Longer ago than I want to admit (I dislike procrastination, even though I engage in it frequently), someone who was reading my book about Plotinus, "Return to the One," emailed me a good question about growing old.
More recently, he reminded me of the question that I hadn't answered. Here's part of his email.
Have you got around to putting any thought into my last inquiry...
“In light of Platonism and maintaining good mental health, what would you say might prepare a person best for old age, as in the interval between old age and death?”
Even though I may deceive myself in thinking that this phase is far away, the truth of the matter is that it is not.
It just so happens that one of my former teachers who taught me Buddhism, interpersonal skills, music, etc. is now experiencing the not so fortunate aspects of a senior's life. He is only 70 years of age.
His faculty of memory & concentration, and physical strength, have greatly diminished. Where he was once active, joyful and spontaneous, he is now inactive, sullen and very depressed. He speaks openly about the changes he is going through and still practices meditation twice a day. This man was never depressed in his life, always pushed his students to be the best they could be and organized humpty different social justice activities over the course of a few decades, just to mention a few things.
I thought I share this to help give you a mental image as to the relevance, practicality and necessity of pondering such a question. You have a great depth of understanding Brian; perhaps your unique perspective and approach could serve to be a significant contribution for those of us who will one day experience the depletion of our lantern oil...
Well, I am skeptical about the concluding compliments. The older I get -- I'll be 65 next month -- the less I feel like I know anything special about What Life is All About.
Just about my only qualification for giving advice about what prepares a person best for old age is... my being old. And since my experiment in growing old as gracefully as possible necessarily has a subject size of one, moi, any conclusions I draw from my experience are dubiously applicable to others.
But what the hell. I'll take a stab at answering. At the least, I'll be able to send a link to this blog post to my questioner, thereby minimally shortening my unattended-to email list.
Most important: Stay as physically fit as possible. Don't wait until you're old to exercise vigorously, regularly. I'm really pleased to be as healthy and fit as I am. But this isn't an accident. Or rather, it is only partly an accident.
Likely my genetic makeup goes a long way toward explaining my current level of fitness, which is considerably better than most people my age.
Yet I've also been a vegetarian for 44 of my 64 years. I've always been physically active. I've challenged myself by learning several martial arts styles, ballroom dancing, and most recently, longboarding (on an extended skateboard).
I realize that many people are closet (or explicit) dualists. They believe that their soul/mind is separate and distinct from their body. I doubt this is true. If it is, such can only be truly experienced after death, because while alive each of us is an integrated body-mind.
Physical and mental contentment are strongly correlated. Sure, it is possible to be physically distressed and mentally happy. Or the reverse. For me, though, I find that being physically fit goes hand in hand with feeling psychologically fit.
So I eat right. I exercise quasi-obsessively, rarely missing my regular workouts. I drink alcohol moderately and use other mind-altering substances minimally, aside from caffeine -- which I consider a secular sacred sacrament.
Next most important: Stay flexible. Don't be afraid of change. Embrace what life brings to you or takes away. The marvelous counter-culture'ish Oregon Country Fair in Veneta has this saying displayed around the treed grounds: "Yes. Yes. Yes."
Death is the ultimate "No."
As long as we're alive, "Yes" is the message of every experience that enters our conscious awareness. There will be plenty of time to be nothing, negative, nada. Likely, an eternity.
This isn't readily apparent when one is young. The older I get, the more vivid, marvelous, and breathtakingly Wow! life seems to me, even in its darker, depressing, distressing moments.
It doesn't so much matter what we do, as how we do it. Or experience it. Every moment is priceless, because it will never come again. This realization is difficult for young people to take to heart, since it seems that so many moments remain for them.
Maybe. Maybe not.
Each of us could die at any moment. Understanding this, what is happening becomes less important than that it is happening. Becoming somewhat indifferent to those what's is one of the changes I've noticed in me as my geezerhood blossoms.
Maybe important; maybe not: Which brings me to my final point, made such by a realization that my coffee cup is almost empty; with that final sip, my caffeine-addicted brain will start to lose interest in exercising its writing function.
Look ahead to taking yourself less seriously. After all, death is the final joke. Old age, the runup to that punchline.
Preparing to smile at your oh-so-sincere youthful attempts to figure everything out, unveil the mysteries of the cosmos, get a glimpse of ultimate reality, actualize your self-actualization -- my cheerily disturbing forecast for everybody younger than me is...
Not going to happen. You're going to die with freaking huge question marks scattered all around your psyche, so you might as well get used to that prospect (I'd say, certainty).
This includes knowing yourself. Whatever the hell that means. I've spent most of my life trying to know My True Self. Now, here I am, on the cusp of Medicare eligibility, facing an example of the aforementioned Cosmic Joke.
I don't have a self. I am not a self. There's no "me" who can know "My" True Self.
At least, that's how it feels to the not-me writing these words. Spiritual searching is for the young. Realizing that the search is fruitless is for old codgers like me.
Fortunately (or not) the young will always look upon people like me as failures, surrenderers, lost souls who got waylaid on the path to enlightenment, salvation, nirvana, satori, whatever.
Maybe. Maybe not.
Don't judge us old folks until you are one yourself. (Not that you have a self.) Methinks the most important way to grow old gracefully is to have made a good start while young toward realizing there is no me to think about growing old gracefully.
Or anything else. Probably I learned everything I needed to know about life back in my college days, when I heard Janis Joplin sing, "Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose."