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 older adults can define themselves as “not old,” and take extreme measures to act and appear young. And many older adults 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 actively 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 older 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 older adults 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 – older adults tell narratives that others judge to be more interesting than those told by younger people. Pipher found that older adults 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 older adults 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 older adults 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) even online if maintaining physical distance is necessary 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”

Just off the Road

Unlike many waterfalls, this place of water flowing over granite ledges is visible from the road with convenient parking spaces just off New Hampshire Route 16B. The dramatic tumbled ledges of Jackson Falls have been sculpted in places. It is worth following how the water flows over them, or just sitting and taking it all in. After many visits, I realized there is an entrance to a trail lower down that provides a different view of the falls as seen in the photos below.

That the United States still has many such places of wild beauty seems particularly poignant to me. Those who find this stream do not seem out of place enjoying nature rather than our unfortunately common practice of destroying natural beauty in the process of shaping it to our will.

Jackson Falls

Painters at Jackson Falls

Jackson Falls - org & grn

Couple at Jackson Falls

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 subtle and hard to define 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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Suggesting Water

The first photo shows an arrangement designed to evoke a falling down structure. This “well” was originally constructed in the White Mountains of New Hampshire by pioneer Dolly Copp to capture stream water which was piped downhill to the Copp Family homestead.

When I returned to the site in New Hampshire in 2012, it was still a place where fireflies gathered in the evening, but all indication of a manmade structure was gone (second photo below).

Rock Arngmt - Version 2

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I noticed right away that there was what looked like a dry stream running along the back of my yard:

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During a trip to Japan, I noticed this superb dry stream where Somehow the flat plate-like rocks in the stream bed suggest rushing splashing rapids and more. The way the rocks are set feels inevitable, yet not immune to the forces of time. This gift by a true master reminds us that we have access to where transience meets eternity, even as we ourselves change.

Superb Dry River copy

Just for fun, here is an actual stream in a place that should by rights be dry:

Dale Rd stream - 2016-05-31 at 06-40-20

Viewing Stones

Many viewing stones are completely natural, although some are cut so they can be placed cut side down in a carved stand. With an impact that belies their small size, viewing stones can be highly evocative of mountains, waterfalls, or pools. They are worthy of contemplation for the response they produce in us.

At times they resemble animals or are prized for their surface patterns. A tiny figure may be added to complement the mood of a stone. Larger ones are displayed outside in gardens. Placing a number of them together on a stand provides an opportunity to linger and enjoy the “conversation” among their diverse colors, shapes and textures.

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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.

The 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. his website, InsightDialogue.org, 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 all interaction.

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.

Blueberry Memories

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When I asked what she might like to contribute for a gathering to share tea and dialogue in my tea hut, Anita suggested blueberries. Blueberries are tough plants. They like the acidic gravelly soil with lots of sun exposure that is found on tops of mountains in New England and other places where they grow wild. They thrive when they are burned or eaten back by animals as this stimulates new growth underground.

Knowing they are good for you does not take anything away from their wonderful color and sweet-acid taste after a hike up a mountain.

Anita told me she has different memories of blueberries. In New England where she now lives, she buys them at farm stands. But in Central America, where she is from, they did not know about the fruit.

She has special memories of her American grandfather who loved pies made from blueberries. He had the fruit sent all the way from North America to Honduras by boat. Here she tells that story for a video made by Jeff Klein.

The Colors of Tourmaline

Like jade, tourmaline comes in many colors. Individual crystals can grow quite large at times – a two-inch green example is shown below. They are also found in handsome clusters and penetrating quartz. When many narrow crystals (or hollow ones) are aligned, a cat’s eye effect may be achieved with a bright band that intensifies, fades and moves with the light. Gems are cut in a rainbow of single colors and multi-colored slabs are also used in rings and pendants. “Watermelon” tourmaline is famous. Blue is relatively rare with the intense blue-green Paraiba highly prized.

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