the grow young project

mindful living: a template for engaged conscious aging

By on June 27, 2015

‘What helps with aging is serious cognition – thinking and understanding. You have to truly grasp that everybody ages. Everybody dies. There is no turning back the clock. So the question in life becomes: What are you going to do while you’re here?’

What I truly love about this quote is not only its clear grasp of reality but for me it’s also who it comes from that gives it some real clout. Go on … have a guess. Ok, fair enough I know, really it could be almost anybody, but how about if it’s no less than Hollywood’s favourite ditzy-yet-brilliant go-to blond of the 70’s and 80’s Goldie Hawn? Yep, THAT Goldie Hawn.

Why I adore that it’s her is simply that someone from the world’s epicentre of facade over substance and ground zero for the worship of youth and beauty, where actresses (and let’s face it, it is mostly actresses) are these days considered over the hill by late 30’s (think not, then that is exactly what happened to Maggie Gyllenhaal only recently at age 37!) then to have beautiful, lovely Goldie say ‘Meh, get used to it.’ Then to me that really is something.

This courage and willingness to step up to reality lies at the heart of both mindful living and conscious ageing: Being fully aware and accepting of whatever is actually happening – the clear and unadorned truth – including that ever-ongoing and inevitably palpable tsunami of time. Does ‘accepting’ mean we just lie back and let the decrepitude truck roll all over us? Absolutely not! If anything it means to not get off our butts and do what needs to be done is to practice a reckless and wantonly careless stewardship of this glorious bit of biomechanics we’ve got on loan for a few years. Hopefully a good few years more!

Mindfulness has certainly been having its moment recently, often (erroneously for me at least!) touted as some kind of groovy be-now mind-ninja skill. However here’s what I suggest a more appropriate description might be: the intentional, non-judgmental, compassionate awareness we bring to each present moment; a commitment to seeing life as it truly is. You’re doubtless aware it’s typically practiced ‘on the cushion’ but in reality that’s simply a preparation for meeting the ‘real’ world in a way that’s equally immediate, awakened and mature. This intentional engagement with daily life – moment-by-moment, courageous, patient, unfiltered and with deep awareness, interest and curiosity – is what I call mindful living.

Our primal default setting is to naturally enough avoid the unpleasant and favour the pleasant: basically chasing carrots and avoiding sticks. Feeling good motivates and drives essential behaviours from nutrition through to reproduction and conversely pain signals to help keep us safe. But an essential element of conscious evolved adulthood is the ability to attenuate our childish desire for immediate gratification and relief. In doing so we shift from being unconscious and habitual to conscious and mindful. Suddenly we have choice.

As kids we’re still hard-wired for the path of least resistance & instant gratification and part of our adult skillset lies in the understanding that achieving larger and longer-term goals requires us not to unconsciously pinball to that next tantalising carrot … or from the next stick! Instead we develop the ability to perceive the bigger picture which enables us to bring maturity, wisdom, patience and understanding to our choices and actions.

A great example of this is in meditation practice. Soon enough once sitting for a while the desire to move arrives. The painful knee, the aching back or simply the ever-present siren call of a busy life. Seeing clearly these experiences for what they are in the context of what we are actually doing here – meaning the longer goal of our practice – can allow us to patiently work with the experience rather than simply react to it.

That said it’s important we always bring wisdom to the response, so if for example the pain is clearly about damage then stop what you’re doing. If not, then perhaps exploring those sensations of discomfort may offer a powerful route to transforming how we experience pain and the unpleasant.

Discomfort can be a powerful teacher in mindfulness practice. So too can it be in the daily practice of mindful living and arguably even more so with conscious aging. Let’s face it being alive in a body will inevitably mean we will experience discomfort as time takes its toll. Mindfulness can help us do so with greater equanimity as well it can in enabling a wiser and more helpful response.

 

The practice of mindfulness is a key element of the Grow Young program allowing us to see clearly and non-judgementally what is actually happening, how we are habitually reacting and to then reframe our responses in ways that are truly skilful, wise and helpful.

I spoke recently to Harvard Psychologist Ellen Langer, a woman who has spent more than 40 years studying mindset and mindfulness with regard to aging and saliently for we Grow Youngers she tells us,

‘I’ve done research now since the early 70s showing that when people are more mindful, when we teach them to be more mindful, they live longer and health improves across the board.’

And for Ellen this isn’t at all about how long we spend sitting on a cushion but entirely about meeting life from moment to moment with full awareness.

This can seem to imply a kind of passivity to our experience. You know we just have to suck up whatever we get thwacked with, but in fact this approach is far more about the response and how we relate to the event than it is the event itself. Life goes on. Bad and good stuff happens. Conscious aging requires us first to notice the reality and then respond appropriately – to get up and at ‘em, but  the transformational key here is intention, meaning: What is the driving force behind our response? Is it one of wisdom, maturity & a simple wishing to create the best all-round outcome or is it driven by fear, ignorance and perhaps a hefty cup of plain old wishful thinking?

In this paradigm Conscious Aging is about our inner work (whatever that might mean), attitudes and intentions (ie. how we are) but it is also very much a process of conscious proactive engagement (ie. what we do). And that means proactively engaging with aging in ways that are wise, intelligent and genuinely self-caring. The Grow Young program rests firmly on the bedrock of empirically proven lifestyle interventions because they are what’s shown to work and I have purposefully veered well shy of anything that doesn’t have a quality evidence base. So should you. This is what’s meant by being wise not wishful. Aging happens. Even the best and most hopeful of our regenerative scientists believe so. What we aim to interact positively with in The Grow Young Project is unnecessary aging and that requires engaging the proactive element of Conscious Aging.

What say at this point we check back in with our lovely Goldie? Who, if you remember, earlier invited us not only to ‘get real’ with the fact of aging but to do so with some ‘serious cognition’. Personally I tend to frame that as wise response – you know, think about it and respond rather than just unthinkingly react (or avoid!). But to me it’s what she says in the end of that quote which points us to some real gold and that is,

‘What are you going to do while you’re here?’

 

Frankly I think there’s something hugely important Goldie implies but has left unsaid here, and so for clarity let me remodel it as this: What are you going to do to make this life meaningful to you while you’re here? So how does that land with you? Conscious aging is unquestionably about living life with a sense of purpose and by this I mean one that is deeply resonant with you. Reams of research point to how having a strong sense of personal meaning in life is correlated with significantly higher levels of well-being  and even  greater longevity, and in fact was considered so important to the granddaddy of the yet nascent field of Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman, that he cites it as one of the essential elements of a flourishing life. And in both a damning swipe at unconscious hedonism and a sideways endorsement of the essential nature of our meaning seeking, Seligman tells us

‘The pursuit of engagement and the pursuit of pleasure are often solitary, solipsistic endeavours. Human beings, ineluctably, want meaning and purpose in life. The Meaningful Life consists in belonging to and serving something you believe is bigger than the self …’ (1)

 

You can’t escape it. We humans are meaning-making and meaning-seeking critters and when we allow life to run us like some double-blinded experiment then at best we’re left scratching our heads trying to figure out after the fact what it might all be about. When we engage consciously and dynamically with it we can seek out that which is most important and meaningful to us and live life in real time. Proactive and not simply reactive.

Conscious or not, the choice is always ours but it’s vital we understand that it is a choice. Stumbling through life, blown by the intemperate & childish winds of our own unquestioned fears and wants or awake, alive and actively choosing each moment by moment response doesn’t seem too much of a difficult decision to me but hey … that’s me.

 

1.  Martin Seligman Flourish: A new understanding of Happiness & Well-being and how to achieve them ISBN:978-1-85788-569-9 pp12

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