As we travel through the life course, as we accompany and witness others as they travel through the life course:
We place our attention and awareness upon our odd, unexpected, flummoxing, and contradictory aging experiences; we accept our experiences and those of others as sacred and real, if yet (or, perhaps, always) unexplainable.
We develop our capacity for aging consciousness and intentionally exercise this consciousness through ongoing curiosity about and pondering of our own and others’ aging experiences.
We try on different ways of moving through the world so as to develop our empathy for and imagination about human (and other creaturely) aging experiences we’ve yet to (or may never) experience.
We ask questions about the meanings of our aging experiences without engaging in analysis, nor with attachment to finding answers. We rejoice in the spilling-forth of yet more questions.
What happens when I decide to go slow through the world, to take a more leisurely pace through space and time? What happens when I decide to go more quickly, to speed things up? How does my mind experience the world differently depending on the speed my body is moving? What does slowness allow me to see, to feel, to understand? And what has speed to offer to me? And what is the experience of being able to have agency regarding the speed I travel in my body through space and time? And what might it be like for me someday – tomorrow, next year, in a decade– when I must adjust my sense of agency so as to adapt to my older body which perhaps will have a narrower range of speed-options? What might I still learn from times in my life I’ve already experienced when, because of illness or injury, I was forced to move slowly, sometimes not at all? What might it be like to be told (perhaps with impatience, frustration) by someone who has different options for speed than I have that I must speed up (or slow down?)? Can we negotiate velocity, find a comfortable and companionable shared speed? (Why are these questions important to ponder? What are some other questions to ponder?)
We tried a contemplative exercise on age identity in my Embodiment in Later Life seminar.
I asked students to stand in front of their desks in a circle. Then to stand still, eyes closed, feet firmly planted on the earth but body as relaxed as possible. Then, in an unforced way, to begin breathing, sending their breaths down into their bellies. And, after awhile, I invited them to begin silently counting their breaths…1, 2, 3…
And, after twenty or so breaths, I posed the question: “What age are you right now at this moment, standing still, breathing deeply”?
After a few minutes of silent reflection upon this question, we opened our eyes, sat down, and engaged in a roundtable discussion about our experiences.
Some of the questions we explored:
Where does age reside?
In the absence of and in addition to the concepts of chronological age, in what ways do we categorize ourselves and others as an aging person?
In the absence of social feedback – signals from others – how do we know what age we are, that we are aging?
In the absence of embodied feedback – signals from our bodies that we’ve come to associate with aging and age – how do we know what are we are, that we are aging?
What can we describe about the phenomenon of aging, of growing older, from an experiential standpoint? What is our capacity for using words to describe our experiences? When we reach the edge of our capacity to put experience into words, what are other modes for expressing our experiences?
Some of the insights we shared:
The profound lack of solidity of the inter-related phenomena of age and aging and being old. They are concepts, they are experiences, they are social structures, and yet, in the stillness of breathing, eyes closed, they are without form and substance.
The paradox of the simultaneous experience of disembodied, timeless consciousness, on the one hand, and the embodied mind, the materiality of consciousness, on the other hand.
The extent to which our experiences traveling through the life course are shaped by social constructions: about the nature and passage of time; the meaning of chronology; phases and stages of the life course; what we expect to do and when (and what society expects us to do, and when).
And the stories we tell about our embodied selves.
What stories do you tell about your embodied self? When you stand still, feet firmly planted on the ground, body relaxed, eyes closed and you breathe down into your belly, what age are you?
(Some other concepts that may be related to “contemplative gerontology”: Embodiment; Impermanence; Mindfulness; Intention; Space and Time; Stillness; Slowness; Tempo; Wonderment.)
Love the exercises, and completely agree with our need, at whatever age and stage of life we are, to develop both a contemplative and body-based spiritual practice to create deeper connections, awareness, and respect for our whole selves.