Category Archives: Just let me get old, ok? (article archive)

Order and Chaos – a Buddhist ‘take’

Along with many people, I owe a large debt to Buddhist wisdom. Of the many books of Buddhist psychology I read during my 2001-8 time in the Underworld, three stand out which I would recommend to anyone going through crisis. They provide both practical coping techniques and spiritual support:

Pema Chodron’s When things fall apart”, Jack Kornfield’s “After the ecstasy, the laundry”, (see  Book Reviews  page for review of this great book) and  Bo Lozoff’s“It’s a great life – it just takes practice”.

Lozoff describes a prolonged solo retreat in which day in, day out, he meditates upon the following :

“Anything that can happen to anyone at any time can happen to me, and I accept this”. He keeps this meditative thread running through days of allowing fantasies of the worst things that could devastate him, and those he loves, to rise and dissolve. At the end of the retreat he goes home, more at peace with the realisation that chaos can and does arise at any time to sweep away the order of our personal and collective lives.

Bo Lozoff is now in his sixties. His spiritual journey began at the age of eighteen. A typical self-absorbed materialistic American teenager (his own description) driving home late one night, a momentary lapse of concentration caused him to crash into a lorry and smash himself to bits.

Many months of painful surgery and rehabilitation put him together again – a person much deepened and strengthened in spirit, no longer interested in pursuing the shallow materialistic agenda of his culture, intent on a life of service and of finding deeper answers to the big WHYs : eg  Why are we here ?” and “Why do we suffer ?”

In essence, the Buddhist view is that suffering is caused by wishing for things to be other than they are.

I found reference to this simple, penetrating piece of wisdom – prominently displayed in our kitchen –  bracingly therapeutic during my long period of recovering my energy, especially at times when self-pity threatened to take me over.

Life requires both chaos and order. With chaos alone, nothing could take form. Order by itself shuts down creativity and ultimately life itself. Chaos and order interpenetrate at every level from the most trivial to the most profound.

Most of us who are at all computer-literate have at least once had the experience, early on, of pressing the wrong key or clicking the wrong box – sending our beautifully ordered and pleasing words which we haven’t backed up, into the void. And I know of hillwalkers who, slipping in the wrong place, fell to their deaths throwing loved ones’ lives into chaos in seconds.

How do we cope with this ?

Buddhism advises us to hold very lightly to order, knowing it can turn at a blink to chaos; and to walk into chaos, regarding it as ‘very good news’ in the challenging words of renowned teacher Chogyam Trungpa.

Clinging to outdated structures whilst the storms of life are tearing down everything familiar, usually doesn’t work. ‘Leaning into the sharp points’, trying to face and learn from upheaval, is a more fruitful strategy. But its rewards may take time to become evident, and it can be very hard to find the trust that new order will eventually emerge.

At an ordinary day-to day level, the key to coping well with the ever-changing energy pattern of life is cultivating the ability to live in the present moment. “Carpe diem” as the Roman poet Horace famously said in his Odes : “seize the day”. Now is all we’re sure of. Let’s live it fully!

*******************

600 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2012
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page
Advertisements

Do you really want to live to be a hundred?

“Yes, life IS precious but maybe you truly can have too much of a good thing…..”

So said commenter Eileen Williams, in response to my guest and fellow writer Joyce Mason’s article on the topic of longevity to which I am happy to be linking at the end of this article.

Ever since the Big Bang, which is the prevailing scientific theory thus far regarding how life originated in the universe, we have been confronted with the reality that creativity and destruction are woven together. Without that monumentally, unimaginably destructive Big Bang, the creative energies which ultimately produced the richly teeming life we have on planet Earth – and probably many other planets as yet undiscovered – would not have come to be.

Each tiny human, little energy flash in space/time, carries that dual spark of positive/negative, creative/destructive power. We have to learn to balance our creativity with our destructiveness – you could argue on the large scale that the whole of human history has been about that grapple. It is simply not realistic to think that we can have light without shadow at any level in our complex world, either at a personal or a collective level.

Every advance brings that duality. At this point in our history, humans from the post-Second World War Baby Boomer generation onwards are having increasingly to face a dilemma never faced before by human beings. It is this: amazing advances in public health and general medical care have enabled those of us who live in the West and increasingly in the East,  routinely to achieve life spans which were rare in previous centuries.

My grandparents almost all lived into their eighties. This was unusual for their generation. Now, people routinely live into their nineties. This is fine for many people who live to a healthy old age, then die suddenly. We all aspire to this. But this great advance carries a very dark shadow. An increasing reality, and one which is set to consume a huge proportion of the economic resources of  affluent countries, is that quality medical care now available for people in later life is prolonging many lives well beyond their ability to contribute to society, family life or their own happiness.

 

Duality: light and dark

Duality: light and dark

http://epistemic-forms.com/Visual-Thinking.htm

What do we do about this? It is an issue which we simply have to grapple with and resolve somehow. Shortly after finishing this article I will be heading for my local hospital to visit a dear old friend in her nineties, frail and ill, depressed and having lost entirely the spark which her freedom to get about had given her, allied to her own indomitable spirit, well into old age. She just wants to go. But medical care of high quality is helping to keep her alive.

Over the last few years I have heard some awful stories about the prolonging of lives which had, by any common sense measure, reached their natural end. A vivid but by no means uncommon example of this can be seen in the story of a friend’s grandmother in her late eighties who had a severe heart attack and would not have survived. But resuscitation techniques dragged her from the brink to endure a miserable, ill eighteen months before she eventually died.

I am horrified to think that I or my husband, in old age, could be hauled from the edge of dying to an existence in some miserable twilight until death eventually could not be staved off any more. We have living wills. But would the paramedics called to an emergency if one of us had a severe stroke, know that we do not want any intervention which would drag us back to a life of severe incapacity?

I think that in our materialist society the essence of what is a complex and multi-faceted issue is this: we are culturally afraid of death and do not know at this point how to face or manage it with compassion, wisdom, respect and common sense. We were better at coping with death hundreds of years ago than we are now. Religious faith is on the wane, secularism on the rise, and the tyranny of too much choice and too many options is increasingly holding us all to ransom.

Well, what are we going to do about it?

Dealing with end-of-life issues is very much a topical issue here in Scotland at present, with this month seeing a further presentation of an End of Life Bill to our Parliament by that gritty, courageous individualist and Independent Member of the Scottish Parliament, Margo MacDonald, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease. She wants the right for herself and others to end their own lives with dignity and with the assistance of  the medical profession.

There is considerable opposition to the Bill right across the board, as can be seen from just one recent article:

http://www.christian.org.uk/news/end-of-life-bill-could-bring-death-tourism-to-scotland/

But Margo, as she is affectionately known here in Scotland, has done us all a favour by triggering a nation-wide debate and discussion on the issue of what we do about end of life issues. Economically, socially, and personally, we have to find a better way of managing the issue of how we face death in general and individual’s deaths in particular. It is too costly at every level to keep sticking our collective heads in the sand. We are fortunate indeed in the UK to have a thriving Hospice movement which offers wonderful palliative care to people who have reached the last stages of their lives. But there is not enough of that type of care.

We cannot live forever. We all have to die sometime. So what are we going to do about this huge problem?

While you think about it, check out that fine writer and fellow Baby-Boomer Joyce Mason’s thoughtful piece

Do You Really Want to Live to be a Hundred?

****************

1000 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2010
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

No, you probably don’t have Altzheimer’s….!

This post should probably be appearing on my new site

MoreBitsFallOff.com

However, being an uncharacteristic hive of industry today, I have posted something new there already – check it out! What was I saying? Oh yes, NOW I remember…..which brings me to the friend in whose honour I am republishing a book review which appeared here on ‘Writing from the Twelfth House’ last year. I spoke to her this morning. She was (once again!) so worried about incipient Altzheimer’s that she wanted to re-borrow the book I had lent her last year which she had found incredibly reassuring. It is called “Where did I leave my Glasses?” and is absolutely wonderful. No-one over the age of fifty should ever leave home without it.

Here is my review:

“Where Did I Leave My Glasses?”

The What, When and Why of Normal Memory Loss

by Martha Weinman Lear

A few weeks ago my husband dashed off to an evening meeting. Shortly afterwards, he rang me, sounding stressed. “Can you please find my glasses for me? A friend is passing by shortly – she can pick them up and bring them along to the meeting.” My irritation with him dissolved into fits of laughter when I eventually found the glasses. Where were they? Yes, sitting right on top of  the book he was then reading, called “Where Did I Leave My Glasses?” by Martha Weinman Lear.

Exhibit A - the glasses!

One of the realisations which don’t dawn until the fifties – I speak for myself here, maybe you are ninety-six and still in denial! – is that it’s all downhill physically from now on. I think writer Richard Holloway is right when he talks in one of his books (surprise, surprise, can’t remember which one….) about the importance of starting to cultivate fortitude once you reach your fifties. Time is going to win, and you, small speck of ephemeral matter, are going to lose – no matter what you do to try and stave off the aging process.

An indestructible sense of humour is a huge asset in facing this truth. So is information which cheers you up rather than depressing you. Everyone over the age of fifty should therefore read this book. It succeeds in being simultaneously very informative and very entertaining on the topic of normal memory loss, a subject which generates intermittent worry for, I would estimate, at least 99 per cent of us who are baby-boomers and older.

Martha Weinman Lear, former articles editor and staff writer with the New York Times Magazine, is well qualified to research and present information and opinion on the topic of memory loss, having written extensively before on social and medicine-related topics.

I infer from the book that she is a person past the first flush of youth. Here she is, inviting us to

“Consider our own memory situations, yours and mine.

Here is mine:

Adjectives elude me. Verbs escape me. Nouns, especially proper nouns, totally defeat me. I may meet you at a party, have a long, lovely conversation with you, be charmed by you, want to know you forever, and a day later not remember your name….”

The book is laugh-aloud entertainment, rooted in real conversations with real people all of whom including herself have funny disclosures to make centering round the five top responses to the question she put to all the lay and expert interviewees in the book, ie ‘What can you most reliably depend upon yourself to forget?’

These five were:

Where did I leave my glasses?

What was I just saying?

What did I come in here for?

What did I ask you to remind me to do?

What’s her(his, its) name?

Lear’s book may be wittily written, but it is also thorough and well-informed in exploring aspects of normal memory and memory loss, including why we are actually wired to forget. She covers a range of topics including sex differences in memory function and deterioration, different types of memory, how to train the aging brain into being more efficient at remembering – and most fascinating of all, the future of memory enhancement in a culture where increasingly we are living longer than biology built our bodies to last.

I found “Where Did I Leave My Glasses?” enormously comforting and reassuring in the face of the spectre that haunts our increasingly long-lived Western populations – Altzheimer’s. Lear’s book’s central message is that most memory lapses beginning in middle age are universal: a normal part of the inevitable process of aging.

In short, don’t worry if you don’t know where you left your glasses. But do worry – and seek help – if you can’t remember what your glasses are for….

Exhibit A - the glasses!

(this is the slightly edited and re-published version of a book review published on this site in 2009)

800 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2010

Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

Seize the Day!

 

This article was first published in Connections magazine, August 2006,  as

“Order, Chaos and Carpe Diem”

“ Today I walked to my office, in pouring rain, and got soaked. Here I sit writing, my jeans  steaming dry on the heater, feeling really joyful. ‘Why?’ you may ask. “Is she mad? What’s good about getting frozen and soaked in Glasgow, Scotland, at the end of May?”

I’ll tell you why. Because normal and ordinary and energetic feel like gifts. Having a normal body, doing ordinary things, having the good health and energy to be able to walk in the rain, feel precious to me now. For years, whilst making the best of the circumstances in which I found myself, I couldn’t help longing at times for normal and ordinary as my body, mind and spirit went through apparently endless bouts of turbulence.

My five year odyssey in the underworld of burnout and retreat, which some of you will have read about in the first two issues of this column, now feels as though it is coming to an end. Quite suddenly, in recent weeks, my energy has sprung back and various unpleasant symptoms have largely gone.

Yes, order seems to have returned. I celebrate that, and give thanks daily.

However – having survived a prolonged period of chaos where most of my familiar landscapes simply disappeared and the usual strategies for managing life ceased to be of any use – a few things are much, much clearer than they ever were before.

Someone observed that life should be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards. How right they were! One of the many advantages of growing older is that we have more life to look back on. Surviving until middle age and beyond – something our remote ancestors rarely did – offers us an opportunity fully to understand and accept the essential precariousness of the human condition. With this acceptance can come a greater degree of letting-go, and consequent inner peace, than is possible in youth.

Along with many people, I owe a large debt to Buddhist wisdom. Of the many books of Buddhist psychology I read during my time in the Underworld, three stand out which I would recommend to anyone going through crisis. They provide both practical coping techniques and spiritual support:

Pema Chodron’sWhen things fall apart”, Jack Kornfield’s “After the ecstasy, the laundry”, (see Personal Book Reviews page for review of this great book) and Bo Lozoff’s “It’s a great life – it just takes practice”.

Lozoff describes a prolonged solo retreat in which day in, day out, he meditates upon the following :

“Anything that can happen to anyone at any time can happen to me, and I accept this”. He keeps this meditative thread running through days of allowing fantasies of the worst things that could devastate him, and those he loves, to rise and dissolve. At the end of the retreat he goes home, more at peace with the realisation that chaos can and does arise at any time to sweep away the order of our personal and collective lives.

Bo Lozoff is now in his late fifties. His spiritual journey began at the age of eighteen. A typical self-absorbed materialistic American teenager (his own description) driving home late one night, a momentary lapse of concentration caused him to crash into a lorry and smash himself to bits. Many months of painful surgery and rehabilitation put him together again – a person much deepened and strengthened in spirit, no longer interested in pursuing the shallow materialistic agenda of his culture, intent on a life of service and of finding deeper answers to the big WHYs : eg  “Why are we here ?” and “Why do we suffer ?”

In essence, the Buddhist view is that suffering is caused by wishing for things to be other than they are. I found reference to this simple, penetrating piece of wisdom – prominently displayed in our kitchen –  bracingly therapeutic, especially at times when self-pity threatened to take me over.

Life requires both chaos and order. With chaos alone, nothing could take form. Order by itself shuts down creativity and ultimately life itself. Chaos and order interpenetrate at every level from the most trivial to the most profound. Most of us who are at all computer-literate have at least once had the experience, early on, of pressing the wrong key or clicking the wrong box – sending our beautifully ordered and pleasing words which we haven’t backed up, into the void. And I know of hillwalkers who, slipping in the wrong place, fell to their deaths throwing loved ones’ lives into chaos in seconds.

How do we cope with this ?

The Buddha

The Buddha

Buddhism advises us to hold very lightly to order, knowing it can turn at a blink to chaos; and to walk into chaos, regarding it as ‘very good news’ in the challenging words of renowned teacher Chogyam Trungpa. Clinging to outdated structures whilst the storms of life are tearing down everything familiar, usually doesn’t work. ‘Leaning into the sharp points’, trying to face and learn from upheaval, is a more fruitful strategy. But its rewards may take time to become evident, and it can be very hard to find the trust that new order will eventually emerge.

At an ordinary day-to day level, the key to coping well with the ever-changing energy pattern of life is cultivating the ability to live in the present moment. “Carpe diem” as the Roman poet Horace famously said in his Odes : “seize the day”. Now is all we’re sure of. Let’s live it fully!

Looking at the bigger picture, it’s also wise to remember that the scientific materialism which has come to dominate our view of life is very recent – a shallow surface layer of a couple of hundred years or so. For many milennia, at every stage of cultural and religious evolution, human beings across the world have perceived the whole of life as sacred, saturated with meaning.

Our distant ancestors realised that humankind could not survive alone. In coping with the often brutal buffetings of life they needed one another, and connection with the divine spirit which vitiates all creatures. Communal social and religious rituals were a vital tool in affirming connection with a greater Order. Despite the unprecedented materialism and self-obsession of our age, which seems to be bringing humanity increased levels of disorder and unhappiness, as a species we remain ‘wired for God’.

It doesn’t matter whether Ultimate Reality is perceived as transcendental unity, Emptiness or the Void in Buddhist terminology, the quantum vacuum of contemporary cosmology, or God of  the traditional theistic religions. There is now much research supporting the fact that the happiest individuals are those who believe that there is a greater Order which embraces everything known, unknown and unknowable, and who are part of a faith community with shared values centred on the Golden Rule : “do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”

The great psychologist Carl Jung observed that he had never treated a patient in mid life for whom their spiritual need was not part of the crisis….so here, in conclusion, is a prescription for happy ageing:

“ Hold lightly to order, embrace chaos, realise that suffering arises from the desire that things be different than they are, live in the moment, and find the God of your understanding to honour and serve in the company of  fellow spirits.”

There, my jeans are dry now and the sun has come out. Time to seize the moment and go sit in the park ! ”

1200 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2008
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

Learning to do ‘slow’….

 

“Loch Duich, Scottish Highlands, UK, summer  2001. What a beautiful morning! Here I am, strolling along a lochside path, savouring sweet fresh Highland air, gazing across the loch to majestic mountains beyond. The subtle smell of gorse is wonderful – like mild coconut. This morning, the scent is drifting on the breeze. Stopping to smell some gorse flowers, admiring their vivid yellow, my attention is caught by an enormous bee, browsing purposefully. For a long time I stand watching it at work. Suddenly, I am overcome with sheer happiness and gratitude at being in this beautiful spot, with nothing to do but watch a giant bee….

This small, perfect moment burned its memory into my consciousness. Back in our busy city life, full of responsibilities and deadlines, it began to appear every so often, like a little bright flag, alerting me to something.

Seven years later, with the wisdom of hindsight, I know full well what that something was: a stark warning that I was stifling what my mind, body and soul desperately needed – space, peace, silence, seclusion – and slowness, to enable me to be receptive to life rather than using my active will to hammer it into what I thought was an appropriate shape. All these precious things came in abundance with my collapse through sheer exhaustion at the end of 2001, a few months after the incident with the bee.The crash was triggered by a long family crisis that year, which totally depleted my energy at the outset of menopause.

However, there are many advantages to a prolonged and severe crisis. The Chinese word for crisis contains two characters. One conveys threat, the other, opportunity. Many opportunities have presented themselves, the most important  being that I have finally learned to do slow!

When you are forced off the treadmill of contemporary living into a quiet, restful life, becoming more like an occasional visitor from another planet than a participant in 21st century society, certain things become very evident. The most obvious one is that the pace of our life is far too fast.

Everything we learn from history, contemporary living and individual experience points to the importance of striving for balance.  At present the signs are everywhere that we are living in an increasingly unbalanced and destructive world, driven by a pathological need for constant rapid change, and perpetual action.

My long crisis taught me that doing “nothing”, doing very little in a slow and leisurely fashion, and  responding to life rather than acting upon it, are all very fruitful modes. After seven whole years of apparently doing very little apart from lying around drinking tea, reading books, keeping journals, and  fine tuning the undervalued art of procrastination, I feel like a warm and happy pile of rich compost. I don’t feel in the least that all those years of my life have been wasted. Quite the opposite. This, let me tell you, is a  profound, pleasant and wholly unexpected surprise.

I used to try and cram as much as possible into every waking hour, considering time doing “nothing” as time wasted. Does this sound familiar? Had someone told me then that my powerful will would be rendered useless by exhaustion, and that I would have to respond to what my body could do, ie almost nothing, for a  long time, I would have been horrified and very, very scared. And at various points I was horrified and very, very scared.

The poet TS Eliot observed that the end of all our life’s exploring returns us to the starting point, where at last we know the place for the first time. From this perspective,  life is a multi levelled process of moving through repeating cycles of  discovery to deeper and deeper levels  of understanding of what we already know.

I now truly see that there are two fundamental modes to being alive. One is being active, the other is receptivity. Day is for activity. Night is for rest and recharging in stillness, quiet and darkness. Without the slow dying and resting of autumn and winter, the earth could not give us the fecund vitality of spring and fruitfulness of summer. Doing needs to be balanced by being. In order to be truly creative as citizens, parents, workers, partners, and individuals we have to be still, to listen, to receive. To enter these modes, there is an essential key. We must slow down.

One of the most profound lessons I have learned over the course of my life is that often the greatest gifts come in the most unappealing packaging! Within our current culture we are taught that ageing and the gradual diminishing of energy which goes with it is a bad thing. But ageing is inevitable. Its accompanying loss of energy can be used wisely, if we read it as a sign that the time has come to slow down, learn to move more easily from active to receptive mode, and to adopt the tenor of the latter more and more as time goes on.

I am not advocating sinking into a vegetable-like stupor as the ageing process advances! But the cycle of life at every level depends on the key stages of conception, germination, birth, maturing, decline, death and renewal.We should try to be co-operative with this process, rather than narcissistically trying to hang on to youth. Carl Jung wisely observed that the second half of life should be spent preparing for the end of it. One of the great ways of beginning to prepare to let go of this life in order to move on to the next great adventure beyond it, is to grant oneself time to contemplate, time to rest, time to read, time to look out of the window and watch the clouds go by.

I have discovered, to my great surprise and joy, that doing “nothing” and doing slow opens up – very slowly, so be patient ! –  all sorts of creative, fertile space in your life. Try it ! Cultures and individuals stuck in fast, doing  mode for long enough, quite simply, burn themselves out.

Some of you harassed busy folk reading this may find yourselves getting annoyed, muttering “It’s all very well for her!” But I have learned the very hard way that if you deny mind, body and spirit what it needs for long enough, especially as mid life advances and your body begins to lose some of its vitality, the price for that denial will duly be exacted, usually through ill-health.

So – learn from me and that bee at Loch Duich in the summer of 2001. Start doing some slow. You won’t regret it !”

(this is an updated, slightly edited version of an article published in Connections Magazine, Scotland, UK, in  February 2006 as part of an ongoing column called “Just let me get old, ok?”)

 

1100 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2008
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page