The Rewards of Meditation in Late Life: Spiritual Practice for Elders

During the decades that I have taught hundreds of people how to attune to their inner voices and discover the gold in their shadows, I also have urged them to meditate. In response, many people have asked me what meditation has to do with shadow-work.

If we are to allow into conscious awareness those thoughts and feelings which we most fear and dread — our rage, shame, envy, inferiority, abandonment — we need to be grounded in something larger than our individual identity, something beyond ego, something that has been called Spirit or the Self, which lies within each of us. We need to cultivate and dwell in the silence of pure awareness in meditation as a regular practice so that when we feel overwhelmed by a shadow character and its negative emotional charge or its loud, repetitive thought pattern, we have a way to return to center.

As we age and prepare to meet our fearful fantasies of decline, degeneration, and death, we need to do this preventively, not when we’re in the midst of a physical or emotional crisis, grasping for solutions, because those are now inevitable.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Full Catastrophe Living and founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), put it this way: “You don’t want to start weaving a parachute when you’re about to jump out of a plane. You want to have been weaving the parachute morning, noon, and night, so that when you need it, it will actually hold you. . . .You will have a reservoir of inner calmness and stability and insight.”

When we learn to silence the noise of the mind and watch fleeting thoughts, we also may glimpse something in us that’s not changing or ageing — but is timeless.

Each day, as sunlight dims and dusk falls, I stop. For nearly 50 years, I’ve watched the light turn to darkness, then closed my eyes to make the transition from doing to being, from fast to slow, from outward to inward.

For me, dusk is a sacred time, as the glare diminishes but the blackness has not yet blanketed the sky. So, I have paid attention to dusk, the time between the world of light and the world of darkness — and noticed a feeling of loss as another day wanes and a feeling of eagerness as another evening embraces me.

Eager for what? I’m eager to immerse myself in the expansive ocean of silence that is simply there as I close my eyes and enter meditation, breathing in, breathing out, releasing the day’s stimulation, emptying the internal noise that goes with it, and sinking into the vastness.

After some years of feeling such intimacy with my breath, I realized that each meditation is like practicing dying, going deeper within, letting go of it all, and breathing out one last time. Then I realized, while writing this paragraph, that this ritualized practice has helped me to prepare for the greater Dusk — for aging consciously into the twilight of my time here.

When we intentionally quiet our restless minds, we discover what is already always there: pure awareness, emptiness, turiya. Every mystical tradition has a name for it — and a Way to it. It’s the universal state of transcendence that was experienced by the founder of every religion. And it’s available to each of us — between each thought, between each breath — if we practice.

Before we cultivate pure awareness, our inner world is splashed with the colors of rising emotions, and we believe our fleeting thoughts. So, we unconsciously identify with the shadow character that is emerging in the moment. The result is grief, paralysis, shame: “I am old and weak,” rather than, “I’m feeling weak today.” Or “I am useless,” rather than “I’m not feeling like doing much today.” So, we are lost in the shadow character — and have no portal to Spirit.

Man lost in thoughts

After we cultivate pure awareness and learn to witness those characters, we can watch the emotions of the moment and notice our thoughts without buying intothem. So, our deeper identity remains clear, uncolored by the passing phenomena. We might say, “I feel sad with this loss, but I know it will pass.” Or “I can’t do that anymore, but I know that it doesn’t detract from my value.”

This capacity to break our unconscious identification with the shadow character and return to pure awareness or the silent center has many gifts: It provides the body deep relaxation and recovery from stress, as the heart rate slows and blood pressure goes down. And meditation alters brainwaves in positive ways, as indicated by years of research.

In addition, more recent research demonstrates that meditation may slow aging at a cellular level. Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, who won the 2009 Nobel Prize for the discovery of telomeres (the protective caps on chromosomes whose length is a metric for aging), has linked stress to shorter telomeres — meaning shorter lives. So, if meditation reduces stress, she reasoned, it could increase telomere length. In a series of studies, she found that it did.

Meditation also appears to slow age-related degeneration in our brains. Neurologist Eileen Luders at UCLA looked at the link between age and the volume of the brain’s white matter, which typically shrinks with age. She reported that this decrease was less prominent in meditators as compared to non-meditators. On average, the brains of long-term practitioners were 7.5 years younger at age 50 than the brains of non-meditators.

Meditation also provides a sense of spaciousness in the mind, like an open sky in which the clouds come and go. This felt sense grows until we are no longer identified with our thoughts and feelings and, therefore, controlled by them. Eventually those eruptions, which used to scream at us, begin to speak through us. Because we have internal space, we can listen and discover their deeper needs, rather than be taken over by them.

“My life is not a failure.” “I am not this illness.” “I can release this regret.” “I can accept that this is how it is, even though I wish it were different.”

One day, we can sit in silence, watch the flow of thoughts and feelings come and go, and distinguish the voice of a shadow character from the voice of Spirit. In the context of aging, we can identify age — but not identify with it. Rather, the changes that inevitably arise with age become a vehicle for growing consciousness, grist for the mill, as Ram Dass calls it.

In our time, with the democratization of mystical and contemplative methods that used to be hidden for a select few, we can explore many practices and choose one that fits our natural tendencies and/or beliefs. In Romancing the Shadow, Steve Wolf and I offered a belly breathing practice using the breath to bring awareness down into the lower center, or hara, quiet the mind, settle the emotions, relax the body, and witness the inner noise.

I am not here to advocate for a specific practice; rather, I am here to advocate for cultivating a state of mind in late life — pure awareness or non-duality — that opens an internal space to notice how thoughts come and go, how shadow characters come and go, and how bodily sensations come and go. While sitting, the ego has no agenda, no goal. It’s not trying to get anywhere or to fix anything. We simply rest in awareness. We let go of the contents of consciousness and rest in pure consciousness itself.

Centering in meditation

And as we open daily to pure awareness and watch, breath by breath, we begin to realize that we are not those thoughts, those shadow characters that are complaining, judging, rejecting our circumstances. We are not those feelings that ebb and flow, dragging us up and down. Rather, we are that simple, silent, observing awareness. And the more we identify with It — rather than with the noise — the quieter the mind grows, the wider the heart opens, the deeper we sink into the timeless emptiness. And the more we embrace life as it is.

I spoke about spiritual practice in late life with Rabbi Rami Shapiro, 67, whose eclectic meditations stem from mystical Judaism, Zen Buddhism, and Advaita Vedanta. Rami’s many books and workshops address the deep unifying experience of non-duality, or unity consciousness, in mystical traditions.

“My body reminds me of my age now,” he told me. “But the awakening to a singular reality feels ageless. We can’t describe the Indescribable, Ineffable, Infinite aspect, but It has no birth or death. If we experience That, even for a moment, everything changes. We’re no longer afraid of death because we know that we are just a wave returning to the ocean. The form is gone, Rami dies, but the oceanic essence remains the same.”

I asked him what he practices now, in late life. “Jewish mysticism suggests that we do a practice for each of the five dimensions of life: For the body, I do chi gong. For the heart, I do Metta compassion practice. For the mind, I study sacred texts and write about the links between psychology, religion, and spirituality. For the soul, I practice a mantra connected to the divine mother to become more aware of the interconnection of all things. And for the spirit, I practice self-inquiry from Ramana Maharshi. It involves exploring the many levels of the question, Who am I?”

This sounded to me like a full-time job. “Whatever we’re doing, our lives are always about exploring Who am I? For seekers, it’s always a relevant question. Even if they stop meditating for years, the question is there in the shadow. So, just pick it up again.”

Even in our later years? “I find that the older I get, the more compelling the question becomes. At 16 or 60, ask the question in the same way, and it ripens into the same non-dual reality. Beneath the body of X number of years, the timeless essence remains.”

I asked him for some examples from his own experience, and he spoke about sitting in a soundproof isolation tank, zero gravity, when his body/mind disappeared into non-dual reality. “This Rami, these labels, these aches and pains, are only the crest on the wave, not our true nature.”

Rami described a similar experience when he sat with an Advaita teacher. “I was talking away….when he asked, ‘Are you?’

“Everything stopped. Time stopped. Gone. I returned a few minutes later, speechless and free. He had gone behind my mind to just the right question to silence it.”

Many of us Baby Boomers began spiritual practices during the 1960’s and 1970’s that gave us a taste of what lies beyond ordinary, daily consciousness. Some of us continued and deepened them; others let them go. But the tasks of late life require the very traits and skills that meditation cultivates: a capacity to slow downward, manage the mind, release the ego’s striving, be fully present, and attune to the voice of the Self.

There’s only one ocean of awareness. See you there.

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