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.
Then he and I talked back and forth—I mean, I talked, and he did his Morse Code—about what the incarnation was like. We were looking into each other's eyes, and after a while the space got quieter and quieter, until pretty soon we were just sitting there appreciating it all together—the total tapestry of a human life, with all its beauty and all its suffering. The whole room started to take on this purple glow, and he was radiant. He spelled out to me, "Much light, much light."
For me, it was as if we had met in a space behind the dance, the dance of being "someone dying of ALS" and of being "someone there to help somebody dying of ALS." We met as fellow souls. "You in there? I'm in here. Wow, what a trip you're on!" Think about meeting another human being that way. It's so rare for us, we call it "soul mates" when it happens. But ultimately the game is to be there for everybody as a soul, if they're ready to come out and play. And if they want to stay egos, that's fine too—I can still be a soul, no matter who they want to be.
It turns out that the whole journey of aging is something designed to lead us from thinking of ourselves as egos to knowing ourselves as souls. We're given opportunity after opportunity to practice letting go and to shift our perspective from ego to soul-view. However if aging doesn't do it for us, then the next stage, dying, certainly will. Because at death the ego ceases; the soul, on the other hand, goes on. The soul doesn't age the way the body ages, so aging and dying are trips of the ego and of the physical manifestation. The soul is merely watching: birth, existence, aging, death. In India they talk about dying as "dropping the body." Different image, right? "I'm dropping my body. See ya! Yep, selling the Ford."
As it becomes clearer and clearer that there are advantages to adopting a soul-perspective as part of our agenda for aging, the question becomes how to do it, and the process of discovering the answer to that question is the spiritual quest for each of us. There's no one-size-fits-all on the spiritual path. I think we have to look at what's presented to us, listen to our hearts, and go with whatever practices feel right.
There are, however, some things that are often helpful. It's useful, for example, to have something around that awakens our faith—a picture, a rock, a card with a sacred quote written on it. Many of us find it helpful to have some form of meditation or mantra or prayer we can repeat, whether it's one of the names of God, or a sacred word, or a phrase. That kind of practice can remind us, quiet us, help carry us through the moments when the changes are coming hot and heavy—the way that "Ram" chant did for me.
Practices that help us become comfortable with the transitory nature of phenomena prepare us for the times when we're confronted by unexpected changes. There is a Tibetan stanza that's a great spiritual practice condensed into five lines. It reads:
Prolong not the past,You can work with those lines—they can be a whole practice for you: Let it all go. Past? Future? Just dream-stuff. Don't let it disturb your "innate wakefulness," your soul-view.
Invite not the future.
Alter not your innate wakefulness
Don't fear appearances.
There is nothing more than that.
I find it helpful, in carrying out this curriculum of aging, to restructure my life so that my time is not quite so filled with activities. It gives me more opportunity to remember that I'm a soul. If I stay locked too tightly into chronological or physical time, time itself tends to seduce me into ego-view. So I let go of my busy-ness. I spend some time just looking out the window, say, or watching the flow of a stream; I slowly let myself into a different time scale, and that helps me open into the soul-perspective.
And if I go further still, if I leave the soul-view and enter into pure Awareness, it is timeless. There was a beautiful, spiritual woman, a great Indian saint named Anandamayi Ma. Millions of people came to be in her presence, because it felt so spacious and unconditional and loving. At one point, Paramahansa Yogananda said to her, "Ma, who are you?" She replied, "Father, there is little to tell. My consciousness has never associated itself with this temporary body. Before I came on this earth, Father, I was the same. I grew into womanhood, but still I was the same. When the family in which I had been born made arrangements to have this body married, I was the same. And Father, in front of you now, I am the same. Even afterwards, though the dance of creation changes around me in the hall of eternity, I shall be the same."
Imagine recognizing that in yourself—and then living your life. Just imagine: resting in no-time, and dancing in time. That's what's available to us—it's who we can be. It's who we are, it's right here; we just have to add in that other part of our consciousness, the part that is watching the whole show unfold. That will color and change everything.
A human life is an experiment in planes of consciousness. Incarnation tests our ability to remember who we are, to remember that we're also souls and that we don't have to get so caught up in the story line we're living out. We can be open to all of it—including growing old, suffering, death, everything. The game, as I see it, is ultimately to become one with Awareness—to just be, without any defining boundaries, without any conceptual structures. And the conceptual structure that's hardest to shed is the "I"—meaning "somebody separate from everything else."
The age-stage is a time when the ego faces a gradual erosion of its boundaries, of its image that "this is who I am." The soul looks to the age-stage as coincidental with a process in which the soul itself is dissolving its own boundaries, and expanding into its own greater identity as pure spirit. And death? A moment when the veils part, the ego falls away, and the soul lets go of all the encrusted layers of identity, with a sigh of relief.
What I understand from Eastern traditions is that if, at the moment of death, I am identified exclusively with ego, I am likely to be overwhelmed by my fear of the cessation of my own existence as a separate being.Because the ego will, in fact, die. If, however, I have developed some soul-perspective, I will have a better chance of remaining quietly conscious through it all, just observing: watching my ego dissolving, watching the body dropping away. At that point, whatever in me that is left uncooked will steer me towards my next incarnation in order to continue my karmic work. When the seeds are all cooked and my karmic work is complete, my identity at the moment of death will be solely with Number Three. So when my soul-karma is indeed totally finished, then life and death and ego and soul will all appear like bubbles of phenomena arising out of timeless Awareness, only to dissolve back into Awareness again. And through it all, I shall be the same.