we can even catch others and ourselves in the act of being beautiful. And seeing the light shining through that deeper beauty can connect us to all that is.

Below are examples of imperfect beauty that called out to me. I recommend the wonderful adventure of finding your own examples.

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Insight Dialogue

09 Sept ME

Most of us have experienced relaxed conversations that just seem to flow, perhaps in a setting where nature is on view like the one in the photo or around the kitchen table. Peace descends and we feel whole and seen.

Often, however, we lose track of that potential. Avoiding getting stuck cycling on issues that concern us can be difficult enough when we are on our own. Maintaining calm awareness while interacting with others can be particularly challenging.

Insight Dialogue provides support to bring tranquil awareness to the interpersonal domain. First one person speaks on a designated topic while the other listens silently without commenting and then the roles are reversed. There may be an additional timed period with no separate speaker and no separate listener. Pausing allows time to discern what would be beneficial to say as well as time to take in and gain new understanding from what is said.

Insight Dialogue’s guidelines create the safety needed for evolving trust and authentic sharing from the heart: Pause, Relax, Open, Attune to Emergence, Listen Deeply and Speak the Truth. It becomes clear we are all vulnerable and that we also have great power to support each other just by how we listen.

This video of Phyllis Hicks facilitating an Insight Dialogue practice shows this supportive energy. You can see the openness, authenticity and caring connection in the responsive body language of the participants. More of Jeff Klein’s sensitive videography can be seen at his website.

Gregory Kramer developed Insight Dialogue. This website includes information on each of the Insight Dialogue guidelines as well as opportunities to experience online drop-in sessions, and face-to-face practice.

The Insight Dialogue guidelines honor dignity; attentive listening meets disclosure for all participants. That makes it easier to truly show up and pay attention to what is said including by oneself. Participants are better able to perceive the preciousness of our sensitivity to each other and learn how to bring greater compassion to themselves and others.

Because of the vulnerable investigation of experience, difficult emotions may arise at times. David Treleaven provides guidance for recognizing and addressing adverse reactions that can arise with any form of mindfulness practice.

In my experience, most of those who try Insight Dialogue appreciate the careful attending that goes well beyond the normal rushed and distracted quality of much everyday interaction. With practice, I found I could bring that same supportive energy to any conversation, and that brought a whole new ease to my life.

Living Intertwined

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I purchased this lovely two-inch pendant without knowing anything about it. A little online research informed me that it is a Taka. Taka are treasured heirlooms of the Ngadha from the beautiful Island of Flores in Indonesia.

Being Singular Plural explains: “to be Ngadha is to have a keen sense of being implicated in the existence of others. Being with others is a human concern, as people cannot exist in the singular. For Ngadha people, this is particularly explicit, so that individual independence is not a coveted state of being; rather being singular plural is the principal mode of existence.”

The author goes on to explain, “Ngadha practices of interdependence are reflected in the community economy, which privileges ancestor worship, community cohesion and group distribution of resources above the needs and desires of the individual…Interdependence is a dominant feature of everyday Ngadha life and organization. Ngadha people’s view of their own society involves a sense of self that questions the conceptual separation of self from others. Frequently, people alerted me to the ways in which everyone and everything is connected.”

When what we need (and often only what we mistakenly think we need) is bought and sold using money and we do not directly perceive how things are made or obtained, it is easier to forget how much we depend on each other. But scientists keep finding evidence for our fundamental interconnection with each other – that this ‘we’ sense of identify has validity.

In Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect, Lieberman notes, “Just as social and physical pain share common neurocognitive processes, so…do physical and social rewards share common neurocognitive processes.” There is evidence that our brains synchronize during social activities, and recently it was found this is also true for bats. As Zhang explains, “The ‘magic’ here is social interaction. When we interact, our brains engage each other indirectly through our behaviors.”

in Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, John Cacioppo and William Patrick describe the many negative effects that result from feeling socially isolated (which has been found to be as bad for us as smoking). They describe how “the sensory experience of social connection, deeply woven into who we are, helps regulate our physiological and emotional equilibrium. The social environment affects the neural and hormonal signals that govern our behavior, and our behavior, in turn, affects the neural and hormonal processes.”

That Taka is a reminder that there are those living on this planet who understand and honor our inextricable interdependence. Perhaps the growing scientific evidence will help us remember how important to us our social superpowers really are.

Creating Welcome

Bringing in peace as you prepare for a gathering will affect you in ways that cannot help but benefit your guests – Pause, Relax, and Open, Attune to Emergence and Listen Deeply. Then Speak the Truth in creating an environment that conveys warmth and welcome. The Insight Dialogue guidelines work well in so many applications including this one.

Perhaps you will include a reminder of nature displayed in a place of honor with space around it. Using a light touch, see what happens. Relying on a heart connection without words can open us to wonderful small surprises and an understanding that with a little care, life can be lived more like a work of art.

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You can bring to it all the sensitivity and freshness used to create a tokonoma alcove arrangement for a tea ceremony. This one includes a collage by my tea ceremony teacher, Giselle Maya:

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You may also wish to keep in mind the Japanese tea ceremony values of harmony, purity, respect and tranquility. While it is important to ensure that what touches food or drink is scrupulously clean and that edibles are pure and safe, purity also dictates that anything not needed be eliminated. Care taken with objects and supplies implies respect for your guests.

Ideally, the result will be supportive of a sense of peace and wellbeing as well as openness. It takes a bit of effort, but this approach to preparing for guests is an important mindfulness practice in its own right.

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