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Lessons of Old Age

(Given as a talk to the Metavision Institute in February 2007)

     When does old age begin? That I’m not sure about. Subjectively speaking, the  onset of old age varies a great deal with different people, but one usually thinks of it as starting around seventy, or maybe even sixty. But as we are all realizing more and more these days, because of the favourable conditions at present in our Western culture that phase in the biography of our life, between sixty and eighty, can be so dynamic, so newly creative that it simply isn’t appropriate to put the tag of true old age on it. Nevertheless, I don’t think old age is an altogether subjective condition; it also has a certain objective reality. Thus, according to a spiritual Teacher in Indonesia, at 81 a definite change occurs that suspends karma, lifts its burden and propels one into the spiritual process of old age proper. And on the whole that has been my own experience.

     Amazingly enough, the human biography seems to be quite a highly structured process, with psychophysical gates between each phase which open or shut, sometimes quite suddenly – even overnight – to allow new energies and initiatives to irradiate the system; and it’s on this basis that the Teacher said that at 81 a deep change occurs that spans the rest of one’s life, one that in fact benefits others more than oneself. That means not only the beginning of the death process – for that is certainly what is implied – but also a new freedom, a new dimension of experience freed from both the debits and rewards of one’s earlier life – and therefore freed also from the further karmic making of a future. (I mean by that a future on earth in the present personality. In other words, freedom from the chains of space and  time.)  So the question arises: what can one do with that freedom? What can make old age a uniquely valuable phase with which to close one’s life?

     Well, that’s an extremely interesting question because it seems to me no-one ever feels old, no matter what their chronological age. Other people look old; their bodies and physical functions have obviously deteriorated; yet each person excepts himself or herself from that unfortunate state of affairs. In one’s own feeling about oneself one is eternally young, eternally at the height of one’s physical powers, despite all the evidence to the contrary.  Isn’t it strange? I know I’m simply amazed when I suddenly see myself in a mirror and see an old woman. That can’t be me, I say to myself, it must be some other person. Now why is this so?  Why is this delusion so universal?  For it is, you know. I’ve asked lots of people about this, and have found that no-one ever feels old inwardly; they feel the body has betrayed them in some way by behaving so badly. Psychologically, there is a profound denial of such a condition in one’s own case.

     I’ve come to the conclusion that this universal denial of personal old age points to something very important indeed, something of great evolutionary significance. I suspect that ideally the body shouldn’t  age at all, and will not when the race has fully evolved. I no longer believe in old age, and I think that unconsciously no-one else does either. At the same time, old age is a present fact. At the stage we are now at there’s absolutely no way we can avoid it. From infancy on, our growing socialization entails the sacrifice of all sorts of drives, emotions, thoughts and actions no longer acceptable or no longer possible – the unfulfilled desires as well as the sins -  and all this stuff is repressed year after year after year and sinks down into the unconscious. And where is that? We easily forget that the unconscious is not in some kind of limbo or inner cyberspace, however much we would like it to be. No, it remains a part of us; however far we thrust it down below consciousness it remains part of the great Whole that constitutes an individual. With the help of the biological sciences we are learning that all that unwanted material goes into the cells of the body, and there it stays, increasingly clogging up the physical works until the body degenerates under the load and begins to die. It has become the rubbish bin of consciousness.

     That’s how things are at present. Nevertheless, even if no-one as yet can avoid this fatal division of the Whole into two seemingly incompatible parts – the evolving consciousness and the devolving unconscious, resulting in old age  - nevertheless, we can begin to understand it as a fallacy. We are not a divided house; we are not a self-destructing system at war with itself: we are, potentially at least, a fully functioning perfect Whole. And the key to this truth lies in the organ within us which as yet we know very little about. I mean the seat of government over the whole system, and which is variously called the I, the higher Ego, the Commanding Self or, in traditional parlance, the Soul, the interface between Spirit and Personality. Mediating between the conscious and unconscious subsystems that make up the whole individual, and under the direction of the spiritual Will above, the soul has the power to organize and the power to dissolve everything below itself. When you think of it this must be so. We are only just beginning to recognize the immense power of this organ – the fact that as it is drawn more and more into our field of vision it increasingly reveals its operational polarity. It is able not only to organize the components of personal consciousness into an effective vehicle in the outer world, but also to dissolve the toxic accretions – physical, emotional and mental - that are thrown off in the process, and which lodge destructively in the cellular structure of the body. Psychotherapy is teaching us how effectively this healing action can occur if we allow it to do so; and the biological sciences, as I have suggested, are beginning to move in the same direction.

     Basically, this twofold power of our command centre, our higher Ego or Soul, is the secret of eternal youth. When it can be in full operation throughout our lives, then from the beginning – from infancy on - it will be able to dissolve toxins even as they form. Even though we are not yet sufficiently aware of  this centre to allow its conscious exercise from childhood on, we do have the opportunity – if we wish to avail ourselves of it -  of doing so in the final period of our lives. It will depend on the purity of the will and its alignment with the divine Will, which works always for our healing.  But given a readiness to cooperate with the Powers that Be, we can begin in our old age to dissolve the toxins of the past more powerfully than at any other time in our lives; possibly not only our own personal past but also that of our ancestors and our own past lives. And that in its turn may lighten the burden for our descendants.

     In today’s society the majority of people feel that since they have worked hard all their lives they have earned the right to a life of leisure in their final years, not working, having fun, doing all the enjoyable things they always wanted to do but had no time for. In that case, they are not going to take up the opportunity their biography offers them. For there is no question, coming into deeper contact with the Soul qualifies as work. In my experience, It demands as much commitment and energy as any of the other adult phases of life and calls for its own litany of sacrifice. Old age in its true form demands, I believe, its own kind of self-denial: first, a degree of  withdrawal from the full participation in relationships and group activity, even close family activity, that characterized earlier stages. And this can be quite hard for people in the West, although even today many traditional Eastern societies still take this meditative withdrawal for granted and regard their Elders as a group that rightly lives partly sequestered and isolated from the main community. Second, the acceptance of grief; the immersion in a new and deeper self-knowledge, with all the pain that can entail, and a willingness to surrender the control one always unconsciously  exercised over the course of one’s life in favour of perhaps new ways of living, new ways of interacting with others, the setting of new kinds of goals – or no goals at all. Above all, old age means, at least in my case, a new preparedness to be led as the spirit dictates. Freedom takes on a new meaning. To a degree, of course, the course of this exercise in self-healing will be different for each person, depending on how one has lived one’s life up to that point, but I think its main features are pretty undeviating. 

     In my own case, at eighty-seven I’ve probably never worked as hard in my life as I have in the past ten years, both inwardly and outwardly. According to the norms of present-day society it should not have been possible because of the waning of physical powers, and yet the energy has been given. Like infancy, old age is a threshold experience. If the whole of humanity stands now at the threshold of the spiritual world, as is claimed, the last phase of life is a continuing and crowning of that experience, a culmination, a final burst of creative power, entailing a deeper grappling with the illusion of death. More and more people are surrendering now to this call to Eldership, as it may well be called  - or at least an apprenticeship to it -  and are taking up the challenge of what is really the most purely spiritual phase of their life. Old age then means the preparation for the transition into the spiritual world while at the same time creating a final blessing on this one –  a double-barrelled task that I am finding can bring immense rewards.

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Postscript:  In response to the idea of an eternal youth for the body, a friend was appalled. No-one would die, surely, she said, and then the earth would become cluttered with all the souls who had ever lived. But that wouldn’t be the case at all. Death doesn’t happen because of the aging of the body. No, the transition into the spiritual world is something we undertake because the divine Will commands it, whether the body is old or young, healthy or diseased, and that decision to move on will continue to be made regardless. There will still be the transition we call death, but in a state of perfect health and supreme clarity of mind, without Parkinson’s or Alzheimer's diseases, without surgery, drugs or pain.  That’s probably how it was always meant to be.

Copyright Victoria LePage 2007