Among the things we share as we age is an awareness of, and a pre-occupation with, time. We reflect on moments obviously consequential such as marriage, parenting, the deaths of family members and friends. And we reflect on the less obvious or dramatic moments, including words, or gestures, or almost inconsequential actions that made a difference, or marked a turning point, or defined yet another “before and after” moment.
And as we age, time is something we paradoxically have both more and less of. On the life-chronology continuum, well-known in the actuarial tables, we have fewer years, less time, than we once had. But on the how-we-fill-our-time chart, as we step away from the every-day obligations of employment, we find that we have more time that can be filled in often new and different ways.
“Filling time” so often becomes the template for aging. My wife and I have both recently, and only coincidentally, stepped away from our respective employment, and the most common question that follows, from friends and family, is “what are you doing?”— by which is meant to follow “…to fill your time.” With remunerated work concluded, an assumption is often made that those same hours we used to fill with tasks and assignments should be filled with something else.
And while the “doing” of retirement remains vital, a series of practices that involve “non-doing” may be valuable tools in harvesting life and planting new interests and opportunities.
Although many of us were not raised with, or exposed as adults to, contemplative practices such as meditation, these practices can contribute to a balanced and integrated way of moving into and through the senior decades of life. They allow us an opportunity to establish equanimity, a sense of bringing past, present and future into balance; they offer us the opportunity to reflect calmly and without judgment on the inevitable ups and downs of life; and they help us to cultivate the capacity to change.
One of the remarkable discoveries of neuroscience in the past two decades is that far from being firm and fixed in adolescence, our brains retain the capacity for change: habitual and predictable emotions, impulses and behaviors can be shifted through repeated patterns of contemplative practice—what neuroscientists call “neuroplasticity.” Through practices such as meditation, the familiar pathways our brains follow can be redirected.
So as an example, if a certain set of circumstances predictably results in our becoming angry, defensive or combative, adding the extra beat of “noticing” that response — without being self-critical, just noticing it — offers a space for an intervention, for us to make a choice about whether, as we see the familiar reaction arise, we want to respond in the familiar way.
What neuroscience suggests is that each time we take what we might call that sacred pause, we are rewiring the neurons in our brains. Rather than following the familiar pathways years of behavior have created, as our brains slowly begin to learn alternative routes, we gain the ability to respond differently. Behaviors and even automatic emotions that we might have regretted for a lifetime prove capable of change. At that time of life where the body seems more resistant to our efforts to undo the effects of aging, our minds apparently retain the capacity to change and to grow.
Meditation practice can be found in almost every spiritual tradition, Judaism included. And there are secular versions as well, among the most prominent now being mindfulness-based stress reduction. Regardless of the way one comes to meditation, the basic practices are nearly universal in their commonalities. Most involve setting aside a period of time, optimally daily, that can be devoted just to sitting, usually with closed eyes, and choosing something on which to focus. Because it is ubiquitous and portable, the breath is among the most common things to use to help hold our attention. Many studies suggest that at twenty to thirty minutes is an optimal baseline, but newcomers may want to start with as little as five or ten minutes—whatever is manageable in cultivating comfort with “doing nothing.”
Contemplative practices can be a complement to sacred aging. Some focus on gratitude, others on hope, yet others on acceptance of the inevitability of change. Taken together, beginning a contemplative practice can be a way of re-framing our way of being in the world, being with others, and being with ourselves.