I was brought up in a family and educated at a school where religious belief was obligatory and spirituality was an anathema. Consequently, I went through my childhood without any idea that I had an inner life that could help me to understand myself or provide solace. I mourn that loss even now because growing up often felt hollow and confusing.
Nevertheless, it did not make sense to me that life was a one-stop shop and then we died. It made more sense that life was some kind of ongoing school where lessons had to be learnt, and a feeling of contentment emerged when I was absorbed in something creative. Even though I was unaware of it, I was instinctively expressing myself creatively to give my life meaning,
Making meaning of life is a very personal thing. Some people find it, for example, through the arts or teaching, or taking part in sport. Others find it by entering the healing professions or by doing charitable work, or bringing up a family, or mending and building things.
Some people are fortunate to connect with meaning early on in their lives (Elton John was playing the piano by the time he was four). For others, such as myself, who did not have that early inner connection, it felt as if something was missing.
As I entered adolescence, this translated into a deep yearning for something that I interpreted as being ‘out there’. By the time I was in my 30s I had become increasingly frustrated, disappointed and depressed, and I lost sight of how my thoughtless actions were destroying everything in my life.
However, we are constantly presented with opportunities to confront our immature patterns of behaviour so we can grow up. This can be experienced as an intuitive feeling that some kind of life change needs to happen, or it can become a profound life crisis.
‘The world always makes sure that you cannot fool yourself for long about who you think you are by showing what truly matters to you,’ writes Eckhart Tolle in his book, A New Earth.1
My own search for meaning kick-started when I was involved in a light aircraft crash some 28 years ago. We were flying at 1,500 feet when the propeller stopped and we fell out of the sky. Most light aircraft crashes are fatal, or certainly involve a fatality. For whatever reason, the pilot and I both scrambled from the wreckage physically unscathed. But the mental shock I experienced was another matter.
Looking back, I realise now that I had developed severe post-traumatic stress. This manifested for a time in night sweats, inability to concentrate, and a suicidal depression. It was only when I began to train in trauma work as an EMDR (eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing) practitioner in my early 50s that I fully understood how a crisis such as this strips away carefully constructed defence mechanisms and leaves us exposed and raw to the core.2
In his book, Out of the Darkness, transpersonal psychologist Steve Taylor interprets these crisis moments as ‘spiritual alchemy’. He explains, ‘Terrible though these consequences are, for many people, they are balanced by – and even transcended by – longer term positive effects.’3
The crash was certainly a moment of spiritual alchemy for me. It forced me to accept that I needed help and healing. So I now look back on this experience as life saving. I had to reassess everything, and this has led, albeit sometimes precariously, to the work I am involved in today.
Spiritual calling intensifies as we age
Even so, life continued – and still continues – to challenge and raise questions, and I am aware that my desire to make meaning of it all has increased as I have entered my later years.
I refer to this desire as my ‘call to God’. I am not a religious person, but I am comfortable with what ‘God’ signifies to me. (Some refer to God as The Light, or The Source, or The Universal Energy, or Higher Wisdom.)
Father Richard Rohr, an American Franciscan monk and founder of the Centre for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico, writes beautifully about the ageing process in his book, Falling Upwards. He regards the second half of our life as a profound quest: ‘The first half of life is discovering the script, and the second half is actually writing it and owning it. So get ready for a great adventure, the one you were really born for.’4
The response to God or a higher calling as we age seems to me to be a natural part of the human condition. During the Middle Ages many affluent women were benefactors to nunneries, and would often choose to retire to convents to spend the rest of their lives immersed in quiet contemplation. This helped them to make peace with God as they readied themselves for death.5
Today Eastern religions and traditions accept that older people often choose to spend the latter years devoted to spiritual evolution. It is their way of preparing for the inevitability of death and to confront and release karma they have accrued so they can reincarnate into a better lifetime next time round.
I saw this for myself when I visited Varanasi, revered as the holiest city in India. Hundreds of older Hindus were – and are right at this very moment – living in small dingy rooms, sometimes for years, close to their beloved Mother Ganges as they wait for the moment of Salvation when their ashes are scattered on her sacred waters.6 I imagine that they welcome their release from this world with peace, joy and relief.
Western society’s attitude towards ageing
But our secular, ego-driven Western society, addicted to youth and beauty, medical innovation and life-extending treatments, does not encourage or support spiritual exploration in later life. As I point out in my book, Sex, Meaning and the Menopause, most people are so immersed in the frenzied pace of modern life that they are completely caught out in their 50s by the menopause.7
The menopause is biology’s signal that our youth is over and the second half of our life as an older person is starting. However, if we are not ready for what these penetrating hormonal changes can bring, it can throw up powerful feelings of loss, confusion, even despair. So we try and hide any sign of ageing. According to Imogen Matthews, author of The Premium Market Report, women over 45 spend £2 billion annually on cosmetics, anti-ageing skincare and toiletries, a figure that is growing faster than premium beauty.8
We also try and medicalise ageing: the global market for erectile dysfunction remedies is worth roughly $5bn,9 hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is still being prescribed to combat the menopause, despite health risks,10 while $20 billion is spent globally on plastic surgery, and is set to rise to £27 billion by 2019.11
The silver tsunami years
Of course we can do a lot naturally to maintain our health and wellbeing as we grow older. A good diet, regular exercise, and companionship are essential to keep fit and engaged with life. But the spiritual and emotional fall-out from our desire to deny the ageing process is creating serious psychological issues.
Novelists Martin Amis and Christopher Buckley coined the phrase ‘The Silver Tsunami Years’ to describe the wave of baby boomers who are currently entering later years, and the effect this will have on our ill-prepared British society.12 Over 15 million of us are now aged over 60, and this is forecast to pass 20 million by 2030.13
I regard the silver tsunami years in a more personal way. A recent research study by psychologist Dr Oliver Robinson states that one in three people over the age of 60 experiences some kind of major life crisis.14 This can involve a combination of health issues, bereavement, financial hardship, and/or marital breakdown.
Marital breakdown in the over 60s, or ‘silver separations’ as they are referred to, has hit epidemic proportions, and the over-60s are now registered as the largest group to divorce.15 Reasons for this are many, but perhaps the most prevalent is how many baby boomers are refusing to put up with imperfect relationships as their parents may have done. It is not unusual for a baby boomer to have been divorced at least twice, and I know of people who have divorced into their 70s.
The fall-out from this speaks for itself: 3.5 million people over the age of 65 live alone. Forty-one per cent of people aged 65 and over in the UK feel out of touch with the pace of modern life, and 2.04 per cent, or 1.2 million, older people (aged over 65) in England report being persistently and chronically lonely.13
This is extremely sad to report, and I jump up and down when I hear people talking about the 60s as being the new 40s. In my opinion, it is not. Having personally experienced a profound midlife crisis after the plane crash and another life-changing crisis aged 60 when my husband left me, I have found it is completely different. At 40, there was a sense of time stretching ahead to put things right. At 60, time felt much shorter. I had a much more heightened sense of my mortality, and an extreme fear of being thrown into ageing alone. Therefore, for me, the effect of this later life crisis was far more distressing.
Addressing what the ageing process brings
Still, the experience presented me with yet another opportunity to make meaning in my life, and I began to run workshops, retreats and death cafés that provide a space for older people to explore how they are coping with ageing and mortality.
While some participants seem to be embracing their ageing process and making the best of it, others speak about feeling invisible or ignored, or angry about ageing at all. Some are learning to cope with very distressing family or financial situations. Some feel trapped between caring for elderly parents and supporting children and grandchildren. Others are being drawn to do life differently through spiritual practices such as meditation, going on retreats, or travelling.
But all the participants express gratitude and relief for the opportunity to spend time together to talk about it. And I think that’s it: it is about being open and honest with how we feel about becoming the older generation and being willing to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with each other. It is about making the best of it too, even though we are ageing in a world that has drastically changed from how it was when we were young. But that happens with every generation – I can still see my mother’s face when I played The Beatles’ music for the first time.
I am at the stage in life when I want time to reflect on the past 64 years. I want to deepen my understanding of who I am, and I want to clear away the mental and emotional dross that holds me back from finding peace of mind. In his book, Dark Nights of the Soul, Thomas Moore speaks of the continual need to emotionally process the commotion and chaos of life:
‘Life has its ebb and flow. It builds up, and then it clears out. You need this rhythm, just as you need to breathe in and breathe out. Like your body your soul gets filled with pollutants. Dark moments are part of the rhythm by which you fill up and empty out.’16
For me, this clearing is about being willing to salute the spiritual alchemy that forces me to become conscious of my mortality and to hug it close as another day passes by. It is about looking into the mirror and being OK seeing an ageing woman gazing back. It is about finding time to reflect on my life, which happens on the silent retreats I commit to twice a year. It is about being aware that my life has been filled, and will continue to be filled with both successes and failures and these, in their own very different ways, teach me about who I am.
It is also about preparing myself to grow up from being an older woman into being old. So the spiritual alchemy of life never stops, for which I am grateful. It keeps me on my toes, and presses me onwards to strengthen how I continue to make meaning of my life as I age, and to fully engage in my call to God; so, just like those who I saw in Varanasi, when my time comes, I can release myself from this earthly life with peace, joy, and relief.
I want to leave you with these words from Carl Jung, which for me sum up what it is like to grow older:
‘One cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning, for what was great in the morning will be of little importance in the evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.’17
Sue Brayne originally trained as a nurse. She has an MA in the Rhetoric and Rituals of Death and a second in Creative Writing. She previously worked in private psychotherapy practice, specialising in bereavement and trauma, and now runs workshops and retreats on ageing and mortality. She also facilitates pop-up death cafés on her narrowboat, Mystic Moon. Sue is the author of The D-Word: Talking about Dying (Continuum Books) and Sex, Meaning and the Menopause (Continuum Books). suebrayne.co.uk
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15. https//www.ons.gov.uk/aboutus/transparencyandgovernance/freedomofinformationfoi/divorcefigures (accessed 11 February 2017).
16. Moore T. Dark nights of the soul. London: Piatkus Books; 2012.
17. Jung C. The structure and dynamics of the psyche. New York: Pantheon Books; 1960.