The essence of aging is impermanence. Aging is most fundamental form of change we experience in our lives. It provides our most natural orientation to time, and gives rise to the ideas of life expectancy and life span. Aging means that our lives are inherently imbued with impermanence; our time in life is temporary, fleeting, and fragile. The final frontier of impermanence remains shrouded deep within an impenetrable mystery; we cannot know in advance precisely how long we will live, but we hope to live happily well into old age. As the influence of aging intensifies and we begin to feel the allurement of our own transience, the soul joins an ancient and universal conversation with impermanence that inspires and animates an enchanting sense of spiritual urgency deep within.
Ideally, we would all live a long life free from pain and suffering, and hope that death approaches us as late in life as possible in an immediate, quick, and painless manner. Unfortunately, impermanence is chaotic and unpredictable in its manifestations; it does not offer the hospitality of foresight nor consistency in influencing the course of our life. The sudden appearance of a disease or serious injury from a tragic accident may unexpectedly shorten our life expectancy, and also have the potential significantly impair the quality of the time remaining in our life. Even if we have the good fortune not to experience a debilitating disease or accident, we will all inevitably experience the effects of senescence, the natural and normal deterioration of the body as we get older. Eventually, aging leads each of us into the midst of a spiritual conversation with our own impermanence.
If you suffer, it is not because things are impermanent. It is because you believe things are permanent. When a flower dies, you don’t suffer much, because you understand that flowers are impermanent. But you cannot accept the impermanence of your beloved one, and you suffer deeply when she passes away.
If you look deeply into impermanence, you will do your best to make her happy right now. Aware of impermanence, you become positive, loving and wise. Impermanence is good news. Without impermanence, nothing would be possible. With impermanence, every door is open for change. Instead of complaining, we should say, “Long live impermanence!” Impermanence is an instrument for our liberation.
- Thich Nhat Hanh in The Three Dharma Seals
The Spirituality of Impermanence
The word spirit means animating or vital principle of all life. It originates in the Latin spiritus meaning breath; spirit is the breath of life. Spirituality is the authentic quest to discover our own personal sense of purpose, meaning, and wisdom in life. It provides sanctuary for our deepest creative impulses and our most authentic expression. All spirituality is deeply personal, individual, and intimate. The moment spirituality becomes programmed or mechanical, is the moment it loses its vibrancy. The spiritual quest may be informed by the thoughts and ideas of others, but ultimately we are alone in our spiritual pursuits. Spirituality allures us directly into the midst of enchantment and the subtle embrace of the natural world.
Spirituality and religion are not the same thing. The word religion originates in the Latin ligare, which means to bind or tie. Religion is precisely organized, formalized, and prescribed; it originates in the creation of dogma that serves to assimilate a group of believers into to a single system of thought. As such religious systems originate in an underlying desire to conform and control people (albeit for their own good), usually for the purpose of saving them from the range of sins and transgressions described in religious doctrine. Failure to adopt and assume the prerequisite articles of faith is commonly met with a veiled threat, such as eternal damnation or exclusion from the group. One of the most striking features of many religions is the promise of eliminating impermanence in exchange for eternal life after death.
As we get older we feel a natural pull toward authenticity, and we may begin to question other people’s assumptions more vigorously. Direct empirical evidence to support the underlying presuppositions of religious beliefs are often frail and illusive. Many of our beliefs have been imposed upon us by external sources of human expertise, and we all too frequently accept their validity in the absence of empirical evidence. Education, for example, originates in the same set of assumptions as religion in that it binds students to a set of unexamined assumptions that fundamentally originate in the need to control what people should know (curriculum and the prerequisite) and how they should come to know it (instructional design and schooling). That is to say, education is a mechanized form of technology. As we enter into the later stages of life, our desire for direct experience and empirical evidence intensifies, and we desire authenticity and direct experience while eschewing the imposition of other people’s assumptions and beliefs.
The spirituality of impermanence seeks to develop personal intimacy with an unavoidable truth, that is to say, a conversation with death. From a spiritual perspective, direct observation and awareness are the essential capacities that empower our spiritual journey. Programs, routines, and mechanized traditions for the masses have no place in our spiritual lives. Our desire is to observe phenomenon directly, to experience the felt-meaning of the various kinds of presence that touches our lives. We listen to the world around us with great interest, but we never become seduced by what we hear. Aging can inspire an effervescent sense of individualism that cultivates and intensifies an authentic sense of belonging and relationship with all life. The spirituality of impermanence is an important means in which we seek deeper levels of authenticity, identity, meaning purpose, and wisdom in the face of our own relentless walk into the terrain of death. The spiritual path is not easy, nor is it always safe.
The Mysterious is Relentless
Our lives are imbued with mystery; we are always surrounded by the unknown and unexpected. Though we may secretly hold on to hopes and desires about how we would like our life to proceed, the story of our future remains unknowable. Change is the progeny of mystery. The course of our life consists of many turns and twists that lead us into the midst of the unforeseen. We desire consistency and congruity, however, many aspects of our lives lie entirely outside of our control. Nothing stays the same or is permanent in life; attempting to hold on to permanence is a recipe for suffering. The potential for unexpected change is always by our side and is a constant companion throughout our entire life.
Through scientific understanding, our world has become dehumanized. …Since energy never vanishes, the emotional energy that manifests itself in all numinous phenomena does not cease to exist when it disappears from consciousness.
- Carl Jung in C.G Jung on Nature, Technology & Modern Life.
How the process of aging will reveal itself within our own lives is mysterious. The ways in which aging will affect you will be different from the ways in which it affects me. Of course, there will be general patterns, but the individual physical, mental and spiritual affects of aging are not prescribed, nor do they follow a single fixed pattern. There is a great deal of variability in how aging affects people and influences their lives. In this sense, we can understand aging as a universal theme that gestates and brings forth an immense diversity of uniquely individual variations. The language of aging embraces mystery, change, variation, flexibility, uncertainty, and diversity. The physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual trajectory of aging in each of our lives remains shrouded in the depths of impermanence.
There comes a time in life, somewhere in that vague space called “mid-life,” when we begin to notice and feel the subtle effects of aging on our body. We might notice for the first time the subtle changes in the texture of our skin as it ever so gradually becomes thinner and less resilient, and the appearance of small wrinkles begins to suddenly capture our attention. It may be that even with vigorous and consistent physical exercise, we begin to notice that our bodies are still losing small yet perceptible amounts of strength, endurance, and flexibility. Perhaps our vision loses acuity, and our eyes are less able to focus on things or adjust easily to changes in light. These subtle physical changes in the vibrancy of our bodies are the harbingers of old age, and we become more sensitive to and inspired by the allurement of our own impermanence.
To die is to lose life. Even though we might rationally understand that our bodies are irrevocably designed to deteriorate and eventually perish, the felt-meaning of aging is often troubled by a penetrating touch of sadness and fear. As we get older we begin to feel the experience of being alive differently, that is to say, the felt-meaning of living begins to change in strange and unfamiliar ways. When we begin to openly and authentically embrace our own inner sense of impermanence, the parade of material pursuits and pleasures in life begin to feel increasingly thin, shallow, and superficial. Where we once found a crucial sense of meaning and purpose to comfort us in life, we now begin to feel a strange sense of emptiness washing over us. This is the beginning of a spiritual vertigo that begins to blur and confuse our own sense of identity; it is also the beginning of a journey deeper into the terrain of authenticity, meaning, purpose, and wisdom.
There comes a time in our lives when something more profound starts to demand our attention. Our soul feels this call and we are alerted to something that is fearsome, terrifying, and quite remarkable. The truth of our own impermanence touches our spirit. And it is here, in this sacred tempest, that a spirituality of aging offers sanctuary from that which we can no longer ignore – death.
The Soul of Death
Death is the final inexorable threshold that is universal to all forms of life. Aging is the process that ultimately leads each one of us into that final mercurial frontier in which we lose our presence in the here and now. There is no empirical evidence that tells us what happens to us after we die, and this mystery often causes a tremendous sense of angst. None of our modern technologies can help us to comprehend or reveal the authentic truth of what happens to us after we die. Our orientation to death and dying often takes the form of faith in individual or collective beliefs. In religion, death and a promised after-life are essential elements of faith, which offer a fragile replacement for the lack of empirical evidence. In this case, death is not so much a question as it is a commitment to an external set of beliefs. In the spiritual realm, death is a foundation for exploration and personal discovery. The question of what happens to us when we die is one of profound spiritual significance.
Becoming artists and theologians of our own lives, we can approach the depth that is the domain of soul. …To the soul, memory is more important than planning, art more important than reason, and love more fulfilling than understanding.
- Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life
The soul is that part of us that remains in a perpetual conversation with the mysterious essence life. In this respect, our body and mind are embraced and completely enveloped by our soul. There is something uniquely energetic about the soul; it serves to animate and inspire our sense of purpose and meaning in life. Our soul offers a space for creative reflection, a place in which we create meaning and craft our purpose. Somewhere in the midst of our relentless trajectory toward death, our soul is touched, animated, and inspired by impermanence. And it is here, in this wondrous yet rugged and wild landscape, where we begin a powerful and intimate conversation. It is the conversation of our life, the narrative of our own identity, and our own unique and authentic story of what it means to be alive. Being touched by our own mortality in the midst of life awakens the eternal in us, and as we move toward it our own increasing sense of impermanence begins to illuminate the final horizon.
Death and the soul are intimate companions. The subtle feelings of physical decline caused by aging naturally invigorate our awareness of death and dying. This is not in any way a morbid or gloomy awareness, it is an authentic realization that death comes for each one of us in its own time. The rhythm of our mind is altered by this new sense of uncertainty and fragility. This is not something that should defeat us, make us feel bleak, or cause us to lose our creative imagination for living. However, our soul is now demanding deeper levels of authenticity in our orientation to life; it is calling us out of the routines, habits, and assumption imposed upon us by our cultural slumber and thrusting us into a realm that requires direct observation, authentic interaction, and personal discovery.
All spirituality is intimate with creativity, imagination, mystery, nature, and enchantment. When impermanence touches us and the presence of our own death is felt for the first time, our soul calls us to move directly into and through the source of our fears and anxieties about dying so that we may be inspired to live with authentic artistry. Our fears and anxieties about death and dying always remain in some form, but they do not dominate, overwhelm, or impede our life course.
The felt-meaning of impermanence is an opportunity for creative expression and awareness, that is to say, a personal artistry of living.