Mary Maxwell on Getting Old

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Who Am I Without My Husband?

pexels-photo-271897When I left my marriage I was in my late 70’s. For 55 years I’d been one half of a couple. Moving out to live on my own meant adapting to a whole new world as a single woman. What was that like for me? It’s easier to talk about the advantages of being on my own. The disadvantages are more subtle and harder to articulate.

Everyone can understand the freedom of organizing your own space and, indeed, living your whole life just as you want it. There’s the joy of waking in the morning and asking yourself what’s most important today and how to organize the time ahead. The only commitments are those you’ve agreed to. Nobody else is in your space asking for compromise or having other ideas of how you should spend your time.

Then there’s the living space that’s all yours. No need to put up with that ugly chair your partner loves: the one that takes up half the living room. Nor must you tolerate the mammoth oak desk that won’t fit anywhere but the dining room. When you live alone, you get to organize each room just the way you want it.

Bedtime? Getting up time? It’s entirely up to the single occupant of this space. You go to bed when it’s right for you and get up when your circadian rhythms signal you’ve slept long enough. What’s more, you sleep through the night without another body disturbing you. Naturally, you eat what, when you want.

There are many benefits to being single and, as I said, they’re easier to talk about than the downside. Mostly the downside has to do with loneliness. I found this especially uncomfortable when I was travelling alone. At night, the couples staying at my B&B would head for the fancy restaurants or the lively entertainment in the town square. I don’t know about you, but I head for plainer family-type restaurants when I’m alone. The dancing and excitement of the square at night felt unsafe for a single woman.

Then there’s something about male energy being a natural match for female energy. Frankly, I miss male company. I’m not sure whether this is biological in us humans. Maybe it’s social programming. Whatever it is, I miss my husband’s physical male presence. He’s also the one person in the world who can complete my thoughts and who shares with me more than 55 years of experiences and memories – which is not to say – I regret leaving my marriage to live alone. I don’t.

pexels-photo-233223Life is pretty good these days. Harvey and I are friends. We are both living the way we want to. He enjoys gardening and caring for the house we bought together in Kingston. I’m happy as a tenant in an apartment building. Every time I hear workmen out cutting the grass or shoveling the snow, I smile broadly, so happy that I didn’t have to hire them, organize them or pay them. All of that household stuff just gets done. You may remember my post about my “summer cottage.” (That’s the next-door yacht club where I get to eat and swim while somebody else does the work.)

It’s definitely desirable to be good friends following separation. It’s relatively easy for us since neither of us set out to give the other a hard time over financial settlements. In fact, the other day I went over to Harvey’s house to work with him on some financial matters. He cooked dinner for both of us and we ended by watching television and talking the way two old friends share time together. After all, I spent most of my life with him. Why not strive for a harmonious relationship now that we both get to live the way we want to?

Who am I? According To Eugene Gendlin

pexels-photo-185801It was 1980 and I’d just graduated with a Masters Degree in Social Work from The University of Toronto. Now I wanted to synthesize the western psychology I’d learned at school with what I knew as a yoga practitioner. You see, I believed that since we hold our memories in our bodies, nothing really changes unless change happens in the body. If I wanted to be a mainstream therapist, I needed to find a way that non-yoga people could experience change in the body. (In the 1980’s the current psychologies didn’t talk about the body.)

I was really excited when I heard about Dr. Eugene Gendlin. Dr. Gendlin developed Focusing, a sort of inner yoga that taught people to pay attention to their body’s physical response to life’s situations and problems, thereby gaining a deeper level of awareness than was usually available. In other words, the way in which the body holds a person’s stories is released and new information is available to the person who knows how to Focus. To put it another way, you gain access to your unconscious.

And so I headed for The University of Chicago where Dr. Gendlin was presenting a weekend workshop. I was in search of a new guru to guide me through this new stage of my life. Dressed in my best grey flannel suit and black pumps, I headed for The University of Chicago expecting to find an auditorium filled with a couple of hundred people to hear this genius I’d recently discovered. You can imagine my surprise when I was shown to a sitting room with a circle of a dozen chairs. Suddenly I felt very shy and intimidated. It hadn’t occurred to me that I’d be meeting my new guru in such an intimate setting.

I took my seat in the circle and noted a group of men out in the hallway. One of them, dressed in a plaid shirt and jeans was smoking (this was the 80’s.) I figured he was the janitor.

Then the janitor entered the room and took a seat. Not only did he take a seat along with us educated folk, he welcomed us to the weekend. This was my new guru?! But he smoked. The rest of the weekend was just as confusing – and – changed my life.

If you’ve read my previous blog you know that the “who am I?” question is a very important one for me. I tried so hard to be a good person, to move toward enlightenment. And now, my new hero, Dr. Gendlin, was telling me that if I just peeled off the layers, if I got closer to whoever I really am, I’d be just fine. We’re born authentic and life forces us to skew our personalities to fit in. By paying attention to my body’s messages, I’d move closer to my true Self, or as Swami Radha called it, my Higher Self.

What about spirituality, I wondered. For Gendlin, the felt sense, the body’s physical response to whatever we’re doing, tells us when we’re on track and when we’re deviating from our right way of being, Uncomfortable body signals tell us something is not right for us. When the body is happy, that’s our signal that life is moving forward as it should.

Who Am I? If I want to access my authentic self, I have to listen to my body. It will guide me in knowing how to go forward. This was a new way of approaching the who am I? question.

What could be more spiritual than Gendlin’s description of the felt sense?

Your physically felt body is part of a gigantic system of here and other places, now and other times, you and other people – in fact the whole universe.

This sense of being bodily alive in a vast system is your body as it is felt from the inside.

All of which just goes to show that you never know where you’ll find your spiritual guide.

My love and gratitude go out to Dr. Gendlin who recently celebrated his 90th birthday.

Swami Sivananda Radha : Who Am I?

buddhaWhen I was a young yoga teacher, I was fortunate enough to have Swami Sivananda Radha as my spiritual guide and guru. Swami Radha was a western woman trained and ordained as a swami by the great Swami Sivananda of Rishakesh, India. This remarkable woman was the first feminist I knew personally. (This was 1970.) I was fascinated by her views on women’s roles in the modern world. As well, I’d never met a truly spiritual woman who shaped her life through meditation and the study of scriptures. She challenged me with new ways of thinking and perceiving the world.

Swami Radha was born into an affluent Germany family, trained as a dancer, married into an old Prussian military family and lost everything in the Second World War. Her husband was jailed and ultimately killed by the Nazis. Her newborn baby was, she believed, allowed to die by the hospital where she delivered. At the end of the war, she could have had her old home back, but when she went to see it, a young family was living there. Sylvia, her name at that time, made a decision. “Revenge Ends Here” Seeking a peaceful way of being in the world became the purpose of her life. She moved to Canada, took a job in an office and began searching for a way to live without violence. Her studies of spiritual works and her practice of meditation ultimately led her to Swami Sivananda in Rishakesh where he recognized her special qualities and sent her back to Canada to bring the teachings of yoga to the West.

A major part of my training was the “Who Am I?” exercise. I would start with the obvious roles and biological facts. She would keep asking until I had to admit I was none of these personality aspects or social roles.

“I am a woman, Harvey’s wife, Frank’s mother, my mother’s daughter, a yoga teacher, etc. etc.” I’d finally exhaust my ideas but Swami Radha would still be asking me who I was. The correct answer and the ultimate result of this search was to realize that, once I got past what I could claim as “me,” the correct answer was Light. As Light I was connected to the Light that exists throughout the whole universe, in every creature and every thing, in the stars and in the stratosphere. Swami Radha explained that Light was the closest to the invisible force in all of us that we humans were able to imagine. I was encouraged to imagine Light streaming into my body.

So, why is Swami Radha on my mind these days? It’s because of my time spent recently in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. There during my month of winter vacation, I attended meditation classes at the local yoga centre. These classes took me back to the early days with Swami Radha. Non-Dual Meditation was being taught. I’d never heard of it, but I’m always eager to explore unfamiliar concepts.

Imagine my amazement when I found myself hearing Swami Radha’s teachings with my old ears and aging mind. Phil, the teacher, was describing the very things Swami Radha had taught. He said he learned the most from Tibetan Yogis. Swami Radha had a Tibetan teacher. Phil didn’t refer to Light. He encouraged us to feel the invisible life force in all of us and in all creation. He called it Non-Dual Meditation and explained it in terms of Quantum Physics. Amazingly, he said, it reflects the new science.

I’m hooked! What’s in a name? Whatever these ancient teachings are called, they’ve opened for a whole new fascination and understanding that’s just right for this time of my life.

I hope to continue to write more about this in future blogs. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Is It Time to Say I’m Too Old for That?

As I get older I am turning into myself. Job gone, children growing and living far away, parents dead. Can’t backpack, can’t do hip-hop. Who am I really? Now I get to find out. (1.)

suit-couple-blue-shoesDo these words resonate with your stage in life? I don’t know about you, but I can no longer hide behind my busyness and the demands of professional life. Here I am, comfortably situated in my waterfront apartment with only Sammy The Poodle wanting my attention. If I don’t feel particularly energetic, I don’t have to do anything, really. There’s no office expecting me and no one’s demands to be met. I’m left with … well… myself.

One advantage of this single state is that I’m free to follow up on things I’ve always wanted to try. For example, I frequently sign up for classes at the local seniors’ centre. Recently, I decided line-dancing would be good for my aging brain. After all, exercise that requires concentration improves the brain’s neuroplasticity. I knew line-dancing would be a challenge. I’ve never been a dancer. My feet have always rebelled at following someone else’s instructions. Line-dancing would certainly give my brain a workout.

If I’d read Susan Moore’s book, “This is Getting Old: Zen Thoughts on Aging with Humor and Dignity,” I might have spared myself the embarrassment of being the only person in the class totally unable to keep up with the fast paced grapevines, and sudden reverse turns. Here’s what Susan Moore says of her experience in facing the fact that she has to drop yet another activity.

It’s a constant process, letting go of what you can no longer do, and stretching yourself to do what you can. When I was sixty-three, I went to a series of hip-hop classes at the YMCA, for beginners. There were a couple of other graying students in the class … I could almost feel new neural pathways being laid down in my brain as we went from stomp to the spin-and-turn. … I could see there was something humorous in my efforts to get my feet to crisscross fast enough. (after scurrying like mad to keep up and ending by blocking the whole class with her slowness, she says:) “I gave myself credit for trying, but I didn’t go back to hip hop after that. Time to let that one go.”

And to think, I was 15 years older than Susan Moon when I attempted line-dancing. All of which begs the question: how do we know it’s time to give up on something? Right now, warm weather is finally returning to Kingston. That means I have to make a decision about my e-bike. Do I dare pump up my tires and pedal? The spirit may be willing, but that doesn’t mean the body will be able to balance when I hit a rough patch. Will I experience for another year, the delicious joy of the creating a gentle breeze as I travel around my new community? How will I know? Maybe I should just decide my cycling days are over – but then – I could be missing out on beautiful springtime rides in my new community.

(1) Susan Moon, This is Getting Old: Zen Thoughts on Aging with Humor and Dignity, Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston, Mass, 2010.