Becoming an elder

Acknowledging that I have not written for a while, for all sorts of reasons…and I carry an underlying sense of time moving so quickly. It now strikes me – with some irony – that I chose my upcoming “big birthday” as a writing prompt to get my blogging habit back under way. Time IS passing quickly…

…and yet Time is but a construct. As a Buddhist, my practice is to hold the relative truth of impermanence with the absolute truth of unceasing nowness. But this is no time nor place to duck out of my mortality and ageing.

And I noticed having given myself this writing task this morning how much I procrastinated sitting down to write: a part of me that yearns for these days of unspoilt writing focus somewhat derailed by (until now) out of my awareness reluctance to sit here and contemplate that in four weeks time I move into another decade. Consciously, turning 50 hasn’t felt like a big deal. If anything, it carries a similar flavour to 10 years ago. 

On the morning of my 40th birthday, I looked into the bathroom mirror and saw the woman looking back at me. We looked deeply into one another’s eyes. I felt my body open with a sense of relief…yes, relief. I remember a smile breaking across my face, and tears of “arriving” somehow. Relief, arriving, “giving something up” in fact. At the time I was finishing my first training as a counsellor and had been meditating for a few years. The sense of “arriving” was still associated with a place, a destination, external factors. I had created the life I was living, and that life was “fitting” me.

As I approach 50, the feeling of “arriving” is there. I said to a colleague recently that recent experiences have felt like a “coming of age”. But not so much about reaching somewhere, but more of a returning somewhere. 

Carl Jung is a bit of a hero to those of us in mid-life territory. He so accurately and vividly describes the first half of life as a project of building our credentials; and the second half as being one of surrendering. Turning 40 I felt a strength coming from all I had achieved; a sound container for my life now intact. Turning 50 is about realising those credentials are nice, but fleeting. They are not me, I am not them. The “coming of age” is not just feeling competent in what I do, but feeling confident in who I am.

Or, more accurately, who I am not.

And yet as I say above, being a Buddhist asks me to hold both absolute and relative truths. It is perhaps more my practice as a Vajrayana Buddhist that is helping me release into my being, to recognise my true nature than turning 50 per se. These last 6 months have brought me some considerable health challenges (including finally falling foul of Covid a couple of weeks back). To hold this ageing, sick body WITHIN a view of something ceaseless beyond ‘form’ has been an example of where the rubber hits the road. Even as I type, I look down at my Reynaud afflicted hands with age spots and wrinkling of the skin. Somehow, these marks feel like testament to my process, “battle scars” of a life well-lived rather than bad news or a failing. 

I have a good life, it will end, so what do I do with it?

I have written much about being a bodhisattva on this blog. Finishing my book and seeing it published is another significant event this year for me; in part because it came from a wish to serve others. I feel fortunate to be a psychotherapist who can help people find more ease in their life. I love my work as an educator of trainees and as a supervisor of therapists: in an economy of effort, I hope my teaching facilitates others going out into the world and easing distress. And with the book, I feel I have upscaled that reach. The book has also reinforced what is of utmost importance to me: in ALL aspects of my ‘doing’ – as practicing therapist, teacher, and writer – to support people’s ‘being’.

Yesterday, I spent my afternoon working with our current second year students on the Humanistic counselling course at Brighton. By this time in the course, only 4 teaching weeks until they end, I want to foster experiential working that opportunes a ‘courage to be’. I shared with them my memories of being where they are now (as I was turning 40!), still feeling like therapy was an act of ‘doing’. We played with body shape: I demonstrated the caricature of ‘Helen doing therapy’ of then – body rigid, upright; contrasting that with ‘Helen’ now, being in ease as I facilitated the session – sitting back, legs crossed, sipping my coffee. “A thought experiment – bring to mind when you are most at ease, feel into that. And how does that compare with your felt sense of now, in this classroom? Or when with clients? Simply know”. We moved into some dyad working; and, to varying extents, I witnessed them move from ease into dis-ease again. Our habitual ways of doing, and our scripts that feed into them, are hard to shake.

Overnight, I realise my dreams carried a sense of frustration, and it is making sense to me now as I write that it relates to my teaching day yesterday. Not a frustration with anything nor anyone. A frustration manifest in witnessing struggle; the struggle to be; and probably, a frustration with myself who could not convey or deliver the ease I wished for them. As Humanistic therapists as see the inherent wholeness of all; as a Buddhist, my practice is to see Buddha nature in all; and as a bodhisattva, my motivation is to help others release into this true nature.

Back to Jung for a moment, “the privilege of a lifetime is to become who you really are”.

The old adage tells us we “can’t put a wise head on young shoulders”. My frustration is, I wish I could. How can I shortcut the process I have been through (continue through) for others? Is that even the point? As I approach 50, my real wish is to transition into “elder”; in Jungian psychology speak, the feminine moves from maiden, to mother, to crone. Having spent the time writing this post reflecting on what it is for me to turn 50, it feels like I have invited a month long process of contemplation on what it is to become an elder: to hold both my personal age-ing AND the task of ‘sage-ing’.

No doubt I will report back.


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