We all have an aging veil. As children most of us play dress up in our aging veil and look forward to fulfilling all the promises of growing up. But decades later, as the veil and our skin starts to sag, we may come to a different view. Maybe we’re not so eager for the next big birthday. Some of us are more at ease with aging than others, but we all have thoughts and emotions about it that weave our aging veil. And like all veils, it can blind us to finding joy in the present moment. But it’s also worth taking a moment to see what’s really going.
As we look more closely at the aging veil, we can see that it is layered with other veils. Those wrinkles are also part of our physical identity veil and the veils of our culture around what is desirable, acceptable, beautiful. One student who is an actress in Hollywood, confirmed the horror stories we hear about the cult of youth and beauty that keeps women visiting the plastic surgeon and aesthetician. And because many of us enjoy watching these actors, we tend to absorb these definitions of beauty without even realizing it.
So is it time’s passage that we object to? Or is it the glorification of the dewy freshness of young adulthood that makes us unhappy when we look in the mirror? Which veil are we stuck in?
Using the veil analogy, we can begin to discern one veil from the other. Without this discernment, we get caught up in what feels like one big tangle that’s undecipherable and potentially debilitating. Exploring each one separately, we might recognize that, for example, we’re not afraid of aging so much as we’re afraid of getting ill or of going broke or being alone. These may be big worries, but they aren’t the products of aging per se.
As we explore the various veils that tend to layer with the aging veil, we may discover that it’s not aging that bothers us, but something else. Something we might be able to do something about! Because we certainly can’t do anything about aging. It’s part of the inherent nature of impermanence. All species of life are subject to it. And fighting it is not only a losing battle, it’s one that makes us lose out on the potential joy of being alive. Taking each veil individually, let’s see if there are skillful steps we could take to improve our health, create more financial stability, or cultivate a loving supportive network of people to ‘hold hands’ with as we cross the street of aging together.
The Body Image Veil
“Mirror, mirror, on the wall…” Are you tired of being dissatisfied with what you see in the mirror? Well, you could do what my mother did and get rid of the mirrors in your home. Or you could relax and recognize the biology imperatives of beauty:
- Babies and children are beautiful to their parents so they will care for them.
- Young men and women are sexually attractive to potential mates so the species will continue.
- Elders radiate a beauty that comes from experience, wisdom, and the cultivation of compassion, so the deepest most life-supporting values of the species are handed down from generation to generation.
If you are pawing at your face in the mirror, can you see that your dissatisfaction and your striving to recapture the blank slate of youthful skin, depletes the very beauty that comes with the passage of time? And have you noticed that your dissatisfaction and futile efforts to turn back the clock only attract others who are unhappy with life as it is? If you feel like you are surrounded by whiners and people hiding behind masks, recognize that your own resistance to embracing life as it is may be causing you to miss out on meaningful human connection.
Look at the woman in the photo above. Can you deny her beauty? Think of elders whose faces radiate an aliveness of being rather than worries about how others seen them. Surround yourself with people your age and older who are comfortable in their skin. Perhaps you’ll find you can be more comfortable with your own.
If you’re concerned how others see you, remember that no one sees us as we see ourselves. Our looks are just one of many threads in their veil of thoughts about us. The looks thread matters much less than the threads of shared memories, personality traits, acts of kindness, etc. Don’t believe me? Think of a dear friend. What comes to mind? Exactly.
The Financial Security Veil
Worries about money and if there will be enough to last a lifetime are valid concerns, especially since we don’t know our expiration date. It is worth taking time to research and make wise choices while there are still choices to be made. But if the veil of financial concerns is entangled with a fear of aging, you could be stymied from doing what is skillful to alleviate the situation.
You might think of your financial well being the same way we do metta practice, radiating infinite lovingkindness. We always begin with ourselves. That’s not selfish. We can’t share what we don’t have. Our most important responsibility as a living being is to take care of ourselves and young children in our charge. We don’t need to indulge ourselves, but we are responsible for ensuring our own stability first. When that is set in place, then we can offer from our bounty to loved ones and causes we care about. This seems obvious to many, but needs to be said. It’s no gift to those who care about us to discover we have depleted our resources on their behalf and are now dependent on them.
The Physical Health Veil
While there are physical conditions that happen more frequently to older people than younger, there is nothing inherently unhealthy about aging. And believing so puts us at risk of too readily accepting a condition that could be helped if addressed early on. For example, a pain becomes an excuse not to move, and that impacts all muscles, including the heart. See your medical professionals as allies in maintaining health, not just last ditch saviors in a crisis. Get early and regular screenings. Get the help you need to investigate and alleviate physical problems in skillful ways. Old age does not equal pain. But not taking care of yourself often leads to pain. Keep the distinction clear and you’ll be less concerned about aging.
The Interpersonal Network Veil
Our relationships affect how we feel about aging. If we are in a loving long-term relationship, our biggest fear may be losing our partner. We dread or don’t want to even think about being alone or leaving them alone. Because we don’t want to think about it, we exacerbate the difficulty by not taking care of practical matters, like letting each other know our wishes, how to handle responsibilities the other has been in charge of, and where the passwords are!
If we are not in a partner relationship, then our feelings about aging are entwined with the strength of emotional bonds with family and friends. Much of what we do in our practice is focused on easing animosity, cultivating compassion, and being skillful in our relationships. If you feel estranged from someone you care about, whenever they come to mind, send them metta: May you be well. May you be at ease. May your mind be peaceful. May you know the joy of being fully present in this moment just as it is. Even from a great distance, this simple practice is a powerful way to soften the defenses and bridge the divide.
If you wonder who will be there for you as you age, start being there for others. Start building your social network now. Family, friends, neighbors, affinity groups, all can be sources of friendship and support in later years. We are communal beings. If your idea of aging is isolation, look around and see other ways of being. Opportunities abound in most communities.
The Death Veil
In her show currently at the De Young Museum, the artist Judy Chicago has (among other things that I found infinitely more compelling and highly recommend) a series of works that pose questions about how she will die. She imagines all kinds of ends for herself, some comforting, some incredibly painful. While understanding the inevitability of death is helpful, these are just the kinds of questions that entangle us in veils of misery. It’s much better to cultivate the don’t-know mind. Because we can’t know, and these questions torment us. (To find really useful questions to ask yourself, get my book Asking In, Six Empowering Questions Only You Can Answer ) Learning how to be comfortable with not knowing things we can’t possibly know will help us with every challenge we face in life, and ultimately our own death.
The Aging Veil
Without the layering of all these other veils, what we see is simply the nature of impermanence in all life forms. Sure, there is an aging veil, but we can hold it lightly! We can dance with it. We can let go of the negative ideas we had of aging, and fill the veil full of inspiring images of those who have aged well. We can send compassion to the images of people whose life choices or misfortune aged them too quickly.
We might also recognize that aging is a privilege not everyone achieves. For all whom we loved who didn’t make it to the age we are, may we live well for them as well. And may we live engaged meaningful lives to inspire those who look to us to provide images of what aging looks like.
In class, this exploration prompted a lively discussion and several offerings of reading recommendations, none of which I have read, but I trust my sangha sisters judgments:
- The Gift of Caring, Saving our Parents from the Perils of Modern Healthcare by Marcy Cottrell Houlle and Elizabeth Eckstrom
- Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
- Five Wishes – “A complete approach to discussing and documenting your care and comfort choices.”
- Podcast discussion with Richard Powers, author of Overstory and the new Bewilderment: The Ezra Klein Show.