Archive for Aging

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.

Going to “El Campo” with Bram

IMG_1701The other day I joined a group of Canadians celebrating the opening of a new library. The library was at a rural school not far from San Miguel de Allende. I’ve told you how outsiders living here are expected to contribute money and energy in support of the impoverished local Mexicans. Bram Morrison, famous for his performances with Shirley, Lois and Bram, spends the winter here in San Miguel. Bram often performs for charity. He’d been practicing songs in Spanish for the library celebration.

About fifty of us North Americans headed for the country in a convoy of cars. The ride started out smoothly enough on a paved highway. It was not much different from what you’d expect back home. Alas, the smooth ride was not to last. We turned off the highway and bumped and scraped along a dirt road’s sharp, pointy rocks.

At last we spotted the school, a white stucco one storey building. The new matching library stands beside it. Children, in grades one to six, all impeccable in their school uniforms, stand waiting for us under a tree. They giggle with excitement as we get out of our cars and gather to face them. Emma, the energetic teacher, speaks in Spanish to the children. I don’t understand what she’s telling them, but suddenly the children are moving towards us. Each child takes an adult by the hand, ready to guide us on the tour of their school and new library.

My little person, Nancy, turns out to be a grade one student. Her tiny hand is soft in mine. She’s clearly delighted to have a visitor interested in her and her school. Nancy is tinier than my five-year-old Canadian granddaughter. Most of the children seem small for their age. She takes me by the hand to her desk inside the school and proudly shows me her colouring book. She opens the page to a princess. Nancy has coloured her princess purple. My granddaughter also has a fondness for princesses. Purple is her favourite colour too. My heart melts.

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Next, Nancy leads me to the playground to show me how she can teeter totter, slide and swing. She squeals with delight when I push her high on the swing.

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It was about then that I noticed that Nancy’s tiny teeth are spotted brown. The water, that’s what did that. We go inside on this warm day and all the children head for the one tap. They drank from it and wash their cups with their hands and no soap. I started wondering about potable water.

That’s when Nancy and I double back to take another look at the new cistern behind the library. Emma tells the story. For years she’d been asking the government to provide a cistern so that the children and their parents in the village would have safe drinking water. Four years passed before a large truck drove up and dumped off all the equipment needed to build a cistern. Who was going to build it? No labourers came with the supplies. Resourceful Emma organized the children’s fathers to take on the job. When I visited, the concrete was still drying.

I didn’t see the village but I hear that unemployment is about 100%. The men are mostly bricklayers and, apparently, not many bricks are being laid these days. I learned, too, that there isn’t a car or a truck in the village. Its inhabitants are complete strangers to flat tires and overheated engines. Emma carries her bicycle in her car as she drives to and from the school.

We are called to sit down at picnic benches. The mothers have prepared a meal. Black beans, rice, chicken and molle. Molle is a sauce containing chocolate. It‘s labour intensive and the culinary prize of these women. They make it once or twice a year in large quantities. Emma buys many jars of molle for her freezer.

Meanwhile, Bram is settling in under a spreading tree with his guitar. He’s surrounded by uniformed boys and girls. They actually know some of his songs in English but, as promised, he sings mostly in Spanish. The children are enthralled.

Then it’s time to cut the ribbon on the new library. We gather in front of the door. A red ribbon is pinned to the doorframe. Before cutting the ribbon, a fellow Canadian, one of the people responsible for this volunteer project, speaks of the importance of libraries to Mexico’s children. We all troop inside. The students take their places at their assigned desks. We adults head for piles of brand new books with prices marked on them. Now it’s our turn to help by buying the books, writing our names and where we’re from in them before donating them to the new library.

Bumping over the road on the way back to San Miguel, I contemplate the meaning of what I’ve just witnessed. There are thousands of isolated villages in Mexico’s countryside where children grow up without any sense of a wider world. Imagine, first of all, interacting with us strange Canadians who are rich enough to change their lives for the better.

Then there are the books. I visualize a youngster picking up a book and reading my strange name and that I’m from a place called Canada. Wouldn’t that pique a child’s curiosity about a world beyond poverty and isolation? Then there are the books: What better way to absorb the importance of clean water and a decent standard of living? These people are so hard working. They manage to exist on amazingly little.

Expats living here do a lot to improve the lives of local people. Where will all this lead? Will there be a revolution once people realize how impoverished they are compared to those living north of their border? Or are the Mexican people really as happy as they seem as they celebrate their many festivals with firecrackers and good-natured singing and dancing in the public square? I’ll be watching with interest to see how Mexico goes forward in the coming years.

Feel free to leave your comments. I’d really like to hear your thoughts.

Leaving A Long-Term Marriage Late In Life

IMG_0764I’m part of a new societal trend

When I left my marriage of 54 years, I thought my decision to leave was pretty unusual. Now I realize that my wish to separate is part of a startling new demographic. Divorces among the over-fifty crowd have increased dramatically and it’s most often the women who leave. Could this be the next stage in the women’s movement?

The Grey Divorce

I learned about this new trend when I tuned into the Sunday Edition on CBC. Host Michael Enright’s guest, Ashley Walters interviews older women who have left their marriages. The programme is called Til Grey Do Us Part. The women’s accounts touched me deeply. Some were similar to my own experience. Others were probably common, but differed from mine. I’ll tell you the women’s experiences in regular print and add my own in italics.

One woman said, after thirty years of marriage: “The hardest part of the divorce was coming to the decision.”

I tried for months to get the words out of my mouth. “I want to leave and live on my own” just stuck somewhere in my upper chest. I simply couldn’t say it.

Another woman said, “I have no regrets beyond perhaps wishing I’d done it earlier.”

How many women, like me, want to leave but can’t get up the courage to give themselves the life they long for?

IMG_0737Women seeking autonomy

Consider this woman’s description of her new found autonomy. “I feel wonderfully freed up to see and be with whatever friends I choose without censoring myself in order not to antagonize him or cover up for his social awkwardness.”

I relate personally to this woman’s sense of freedom in social situations. I’ve never been very good at standing up for my own needs and wishes. The words “I want” and “I need” are hard for women generally.

Women take the lead

Women most often take the lead in leaving. When I tell couples I meet of my decision to live alone, the women almost always congratulate me and comment on my courage. The men, on the other hand, look upset and worried.

A woman on the Sunday Edition programme had been married 38 years when she gave up in despair. She was ready to do something for herself, but found no support for her wish to grow. When she announced she was leaving, her husband said, “Well, I didn’t stop you (from growing.)”

I recognize the response. I too was easily detoured away from my own wishes in the face of disapproval and criticism. On the other hand, I had full support in fulfilling myself professionally.

Another woman, an 80-year old, was 74 when she left a 48-year marriage. She referred to “spouse retirement syndrome.” Her response to her husband’s retirement was to get sick.

My husband was dedicated to his work until just before we moved out of our Toronto house. There we were in our new house, surrounded by unpacked boxes, both of us exhausted and no careers to distract us. Face to face it was not a pretty scene. It became obvious that if I

stayed with this newly retired husband, something terrible would happen to me. I’d get a life-threatening illness, become alcoholic or seek some other harmful escape. Desperation gave me the extra push I needed to say the words and go into action.

Positive outcomes of leaving

“I can have fun in my life again. I’m more afraid of being with someone who doesn’t actually like me. Women don’t have to accept a life that doesn’t accept them. They deserve to be with people who don’t undervalue them.”

“We can expand and grow. We don’t have to shrink and be mean. I had to leave the marriage so I could be who I am. Six years later I have him as a friend.”

Sometimes we have to leave a long-term marriage. It’s about aging and staying in charge of our lives.

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Do you have a story to tell? Feel free to leave your comments below.