Aside

Growing Up

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The “Dragon Tree” in Brighstone, irresistible jumping, swinging and climbing platform. Reputibly a dragon which killed and ate thirty village children, turned to wood by St Tarquin of Vectis in Medieval times. Undeniably a very fine, “Grown Up” tree.

It’s telling that the phrase “middle aged” is frequently used in a critical sense. I think this says a lot about our culture which values the feverish energy and unblemished beauty of youth over the peace and wisdom that can only come from a life that has been lived..

The years when one is no longer young, but not yet ancient, in particular are glossed over with a veneer of distracted agitation – it’s noticeable that with our cultural terrific emphasis on youth, action and material success, middle age is either belittled or denied as we try to push the clock back, continually overstraining ourselves in unnatural effort, tying to become what we once were, or more likely what he had once hoped to be.

It’s easy to understand why midlife is often synonymous with restlessness, discontent, despair and doubt. Similar feelings in fact to the dawn of adolescence. Like any period of change the temptation is to deny or rail against, to fall into nervous breakdown, drink, love affairs or frantic fruitless overwork. It’s sad that we try to “cure” these signs of change, instead of using them to accept the change, to grow a different stage of life that may in many ways be more fruitful than previous times. Maybe youth is a closed world, that whilst beautiful at the time, we need to learn to outgrow?

By middle age, most people have attained or ceased to struggle to attain, some kind of place in the world – the huge attachment to place, people, material surroundings and accumulations is somehow less important as little by little life changes – children leave, career loses its intensity. If we’re not careful it would be easy to become attached to the outmoded model of life, living in a stone walled fortress of our own making. Maybe being open to the discomfort, the emptiness of failed ambition and disappointment is as good a springboard as any, to becoming open to  other forms and experiences. The shedding of the shell of ambition, the shell of material accumulation, the shell of ego – the things that protect us from the competitive world, could be a blessing, an opportunity to be completely ourselves at last – a real liberation far more empowering than clinging on to the vision of everlasting youth.

There are certainly doors which will be shut to us when youth is left behind – maybe the chance to raise a new family, the dream of an olympic medal, being the most beautiful girl at the party or a latter day Prince Charming. Certainly this may be a time for mourning, but maybe in some ways this is a relief. For many of us we now have time at last for the creative, intellectual – or physical activities we pushed aside in the heat of the race.

It’s true that society in general doesn’t help us to interpret this part of life in this way, but I see it more and more as a time with increasing freedom to fulfil the neglected sides of myself – hopefully bringing to the process a little wisdom, courage, curiosity and wonderment gained along the way. The experience of  being “bien dans sa peau” – in English literally “well in one’s skin”seems to come more easily with age – and that, for me at least, is something worth celebrating.

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Riding the waves

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Almost twenty years ago, I and a handful of other dubiously titled  “mature students” had the equally dubious privilege of completing the first two years of the Vet course in a single year.

After a relaxing spell as a Zoology student, followed by “work” as a  marine biologist in Bermuda, I found myself back in a cold, rainy city, faced with  the seemingly impossible task of passing two years worth of professional exams in a single sitting without having attended the lectures. Life was further complicated by my discomfort  and hidden insecurity at being surrounded by straight A science students – most of whom were incredulous that someone who’d started studying English, before giving Philosophy a try and finally settling on Zoology, had even been accepted onto the course….

For the first time in life thus far I actually doubted my ability to cope – I felt out of control and on the verge of admitting defeat. I could feel myself getting caught in a spiralling whirlwind of anxiety and out of control thought – and actually starting to question my sanity. With panic rising I phoned my father who somehow within the space of a couple of minutes introduced me to a life changing concept:

“You are not the voice of the mind – you are the one that hears.”

It’s an incredibly simple idea – inside our heads there’s a constant mental dialogue that never stops – a chattering chorus of monkeys commenting on everything, disturbing everything you’re doing. If you step back from the voice and watch it objectively you will see that most of what the voice says is meaningless. The truth is that most of life will unfold in accordance with forces outside your control regardless of what your mind says about it.

It’s an interesting experiment to spend a day observing the mental voice: if you watch carefully you’ll see that when there’s a build up of nervous energy, fear or anxiety, the voice becomes really active. It also acts as a narrator describing and defining your experience, judging and labelling – processing your current experiences in the context of your views about the past and expectations about the future. It helps to create a semblance of control allowing you to buffer the experience of reality as it comes in. Reality is too real for most of us and so we use the voice inside as a protection mechanism, a form of defence to make ourselves feel secure.

What I came to notice – quite suddenly, was that there were two quite distinct experiences going on in my head: the mad woman who had taken up residence and was busy telling me I couldn’t cope – and the quiet one inside who noticed the voice talking. What my father taught me was that I could choose to disengage from the melodrama being acted out by my crazy roommate – that I could simply notice the conversation without getting caught up in it – and in doing so it became clear that  even in times of extreme stress, I was able to become the quiet observer of my predicament and in doing so I could objectively watch my problems rather than getting lost in them.

In my state of crisis I was so lost in the energy of the problem that no solution could possibly exist – only once I’d realised this and objectively watched the situation rather than getting caught up in it was I clear enough to deal with what was left.

It’s not really that complicated – most of the things that we identify with as “problems” are simply fleeting thoughts and emotions, past experiences and our reactions to them. They make compelling viewing – so much so that much of the time you get sucked into the experience and are never aware of being separate from the web of intrigue and drama created by the mind – before you know it you’re believing its spin  – you’re taken over. Scary as it sounds, most of the time this is our predicament in life.

Real freedom isn’t the avoidance of suffering, it’s the ability to ride the waves of life as the conscious observer – constantly remembering that you’re the one inside that notices the voice talking……

Photo courtesy of Paul Blackley and Chris Mannion from ISurf