It's 7am in a health club, and the young and fit are pedalling furiously, or swimming fast, determined to have energy enough to carry out whatever stressful job they will start in an hour's time. Often you can find senior citizens among them. These days all age groups are more aware of needing a healthy lifestyle. People live longer, and providing illness does not intervene, we have new choices of how to look after our bodies, minds and spirits.

Unfortunately, life does throw some unfair illnesses at undeserving people, and their families suffer hugely. I am well aware of this, but there are others who are luckily fit enough to keep on developing themselves, in every way, as they grow older.

Retirement from work is a stage in life that not everyone welcomes. Many musicians opt for continuing their work, as did my 92-year-old aunt who played the piano all her life, accompanying choirs and singers, until the day when a bus accident ended this career. On the other hand, I met a lady of 63 recently who is delighted to have left her dull office job, and is planning to go on coach trips all over Britain, which will widen her mental horizons far more than if she had stayed on at work. It delights me to hear of 80 year olds graduating from the Open University, doing A levels, or breaking records in cycling or mountain climbing. There are also plenty of 'senior netizens', accessing websites, or perhaps e-mailing offspring living abroad, then zooming off by jet to visit them.

I was recently an admiring listener to 73-year-old Nancy Zi, who looks about 50, talking at the Global Inspiration Conference, held in the USA, about her method of uniting Chinese chi with Western voice and breathing exercises. She radiated the belief that we can keep young and fit by connecting to our core energy, which the Chinese call 'chi', through the practice of regular breathing exercises. Her video and book, The Art of Breathing, are a useful guide to her methods.[1]

Breathing strongly and correctly is a powerful ally for physical fitness, as well as being a bridge to the spirit within each of us. A more peaceful approach to life can also result from meditation on the breath, which you can learn through yoga, Buddhism or Sufi exercises.

The Swiss Psychologist, Carl Jung, chose the word 'individuation', for the process of becoming whole through the act of reconciling our unconscious shadow, accepting both the positive and negative aspects of our natures and "becoming one's own self". People saw the sage-like qualities of wholeness, wisdom and spiritual awareness in Jung, although he himself dismissed this idea. In his 80s he was a very active man of wide interests, including religion and investigating different cultures, as well as writing and practising as an analyst.[2]

Another optimistic theory of continual growth towards wholeness came from an American psychologist, Abraham Maslow, in 1954, which he called 'self- actualization', the highest growth point we can reach in our development.[3] He listed 19 qualities found in self-actualized people. Here are four of these personality traits, which he found in famous people who had in his opinion achieved self-actualization:

  • Spontaneity of expression, thought and action, as well as a sense of humour and openness;
  • Autonomy – these people can maintain a relative serenity in the midst of circumstances that would drive other people to suicide;
  • Originality and creativity, and a willingness to experiment with new approaches to life;
  • A capacity for heightened or transcendent experience.

In 1994 Rabbi Dr Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, founder of the Spiritual Eldering Institute in the USA, came to the UK to explain how we can learn to become wiser as we grow older. His lecture was entitled 'Age-ing into Sage-ing'.[4] At 75, he was touring and lecturing to audiences from different ethnic backgrounds, with the message that people can "expand their lives and consciousness to meet their extended life span". He explained that, as we live longer lives, we need to know how to live the years over 40 with spiritual consciousness, rather than the way we live when we are younger, when we are following biological urges, building social networks and families.

The message he gave is that, as we grow older, we need to harvest the fruits of wisdom from the seeds we have hopefully sown in our youth and middle age. We should not try to be the same as we were when we were younger, because we have the potential to develop something different in later years. 'Sageing' is the "ongoing process of learning, growing and becoming – from the inside, out… spiritual development, inner growth. Elders can be wisdom-keepers, mentors, agents of evolution and healers of the planet."

There is now research evidence that we can keep on developing our brain cells as we get older, if we exercise not only our bodies but also our mental abilities. The Age Heresy by Tony Buzan and Raymond Keene[5] gives examples of older people breaking sports records or, like Toscanini the conductor, having a phenomenal memory for music scores at the age of 85. Older adults are capable of learning and changing, when they have a conscious intention to do so. We also have the potential for developing spiritually, becoming deeper and more thoughtful, and wiser in the process; elderin' rather than just aging.

References

1. Zi Nancy. The Art of Breathing. Vivi Co. Glendale, CA. 1997. www.TheArtofBreathing.com
2. Jung Carl. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Fontana Press. 1995.
3. Maslow Abraham H. Motivation and Personality. 3rd ed. Harper & Row. New York. 1987.
4. Schacter-Shalomi Zalman and Miller Ronald. From Age-ing to Sage-ing. Warner Books. 1995 www. Spiritualeldering.org/bookstapes.htm
5. Buzan Tony and Keene Raymond. The Age Heresy. Ebury Press. 1996.

Further Reading

Hough Margaret. A Practical Approach to Counselling. Pitman. 1994.

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About Vivienne Silver-Leigh

Vivienne Silver-Leigh had a career first as a speech therapist, and then became a lecturer in English and counselling. She trained counsellors for five years, and now has a private practice, working as a psychotherapist, from a humanistic/integrative perspective. Following a strong interest in spirituality, she learned yoga and various forms of breathwork and meditation. She can be contacted on e-mail: VSilverl@aol.com

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