Thursday, July 29, 2010

Changing Distinctions

Sixty Today

A commercial I saw yesterday had a guy saying “I know sixty is the new forty” then going on about how young he felt inside. What bothers me about this is the clear underlying assumption that younger is better. I found myself thinking back to a conversation with friends when I was a young adult where we speculated about the age we felt we were inside. Most were saying younger or a little older, but I found myself saying sixty. Maybe I’d always felt older inside but there was also the feeling that it would take me a long time to do what I wanted to do (not that I had any idea of what that was). I’d read that philosophers didn’t come of age until their sixties, so that seeded the belief that some aspirations took longer than others. My grandfather was my favorite person throughout my youth, and age seemed to be a part of the radiant equanimity I admired so much in him. Gaining in years led to the achievement of a state of mind and approach to living that couldn’t be rushed.
The claim to feeling young is a tacit agreement that young is better. I feel energetic, excited about life and more full of love than I ever was when young. Not only was young not better, young was being lost in the woods. It puts unfair pressure on young people who are supposed to be having the “best years of their lives” before they “waste their youth”. In such a complicated world, we might expect that the necessary skills for living would take time to acquire.
Our culture creates fear of age with terminology of loss as a marketing tool. When people are convinced that aging means losing something, their attention is focused on what will give it back. It’s a strategy that debilitates people’s attention to the actuality of their present life and the new experiences and meaning of the moment. Running after youth is a form of regression, not growth. The cultural view of aging focuses on what’s lost, as though the natural fading of some faculties is something to be fought rather than something that can be learned from and understood in an entirely new way. To me the losses are minor compared to the gains. I look at aging as a process of accumulation. Everything we’ve been is still there and available to us as past experience. Like the rings on a tree record the history of the tree, and the tree grows wider and stronger and taller, our memories and accumulated knowledge make us stronger, enable us to rise, to gain perspective through our increased experience. This helps me feels more comfortable and at ease in the world. I’ve increased my “clearing is the forest” in the words of Joseph Chilton Pierce and understand myself more as active patterns in the world than as material being.
So today I come of age. Maybe I’m a real late bloomer, but it’s taken me this long to begin to synthesize what I’ve learned into some coherent ideas, and twenty years of meditation to calm the tangle of anxiety that characterized my youth. I’m excited about the possibilities I’ve prepared for myself and rejoice to see my grandfather’s attitude toward life coming into reach. I’m happier and more engaged than I’ve ever been. What could be better than to be here now?

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Moving Up

Current Choices

The action of selection is what we call “free will”. Riding multiple currents beyond our control, we are constantly making choices that determine the nature of the ride. Choices about direction are as simple and automatic as where we look in any given situation, what gets our attention. Once engaged we choose among the potentials of that situation as it unfolds. This is where self-awareness comes in handy and increases the available choices. If you’ve been paying attention to your patterns of reaction and the situations that result, you can choose a path that is not the automatic one of the past.
The new mammalian layer of the brain flows into the neocortex, so named because it’s the newest. It is where the perception of the future begins, and with perception of the future comes anxiety. There are two ways we handle anxiety. One is retreat into older layers of the psyche that deal with fear. This means withdrawing or defending. The other is to do something—anything- to move forward. As Alfred Adler said, the important thing is to get moving. That’s why exercise alone will improve general mood and mental function. But a bigger group of connections to the pleasure center is from our most human powers, the prefrontal cortex in the front of the brain. Evolution has built in an appetite for challenge and novelty, more reward response as we move the mental energy toward to front of the brain. We’re meant to use and develop our capacities, whatever they are, to grow as individuals. It’s the growing that feels good, extending our abilities, without thinking of the outcomes or results. Envisioning the future shapes the goals, but getting too attached to the outcome disconnects us from the process- being present to what’s happening at the time. And the current of time includes plenty that we can’t envision in advance so attention to the actual is a very important first choice.
Many fields of action influence our position in the current. The circumstances of work, family, friends, are each unfolding in a location alive with patterns. Our connections through computer networks, the moods and health of our mind and body all are factors in the place we find ourselves and from which we navigate via the selections we make about where we’re going. We adapt to the changes in the current or it wears us down. When conditions are bad the only choice we may have is the attitude we can take, but we can keep the energy in the evolved intelligence, the front of the brain if we’re looking for what’s to be learned and how we can use that knowledge. When Viktor Frankl was working at forced labor in horrible conditions, he envisioned himself standing in front of an audience giving a speech about how he survived. Imagination into a future that makes use of the current lesson created a brain chemistry that stimulated his ability to survive.
Increasing our freedom in the realm of ideas depends on having more possibilities from which to select and construct our own. The battle of right and wrong ideas is about who has the power to impose their ideas on others, the power to limit the scope of ideas.
Every time you hear someone cut off a topic of conversation as beyond discussion they are trying to assert power over what we’re allowed to think, but it is only through discussion and the hybrid thoughts that grow there that we can gain perspective and break free of the limitations of rigid, right/wrong categories and the anxiety that comes with them.
Helpful ideas spread from all parts of the globe. I’ve been enriched by Tai Chi and Lao Tzu, yoga and my neti pot, France (the country), and philosophers and thinkers from everywhere. The range of perspectives allows me to see more patterns and create a personal view that depends on having that many choices. If we drop the stultifying barriers inherent in fixed ideologies and allow the full range of the human mind to influence us, how could we not evolve as a species.