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Imagine you could embark upon a course of training designed to strip away your ego, provide you with the opportunity to come to terms with mortality and learn to appreciate the present moment? A training which allows you to recognize that you're on the path to fulfilling your true spiritual potential?
The good news is that you don’t have to imagine this. All you have to do is live long enough and pay attention to what religious and spiritual traditions have been teaching for centuries. Somewhere between your own diligent spiritual practice and divine grace, it's possible to embrace aging as a mystical path.
The notion of aging as the way of the mystic may sound very out of step with our current attitudes about aging. In today’s youth-centric society, aging is largely approached as a problem to be solved, or worse, a problem to be endured. No wonder so many people approach aging with dread, either denying that they're growing older, or letting it get them down.
What a waste of the human potential it is to define successful aging — or life, for that matter — in youth-centric terms of productivity, activity and vigor. I'm reminded here of an apocryphal story from the Hindu tradition about Alexander the Great. As the story goes, Alexander was leading his troops through India when he spotted a saint sitting serenely on the banks of the river. “I wish I could just be sitting there as you are, enjoying the sun,” Alexander said. “Where are you going?” the saint replied. “I’m going to fight one more battle and then I will return to sit beside you.” The saint looked deeply into Alexander’s eyes and said: “If what you really want in the end is to sit here with me by the river, why don’t you just do it now?”
Alexander was too busy and too goal-driven to pay heed to the saint’s sage advice. And so it is, too, that so many of us rush through the many decades of our lives consumed with logistics, responding to emergencies and fulfilling goals. Some of us encounter challenges earlier in life that slow us down, such as serious illness, divorce, or the recognition that there’s got to be more to life than just scurrying around.
This is the lesson that aging makes more and more accessible to us, as the losses associated with the aging process naturally slow us down. In fact, those of us who can grow large enough to embrace the dark side of aging can organically have what the Eastern traditions call an “awakening.” We don’t need books to help us understand the transitory nature of life. We're living it.
If this were all there were to it, however, we’d all be mystics basking on the river bank of old age. We all know, however, that getting older does not necessarily guarantee spiritual attainment, wisdom or even peace. Who hasn’t encountered bitter, cynical or resigned individuals who see aging only in terms of what is being taken away from them? The truth is that aside from a few naturally gifted individuals, the aging process requires a level of spiritual commitment that is a challenge to the best of us.
Happily, we have role models who hail from a broad range of religious and spiritual communities to point the way. Take John C. Robinson, Ph.D., D.Min. whose book, The Three Secrets of Aging: A Radical Guide, asks, “What if people began to experience age-related changes in consciousness as essentially mystical in nature?” Harry R. Moody, Ph.D. in his article, “Conscious Aging: A New Level of Growth in Later Life,” teaches, “In the most profound mystical tradition, the way of transcendence entails at its highest point the ‘loss of the self.’” You'll find prophetic assertions equating aging with fulfillment in Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Sister Joan Chittister, Buddhist priest Lewis Richmond and many more.
We’re not yet at critical mass regarding the spiritual potential of aging. At the same time, however, those of us who are waking up to the potential for aging as the way of the mystic are far from alone.
Meanwhile, the next time you catch yourself running off to fight one last battle, ask yourself the saint’s question to Alexander: “If what you really want in the end is to sit here with me by the river, why don’t you just do it now?”