How to bring self-compassion to ageing (a life lesson from turning 50!)
I turned 50 recently! 50!! Life feels like a catapult. I was born on 17 October 1971, the trigger was pulled, and then whoosh…half a century has passed by. So I thought I would reflect on all that, and consider…how can we approach ageing and what might compassion have to do with it?
In some ways 50 is still young. And I moisturise, so that helps! But in some ways, 50 really is starting to get older. Compared to my kids, for example, 16 and 19 years old! To them, I probably seem very old (although I’m sure they also see me as hilarious, heaps of fun, and very very wise).
I remember a young fellow I was working with in my therapy practice. He was having trouble with relationships and the whole online dating thing, navigating Tinder and so on. At one point in our discussion he turned to me with great sincerity and said, “Did young people have sex in your generation?”
I responded with, “You’re really curious about how people in different eras might have dealt with these kinds of relationship challenges.”
Time Passes and We Age
Anyway, the point is that everything changes, time passes, and we age. In fact, we are very fortunate when we do get to age. Sometimes death can come far too early. The things we love and cherish, our family, friends, pets…everything will change, age, and pass away.
Of course, there are positives in that whole ageing process. I mean, I worry a lot less about what other people think. I’m not saying I don’t worry at all, but I definitely worry a lot less.
And then, at the same time, my bones creak, my muscles ache, my body just doesn’t do what I want it to anymore. It used to be much more compliant!
About a week ago, I lay in bed with a dull but persistent pain in the chest. The pain had actually been there a couple of days, but on this particular night it had intensified to the point where I couldn’t sleep! I pulled out the phone, Googled “chest pain”. I’m sure you know where this is going…
Watch out for the signs of heart attack!
Does the chest pain feel like a heavy weight? Am I feeling pain down my left arm? Is my breathing laboured? It feels kind of laboured. Then I was all caught up in loops. The anxiety set in, and I started to worry, catastrophise and eventually my heart was actually racing!
I thought, well, I am nearly 50, I have a family history of heart attack, they say to err on the side of caution…so I went into hospital. Yep! And on the way I thought, man, I hope they don’t just say I am having a panic attack. I’m a psychologist, I should know what a panic attack is! They’ll think I’m a fool!
We have tricky brains!! My threat system was activated, fight/flight and all that, there was the fearful imagining, worry and catastrophising, and then there was the self-conscious emotions, embarrassment and shame…it was all there.
Just so you know, I got all hooked up, bloods taken, ECG, and after a couple of hours the doctor came in and said, “I think it is probably a muscle strain.” Doh! BUT, I’ve had bloods and ECG now, and my heart has the all clear! So that’s the good news.
Things Decay and We Suffer
Back to the point…ageing…it’s difficult, and there can be an aspect to it whereby we suffer. And so, we want to pay attention to what’s really going on…in the body, our thoughts and feelings, our urges and actions…and we want to find the courage to just be there with ourselves as time passes, to be there and experience whatever life brings us.
Yes, there will be lots of worries: Will I experience illness? Will I have enough money? Will someone be there to take care of me? And yes, all of this is possible. Illness does come more when we get older. Things change, things decay, and there can be suffering as a part of that. We can’t take that reality away.
So, can we find a different approach? Can we take a slightly different perspective, connect with a different meaning or a greater context, something greater than ourselves?
Bringing Self-Compassion to Ageing
Here are three steps I am trying to practice, and perhaps you can see whether they might be helpful to you too.
First, gratitude for what has come before and what I have now.
I am thankful for this life, warts and all. Trials and tribulations, adventures and challenges, disappointments and losses, everything I have done and everything I have learned, and those who I have loved and who have loved me in return. And I am thankful for every breath I take, every moment I live, every new chance I have to embrace something, small or large, in my life. I am so grateful.
Second, finding solace is something bigger than this.
Ageing reminds us that this life will eventually end. What’s going to happen when I die? I must admit, as time has marched on, this has got its claws in, troubling me, especially at night before I fall asleep. Yet I can comfort myself, because, in a way, I know what it’s like, I have been there, before I was born, and I will return there after I die. In a sense, I comfort myself and I smile, knowing I will return to my essence. The same essence that I have always been, will always be…am now!
Third, engaging with the suffering that may or will happen along the way, and staying committed and true to alleviating this suffering, and where possible, doing things to prevent it.
Keeping my body strong and stable, my mind active and my heart full. And offering myself certain well-wishes. I try to say, gently, warmly, to myself:
As I age, may I be filled with loving-kindness. May I be safe, happy and peaceful.
And as I age, may I cultivate compassion for myself, those around me, and all living beings.
And as I age, may I be free from suffering, to the extent this is possible.
And I wish all of this for you, too. May you be filled with loving kindness and compassion and may you be free from suffering.
Thanks for reading. Please consider subscribing to my YouTube channel for more on the topic of living a compassionate life inside and out. Oh, and wish me luck for the next 50!