Loving the Aging Body

Loving the Aging Body

As we age, the body declines. For those who have suffered unusually severe stress, breakdowns may happen early. For instance, neck disease ended my surgical career at forty-one. Spinal problems had accumulated because of chronic muscle tension, poor body mechanics, and unfortunate career choice. Behind all that was trauma in childhood, including injuries to my neck from physical abuse. My upbringing set me up for premature aging.
Other people, blessed with less punishing experiences and—perhaps—more robust genetic heritage, may live into their eighties or nineties before serious problems begin. But sooner or later, vigor falters.
Writing this in my mid sixties, I have already endured major somatic and psychiatric problems, including hospitalizations, surgeries, and other procedures. I’ve had vascular problems including a hemorrhaged aneurysm, a heart arrhythmia and ablation procedure, and recent diagnosis of prostate cancer. Studies have correlated childhood adversity with adult illness, and I seem to be a case in point.
It is both instructive—in the sense that it helps me focus less on personal difficulties—and tragic to see a related development: as my body loses its health, so do the bodies of my friends and family. Chronic illnesses, acute infections, surgeries, cancers, and disabilities afflict many people I care about, especially those older than me.
None of this should be surprising, but somehow it is. It’s hard to truly believe old age will greet us, until it does. And even as I adapt to how my body is in my sixties, I look at people 20-30 years older than me and find it hard to imagine landing in that further state of age and frailty.
Mindful Biology grew out of career loss and the failing health that caused it. Mindfulness helped me relax into my body and experience its painful sensations with less resistance. A scientific perspective helped me find beauty in my living processes even when they hurt or frightened me. The end result was a friendlier relationship with my body.
Feeling affectionate toward our physical forms can be a challenge when our bodies don’t meet expectations. Early in life, we feel resentful if we aren’t as good-looking or athletic as we’d like. Later, we feel fearful as health concerns accumulate, as end-of-life looms. It is natural to resist disappointing circumstances, but it is more uplifting to embrace them. And it’s important to not that mental resistance doesn’t prevent aging or illness. Nor does embracing the aging body accelerate its decline (in fact, by reducing stress, it may slow the changes).
This wasn’t an easy lesson for me to learn. In my early forties, unable to tolerate full employment, I fought hard against my fate and overwhelmed by feelings of worthlessness and humiliation. Now, a more than two decades later, I still contend with chronic pain, insomnia, and fatigue. With all this going on, it can be hard to feel the love.
But it’s not impossible, and more and more, I’m succeeding.
I spend many hours awake in the middle of the night, unable sleep. This used to distress me, but years ago I realized it gifts me with long stretches of time for meditation. My nighttime practice helps me soften into a moment-by-moment flow of sensation, emotion, and thinking. As I yield to inner turmoil, watching it without getting lost in it, I begin to notice something sweet: my body is holding me.
Awareness unfolds within this human organism. The tide of breath, the rush of blood, the gurgle of digestion—they all work together to make life possible even in the face of pain and illness. Looked at from a certain light, this is an act of devotion. The body tries its best. In our culture, the demand is for perfection. By that standard, the organism is bound to disappoint. But it’s sad when we focus only on how the body lets us down and miss how hard it works to keep us going. You wouldn’t be reading this—and I wouldn’t be writing it—if our bodies weren’t doing this hard work, and doing it pretty darn well.
These days, I do my best to love this organism I call my human body. In its complex and mysterious workings, it gives me the gift of life. If that isn’t an act of love, I don’t know what is. In return, doesn’t it deserve my affection?
We can forgive the body its falterings, just as we forgive our loved ones their shortcomings. We can love the body as it ages, just as we love our pets as they grow old.
Medical school trained me to view the body as an unreliable mechanism; it taught me to diagnose and treat—often without truly healing. But through Mindful Biology, I’ve learned to appreciate the body not as a mechanical device in need of tinkering, but as a living being that thrives on love.