Wisdom, the More Complex (and Slightly Older) Brain – March 2012
I was sitting in my car with a friend after giving a training, a little worn out around the edges, and thinking, longingly, about youth and resiliency and strength. “I hate getting older. I think the body changes are worse for women – pregnancy, nursing, the sagging effects of gravity,” I said, and stopped speaking, lost in my irritation about the changes in energy and resiliency. He said, “I used to have a glorious curling afro of hair out to here,” holding his hands out around his head. I tried to tear myself out of my body funk so that I could figure out why he was talking about his hairstyle. And then I looked at his forehead, not covered by a thick, curling afro, and realized that we were talking about the same thing – that men have to deal with mourning the losses that come with age too – changes in energy levels, hair, body, health and teeth.
This mourning is part of what Daniel Siegel calls “temporal integration” – locating ourselves within our cycle of life and mortality, as individuals, as countries, as a species, as a planet. It is a tricky place to work, as our left hemispheres, those masters of denial, ricochet away from helplessness and grief, which makes it difficult to do this work of clear, expansive vision-making. Additionally, when we work with how we feel about our bodies, (our individual landscapes of how time has had its way with us) we are often stepping into self-judgment, self-contempt and self-loathing – emotional territories that are resistant to change.
What might such a process sound like if we use empathy to support it? If we move slowly, we can capture a particular stimulus that carries a charge for us. Then we bring our attention to it only briefly enough to be able to tell what physical sensations and emotions we are experiencing without flooding ourselves with self-loathing or despair. Our starting point might be touching a stomach that is softer than it used to be; or bringing our attention to our gray or thinning hair; or remembering the body or energy of our youth.
To explore this and be able to share it with you, I spent an hour in a self-empathy process mourning some of the body changes that I have experienced with time, dipping into the voices my body parts have, allowing expression of my mourning and dismay, and my body’s longing for appreciation, rest, nourishment and acknowledgment. I also gave voice to the cells themselves, and to how much they long to contribute to my well-being. The process was longer than really worked for the newsletter, so I have not reproduced it here, but would be glad to send it to you privately if you have a sense that it would contribute to your well-being.
We’ve been talking about losses, but what are the gains of aging? I’ve always had a sense that life is getting easier, minute by minute, and that you could not pay me millions of dollars to return to the more painful ideas I had about myself even 30 minutes ago. So what is really happening in our brains? Inspired by this question, this month’s teleseminar will take us into the cognitive losses and gains that come with age – the complexification of our social circuits, our increased abilities to connect and bond and nurture ourselves and others – and how to name, mourn and celebrate our movement through time as living beings, deeply affected and changed by each other and by life itself, as it moves through us.