Learning to take 100% responsibility for our (ageing) lives
Anytime we blame something outside of ourselves for our unhappiness, pain, discomfort, lack of abilities and opportunities, we are giving away our power.
Life is short and most of us do not have the years left to wait for ageism to stop, a cure for cognitive decline or the system to change. Anytime we blame something outside of ourselves for our unhappiness, pain, discomfort, lack of abilities and opportunities, we are giving away our power. Karmic sensibility – observing the laws of causation – can help us take the power back and change our situation for the better.
Last weekend I went on a Sesshin with my husband at Zen River, a Zen Buddhist monastery in the Northern part of the Netherlands (the picture in this post). Sesshin means “gathering the mind” and it is a time of intensive meditation as well as an opportunity to take part in the daily routine of the monastery and listen to Dharma Talks by the wise abbot Tenkei Coppens Roshi. Admittedly, it was an unusual thing for us to do as a couple. We got many strange looks from our friends, and we are still digesting the many impressions from a weekend out of the ordinary. We found ourselves emerged in a different world. People around us were dressed in robes, the sounds of various of bells, chimes, drums and chanting accompanied everything we did and there were strange and complicated rituals to follow. Sometimes, it felt like we had landed in a Marvel Universe and a portal could open any moment for Dr. Strange to appear from a different universe. But it was a different kind of magic that was present at Zen River. Magic that was centred around communion, compassion and wisdom. Personally, I went on the retreat to explore how Zen Buddhism is different to the mindfulness practice I am used to. I discovered that despite the differences, ultimately the end goal is the same; to wake up! To become aware of reality. But I also left the monastery with an understanding that each one of us must find our own way to wake up and consequently decide on what to do with this insight. “There are many ways to play a violin” as Tenkei Roshi said. However, it is important to explore how we want to play our violins, or the tune might not be so pleasant and fulfilling. In the end everyone is responsible for their own happiness.
In Buddhism, they talk about karma. Karma, however, is often misunderstood. Firstly, it is often misinterpreted as fate: “There’s nothing you can do about it. It´s your karma”. Secondly, most people think of it as the rebirth of beings according to their deeds in a previous life. But you don´t have to believe in rebirth to benefit from the teachings of karma. It is a concept that also concerns this life where it refers to the principles of cause and effect. Karma is the opposite of fate. It is the opportunity to make changes based on the observations of causation. If we take the time to notice, we will soon experience that whatever we do, say, or think has an effect. If I say bad things about people for instance, they will say bad things about me. If I treat the planet with disrespect, I will have to face the consequences sooner or later. If I turn my disrespect inwards and fill my body with junk food, I will suffer from it. If I tell myself off, whenever I make a mistake or fail at something, my mind will continue this unhealthy pattern.
We need to treat others – and ourselves - the way we want to be treated. We need to be responsible for our own actions. The question is, do you take 100% responsibility for your life? Most of us don´t. Most of us claim that this is impossible, because there is so much happening to us and our lives which is beyond our control. How can we be responsible for what happens to us? The answer to that is that while we may not be responsible for what happens to us, we can always take responsibility for the way we respond. If we fully understand the laws of karma – of cause and effect - we will realise that the way we respond to life, no matter if it is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral things that are happening to us, have an effect on ourselves and the world around us. Karma gives us the power to improve our lives and the lives of everyone around us, but it also means that we can no longer blame others for our misfortunes.
The current demographical changes pose an enormous societal challenge. As The Standford Center of Longevity states on their website: “The 100-year-old life is here. We are not ready for it”[i]. Mostly the transformation is seen as a challenge and the question on everbody´s mind is how we are going to sustain our healthcare- and welfare systems. The “system”; the politicians, the employers, the health- and medical care industry as well as the insurance companies all need to find ways to face this new world. However, in the end, true and sustainable change has to come from within each one of us living in the system. It requires not only a change to the way we organize of our societies, but also a shift in our mindsets. We need to take responsibility for our own lives and how we respond to it. We cannot sit and wait for ageism to end for instance. Instead, we need to accept that ageism is here. We can of course work to end it in due time, but right now we need to navigate in a world that is ruled by it. One way to navigate it to make sure that we do not internalise it and let ourselves be limited by old fashioned and stereotypical views of what it means to be 55 or 95. Likewise, we cannot sit and wait for cures for various age-related declines and illnesses, but we can learn to adapt to whatever situation we find ourselves in with acceptance and self-compassion. This is of course not easy. We need to equip ourselves – and the rest of our ageing friends, colleagues and families - with the mindset, the skills, the behaviors and motivation needed to re-evaluate our life-choices and styles. There are many ways to wake up, to step out of autopilot, to learn and practice this. Tenkei Roshi said that there are many ways to play a violin, but we need to have some violin teachers to help us get started. I believe there is a gap regarding strategies that can empower older individuals to handle the process of adaption and enable us to continue living satisfying lives despite age-related difficulties. Going on a Sesshin is one way to explore new ways of doing and being in life. My upcoming book Ageing Upwards; A mindfulness-based approach to the longevity revolution is another attempt. Hopefully others will follow. How do you take responsibility for your (ageing) life?