It turns out that the solution to the problem of change is yet another change. But what we're changing this time is who we see ourselves to be. That is, we don't have to go on clinging to the past, buying into a cultural myth of The Youthful Me, hanging on to who we used to be. We don't have to go on identifying ourselves with that being who's changing, seeing the aging process through those eyes. If we can just quiet down and look a little more deeply, we see that right behind the identity that's so caught in the story line there is... someone else. Just behind all that drama is a place of mindfulness, a place of the witness. It is a part of us that is purely equanimous, that's just watching the whole story unfold. That's what I'll call the soul.
There are three consciousness planes we can inhabit—three perspectives, we could call them—from which we can view our situation. As Number One, we are our egos—our bodies, our personalities, our every-day selves. As Number Two, we are our astral selves, what I've called our souls. And as Number Three, we are—well, let's not give it a name, because wars have been fought over what to call the Nameless. So for the moment, let's just call it Number Three.
When it comes to aging, we have a choice about where we're going to position ourselves, as we watch the phenomena that getting older entails. We can look at them from the ego's point of view, from Number One, and get all lost in our clingings, and our fears, and our dramas. Or we can flip the channel and look at those same events from the soul's point of view. We'll find that everything changes with that shift in perspective. The situation itself doesn't change, mind you, but our experience of it becomes a whole different thing. The soul won't be busy getting lost in all the "stuff" the way the ego is—the soul is just appreciating the incarnation, appreciating the unfolding of it all.
As changes happen—sure, certain doors will close to us; but at the same time, the changes will open the opportunities and challenges of new roles. Which new roles we then choose to manifest will be decided by our appreciation of all the forces acting upon our lives, but there will certainly be new role opportunities that will arise for each of us as we get older.
But that's just the surface. There's also a much more interesting game going on here. Looking at our lives from the soul-perspective doesn't just give us a more effective way of fulfilling our roles—it takes us outside of our roles. The soul-view gives us a look at our lives from the outside, and that puts a different light on things.
If, for example, we have been on a high diet of achievement gratification—whether it's been raising children, or holding a job, or whatever ways our egos have used to keep negating their sense of inadequacy—when that feeding of "proof of accomplishment" is no longer available, there is a rising sense of failure that stems from our lurking inadequacy for which we don't have an immediate fix. Suffering. But from a soul-view—achievement, non-achievement, no difference; adequacy, inadequacy, all the same.
Before my stroke, I used to work a lot with dying people. It's part of what I've always loved to do, because it seems to me the richest broth of spirit I can consume on this plane. Someone who's dying has very little to lose, so you have opportunities for moments of real truth with another human being, and that's very, very rare.
I was visiting once with a fellow who was in the last stages of ALS—Lou Gehrig's disease, the illness causes the muscles to seize up and stop working one by one. When I visited him he had just two functioning muscles left: he could pucker his lips for a dot, in Morse Code, and raise his eyebrows for a dash. Those were the only movements left in his body.
When I walked into that room, the first thing I felt was the most extraordinary claustrophobia in myself; the idea of being trapped inside a body where those were the only movements left to me was terrifying. But I realized that if I stayed in that place, all I would be offering him was reinforcement for the pain he already had at being in that situation.
So I reached in my pocket for my mala—the prayer beads I always carry—and I started chanting my mantra: "Ram, Ram, Ram, Ram, Ram." And because I have worked with that mantra for a long time, and invested it, it quieted me down, it helped me center. Slowly, my reactivity settled down, and I realized that I'd forgotten once again—that once again I'd gotten sucked in by the incredible intensity of a human story line. And I came back to being a soul, who is in a birth, in which I am sitting next to somebody who's also a soul in a birth, a birth in which he now has ALS.