My most treasured role models have taught me that aging well is not a particularly laudable goal in itself; better when we make our aging process a vehicle for living openheartedly, a vehicle that is fueled by a practice of loving kindness and fecundity. Theologian Henri Nouwen speaks of fecundity as a state of fruitfulness, rich with inner vitality and joy in being alive. Simply put, aging mindfully is living mindfully. No one is too young to get started.
Although being an elder is not age dependent, the effects of physically aging do contribute opportunities to practice eldering--being of service to the needs of our era. For many these years are some of the juiciest we have known—precious for their impermanent vitality, fruitful, and rich with places to offer heart and hope to others. Here are some strength training exercises for open hearts.
We can exemplify living simply. We begin to see that a lot of stuff really is small stuff. Acquiring things loses a lot of charm as we begin to think of downsizing or discarding or even giving the stuff away (assuming our kids would even take it). Ironically, more than merely material objects, the “stuff” that tempts people who are already privileged to hoard can be resources of time or public image as well. We realize that having too much led to too much protecting the wrong things. The less we have, the less time we need to spend tending our stuff. This leaves surprisingly abundant time to notice and admire the beauty around us, more time to think about protecting the planet, for example; more time to pay attention to the high cost of our throw away culture, as Pope Francis put it.
We have time! Oddly enough just as some might see aging as a matter of our time running out, many will find time on our hands. We have time to reach out, time to pray for others, time to touch base with others, time for things the busy younger ones don’t have. We are given the gift of time to give to others.
Our dependence becomes a lesson in interdependence, asking for and receiving help with practiced humility rather than humiliation. Our vision widens to find a much wider sense of what makes gestures and actions meaningful. Our dependence makes for gentle reminders of what it means to be human. The full spectrum looks quite different than the illusion that being swift and strong is only what is worthwhile.
We can step forward to speak and stand for justice and mercy and give courage to those who follow in our path. As we lose things like hair, beautiful clear smooth skin, employment for money, a community of friends we can take for granted, we actually have less at stake. Worry about being acceptable on someone else’s terms drops away as well. There are fewer demands to go along to get along. With empathy for the demands facing younger people in a conformist culture, we can take risks and show them we are there standing up for our beliefs and they can take more risks than they may believe they can.
We can share our important life histories for the nourishment of the young. Our life experiences are not simply our own--we know now how much we have been fed by the fruits of those we now follow, how much we have stood on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. It is now time to very intentionally and mindfully put our shoulders into service. Throw false humility and fear away; we have life lessons to be shared, mistakes to be learned from, passions to be acknowledged. The lives of others depend upon us.
Thus we need strength and stamina and resilience beyond anything we may have taken for granted when we were younger. Strength training should include the exercise of activities that keep us resilient and capable of living with vital and open hearts. Mindfulness is similarly a consciously chosen practice of exercising the heart. Body and soul stamina alike grow as a result of intention. Eldering is an art form; simply put it is living mindfully. No one is too young to get started.
An Exercise Program for Open-Hearted Eldering
Standing up for what is important
Dreaming dreams for the young with no strings attached
Risking embarrassment as well as safety for future’s sake
Walking on water
Leaping tall buildings in a single bound
Offered in peace,
Rev. Carol Rinehart