Aging as a Transformation of Consciousness
by Rev. John C. Robinson, Ph.D., D.Min.
“Osiris, Krishna, Buddha, Christ, will be shown as different means
for one and the same royal highway of final bliss.
…All of us have to get rid of our own Ego, the illusory, apparent self,
to recognize our true Self, in a transcendental divine life.”
(The Maha Chohan)
We grow up in a world determined to name, conceptualize, and tell stories about everything—including you. Over the years of childhood, an idea of you crystallizes, and soon you believe it is real. Of course, the idea of you is not you any more than the idea of bird is the same as the one flying by, yet somehow we forget this obvious distinction. Instead, we fret constantly about whether we are good enough, successful enough, attractive enough, and so forth. (After all, you have to be somebody, don’t you?)
“Intellectually, the self is no more than a psychological concept, a construct that serves to express an unknowable essence which we cannot grasp as such, since by definition it transcends our powers of comprehension. It might equally be called the ‘God within us.’ ” (Carl Jung)
Identity in Flux
This common path of identity formation leads into the inevitable problems of invidious comparisons, popularity games, personal advancement, and worldly success. Identity—this idea of who you are—so completely structures your life with its unexamined assumptions, goals and expectations that you forget that it’s all “pretend”.
In the Midlife Passage, burdened by the weight of identity and its obligations, we begin to re-examine its authenticity. In the Late Life Passage, however, we start to question the very existence of identity.
Indeed, one day this vast idea of “me” can actually begin to unravel. Personal beliefs about who I am, or was, fall apart in the twilight of aging, replaced potentially by an awareness of an amazing new Consciousness.
This shift of consciousness represents the second Secret of Aging: pure and thoughtless awareness opening into divine Consciousness, transforming the Elder’s personality. This extraordinary movement from personal self to “no self’ to Divine Self drives the Elder’s transformation.
The Elder’s Transformation – Dissolution of the Personal Self
Subtle changes in consciousness appear spontaneously in the aging experience, preparing the individual for the potential ripening of mystical awareness of Self. If we can learn to enter these cracks in everyday awareness, this transformation of consciousness will quicken and intensify.
The following list of subtle changes in consciousness is hardly exhaustive, nor are you likely to have experienced each one. Its purpose is to encourage you to pay attention to what is going on in your consciousness during the aging process.
To increase your awareness of these changes: place a check mark by each of the following items that you already experience, and then write about its effect on you. For example, in your experience of aging, have you noticed:
• A gradual fading of identity as if who you were or think you are is no longer very important or even that real.
• Relief that you no longer have to “put on” your customary social roles, be somebody important or special in the world, or care about what people think of you.
• Finding yourself dropping into a silent and thoughtless consciousness in which there is no purpose, effort, agenda, point of view, or thinker.
• The gradual dissolution of time’s importance in your life, so that clock, day planner, and calendar no longer drive your day, and the distinctions of past, present, and future seem less real or important.
• Memory failures (for names, details, intentions, ideas, and habits) that may initially trigger concerns about senility but instead reflect a letting go of information that is no longer as important or meaningful.
• A tendency to live more and more in the present, sensing that every moment is precious.
• Increasing awareness of the richness found in simplicity, taking one thing at a time, experiencing it more fully, and delighting in every unique detail.
• Moments of unexplained and unconditional joy, childlike innocence, and spontaneous playfulness.
• The loss of “high gear,” that hard-driving, goal-oriented focus on getting things done, and a concomitant shift from energetic doing to peaceful being.
• Spontaneous spiritual insights that surprise you with their depth and significance.
• A change in your values, from acquiring and accomplishing to simply loving the world as it is.
• Moments of silence, stillness, and timelessness, when it seems as if the mystery of eternity were leaking into your everyday world.
• Sensing a living Consciousness all around you, filling all space and tiem, and feeling the comfort, peace, and reassurance of its “Presence.
• A spontaneous welling up of gratitude and concern for the whole world and its peoples, animals, plants, insects, cycles and processes.
Which items seem most descriptive of your aging experience? Spend a few moments reflecting on them. How do these changes reflect a process in which consciousness is being emptied of old forms and contents—the personal you with its identity, story, and issues—yet gradually filling the mystical awareness of a divine Presence? How do you usually respond to these subtle shifts in consciousness? Are you willing to let this expansion go even further?
Aging as Spiritual Practice: The Tasks of Transformation
Each of these subtle shifts in consciousness represents a seed-moment in the awakening of Divine Consciousness that requires our attention and participation to grow. We need to notice, intensify, and assimilate the qualities and effects of each shift in order to accelerate this secret of transforming consciousness.
One way to do this is to turn these breakthroughs into a spiritual practice.
Below, in no particular order, are eight tasks of transformation for making aging into a spiritual practice. They are intended to facilitate the natural emptying of consciousness, amplify the mystical awareness that arises in its place, and prepare you for the ultimate transformation of self. As you understand each task, write down ways you could make it part of your spiritual current practice in preparation for transforming the self.
Eight Tasks of Transformation
1. Complete and Release Your Story. Completing your story means telling it as many times as you need to, understanding it from the distance of age and maturity, straightening out any loose ends, valuing its fullness, and then letting it go. The fading of personal identity and its story is central to the chemistry the Elder’s transformation, for nothing new can happen if these continue to dominate consciousness. How might this task become part of your spiritual practice?
2. See Through the Illusion of a Personal Self. Throughout the day, observe all the personal drama going on in your consciousness. Notice how part of you constantly spins fantasies, directs your behavior, manages your image, and tries to control outcomes. Notice, too, how your life changes as you release this grasping self. How might this task become part of your spiritual practice?
3. Transcend Thoughts of Death. Thoughts of death naturally increase as we age. Remembering our own death reminds us to be intensely alive and present NOW. Recognizing that these thoughts of death are simply part of our ongoing fictional story of self, we can let them be a reminder to wake up from the fantasy of “you” and enter a consciousness beyond thought. How might this task become part of your spiritual practice?
4. Practice Non-Attachment. As identity, plans, abilities, and even people disappear in the emptying of aging, and as we grieve each one, we begin to learn the lesson of non-attachment. Attachment creates suffering, Buddha said. In our excessive valuing of material and worldly things, we become prisoners of ambition, acquisition, and dependency. Surviving losses opens a new sense of freedom and an appreciation for all that is free, always available, and naturally fulfilling. How might this task become part of your spiritual practice?
5. Deepen the Experience of Eternal Values. Living in the rich simplicity of the present moment deepens the awareness of the eternal values such as beauty, simplicity, quiet, love, forgiveness, humor, friendship, generosity, nature, eternity, and God. In fact, we become more like the values themselves – simple, quiet, loving, and beautiful – for we are entering this new consciousness and being transformed by it. How might this task become part of your spiritual practice?
6. Discover and Experience Mystical Consciousness. The biological diminishments of aging demand that we slow down, do one thing at a time, carefully, and with heightened consciousness, because rushed or automatic behavior now risks accidents or mistakes. We are, in effect, practicing the sharpened awareness of mindfulness meditation that quiets the mind and focuses on the immediate sensory present. When we add the awareness of God’s Presence, we begin to practice Mystical Consciousness. Begin exploring this consciousness now as you do dishes, move through the house, even talk to others. How might this task become part of your spiritual practice?
7. Experience the World as Self. As the rigid personal boundaries that seemed to divide self and other dissolve in the thought-free space of Mystical Consciousness, we gradually realize that the individual self is but the tip of a much larger divine Self that now permeates all living things, the Earth, and the cosmos. Experiencing everything as Self profoundly changes your relationship to people and things in the manifest world. How might this task become part of your spiritual practice?
8. Find Intuitive Understanding of Life, Love, and Divinity. From the Elder’s expanding consciousness flows a radically new understanding of life, yielding a philosophy and spirituality that can be shared with others. The answers to life’s great questions are found naturally in the intuitions awakened in Mystical Consciousness, contributing to our transformation into Spiritual Elders, teachers, and mentors. How might this task become part of your spiritual practice?
The subtle and spontaneous changes in consciousness associated with aging reflect a very gradual dissolution of identity, this rigid conceptualization of “you” as a specific, separate, historical, and mortal human being. The Second Secret of Aging challenges the Elder to become enlightened rather than just grow old.
“In my soul,
God not only gives birth to me as His son,
He gives birth to me as Himself,
and Himself as me.”
The passage from false self to divine Self, while difficult in the beginning, eventually opens into a sea of divine Consciousness, and that Consciousness is you. Not you in the old way—as a separate, problem-ridden individual—but you living in and as an entirely unique version of God’s Consciousness and Being. In this thoughtless, timeless, joyous subjectivity, a new capacity for wisdom, love, and service emerge naturally and spontaneously.
The work of becoming an Enlightened Elder is wonderfully suited to old age.
Rev. John C. Robinson, Ph.D., D.Min. is a clinical psychologist with a second doctorate in ministry, an ordained interfaith minister, and the author of nine books and numerous articles on the psychology, spirituality and mysticism of the New Aging. He speaks frequently at Conscious Aging Conferences across the U.S. Learn more at www.johnrobinson.org.