Academic journal article Generations

Aging into the Spirit: From Traditional Wisdom to Innovative Programs and Communities

Academic journal article Generations

Aging into the Spirit: From Traditional Wisdom to Innovative Programs and Communities

Article excerpt

When a householder sees his skin wrinkled, and his hair white, and the sons of his sons, then he may resort to the forest .... Let him always be industrious in reciting the Veda .... In summer, let him expose himself to the heat of five fires, during the rainy season live under the open sky, and in winter be dressed in wet clothes, thus gradually increasing the rigour of his austerities .... [Then] after abandoning all attachment to worldly objects .... let him always wander alone, without any companion, in order to attain final liberation.

- The Law of Manu M. Mueller, ed.

A quarrel with the "successful aging' model.

What constitutes a good old age? In their new book, Successful Aging, summarizing over a decade of MacArthur Foundation-supported research Rowe and Kahn (1998) provide the sort of answer well accepted in our culture. Successful aging, they say, includes a low risk of disease and disease related disability, a high level of mental and physical functioning, and a continuing active engagement with life. "In sum@ they write, "we were trying to pinpoint the many factors that conspire to put one octogenarian on cross-country skis and another in a wheelchair" (p. xii). Who could quarrel with this vision of good health, high function, and an active lifestyle, as the very model of successful aging?


The Laws of Manu (Mueller, 1971) is one source of disagreement with the "successful aging" model. This Hindu text, quoted above, penned around 100 B.C.-ioo A.D., presents a radically different vision. In fact, the text almost seems a brief for umafid aging from the Western point of view When one becomes a white-haired grandparent, to head off to the forest and deliberately expose oneself to the brutal elements -this would hardly safeguard health. And instead of striving to remain actively engaged with life, this forest dweller welcomes disengagement. Age has granted permission to cast off the myriad roles and duties of midlife. Finally, "abandoning all attachment to worldly objects,' the renunciate is free to focus on life's true goal -achieving union with God.

Here is one example of the spiritual model of successful aging, so different from our conventional paradigm. The spiritual model begins with the primacy of the transcendent. The model is based on the assumption that there is something greater than the "ego-self, be that called God, eternal soul, the Tao, Buddha-Nature, or any of a hundred names. In the prime of life, we often neglect this source. We are so absorbed by earning money, advancing a career, and raising a family that we have little time for anything else. Nor need we turn our thoughts toward an afterlife. Still young, it seems we will live forever.

Yet age throws all this into question. Despite all our vitamins, exercise, and beauty regimens, the body necessarily decays. Nor is our mind impervious to bouts of forgetfulness and other distressing signs. Then there are interpersonal losses. The kids move away, we lose touch with friends, and we suffer through the death of loved ones. At work, we are no longer at the high end of the food chain. There are others, younger, cheaper, more energetic, who may take away our jobs. Thus age renders us all (to some degree) forest dwellers -stripped of our habitual identities, poised at the edge of an abyss or the transcendent.

The conventional Western model of successful aging assumes that the losses that attend age should be combatted wherever possible. Let us be that "octogenarian on cross-country skis" hanging onto midlife health and energy But the spiritual model calls for embracing the "losses" of age, using them as modes of liberation.

From this perspective, growing old can be viewed as an advanced curriculum of the soul. Life's first half had lessons of its own. In the words of the spiritual teacher Ram Dass, we were in "somebody training," building an effective identity. …

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