Always Well Within

Calm Your Mind, Ease Your Heart, Embrace Your Inner Wisdom

Aging with Grace: Myth or Reality?

I sometimes see Pinterest boards titled “Graceful Aging.” They often feature stunning photos of celebrities like Ali McGraw, Meryl Streep, Carol King, Joan Baez, Helen Mirren, Sally Fields, Barbara Streisand, Jamie Lee Curtis, Julie Christie, and Diane Keaton. These icons look fabulous in the context of conventional standards of beauty. But is this what aging gracefully truly means?

I sometimes see Pinterest boards titled “Graceful Aging.” They often feature stunning photos of celebrities like Ali McGraw, Meryl Streep, Carol King, Joan Baez, Helen Mirren, Sally Fields, Barbara Streisand, Jamie Lee Curtis, Julie Christie, and Diane Keaton.

These icons look fabulous in the context of conventional standards of beauty.

But is this what aging gracefully truly means?

My mother died at the age of 63.  She didn’t get much of a chance to age gracefully.

My father died at the age of 86.  Although he suffered from a heart attack and two strokes in mid-life, he lived modestly but well by his own definition.  Until the later years, when he began to feel weary. Too many loved ones died, unrelenting physical symptoms plagued him, and loneliness became his frequent companion.  In old age, he suffered more angst than grace.

This suffering peaked with a gall bladder attack and consequent hospitalization.  Surgery revealed cancer in another organ and my father refused treatment.  Afterward, he was moved quickly to a mediocre nursing home for rehabilitation.  He never had a chance to see his apartment again.

I felt called to be with him during his last weeks and spent hours on end at the nursing home.

At the facility, I witnessed:

  • The indignity of defecating into an adult diaper and waiting for an attendant to assist you.
  • A sweet woman in a nearby room who had no legs.
  • A mad man wheel-chairing into whatever room he wished, frightening its occupants.
  • A hysterical new patient screaming endlessly for her husband until the tiny, wrinkled man arrived.  I could only imagine the pain he felt.

None of this seemed particularly graceful, but moments of kindness, humor, and joy peeked through.

“This is the extreme,” you might think.

Yes, it is.  But when we portray one particular form of beauty as aging gracefully, we neglect the experience of so many others.

No one can escape the bodily decay of aging although some may have a stronger constitution than others.  The accumulation of years can bring discomfort, discouragement, and even despair – a full spectrum away from a romanticized image of aging with grace.

I don’t think we should just give up and let our bodies go to pot, of course.  Diet, attitude, and exercise can avert and/or positively impact chronic disease and extend your longevity.  It makes sense to give the body the proper amount of attention.

But as we age, let’s not over fixate on the way we look, the state of our body, and a million possible ways to improve it and by so doing overlook divine grace.

Age with Divine Grace

The word “grace” contains multiple meanings.  I believe aging with grace goes far beyond external beauty.  Instead, aging with grace means:

  • Expanding your capacity to love, express compassion, and be tolerant, understanding, and forgiving.
  • Increasing your ability to see reality as it is, accept whatever unfolds in your life, and let go in every moment.

Divine grace:

  • Regenerates your spirit and sanctifies your being, whatever your physical container might look like.
  • Inspires virtuous thoughts, words and actions that uplift you and others.
  • Provides the strength to face and transform the trials that naturally occur as you age.
  • Can help you meet death with understanding and peace.

You can access divine grace in any moment because it resides within you.  (Click to Tweet)

Conversely, modern culture worships the body far more than the spirit.  Consider this:

  • $12 billion:  Spent annually on perfumes in Europe and the United States (World Watch)
  • $ 8 billion: Spent annually on cosmetics in the United States (World Watch)
  • $27 billion: Spent on yoga products in 2012  (Examiner)

Will all this perfume, makeup, and the host of modern yoga accoutrements give you profound peace of mind in your later years?  I think not.  I have tremendous respect for traditional forms of yoga, but some if not many forms of modern yoga remove the spirit-side so the practice becomes primarily a feel good, self-help technique.  That may have its place in terms of good health, but it’s limited.

It takes courage to breakaway from the conventional standards of beauty and choose instead beauty that arises from within.

You Are Not This Body.  You Are Not This Mind.

Our bodies disintegrate for a good reason:  as a reminder that we are not this body, we are not this mind. Aging provides the perfect opportunity to learn to surrender all that you’ve held dear.  Think of it as the practice run for the moment of death, when you won’t be able to take lipstick, designer clothes, or yoga supports along.

You don’t have to wait for old age to live in divine grace, however.  The follow practices  – when employed regularly – will provide an essential foundation for letting grace flow, whatever your age.

1.  Don’t identify so strongly with your body.

In Tibetan, the word for body is ‘lü,’ which means ‘something you leave behind,’ like baggage  Each time we say ‘lü’ it reminds us that we are only travelers, taking temporary refuge in this life and this body. – Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (affiliate link)

Most people link the body and the self as one.  This typically brings emotional pain since we’re rarely happy with our body – too fat, too thin, too wrinkled, too achy, not pretty enough, nose too big, and on and on.  Even when you achieve momentary “perfection,” sweat, smears, and wrinkles can destroy it in an instant.

From a higher perspective, the body does not permanently exist.  In every moment, it undergoes constant change at the micro level that eventually becomes apparent at the macro level.  So there is no permanent, unchanging body.  And since the physical body dies, it certainly is not you.

One day, you’ll have to say good-bye to your body.  It will be so much easier at that time, if you train now to see this body as none other than a transitory illusion.

This thing called ‘corpse’ we dread so much is living with us here and now. – Milarepa

When you look in the mirror each day, ask yourself if what you see is the real you.  Who, what is the real you?  Contemplating this question can lead to deep insight.

2. Don’t identify so strongly with your mind – your thoughts, emotions, and sensations.

I am not this body, I am not this mind, I am not these senses, Immortal self am I. Soham Soham Soham Sivoham. – Hindu chant

Most people believe they are their thoughts, emotions, and sensations and get all wrapped up in their goals, dreams, and ambitions or conversely their self-hatred, compulsive tendencies, and despair.

But that is equally deceptive.

Just like the body, all that arises in the mind is transitory.  The more attention you invest in it, the more real and solid it can seem.  And the more distress comes your way.

Instead of being a slave to your thoughts and emotions, spend time with the part of your mind that’s unchanging.

Watch and get to know the intricacies and tendencies of your own mind.  See for yourself how the display constantly changes. Be aware of the aspect of you that’s taking it all in, but has the capacity to relax and let go of all the fleeting inner and outer experiences of life.  Align with your pure awareness rather than your thoughts and emotions.

There’s much more to living in divine grace, but these two practices – when taken to heart – will bring you deep insight and an amazing sense of freedom.

Care for You Body, But Depend on Divine Grace

The body houses your divine essence so please do care for it and regard it with respect.

But don’t go overboard. You never know how your personal karma will play out even if you drink endless green smoothies, exercise faithfully, and eat a vegan diet.   Even great spiritual teachers develop cancer, strokes, and heart disease.

Good health and a long life mean nothing if you don’t put them to the best use.

Learn to be in your pure essence now, so you’ll be able depend on divine grace as you age. Learn to identify less strongly with the body, so you’ll be able to trust in divine grace when it comes time to make your passage from this physical container to whatever comes next.

What are your thoughts about aging with grace?  I would love to hear.

Thank you for reading.  Please help me spread the love and goodness by sharing this post on your favorite social media site.  I appreciate your support.  Be happy!  Be well!  Be safe! With love, Sandra

P. S.  Have you signed up for my monthly note – Wild Arisings?  Please do, you’ll get some goodies too.  Learn more here.

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32 Comments

  1. john

    This puts life in perspective, temporary

    • I agree, John. And understanding impermanence can help us appreciate how precious each moment is and thus make the best use of our time. Thanks for summarizing your thoughts!

  2. cindy

    thank you so much for this, it is a light to guide us through the stormy seas that accompany our lives from time to time 🙂

  3. As a personal trainer, there is a bit of me that wants to rail against some of this message. I feel like this message can negate the powerful experience of living an embodied life – fully experiencing the sensations and lessons that come from being fully in the body. I see many using the philosophy of the body being nothing other than a vessel as a reason to disconnect and not honor what our body can give us. I also see it as a way to diminish the feminine in our culture (when feminine is equated with physical and male is equal to spirit and/or mind).

    For me, you cannot nourish the soul/essence/spirit without honoring the body. You are in this particular vessel for a very particular reason during this particular life.

    And as you need to honor the body in order to nourish the soul, you must also nourish the soul to honor the body. In this life, it is my opinion, that the two (with the mind as a third) create a whole that offers up experiences and lessons you will take with you on the next journey.

    As you say, the body, like thoughts, are temporary but should not be neglected for the sake of mind or body.

    • Thank you for sharing your perspective, Jacki. I feel it’s an important view too.

      I also believe that we should live fully in our body with our senses wide open. I don’t believe I recommended disconnecting from or denying the body in this article, but I understand it might sound that way. I’m simply saying let’s not take the body or the ordinary mind for our true essence, the feminine or the masculine. I’m suggesting that we not confuse conventional beauty for aging with grace. It’s not my intention to diminish the feminine, which is often associated with the body as you suggest.

      I’m glad you raised these point as I did not drawn them out and in that sense what I’ve said could be misunderstood. Be well!

      • Sandra;

        I don’t believe that you’re post suggested to dishonor the body, but I do believe that many that I have encountered have used the idea of non-attachment to denigrate their relationship with the body and all the body can offer them. Thank you for clarifying that the practice of non-attachment does necessarily mean not living an embodied life.

  4. I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I’ve seen those Pinterest boards as well. I think the Hollywood versions of aging with grace are just that. Yes, these women are still beautiful. Yes, some have had surgical assistance and some haven’t.

    Grace, to me, means acceptance of what is, surrender to reality. Grace is a serene state of mind. Some things are hard to accept than others, like the physical decline you’ve written about.

    I agree with Jacki that we live in our bodies and need to be “in” our bodies with all our senses awake. I’ve been contemplating the Buddhist philosophy of non-attachment to the body and mind. I’ve also been considering how that ties in with social action. I don’t have the answers but I have lots of questions.

    Thich Nhat Hahn wrote this. It’s inspiration for meditation.

    This body is not me.
    I am not limited by this body.
    I am life without boundaries.
    I have never been born,
    and I have never died.
    Look at the ocean and the sky filled with stars, manifestations from my wondrous true mind.
    Since before time, I have been free.
    Birth and death are only doors through which we pass, sacred thresholds on our journey.
    Birth and death are a game of hide- and seek.
    So laugh with me,
    hold my hand,
    let us say good-bye,
    say good-bye, to meet again soon.
    We meet today.
    We will meet again tomorrow.
    We will meet at the source every moment.
    We meet each other in all forms of life.
    Thich Nhat Hanh

    • Thank you for this beautiful definition of grace, Loran!

      You are asking important questions. I feel contemplation on these kinds of questions is integral to coming to a true understanding for ourselves.

      I don’t think “non-attachment” automatically means we should not enjoy the body. I know that both the body and the thinking mind can be allies on our path to recognize our non-dual nature. However, the different vehicles (or body of teachings) in Buddhism have very different viewpoints about the body. So I don’t think there’s one Buddhist view on the body, but I think everyone would agree that non-attachment is fundamental.

      This poem for Thich Nhat Hahn is amazing. Thank you for this gift! There’s much to contemplate there.

  5. You have once again given me much food for thought my friend….I am witnessing my mother’s degeneration of her body and her trying to find her spirit again…and it is the same with many others whose parents are also aging or dying.

    This will certainly be something I will think about more for a poem or a blog post….I’ll let you know…thank you for stirring my soul.

    • You’re so welcome, Donna. Aging can bring up so many questions, challenges, and opportunities. It’s not easy for so many, but I think reflecting on the deeper questions can help. I wish you and your mother the best as she navigates this phase of her life. I would love to know when you write about this.

  6. so well said. i especially like the quote “we are only travelers, taking temporary refuge in this life and this body”. it really puts life in perspective.

  7. Love this post Sandra – thank you – much food for thought.
    Aging with grace for me is more about living with grace at any age – and we are forever aging from the moment we are born.

    Of course we think about all this more as we age.
    And our lives/bodies are continually changing.

    My aunt is 92 and is living with grace.
    My Mum passed at 73 after a major stroke at 68. She lived with more grace after her stroke when she could only speak in a language we couldn’t understand and needed help to use the bathroom. Part of her brain was somehow disabled with her stroke – the part that was very obsessive and controlling.

    When i look at my aunt, much of her grace comes from gratitude and allowing. She’s incredibly easy going, knows what she wants, at the same time she gives us all a lot of space to be with her and do things our own way too while we’re giving to her.

    And I look at younger folk who have much less grace than my aunt – sometimes me too.

    Definitely a good thing to ponder – and the more we can live with grace, move our bodies, be flexible in all ways, at younger ages, I suspect the easier it will be as we age. Worth thinking on early.

    Thanks for your wisdom, and that of others who have commented here. xoxo

    • This is so true, Vicky > we are aging from the moment we are born and so it’s about living gracefully. And, I would suggest finding our own path to what that means.

      These are interesting stories you share about your relatives. I love the qualities you pinpoint – gratitude and allowing – as being so essential for living/aging with grace.

      I’m intrigued by how your mom changed after the stroke. It verifies to me that our habits can be very difficult (though not impossible) to change because we’ve etched so deeply into our brain. At the same time, it gives me a sense that we are not this brain alone and that such a big part of how we see ourselves could so quickly vanish.

      Yes, I so agree this is a topic to ponder and discover what aging with grace means for ourselves.

      Thanks for sharing your stories and your thoughts.

  8. I love this post so much, Sandra. Your true writing voice and authentic story telling comes through, especially as you talk about your parents. Thank you for writing on a topic so powerful. I think about aging all the time, and sure I want to embrace it and love it and go with the natural flow of what is, and yet it’s hard to accept that it is best to be the current age than the younger age. It’s a failure of culture sometimes to not embrace aging half as much as it glorifies youth … but that’s just an excuse. I love your approach and I want to age gracefully too.

    • Thank you, Farnoosh. I’m deeply touched by your kinds words.

      I don’t think it’s at all easy to accept aging in this culture that tends to deny it and glorify youth and external beauty. But I think it will be easier if we begin to think about it early on and discover for ourselves what it means to live gracefully.

      I think about aging often too because I’m getting older. I feel how fragile life is and sometimes wonder if I will be alive in the morning. I want to be able to gracefully accept all those rising in my mind and not let them be a disturbance to my heart.

      I know how much you love yoga and I’m all for using physical disciplines to care for our body. I’m so glad your mind is so open and you could see that this is not an anti-yoga post at all. I think these same sentiments come through yoga philosophy.

      Deep gratitude for your affirming words.

  9. mel

    How do we align with our pure awareness?

    • Hi Mel,

      The first step is to learn to allow the mind to settle through basic meditation so you have a chance to become aware of the passing thoughts and emotions. That itself takes time. Gradually through the practice of basic meditation, you may become aware of the awareness that is aware of the thoughts and emotions. That isn’t necessarily our pure awareness that’s beyond the conceptual mind, but it’s getting closer. The idea is to simply be aware of everything that arises in the mind and in life instead of following the thoughts and emotions that arise with more thoughts and emotions. In my tradition, it’s said that you need to be introduced to the nature of mind itself by an authentic teacher.

      That’s a very short and simplified version. Entire books have been written about this. Wishing you the best.

  10. Shirley Dodge

    A little bell went off in me when I read your words, “I think it will be easier if we think about it (aging) early on and discover for ourselves what it means to live in grace.” There is this element of ‘discovery’ that could really be the opening into aging in such a way as to embrace grace. Finding grace as an inner deepening, that comes with time, and the experience of aging, can be seen in new light as a discovery, a source of self awareness that is more forgiving, and open ended, not in a closed sense of old age, but in a wisdom opening.

    • That’s beautiful, Shirley. It feels very rooted in accepting not knowing but opening and discovering in each moment. Thanks for sharing this deep insight with us.

  11. Our brains are tracking together again, Sandra. I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about how our society is so enamored with physical bodies.

    Here’s what I’m wondering (and I admit it’s kind of pie-in-the-sky): Let’s suppose that we begin to teach our children from birth that our bodies are temporary (like the houses we live in and the clothes we dress in), that death of the body is inevitable but the spirit is eternal and that it’s better to seek out relationships that embrace body, mind AND spirit. Do you suppose kids were grow into their teenage years with fewer eating disorders and addictions? And that as adults they would be much less obsessed with body image and more focused on giving and receiving love?

    I’d like to think that could happen. But we would need to grow an entire generation into adulthood before we would see an elimination of the advertising industry’s dense focus on physical focus. Maybe these love-minded adults would pitch ad campaigns promoting the very things that the public finds woo-woo today.

    I can dream, can’t I?

    As usual, I LOVE YOUR POST!

  12. This is so beautiful and so true. I think that aging is one of the scariest things for many women here in the US (and abroad as well!). The anti-aging industry makes a killing off of our fear of wrinkles.

    And yet you’re so right. When we invest less of our identity in outward appearance and abilities, then we are able to age well with grace. Thanks for writing this.

    • Hi Daisy,

      Aging can be scary for so many reasons. There’s so much to work with, discover, and overcome to find a true sense of grace, but I think it’s very possible.

      I think anti-aging and longevity are even big in the alternative health-focused circles so it’s challenging to get around it. I don’t have a television so that helps considerably.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  13. Jennifer

    My meditation practice has had a profound effect on how I view and feel about my body–my inner voice is kinder, for sure!

    But probably my EOL practice as a social worker for hospice has had the most profound impact. We are an amazing species. Our aging process can soften us, humble us like no other process. That vulnerability (and courage) is one of the most sincere and touching aspects of life.

    And yes, I still use expensive (organic and locally made) face cream because it makes me feel beautiful. Ha!

    Jennifer

    • Dear Jennifer,

      I’m in awe of your perspective: ” Our aging process can soften us, humble us like no other process. That vulnerability (and courage) is one of the most sincere and touching aspects of life. ” You have a beautiful heart. There is much opportunity in aging, when we are able to see it this way. Thank you so much for this inspiration. Please enjoy your face cream. I don’t think we have to give everything up!

  14. Sandra, thank you for sharing so much wisdom and holding the space for all the beautiful comments.

    Kate x

  15. I understand the philosophy to not be too attached to your body, to your emotions and your thoughts. I also understand my body is where I live right now, and my thoughts, emotions, and body can choose to live in harmony in this life right now. So what is that harmony? A part of it is love and compassion for all the ways my body takes care of me. So can I live in this moment, and the next moment which may be different than this moment, in appreciation of this body just as it is? Yes, I can love without attachment.

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