Retirement: Easier is Not Always Better

One of the most damaging myths about retirement is that “easy is good, and hard is bad.” But when in our lives did we ever get something worthwhile by taking the easy way out? What if I were to say that, especially in the case of an older adult, exactly the opposite is true – easy is bad and hard is good. This fits much better with my experience of reality over the past 67 years, and all the research on aging I have done in support of the Dynamic Aging Program (DAP). So, why do most retired people drift towards an easier version of retirement, even when that version has never really made any sense in the past?

My intention here is not to crack a whip over newly retired people. Most of them need a transitionary break before launching into a whole new stage in life. After all, it is very time consuming and difficult raising a family and forging a career. The problem is that many people unwittingly adopt new roles and responsibilities immediately upon retirement that our society says are appropriate for an older adult. This might include taking care of grandkids, traveling, volunteerism, hobbies, games, committees, boards of directors, and many other pastimes that are fun (at least for a while), usually social (although I do have a couple of acquaintances with model train set-ups in their basement), and/or not too challenging. However, once we have spent some time in this transition, most of us find that we have become comfortably ensconced in a set of activities that are both easy and well within our comfort zones. It is all too common for a 1 or 2 year transition to turn into 5, 10, or even 20 years before the person realizes they have squandered the one opportunity to find their unique purpose in life and accomplish something of importance.

Just Passing Time

My observation from teaching literally hundreds of retired students is that many newly retired older adults launch into an array of activities hoping to find something that will make their lives meaningful – such as POA Boards, book groups, taking classes, golf, tennis, bridge, visiting the grandchildren, travel, etc. The list is different for every individual, but these activities are usually mildly entertaining, keep us busy, and help fulfill our need for social interaction. However, whether we know it or not, our tendency is to limit ourselves to society’s interpretation of retirement, and what it believes older adults should and should not be doing. It is kind of like a social herding process to keep us out of the more fertile pastures – and corralled into a confined, fallow place where our movements are restricted and all we can do is play and interact with the other old horses. In reality, what these activities all have in common is they are just different ways to easily pass time before death. However, this is becoming an increasingly longer period of time with lifespans of older adults now approaching 90 years.

What seems to happen most frequently is that many retirees easily get caught up in what Martin Heidegger called a state of “Entangled Everydayness.” In other words, newly retired people tend to become immersed in a relatively comfortable daily routine and social life, forgetting – or else never realizing – they have a greater purpose to accomplish. Now, if you don’t feel in the depths of your Being that you have a greater mission to fulfill here on earth than your prior job as a sales manager, accountant, lawyer, builder, etc. – or if you think your main purpose in life was to simply shove your genes forward in time by raising a family – then I suggest you stop reading this blog for now, and wait until the need for something greater in your life arises. But, if your experience of life is that you are constantly driven to become a better person, or that you feel a need to be progressing towards something of greater importance or significance – even if you don’t know what it is at this time – then please read on.

The majority of retirees I see – even in a learning in retirement program such as OLLI – seem to act like they are in a kind of fog. I believe this lack of passion, enthusiasm, and dulling of consciousness is at least partially due to the person understanding – at some level – they are wasting their remaining lives by not actively pursuing their unique potential as a human being. It is like a partial dream state they can’t get out of that seems real, but unconsciously they know it is unreal: The “Senior Matrix” so to speak. This dissonance between what the person is feeling and what they are actually doing leads to confusion, discontent, fear, and a lack of self-esteem which we often see in older adults, along with its exact opposite behavior in those seniors who defensively lash out against any and all who imply they need to learn more about their own aging process – or anything else for that matter. However, this defensive behavior is a false bravado, and both types of personalities contribute to the negative images we currently have of aging adults in our society.

What I teach my students, who range between 52 and 93 years of age, is that “normal retirement” leads to an acceleration of physical and cognitive decline in an older person, and the best thing we can do – mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually – is to establish an age appropriate physical exercise routine, and get out of our comfort zones by interacting meaningfully with new people, ideas, and ways of doing things. Along with regular exercise, this deeper and more profound interaction creates new neural pathways in our brain, improves our immune systems, increases longevity, stimulates an accelerated process of personal and spiritual development, and injects passion and purpose into what we do – all of which are essential to the actualization of our unique life’s potential.

Most of us retire at the peak of our mental capabilities, but if we do not engage almost immediately with something meaningful and on the edge of our comfort zone, these mental capabilities decline swiftly (for those of you familiar with the concept of neuroplasticity, this is the “use it or lose it” principle). Given some time we actually become the stereotype of an aging adult because we have internalized and acted according to these stereotypical beliefs about retirement – allowing these untruths to limit our behavior to doing only what we think a “normal” retiree would do.

Dynamic Aging: Hard is Good

Dynamic aging is not easy, but it isn’t really hard either. After all, there is a feeling that we are moving forward positively in spite of our years, and personal development has the capability of making our lives so much more enjoyable. Aerobic exercise, strength training, flexibility and balance work are not easy – especially if we haven’t engaged with these activities our whole life – but if we don’t do this work, science has told us we will probably live vastly shortened lives, with a lower quality of life. More and more people seem to be getting this, but many more never will.

Exercise might be difficult and seem like pure drudgery for some, but all the other aspects of dynamic aging are not really work – unless we define work in terms that include intentionality, focus, mental effort, contemplation, and practice. Actually, I find these aspects of dynamic aging to be quite enjoyable. It also takes time, but so does everything else. How are you currently spending the majority of your time? If you are not currently using at least a portion of your time to create new neural pathways and become a more positive person, you will quickly become irrelevant – perhaps even the caricature of an aging adult in our society. Is this what you really want?

It’s not that dynamic aging is so hard, it’s just that there is currently very little support for anything other than normal retirement, and our society has defined retirement in terms of “dis-engagement” and “activity” theory which do little, or can actually detract, from our mental and physical health. This is especially true in the final decade of our lives where medical science might be keeping us alive longer, but the state of our minds, bodies, and emotions have been neglected.

I understand that humans have difficulty seeing their own future as anything different than they feel today. The path we are on might seem obvious to everyone around us but rarely do people see the self-inflicted damage they do to themselves by simply taking the easy way out and going along with what their friends are doing. The fact is that if we are not doing everything we can to preserve our physical and cognitive health as we age, we will probably one day regret it.

Doing this work is not easy, but it isn’t all that hard either. Instead, I believe it is a choice.

Love, Dudley

Lightly Held beliefs

I personally believe that any closely held belief is a limitation to discovering our potential as a human being. If one believes too much in something, it closes off any inquiry into the factual nature of that belief, or what might lie beyond it that keeps evolving and developing like everything else in this rapidly escalating world of change we live in.

But what of lightly held beliefs – those which we intuit might be correct but we are not attached to their rightness or wrongness? Lightly held beliefs seem to be more like an area of exploration to me, rather than restrictive and blocking me from investigating further into the truth of that belief. In other words, lightly held beliefs seem to open a door in a certain direction for finding the “Truth” rather than shutting that door and never looking for the truth behind it.

I will give a personal example from my own spiritual practice. I could best describe my spiritual beliefs as a mixture of Eastern (Buddhist, Vedantic, Sufi), Western Psychological, Scientific, and Esoteric traditions with an emphasis on ego understanding and transparency, the inter-connection of all things, unconditional love, energy, and personal development towards something similar to the idea of enlightenment – but more like an ascension into the realms of higher consciousness and dimensionality. The most recent addition to these spiritual inputs has been my exploration of esotericism which, by definition (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary), is only known to a small group of people because it is hard to understand or believe. This could apply to a lot of things given the 3 dimensional, materialistic, and scientific lens our society currently views the world through. I agree these more conventional ideas need to be incorporated into my viewpoint, but in my heart I know there is much more to include if it is reality and Truth I am seeking.

Most people would think the esoteric piece of my belief system is simply too wild and crazy to believe. It incorporates the human chakra system, increasingly higher dimensions of consciousness and reality for those who do the work, unconditional love and centering our lives from the Heart rather than our minds, the use of energy healing as an increasingly important addition to Western medicine, manifestation of the lives we want for ourselves, and the emergence of our own great “I Am” or Divine presence within. Do I believe all the stories about ancient societies more advanced than our own who lived these principles, or the legions of angels, guides, and Ascended Masters that are there to help us ascend to higher, lighter, and more energetic stages of dimensionality? I simply don’t know, but I feel drawn to this way of thinking so it must be worth investigating.

I may not know these things directly, but I have observed others with whom I have studied completely accepting these spiritual concepts – to the exclusion of all other possible explanations of the Universe and our role in it. So even the esoteric traditions can become fixed beliefs. Maybe all this is true, but how can I know for sure unless I have a direct experience of these things? It doesn’t sound any more far-fetched than the stories around other spiritual traditions, but most people have contented themselves to believe only one interpretation or the other – and this is usually based on what beliefs we grew up with as a child, as opposed to any sort of inquiry and truth-seeking. More likely, this closed belief system is actually keeping them from the spiritual experiences and depth of understanding they are seeking.

In the realm of spirit, in order to discern the Truth, I am trying to use other than my mind to figure these things out. Instead, I am using as directional guideposts my heart, intuition, what feels good or open, flow, alignment, and what seems to be working positively in my life. The idea that everything is energy, energy never dies, and we are all inter-connected through this energy, is now considered a scientific fact based on the research into Quantum Physics. And, it makes sense that if everything is comprised of energy, then learning to use energy to heal others and manifest what we truly desire in life might be more effective than surgically removing or replacing defective parts, taking a pill for every ailment, or thinking that happiness is something to be purchased – rather than something we have available from within and can learn to manifest for ourselves.

What I am trying to say is that closely held and unquestioned beliefs are a hindrance to dynamic aging and self-actualization because they hold us back from discovering the complete Truth, while lightly held beliefs are subjects we are naturally drawn to but unsure of, so we are more motivated to inquire into these beliefs to discover the real Truth behind them.

To close our beliefs about spirituality or anything else, and thereby not inquire into them, is actually closing ourselves off from a vast dimension of growing older that is evolving and emerging like everything else in our society – through meaningful interaction between seemingly contradicting ideas, beliefs, and theories. I personally find the wealth of information now available about alternative spiritual traditions and optimal aging, and the ease of access to this information, to be the reason I am making great strides in this area of my life. And, as we grow older there is a natural tendency to drift towards a more spiritual orientation. It is non-physical, developmental in nature, and therefore provides an aging adult with a feeling of progress, growth, and purpose they can continue to experience almost right up to the moment they die.

The bottom line of this discussion is don’t let your beliefs get in the way of finding your own unique self, gift, and purpose in life – your personal Truth. Instead, hold your beliefs open, and use your interest to help inquire into those lightly held beliefs. The real Truth lies beyond the door that shuts closed when we hold our beliefs too tightly. Be open to it all. Life begins with not knowing, and it is never more exciting, fun, and adventurous than when we are working towards an uncertain outcome.

Love, Dudley

Fear

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
(Frank Herbert, “Dune” Trilogy)

Most humans in the world today are afraid of nearly everything. It might manifest as negativity, anger, envy, hatred, jealousy, worry, doubt, self-absorption, dread, anxiety, distress, apprehension, panic, as well as in many other more subtle ways – but fear is probably going to be at the root of all these related conditions. Many of these fears actively speak to us in our unconscious or semi-conscious states, sending us messages such as:
• I am not good enough.
• Things aren’t turning out the way I wanted it to.
• I can’t be alone.
• I can’t live without another person.
• I’m too old. I’m going to die.
• I will fail if I try that.
• I’m unlovable.
• It’s not fair.
• Change is scary and bad.
• I should have been nicer.
• What if I am rejected and they don’t like me.

I think you can see how fear has insinuated itself into nearly every aspect of our lives, always limiting who we think we are, what we think we can do, and what our potential actually is. Fear is truly the mind-killer, because when we are fearful, we are disconnected from our pre-frontal cortex, and become the tool of our limbic system – which evolved to protect us from scary things. But, do we really need that protection any longer? I would say a qualified “no.” Generally speaking, the world is not as scary a place as it used to be. On the other hand, the things that do exist in this world that are scary (nuclear weapons for instance), are much worse than the occasional saber-toothed tiger. However, the scariest thing to me, is that people today don’t seem to be as afraid of Nuclear Winter, as they are of losing a game of golf or bridge.

The limbic system provides us with many wonderful things – such as love, compassion, empathy, and joy. But, it is also the root of all our fears – most of which are only in our head. Then, if we become afraid (which happens daily for most of us), we will automatically ignite our defense systems and use psychological mechanisms such as denial, projection, repression, and rationalization to keep from feeling our fears. So, if most of our fears are only in our head, how then do we come to that self-realization if we are always sub-consciously trying to avoid acknowledging those same fears which must be investigated in order to truly understand their false nature (you might have to read this sentence more than once)?

Today, many people seem to willingly allow fear to run their lives. They may not agree with that statement about themselves if questioned, but nevertheless you can easily detect the fear in another person when they are constantly making up excuses for why they can’t do something, become anxious when they are forced out of their comfort zone, feel their ego threatened in some manner, or squander their chances of achieving their actual potential by always taking the easy way out. They say they aren’t afraid (denial), believe something is someone else’s fault when it is actually their own (projection), sit there with a blank look on their face (repression), or say things such as “I don’t want to,” “It’s too hard,” “I’m thin, so I don’t need to exercise,” or “I can’t meditate today because I have too many other things to do” (rationalization). Fear is not only the most pervasive emotion for many people, but it is also the most self-limiting. When a person is afraid, personal growth of any kind is off the table and self-actualization or enlightenment become just words – not the true possibility of our evolution, and perhaps even the purpose for our existence.

Most of our fears will not stand up to the light of day – which is the personal inquiry process alluded to by Frank Herbert, and that I teach to my students. It takes courage, strength, and wisdom to allow our everyday fears to just pass through us and dissolve as we realize how ridiculous most of them are. These fears might not have been ridiculous when they were originally formed as a child, because children often have a real need to erect a set of defense mechanisms that allow them to function in the world. But, at our ages? Come on! Why should we care if someone doesn’t approve of what we are doing, or how we look? We should be more fear-less as we age, and yet many of us (perhaps those who are not as conscious as others) actually become more fear-full.

Mindfulness, self-awareness of our own fears and their origins, putting things into perspective, and personal development (the intentional diminishment of these unnecessary fears) is, of course, the only way we can come out of our fear-state and create again the magical connection between our limbic system and pre-frontal cortex. Being fearful is like turning off the light switch to this connection. Whereas, fearlessness opens the door to a whole new world of experience, ideas, interactions, insights, creativity, energy, and the joy of simply being.

Don’t let fear run your life. Don’t let the politicians use your fears to capture your vote. Don’t allow marketers to make money off of your fears. Don’t allow fear to create boundaries in your mind that keep you from being all that you can be. Instead, strive to be realistically fearful, or cautiously fearful at the very least. All we have to do is intentionally bring the light of our full consciousness to the examination of most our fears, and then slowly – over time – they will drift away.

Bifurcation Point: Complexity and World Change

It’s seems that the world, ourselves included, is now changing more rapidly than at any other time in history. I am not talking about small, insignificant changes, but about major changes, significant changes, unpredictable changes, and changes that quickly morph into other changes – the types of changes that matter, affect us directly or indirectly, and rock our world. As compared to 100 or even 50 years ago, the rate of significant change is now increasing almost constantly, and has become so much a part of our lives that we almost don’t notice it. But, there is one question rarely discussed in a realistic manner: “Is change a good thing or a bad thing?”

This is actually a very deep question that most of us never learn the answer to, because sometimes it is hard to tell the good changes from the bad ones. Many start out appearing one way, and then over time they become the other. Change seems to evolve. So change, especially change within human systems, is kind of tricky and needs to be understood. This is especially important for those of us who wish to optimize our own aging process because, no matter how old we are, we can never avoid the changes that will come.

I teach my students about how human systems change. And, it seems to me that change itself has changed. It no longer needs to be planned and instigated by a person, organization, or country; in an “if I do this, that will occur” manner, and then implemented utilizing a linear, sequential method. This was the way I was raised to think that change worked. Simple “cause and effect” combined with “holding the environment stable” assumptions. Ridiculous really – if you actually want to accomplish something. Instead, change now appears to be occurring all by itself – unpredictably – and, whatever we call this self-initiating change process, it also appears to be speeding up.

Change Begets Change

I woke up one morning a couple of months ago with the phrase “Change Begets Change” going through my head. Now, I wasn’t even sure what “beget” meant in the context of this statement, so I went to the dictionary and found that it means to “give rise to,” “bring about,” “create,” and/or “spark or touch off.” These definitions are close, but they don’t express exactly what this phrase means to me.

It is plain to me that good begets good, and violence begets violence, but what I have been thinking recently is that certain changes suddenly seem to spark off dozens of additional new changes, which in turn then spark off hundreds, maybe even thousands, of further changes. This type of change is much more interesting – because it is both unpredictable and uncontrollable. So, in this case, I think “beget” means to “accelerate.” A single change could be like sticking a match to a huge bonfire of human emotions, traditions, beliefs, learning, and growth. Changes like this do not occur one at a time, but are instead like opening a door into a whole Pandora’s Box full of new possibilities, risks, and transformation.

Maybe it has always been this way, but what seems different now is that it is happening much faster.

If this interpretation of “change begets change” is true – it implies that as our world changes, this will result in an ever-increasing rate of future world change. Like a train starting up in the station, it begins to slowly overcome its own inertia, and then quickly begins to build in speed until it reaches its desired MPH. However, the difference between this example of a train, and the world we live in today, is that when human systems start to change there are no brakes. In other words, it seems that human change tends to escalate at an escalating rate, and this escalation will continue until…?

Complexity and Change

I believe that “Change Begets Change” has become an axiom for human systems in the world today – whether you are an individual, a family, an organization, country, or the world in general. Uncontrollable change is accelerating at an accelerating rate. However, in order to entirely appreciate the truth of this axiom, one must have some understanding of “Dynamic Systems Theory” (DST), and how complexity is quickly changing the world we live in.

I have defined the term “complexity” many years ago as “an increasing number of independent variables interacting with each other with accelerating frequency.” Variables can be people, ideas, organizations, entire political systems, beliefs, cultures, religions, ways of doing things, terrorism, and the list goes on and on. Almost all of these seemingly independent variables are now interacting with each other at an accelerating rate due to communications technology – such as cell phones, the internet, computers, social networking, TV, and satellite systems. Human systems change all by themselves through this type of interaction, so as communications technology spreads throughout the planet – so will change continue to escalate. And, the type of change that occurs will be uncontrollable and unpredictable.

Complexity is sometimes described as being “on the edge of chaos” – and today we are beginning to see that edge more than at any other time of known human existence. One might think the number of new interactions would level off at some point, but we forget that whole continents, such as Africa and South America, currently only have limited exposure to this technology. And, it is only a matter of time before cell phones, social networking, and the internet proliferate into nearly every community across the entire world.

In addition, the producers of this communications technology have the goal of making us even more dependent on their products, so they can make more money. In other words, they want us to buy and use more of their products, and to use them more frequently. If you don’t believe this acceleration in usage is actually occurring, all you have to do is look around to see all the dumbasses checking their cell phones for messages or texting at dinner, while driving their car, or even while walking across a busy street. Their noses seem to be constantly buried in their cell phones or notebook computers.

So, the world today not only has an increasing number of independent variables interacting with each other, but they are also interacting at an accelerating rate as our addiction to this form of stimulation progresses. This might be a big “Duh” to some of you, but what are the effects – really – of continuously rising levels of world interaction and complexity?

In the old days we interacted very little with people, ideas, or ways of doing things that were different from ourselves or what we already believed. Most of the people in each community pretty much agreed with everyone else in that community, so these interactions produced very little change. It wasn’t until the publishing of newspapers that many people got exposed to different ways of thinking – but even this was a limited form of interaction until the invention of the radio and the infrastructure that made it possible to communicate instantly with a larger geographic audience.

This has only been a little over a hundred years, and now we have TVs, computers, the internet, cell phones, social networking, and the ability to transmit huge amounts of data electronically with the push of a button. People are not only interacting more with other people who have different beliefs, values, morals, and ways of doing things, but we are also interacting more with the growing amount of information available on the internet. And, all this interaction results in change. We literally don’t have to move away from our desk chairs to learn new things and experience change anymore. The only limitation seems to be our ability to process this information accurately.

The Approaching Bifurcation Point

I am not saying that all interactions lead to change. To change our way of thinking or doing things we must feel or infuse our interactions with meaning. Every meaningful interaction (for instance with NEW ideas, people, and ways of doing things, etc.) produces small changes in one or all interacting parties. These small changes then begin to interact with other small internal changes to produce even greater personal change, which then interacts with more people and the changes they are experiencing to create even more change. Some of these small changes from the norm are reinforced by our environment and grow in magnitude, until the system reaches what is called a “Bifurcation Point” – the point of no return where the system can no longer bend with the winds of change, and is instead forced to transform its basic goals, structure, and ways of doing things. This bifurcation point is usually catalyzed by a precipitating event occurring in the environment. This is the point where complexity can turn into chaos.

I believe the world’s political, economic, social, and religious systems are either already at, or close to reaching, this point of bifurcation. For instance, in this and many other countries around the world we have seen an increasing dysfunctionality in these systems, as well as an increasing inter-connection between them. It is all now one big dysfunctional system. There are no independent pieces. We want to change these systems, but we don’t even understand how to first unravel them, much less transform them into something better.

Unrest is growing through the interactions of disgruntled people who feel there is no hope of positively changing these systems and, even if they could, what would they change the system to become? The world is evolving, so you can’t go back to a more perfect time (as if there ever was such a time), and no one I know has the ability to accurately see very far ahead into the future. Additionally, big systems have the ability to cancel out any change that is inconsistent with itself, through the law of “Compensating Feedback,” and sometimes, if we try to change things anyway to make them what we want them to be, we experience what is called the law of “Unintended Consequences.” Most of the time the best thing we can do is “do nothing,” but if we do nothing the system will change on its own – uncontrollably, unpredictably, and with accelerating frequency.

So, I believe we are headed very quickly towards a worldwide bifurcation point, and from the evidence I am seeing today it could be ugly. Complexity will rapidly change into chaos (probably when some idiot or group of idiots do something really stupid) and there doesn’t seem to be anything we can do about it. I don’t know what is going to happen, but I am experiencing a growing realization that quite soon – in the next 5-10 years perhaps – all hell is going to break loose on this planet for a while, until the system re-adjusts its structure and goals to align with a new world order.

What we can do about this as individuals – and especially older adults – is try to influence what this new world order will become. We can work on our own development and growth – which is actually enhanced through complexity – so that when we find ourselves immersed in the chaos we can work with others to assure the new world order is based on good instead of evil, truth instead of delusion, and love instead of hate. I don’t think any of us will be able to escape the impending chaos, so we have to simply hold onto and use this time to make ourselves a more highly developed person, help others to the extent we can, and then…who knows?

A characteristic of bifurcation points is that when the system changes it changes suddenly, and its new direction of change is unpredictable. So, all I know is that you had better hold on, because we are about to experience the wildest ride of our life.

Love, Dudley

Mindfulness and Dynamic Aging

In the first term of the Dynamic Aging Program (DAP) I teach that we can de-stabilize our sense of self, thereby increasing our propensity for positive personal change, by intentionally improving our levels of self-awareness through a process Freud referred to as “making the unconscious conscious.” However, instead of using psychotherapy for this purpose, which is what Freud had in mind, we can improve our self-awareness any time we want by becoming more mindful. Mindfulness is the intentional, accepting, and non-judgmental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts, and sensations occurring in the present moment.

Mindfulness is not just bringing all your awareness to the current moment, but also letting the experience of that moment simply “be” – regardless of whether the experience is good, bad, or indifferent. If we look at our inner reactions to certain experiences closely, we might find that we frequently try to change, repress, distort, rationalize, perpetuate, or fix the phenomenon we are experiencing. For instance, there was a person I encountered a few days ago with whom I have had a couple of negative experiences in the past. By bringing my awareness completely into the moment, I discovered that I was avoiding this person, while also making up a story in my head about why he didn’t like me, and how it would be better if we just kept our distance from one another.

Taking this line of personal inquiry even further, I realized that I did not want my ego to be hurt again by interacting with this person and being rejected – and how unfair it was that he didn’t like me, because he didn’t really know me very well. Going even further, I realized how this experience was just one of many similar experiences I have had over the years regarding these same issues, and how this has been a repeating pattern in my life. I even began to see the origins of this pattern. At this point, there was a sudden sense of relief and opening and spaciousness.

In the past I would have simply repressed all these thoughts and feelings that were actually going on, but by being mindful with this experience I was able to understand how I was distorting reality, and how this person’s prior reactions to me could have been due to any number of things – or perhaps even be a complete misperception on my part. Through this practice, I have effectively turned someone I previously thought to be an enemy, into my teacher.

The insidious thing about this tendency to somehow distort the moment, is that it happens almost all the time. Notice for yourself the next time you interact with a person, and have trouble feeling some connection. I have found that almost invariably (if I am paying attention to him or her at all) I am judging something about that person – whether it is their language, speech patterns, facial features, body language, clothes they are wearing; or I make assumptions about their intelligence, personality, political opinions, reaction to me, etc. – and these tiny projections, transferences, and assumptions I am placing on the person are keeping us from connecting at a level we both would find more satisfying.

This process also works the other way around. If I think I am making a connection with someone I just met, then it is probably because I am projecting, transferring, or assuming something positive onto that person – and our feelings of connection are nothing more than illusion. The experience might feel good, but it is not an experience of my True Nature. I have discovered I must question and inquire into both positive and negative distortions.

Why this emphasis on connection? I personally find connecting with another person very rewarding, and it may very nearly be the meaning to life itself – but it is not the only important thing about this practice. When we distort our experience, we might also miss out on some idea or other opportunity that is presenting itself to us, and the possibilities for what we could be missing are endless. In addition, there is an underlying sense of unrest caused by this process of distortion that prevents us from achieving our ultimate potential as a human being. But perhaps the greatest reward for being mindful, is that we are more likely to see the actual truth or reality in any given situation – and the truth is not only its own reward, but the major reason why we are on this journey to begin with.

The capability I have tried to develop in this practice is simply letting things be the way they are – without trying to fix, change, judge, or alter the situation in any way. Once I can clear my ego out of the way, then I sometimes find a quality (such as compassion, empathy, discernment, etc.) arising spontaneously – one that is appropriate and satisfying for dealing with that particular interaction. If this feeling arises spontaneously and authentically, it might have the feeling of something almost spiritual to me. However, if the quality arises from my need to fix or change things, or present myself in a certain way, then it can seem forced or habitual – and this is usually a sign that I am attached to this quality through my ego.

So, for me, the process of being mindful is not simply bringing my awareness to the present situation. It also includes trying to experience each moment in its purest, most objective, and raw experiential form – one moment after the other, in a flow-like state. If feelings come up – I try to recognize and examine them. If I have thoughts about fixing, repressing, or changing the situation – I try to recognize and examine them. I try to recognize and examine anything coming up in my body, thoughts, or feelings that prevent me from simply experiencing the reality of each situation – from one moment to the next – as truthfully as possible.

If you try this methodology in a self-loving and inquisitive manner, I guarantee you this will be one of the most fun and exciting parts of your practice.

Balance: The New Prescription for Optimal Aging

I know that most of you reading this entry have experienced something traumatic in your lives. Very few people get to be in their sixties without something “bad” happening to them. I have recently had another such setback. A little over a week ago I was working out in our Wellness Center when I suddenly couldn’t breathe after a set of exercises. Well actually, I could breathe, but I couldn’t get enough air into my lungs to support my heightened heart rate. I thought the workout had seemed unusually tough that day – up until that moment of breathlessness – but by the time I finally recovered enough air to walk out of the building and go home, I knew that something was seriously wrong.

Another Fucking Wake-up Call
After researching the symptoms and talking with my wife, we called and got an emergency appointment with my internal medicine doctor. He looked me over and promptly called an ambulance which took me to a local emergency room. The symptoms presented themselves as a heart attack – or at least one about to occur – so the ER testing was initially pointed in this direction. However, my wife told the ER doctor that my internist thought it could be either a heart episode or a “pulmonary embolism” – which is blood clots in the lungs. They did a simple blood test which is an indicator of pulmonary embolism and it proved positive, so they gave me a CT of the lungs. There they saw hundreds of tiny blood clots spread throughout my lungs and chest. They went on to do an ultra sound of my legs and found that to be the origin of the blood clot – which had exploded into the large leg vein traveling to my lungs. The bottom line is that it was a miracle one or more of those blood clots didn’t clog a smaller vein going into the lungs, causing the lung tissue to die and me along with it.

I have had a tough life – physically. I felt compelled to play football and rugby as a young man and it left me with two knees stripped of their cartilage. Later on these injuries became the source of two knees and one hip replacement – along with what appears to be a permanently bad back. However, long before this in 1988, I came down with cancer and went through some of the most horrific chemotherapy treatments one can imagine. I have had about five years of peace and pretty good health lately, and now “WHAM” – I am hit with this latest physical karate chop, literally to the heart (or that general vicinity). And now, here I am trying to make sense out of the whole damned thing.

Do you Think the Universe is Trying to Tell me Something?
I know that worse things have happened to many of you out there, so I am not going to dwell upon my own physical experiences, but hopefully find a common cord among my readers around how all of these physical setbacks have affected my quality of life.

The answer to this question can only be determined if we look at the effect of “time.” In the past, after recovering from my physical setbacks, I have always gone through a period of intense psychological and spiritual growth. It just took a little time to get over the sheer pain of the experience before I could inquire into the reasons behind it. I find the creation of new self-awareness and personal development to be extremely rewarding, and this has always more than offset my physical aches and pains from an overall QOL viewpoint.

However, except for the cancer, none of my prior past health issues have jeopardized my life to a significant degree. Today, I am older, more fragile, my weaknesses seem to be having more of a systemic effect on my body, and my energy levels have been depleted because I have perceived my life to be full of stress over the past year (stemming from the founding of the Dynamic Aging Program I teach at OLLI, and my unexpected need to quickly expand the program due to its success).

This latest physical blow of pulmonary embolism has shown me just how quickly I could die, and I now have a pretty good picture of how that could happen at any moment. I am scared, yet grateful. I am sad, yet also full of love for my wife, my students, my friends, and the world in general. I am anxious, yet increasingly accepting of my position. I am broken, yet I can already feel myself pulling the pieces back together again – more dedicated than ever to achieving my life’s purpose.

Since I am not experiencing any pain following the incident, I can already feel the growth process beginning, and it is telling me to let go of any control I am trying to create in my life – and instead “allow” the energy of a more powerful and beneficent force to flow through me. It is telling me to get back to the basics: physical exercise, meditation, and nutrition. It is telling me to show my wife how much I love her all the time. And, it is requiring that I be more mindful of everything that I do. My current mindset and actions must become less about being fearful of another attack, and more of a wake-up call to get back on purpose, to what is important, and to what gives me the most joy.

Bad is Good – But Only if it Doesn’t Kill You
There is nothing new about the fact that most of us need the occasional existential reality check in order to keep progressing with our development. In fact, that was the theme of my dissertation where I wrote about the transformational effects of surviving cancer. In my research, a large majority of long-term cancer survivors described their experience as both the worst and the best thing that ever happened to them. How could that be? How could something that is so devastating in the moment, and for months to follow, also be something that is good for us? Time helps, but how does one open their self up to the transformational change that is possible following the traumatic events in our lives? A better question – perhaps – is how can we open ourselves up to the transformational change we are always capable of achieving, regardless of the events we experience? In other words, how can we positively change without almost killing ourselves?

I know this is a very delicate piece of work. On the one hand, the entire world is now changing at a continuously escalating rate. Therefore, we must continuously change ourselves if we want to remain connected with what is going on in the world around us. In my case, I have also felt a growing need to simplify my life by moving out of our large house and into a smaller one (which we haven’t accomplished yet), consolidate monetary holdings and place them in the hands of a reliable local investment counselor, take care of the legal framework one must create as we get older (wills, living trusts, multiple power of attorneys, layers of insurance, etc.), and learn not to stress the small stuff – because there is already enough big stuff out there to stress about.

My work, or life’s purpose at this time, is the creation and growth of the Dynamic Aging Program I am teaching at OLLI. This would be a pure act of love and creativity for me, except that it is on top of everything else that is happening in my life – which is escalating at an escalating rate. Now I have new medical issues to consider, and an increasing proportion of my time must be spent getting back to the basics: exercise, nutrition, and meditation. I’m exhausted just thinking about it, but this much I am certain about.

For me, it all boils down to this final question: How can we continue to optimally develop along a psychological and spiritual path when we are constantly stressed out about all the increasing things we must do – just to keep from drowning?

Questions, Questions, Questions!
I know that all I have done is pose a series of questions without any real answers. I am clearly over the “edge” of my ability to do everything I want to do with my life, and I suspect there are a growing number of others out there who are also quickly approaching this edge. How could it be otherwise when the world and our bodies are changing so rapidly (oops, another question)? Yet, here I am telling my students and the world that engagement is the key to optimal aging, rather than conventional retirement. This might sound good on the surface, but how can we add such a large additional slice to our life – just as everything else is becoming out of control?

The fact is, we must find new meaning and purpose in our lives as we age, or else all life becomes is a futile quest for systemic maintenance. We could literally spend our entire lives exercising, meditating, researching the newest nutritional trends, and going from healer to healer looking for someone or something to ease our physical and emotional pain. We could then spend any remaining time trying to keep current with technological advancements, world events, and planetary consciousness – continuously adapting to these changes as their frequency increases. However, as important as these things are to our well-being, we as human beings must also have a social life, maintain and/or enhance our relationships, have fun once in a while, and be experiencing progress at something we find meaningful in our lives. These seem to be the variables we have the most control over – and it seems that how we socialize, who we socialize with, what we do for fun, and what we spend our time working at, will largely determine our overall quality of life as we get older.

This is an extremely important point I teach my students, but I don’t hear or read anyone else talking about it. Quite simply, to improve our quality of life we must also be experiencing forward progress in our lives – in spite of our aging bodies. This is the “progress principle” I teach my students, and without it most people experience a slow and steady cognitive decline – which combines with our inevitable physical decline, to increasingly reduce our quality of life. To experience this progress we must find our own unique meaning and purpose in life – something most of us have never had to do. But, how do we find this new meaning and purpose? I believe that for many of us, purpose can only be found experientially by engaging meaningfully with our environment, trying one thing after another, until one finds that feeling of alignment, contribution, happiness, and growth. But how do we find the time to do this in the world we now live in?

Balance
I don’t claim to know the answer to all the questions I have posed in this blog entry. It has only been a week since my pulmonary embolism, and I still get winded just climbing the stairs in my home. However, I do know the answer to most of these questions lies in mindfully balancing all of these increasing requirements in a manner that is optimal to me – which could be completely different than someone else.

For me, it seems there are some things we have to do, and other things we want to do. The things we have to do increase naturally as we age, and have become exacerbated by the escalating rate of change in our environment. However, this doesn’t mean we have to stop doing what we want to do. In fact, we can’t – unless you want to experience a slow and steady decline in your QOL. Instead, we must find a way to balance all of these things in a non-stressful manner. Stress is the enemy of the aging person, not all the things we have to do.

If you have some ideas about how to accomplish this, I would appreciate you dropping me a note – either by replying to this blog entry or sending me a personal message. I have my own ideas, but I believe we have now reached a point where all seniors must join together to share their experiences and learn from each other. Together, we can become greater than the sum of our individual identities, but only if we overcome our fears and open ourselves to others.

Love, Dudley

Retirement or Dynamic Aging – The Choice is Yours

Very few people seem to be consciously aware of their innate human need for personal growth, self-actualization, achieving their potential, enlightenment – however you want to put it. In others, this need has been unconsciously re-directed towards the accumulation of wealth, power, family, notoriety, fame, or a million other possible things we think will make us happy. However, whether we are aware of it or not, we all have a need to continually be improving our lives – but this improvement may not be in the same areas our society has taught us will bring satisfaction.

This drive manifests more subtly than our other driving needs for sex, survival, social interaction, love, or self-esteem. This need can also be distorted into striving to achieve our society’s images of the “good life” or in becoming a “perfect” person – however you might define that for yourself. This need to develop towards our potential is generally stronger in those of us who have already fulfilled our more primary needs – but it is there in everyone, always lurking in the background and urging us to stretch the limits of our capabilities.

The purpose of my work at this time is to teach the theory and practices of Dynamic Aging, which is a whole new way of viewing the aging process – one that is much healthier, more consistent with our natural human instinct to always be improving ourselves, minimizes the effects of age-related decline for as long as possible, actually improves our quality of life, and is in alignment with a world characterized by accelerating change. And, while this might sound like a lot of work, it will actually make your life a lot more fun and satisfying.

What is Dynamic Aging?

Dynamic aging is a practical, systemic, and proactive approach for getting older in today’s extremely complex and rapidly changing world. It applies the latest research and practices from multiple scientific disciplines – gerontology, positive psychology, neuroscience, sociology, cognitive psychology, physiology, systems theory, and developmental psychology – to provide a motivated older adult with the knowledge and means to:
• Improve their quality of life and levels of happiness,
• Offset or even reverse many of the effects of age-related decline,
• Increase available energy levels,
• Become fluidly adaptable to rapidly changing and unexpected life circumstances,
• Find new meaning and purpose, and
• Achieve their unique potential during the last third of life.

In our society, the word “dynamic” is rarely used to describe the aging process. This is because most of us believe the final third of life is a time to “retire,” pull back, slow down, relax, engage in enjoyable activities, have a second childhood, and so on. The evidence for this is found everywhere; from the advertising we see in magazines, over the internet, or on TV – to movies and television shows that depict older adults in various stages of cognitive and physical decline. And, this point of view is supported by the vast numbers of older adults who believe that retirement is the appropriate way to grow older – and therefore act out this view of aging everyday.

On the other hand, the word dynamic can be used to describe someone who is full of life and self-directed energy, constantly interacting with and learning from their environment, and continuously growing and changing as a result of this interaction.

Both of these views of aging have an appeal to certain people. The first seems easier to some. We tell ourselves: “Why buck the system? Why not just go along with whatever most of the other people are doing? Kick back, enjoy life – I have been working my whole life and deserve to relax, now that my career is over and my family has been raised. I will develop hobbies, play games, travel, spend time with the kids and grandkids, maybe take a class or two in the local Learning in Retirement program, volunteer some of my time to helping others, and so on.”

Doesn’t sound too bad for a couple of years – but for the rest of your lifetime?

On the other hand, many of us are cognizant of a driving force within ourselves to constantly become more self-aware and achieve our innate potential – physically, cognitively, emotionally, and spiritually. We understand that older adults are living longer today, and what a tremendous opportunity this creates for the development of our inner Self – becoming the best person we can be, improving our quality of life, and adapting gracefully to the increasing number of life changes coming our way.

Believe it or not, we actually have the ability to choose which theory of aging we believe in, and act out our lives accordingly. Modern science, through the use of brain scanning technology, is showing us that we truly are what we believe. We can choose to slowly dis-engage from the world, and/or try to stabilize things for as long as we can – or we can choose to find new meaning and purpose in life, interact mindfully with new ideas, new people, and new ways of doing things, keep as mentally and physically healthy as we can, adapt fluidly to all the life changes that are constantly occurring, and explore our unique potential as a human being. Perhaps we can even achieve what Abraham Maslow called “Self-Actualization,” or what Eastern traditions call “Enlightenment.” Nearly anything is possible. The choice is simply ours to make.

Making this choice is imperative to the dynamic aging process, because otherwise there is a tendency to allow inertia to make the decision for us. And, if we give in to inertia and do nothing differently, we will never know what our potential might have been.

We can choose to take a more passive approach to our own aging process – hoping that we remain happy, live a long life with minimal physical and mental decline, and die without regrets and peacefully in our sleep. This appears to be what most people have chosen – possibly because a better alternative has not been widely understood. However, this approach seems to be at least partially delusional, while also requiring a certain amount of “denial” and lack of foresight.

On the other hand, we can choose to get out of our existing comfort zones, expand our qualities and capabilities rather than allow them to contract, interact with the world in a more meaningful and energetic manner, grow and develop as a unique human being, and live every moment of our life to its fullest potential. This mindset will require a major change for most people, but it doesn’t really require any additional work. All that is actually required is a change of mind.

The Four Core Beliefs

The Dynamic Aging Process is based on a set of interconnected beliefs. Each person will in turn have a set of personal beliefs which interact with the beliefs I am about to describe, so it is probable that everyone will have their own unique understanding of the dynamic aging process. However, there are at least four core beliefs most of us will need to get this process rolling:

1. Face the New Reality
We must first understand and believe that we have been given the potential to lead an additional 15-25 years of productive, happy life. If you are currently 65-70 years old and disease-free, you will likely live to 90 years of age or beyond. Few of us think about how we are going to live these extra years. Are we going to be crippled, in pain, sick, blind, demented, and pessimistic – or are we going to be vibrant, interested, joyful, healthy, mentally sharp, and optimistic? Most of us never look at these questions truthfully, or ask ourselves what has to actually be done to achieve our desired results – because the natural human tendency is to take our current living conditions and project them indefinitely into the future. We keep doing and acting as we always have, believing it will continue to provide us with the same results. This has probably never worked, and it certainly doesn’t work as one gets older. So, the first step is getting over our denial, and facing the new reality of a potentially much longer and healthier life.

2. We can Choose to Proactively Optimize our own Aging Process
Once we figure out we will probably live a lot longer, and get over our denial to realize we might have to do something different in order to optimize these additional years – then it also becomes important to understand how we might positively influence the course of our extended lifetimes. What will be our quality of life – if we do nothing, if we do something, or if we do a lot? What are the smart things we can do to improve our quality of life, and what are the dumb things? We can hasten our own age-related decline through inertia, inaction, and/or the pursuit of enjoyment. Or, we can positively impact our own aging process by following some combination of the practices outlined in my classes – customized perhaps to our own temperament, experience, capabilities, and preferences. Once we believe it is possible to proactively optimize our own aging process, then we must choose to do something about it. Genes play their part, but the choices we make are equally or perhaps even more important – and these choices are largely up to ourselves. So, the second core belief is that we can significantly improve our quality of life as we get older, but we must choose to do so. And remember, not making a choice is making a choice.

3. Believe in the “Progress Principle” and the Power of Positive Personal Development
I think we must also understand and believe in the natural process of adult development within us. If “adult development” doesn’t resonate with you – then call it maturity, wisdom, growth, self-actualization, enlightenment; it doesn’t matter. If you are reading this blog entry and have continued this far, you have probably already made significant progress along these lines, and likely aware of the many positive changes you have already experienced over the years. All you need to do is recognize this growth process for what it is, realize how much happier you are as a result of experiencing it, and then make further development a conscious intention. I believe most of us are born with an inner drive to consistently become a better person (Progress Principle, Self-Actualizing Tendency, Enlightenment Drive, etc.), although there are many things that block this drive from fully emerging in its purest form. Adult development is a natural by-product of engaging meaningfully with our surrounding dynamic environment. Recognize this drive in yourself – and flow with the energy it provides. So, our third core belief is that the more proactive we are in our own development – by engaging more completely with the positive people, ideas, and new ways of doing things that are constantly being presented to us in our environment – the more energy, joy, and meaning this will bring into our lives.

4. We have a Purpose but must find it for Ourselves
Finally, we must believe that we can find new purpose and meaning in the last third of life: something that puts a fire in our belly when we wake up in the morning, gives us renewed energy, and keeps us inspired to be alive. What generates passion in you? Maybe it is improving your workplace, making life better for your children and grandchildren, helping others through your actions, saving animals from death or extinction, social action, teaching others, creating beautiful artwork, spirituality, or whatever. The answer – if addressed truthfully – will be different for each of us, and it doesn’t matter what we individually choose to give our lives meaning. We simply need to find our passion in something larger than our Self, and doing something that will grow as a result of our efforts. So, for the first time in most of our lives, we have been tasked with finding our own self-directed meaning and purpose. The fourth and final core belief is that we can.

Conclusions
If you can integrate these core beliefs into your own personal belief system, it will become possible for you to engage more completely with your own dynamic aging process. This in turn will lead to greater self-awareness and growth. Then, through your interactions with others, this will hopefully lead to a more open, systemic, and tolerant awareness throughout the world.

Perhaps there is also a more collective purpose for aging adults, and a more general reason why we have been given an extra 15-20 years of life. If we can keep growing and developing throughout most of these years, humanity will achieve a new and higher collective consciousness – one that seems necessary today in order to deal with all the world’s problems created by people of lesser consciousness, and who are motivated by hatred, greed, and self-centeredness.

Using older adults’ innate potential for wisdom as a means of positively shifting the consciousness of the planet might seem a little pretentious, but is still a worthy goal – because it is possible. This is what I find so exciting about living today, where we can have instant communication and interaction with other people located all over the planet. One idea – the right idea at the right time – can easily spark a revolution (of consciousness).

As older adults, we now face an entirely new stage in life – in numbers that are currently staggering and continuing to grow. Conventional retirement seems to me nothing other than a cloak of denial – something that obscures the emerging reality of a world having unlimited potential for those willing to do the work. So, the big question is “how are you going to spend your extra time” – retirement, or a re-engagement with life to finally discover your life’s potential? The choice is yours.

Thank you.

Love, Dudley

Stages of Aging Development

I have been teaching subjects addressing the need for a more proactive aging process and adult psychological development in a “Learning in Retirement” program for the past eleven years. I have observed the behavior and heard the conversations of hundreds of older adults over this period. Based on these observations, there is clearly a large developmental gap between most older people who believe they have no control over their own aging process (with the exception perhaps of diet and exercise) and who are “hoping” to stabilize their lives for as long as they can – and a smaller but growing segment of older people who are motivated to be more proactive in their aging process, and lead a dynamically changing lifestyle in the last third of life.

Similar to James Fowler’s Stages of Faith (or Spiritual) Development, and Lawrence Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development, I believe there are at least six stages of “Aging Development” – each more proactive, capable, and motivated to build upon prior stages to discover one’s unique “potential” during the last third of life. The Model assumes that optimal aging involves a systemic growth or developmental process that not only allows the individual to become more self-aware, autonomous, adaptable to changing life conditions, compassionate, and accepting of self, others, and whatever life throws at them – but also the discovery of new meaning and purpose that is both personally satisfying, as well as making the world a better place for all to live.

The purpose of this stage theory is not only to shed light on the necessary levels of development a person must pass through in order to age optimally in today’s complex and rapidly changing world, but it also allows us to understand where we are in relation to others, where we want to be, and what the characteristics of our development will most probably look like – like signposts along the side of the road. My students immediately picked up on the possibility of a person using this model to inflate the perception of their own development, and use this inflated self-image to feel like they are better than others. This is clearly a characteristic of the ego we are trying to get away from in this model, but it is perhaps natural to feel this way in its early stages. Inquiring into this feeling, at all stages in our development, will provide us with yet another opportunity for growth.

We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know About Aging

Most of the existing theories of aging in our society (Dis-Engagement, Continuity, or Activity), based on the actual observation of a cross-section of the older population, fall into only the first two stages of this Model – pointing out the need for increased education and training in how one might age optimally, and what our potential actually is as we get older. There are currently very few “structures” in our society that provide any sort of support for this more proactive and motivated approach to aging. A structure in this case would involve having a supportive community – real or virtual – to go, hang out, and learn with other like-minded people who also want to optimize their aging process. This is why I have started the Dynamic Aging Program at OLLI – in order to begin the creation of such structures.

To be fair with those people who fall into one or more of the existing theories of aging, we must first accept the fact that our society does not yet support any theory of aging that advocates a strongly proactive and systemic approach to one’s own aging process. So, most people simply don’t know what they don’t know about their own aging process, and have grown up without any understanding of the possibilities we are presented with as we grow older.

Negative and Positive Feedback Loops

Instead, the emphasis in our society seems to be on physical and cognitive decline, and most recently on what we can do to offset much of this decline through exercise, good nutrition, and finding new sources of mental stimulation. The goal in this case is to minimize the negative physical and mental effects of a natural aging process for as long as we can, rather than continue to grow, develop, and become the best person we can be in our lifetime. This more reactive approach to aging is based on “negative feedback” (“Uh oh, I have been forgetting a lot of things lately – maybe I need to start doing brain-training games in my spare time”) which strives to regain stability and equilibrium, whereas a proactive approach to optimal aging is largely based on positive feedback loops (“Wow, I really like becoming more self-aware and mindful of everything I do – I think I’m going to practice even harder next week”) – which lead to instability, expansion, and growth.

A negative feedback loop is created when we notice a decline in our physical or mental functioning, and then undertake a set of actions to restore prior normal functioning. As we age, this can become a constant attempt to regain some form of stability in a person’s life; as they increase their exercise routine, eat more organically, play “brain-training” games on the computer, and other things. The problem is this person is constantly playing catch-up in a war against aging where there are no winners. There is also no joy in this process that I can think of, and any gains we make are short-lived and dependent on an ever-increasing level of self-care. The individual could also activate an array of defense mechanisms to avoid even thinking about the loss of their capabilities (and many people do this), but of course this just resorts in a more rapid decline.

A positive feedback loop is created when we see ourselves progressing at something we feel is important and, as a result of the good feelings this generates, become increasingly motivated to work even harder towards our goals. Positive feedback creates a self-reinforcing, self-perpetuating, and self-energizing set of behaviors which lead to continuous growth and self-expansion. The greater motivation and higher quality of life this “Progress Principle” encourages is well-documented in the field of psychology, and is one of the guiding principles in the dynamic aging process.

Social Barriers to Aging Dynamically

From my experience, the critical juncture in this model for an older adult occurs when there is an awakening to the possibilities inherent in the aging process, and the individual begins to understand there is more to optimal aging than simply a healthy lifestyle. This transition to a more proactive and self-motivated manner of aging should seem natural to most people but, since our society doesn’t generally support a person’s need for greater self-awareness and personal development, most individuals seem to simply shrug off their underlying unsettledness, and attempt to coast through their final years into old age – never becoming motivated to do anything proactive about their aging process other than diet and exercise. They see that no one else they know is aging dynamically, so they suspect that anything more than what they are already doing will just involve a greater effort, for very little reward.

The field of sociology has established that, to a large extent, humans perceive themselves as they perceive others are perceiving them – especially a group of “significant others” with whom we are most closely associated. In other words, this tendency to see ourselves as we perceive others see us (kind of like a distorted mirror) results into a need to fit in and be thought of favorably by others. This need for social connections has been very well documented in human psychology, and is probably a genetic trait passed on from our Hunter/Gatherer days where the clan or tribe were essential for our survival. Without the support and protection of the others, we would die. However, this neediness today is like an anchor around our neck when it comes to aging optimally. It keeps us mired in the mass consciousness of those around us, and is probably the greatest factor keeping us from reaching for our potential as we get older.

However, on a positive note, there are a growing number of older adults who are awakening to the truth and wisdom of partaking in a more proactive aging process – where the goal is not simply to hang onto a certain level of cognitive and physical functioning, but to expand and explore the hidden potential we each have within us. I believe this is evidenced by the success of the Dynamic Aging Program I am currently teaching at OLLI at Furman, and the enthusiasm most of my students have for this process. And, they have created their own group of significant others to give them support for this process.

A Stage Theory of Aging Development

I believe optimum aging is both an intelligence and a developmental process, similar to cognitive, emotional, social, spiritual, and moral development, for the following reasons:
• Optimal aging requires a different form of intelligence that can be developed, perceived, acquired through readings or teachings, learned from experience, or intuited by an individual for the purpose of applying this knowledge to one’s own aging process. It involves – for the purpose of aging optimally – a basic understanding of the science behind optimal aging, greater mindfulness, continuously higher levels of personal development and self-awareness, improved reasoning, problem-solving and planning capabilities, the ability to think abstractly but realistically about one’s own future, the understanding of complex and often conflicting ideas, and acceptance of all people and things that cannot be changed.
• Going through each stage appears to be necessary for the emergence of the next stage of development, which includes but transcends the sum of all prior stages.
• As in emotional, spiritual, and moral development, there is a strong correlation between aging development, and overall psychological/cognitive development.
• At lower stages of development the person is more unaware or close-minded regarding their inherent potential, more closely associated with the goals and thinking of the mass consciousness, more self-centered, more afraid, and less likely to be proactive about accomplishing most things of importance in their life.
• At higher stages of development the individual is increasingly: (1) aware of their emerging potential, (2) autonomous and less closely associated with the thinking of the mass consciousness, (3) operating from an open-systems viewpoint, (4) more likely to make inclusive decisions based on the welfare of a larger number of people and the world in general, (5) less fearful, (6) functioning with higher internal self-esteem, and (7) more proactive in their own aging development.

A brief summary of my stage theory of aging development is as follows:

Stage #1 – Passive Aging:
Perhaps not so surprisingly, most retired persons I know seem to fall into this stage of their aging development. At this level, the individual passively accepts their own natural aging process, and does little or nothing to offset the effects of physical and cognitive decline. I have also noticed that at this stage most people have adopted these additional characteristics:
• They are largely unconscious to their inner world of thoughts, emotions, sensations, and/or the impact their behavior has on others.
• They are pleasure-seeking: attuned to the instant gratification caused by the release of certain hormones and neurotransmitters to the limbic system and other parts of the brain.
• They identify strongly with the mass consciousness and its ideas about aging.
• They are extremely self-centered: with a strong attachment to their existing self-concept, and the frequent use of defense mechanisms to avoid cognitive dissonance and personal growth.
• They tend to withdraw to a more stable, lower energy interaction with their environment (i.e., same people, same ideas, same ways of doing things, etc.), which seems to provide an illusion of control over their lives.

Stage #2 – Active Aging:
At this stage, the individual has become aware of the need to keep physically active, improve their nutrition, and might even grow to understand the potential positive effects of meditation, yoga, etc. This doesn’t mean they do these things to any great degree, nor does it mean they care enough about these things to learn about them and implement them optimally based on their lifestyle, body type, personality, physical limitations, etc. I have observed that people at this stage commonly view exercise, and an occasionally healthy diet, as a means to offset the negative effects of life’s pleasures (fine dining, alcohol, etc.). Overall, the individual:
• Is still very self-centered and pleasure-seeking.
• Has no concept or understanding of a more systemic and optimal approach to their own aging process.
• Has little or no motivation to proactively understand their own aging process (beyond exercise and diet), or create for themselves a higher quality of life than they are already living.
• Lives exclusively in the external world of people, things, worries, and pleasures. There is little self-awareness or inclination for internal growth.
• Is still fearful of change, and stability-seeking by nature.
• Strongly identifies with the perceived respect and recognition they receive from a group of “significant others” – who are also pleasure-seeking and equally lacking the motivation to proactively optimize their own aging process.

Stage #3 – Proactive Aging:
At this stage there is an awakening to the need for additional internal work and self-awareness in order to improve our quality of life. We realize that much of our boredom or discontent stems from early childhood wounds and conditioning, restrictive beliefs and perspectives, self-imposed limitations, superego, and the use of defense mechanisms to avoid seeing the truth about ourselves. There is a greater understanding that we must go through a developmental process to become aware of how these internal structures constrain or limit who we really are, as well as cause a good deal of unhappiness in our lives. This is a transitional stage where the person decides to take a more proactive stance towards their own aging process, find new meaning and purpose, and improve their quality of life.

In addition to a greater commitment to a healthy diet and age-appropriate exercise the individual will usually:
• Adopt new practices such as positivity, brain-training, and stress reduction – but still not in a systemic manner.
• Realize to some extent that “we are what we think” and become more mindful of their own thoughts, beliefs, feelings, sensations, reactions, and impact of their behavior on others.
• Seek out new information on optimal aging with the intent of improving their quality of life.
• Understand that societal views on aging, and the attitudes of those closest to them, act as constraints on the ability to achieve their potential.
• Develop a more systemic view of the world, along with a need to engage more mindfully and meaningfully with their environment.
• Begin to change more easily and at a deeper level as they experience cognitive dissonance in their interactions with the environment.

Stage #4 – Systemic Aging:
At this stage we realize there are not just a few more things we can “do” to age optimally, but instead we must adopt a systemic approach to aging, and improve the quality and quantity of our interactions in order to maximize our opportunities for growth and development. True meaning and purpose is understood to involve a continuous and emergent personal growth process that allows us to not only develop our own unique potential as a human being, but also make it possible to positively affect the growth process of others around us – and the world in general.

To do this, we must systemically shift our “intentionality” (which focuses our energy and efforts) away from a non-systemic, externally focused, societally driven, and a relatively comfortable engagement between ourselves and the environment – towards a state of “dynamic instability” – where we are mindfully and meaningfully engaging with ourselves and the environment, on a regular basis, through our interactions with new people, ideas, and ways of doing things. With this shift in our intentionality we will constantly be pushing back the edges of our comfort zone, and experience a continuous process of rapidly emerging growth and development.

Critical to this dynamic systems perspective is the understanding that discomfort, obstacles, cognitive dissonance, injuries, emotional pain, and other experiences previously avoided or defended against can all be a catalyst for personal growth and development, and must therefore be embraced from a state of mindful presence and inquiry.

Stage #5 – Dynamic Aging:
At this stage we are now consistently operating from a state of dynamic instability – characterized by a self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating cycle of continuous growth and development, enhanced and escalated by a highly interactive and energetic engagement with our environment. Our ability to increasingly learn more about ourselves, and our chosen system arena, is improved through mindfulness and a growing self-awareness of our past conditioning and self-imposed limitations. Additional learning opportunities are created through risk-taking, experimentation, the testing of boundaries, and consistently operating on the “edge” of our capabilities, skills, and comfort zone.

Dynamic instability results in the de-stabilization and increasing flexibility of our cognitive structures, assumptions, beliefs, perspectives, and self-concept – so that personal change does not have to be forced or self-imposed, but instead more easily emerges from the interaction of the whole person with their environment. This type of change is adaptive, continuous, occurs seemingly without effort, and is in alignment with the needs imposed by our aging bodies and dynamically changing surroundings.

This process of continuous emergent growth, learning, and development – in spite of the physical problems associated with aging – is our most effective defense against physical and cognitive decline, while also greatly improving the quality of our lives through the “Progress Principle” in action. And, it will ultimately result in increasing levels of internal self-esteem, which is a pre-requisite for the self-actualization we are seeking in the final stage of the model.

Stage #6 – Aging Mastery:
“Mastery” is not often a word we use in relation to the aging process. Mastery involves the continuous learning, and greater understanding of a subject, with the intention of applying this knowledge to become the very best at one’s chosen field of endeavor. Since optimal aging requires more than just a book understanding of the subject and years of experience, the mastery we are trying to achieve more closely resembles Abraham Maslow’s ideas on self-actualization – which is based on a process of personal development beyond a mature ego and societal standards, towards consistently greater levels of self-understanding, differentiation and integration, purpose/meaning, self-motivation, authenticity, awareness of one’s unique potential, and integrity.

Becoming a master of one’s own aging process does not guarantee a longer lifespan or that things will always be wonderful, but it does improve our ability to accept things just as they are – or change our thoughts, moods, pre-conceptions, beliefs, and perspectives about our self and the world in general – to improve the quality of life for ourselves, others, and the world in general. We will experience a greater feeling of interconnection with other people and the world around us. We are more likely to see the need for social action and change – regardless of what other people around us think. We will have a complete range of emotions, minimal self or societally imposed restrictions on our thoughts and actions, and exhibit a complete congruence between our self-concept and behavior. We will become energized by a continuous series of internal and external interactions, self-motivated to engage in an open-ended, largely unpredictable, and continuous growth process, and consistently align our actions/interactions with a higher purpose.

This stage in the model is open-ended in the sense there are probably an infinite number of higher stages of development a person can aspire to, but the numbers of real life examples become much fewer and harder to find as we progress.

Conclusions:

Models are only successful as a learning device if they reflect a greater truth and illuminate a subject in some new and/or better way for the student. Based on my class’ reaction to this model, it offers a different and interesting perspective on a subject that is only obscure to a majority of people because it is not taught in our school systems, it defies the use of scientific methodology to understand it, and it has not yet become common social knowledge. Like other stage theories it can be confusing, because each of us might experience several of these stages during a single day. However, we will also each have a more or less consistent set-point – where our understanding and behavior are the same, and becomes almost habitual around the characteristics of a particular stage.

Like other stage theories of development, it is extremely difficult for a person to truly understand more than one stage beyond what they are currently experiencing. However, since we must internalize and integrate each stage sequentially, it is only important that we focus on the next stage in our development, rather than what we believe is the “end-game.” I believe the model’s most important feature is that it gives the individual something to focus on in their growth process, while providing a trail of bread crumbs for their development from one stage to the next. Focus, or intentionality, determines where we direct our energy. So, if it is our intent to age more dynamically and become a master of our own aging process, then a stage theory such as this one – with all of its flaws and exceptions – provides an energetic pathway towards what is obviously a greater truth about the aging process.

The Essence of Dynamic Aging

The essence of Dynamic Aging, and what separates it from all other theories of aging, is its recognition of the Laws of Thermodynamics, and how – in today’s dynamically changing world – an understanding of these laws point us to an entirely new theory of aging; one based on mindful engagement and dynamic change in the last third of life, as opposed to a gradual dis-engagement from the active world and/or continual grasping for stability that is impossible to achieve.

According to the First Law of Thermodynamics, energy can take many forms, but it cannot be created or destroyed. However, it can be converted from one form to another. Energy is generally defined as the “ability to do work,” so in human beings, work can be envisioned as exertion, effort, thought, emotion, action, interaction, and so on. We are constantly converting the “potential energy” of our food and other things we put into our bodies into the “kinetic energy” of thoughts, actions, etc. Without potential energy, and our body’s ability to convert that into kinetic energy, we lose our ability to participate actively in the world – and eventually we die when our bodies can no longer generate the kinetic energy necessary to run our basic human systems (heart, lungs, etc.).

So, if energy cannot be destroyed, why do so many people seem to experience a steady loss of energy as they age?

The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that in a closed or semi-closed system, the future kinetic energy output of the system will always be less than its current levels. In other words, a person’s basic energy levels will decline over time due to a process called “entropy.”

Entropy explains that – in the process of transferring energy from one form to another (potential to kinetic), a certain amount of energy will dissipate (be dispersed into the environment) and we can only replace that energy by becoming an open system and absorbing new energy from our environment. So, in the case of human beings, we re-charge ourselves by taking in food, water, and other nourishment from the outside, and convert it into the kinetic energy we use to run our bodily systems and do the things we do. However, as we age, an increasingly greater portion of our potential energy will dissipate through this process, as our cells slowly go through their own process of entropy and lose the ability to efficiently convert potential into kinetic energy. This means that as we age, we need to be taking in an increasing amount of potential energy from the outside simply to maintain our current levels of kinetic energy.

Food and vitamins cannot do it all. Our bodies only have the ability to convert a certain amount of these types of potential energy sources into kinetic energy. If we try to eat more to offset the effects of age-related decline, we will just get fat and stress other body systems to the point where they require more energy to function – merely worsening the situation. So, in order to offset the effects of age-related decline (or human entropy), we must increasingly find other ways to obtain potential energy from our environments.

While most aging theories today understand the importance of exercise, nutrition, relationships, pleasurable activities, and lifelong learning – Dynamic Aging recognizes that humans can also increase their potential energy levels through a vibrant and mindful engagement with their environment. This involves interacting more frequently and in a higher quality manner with new people, ideas, and ways of doing things. We can all recognize times when we walked away from a stimulating discussion feeling uplifted or energized, or had a challenging project we couldn’t wait to start working on. These types of interactions – which can usually be described as new, fresh, stimulating, exciting, different, emotional, creative, challenging, transformational, flow, etc. – all contribute to a person’s potential energy levels, which can then be converted to the kinetic energy we use to run our lives.

Unlike other theories of aging, Dynamic Aging believes that a person who continues to change, grow, develop, expand beyond his or her current capabilities, and harvest new energy from a mindful and engaged interaction with their environment, will be better able to postpone the age-related decline associated with human entropy – as compared to someone who does none of these things.

Medical science will, on the average, keep us alive a lot longer than our parents or grandparents. So, we have much more to lose by allowing this gradual physical and cognitive slide to occur pre-maturely. If we do nothing, our energy levels will slowly decline over the last third of life, and so will our quality of life. The alternative is to maintain as high a quality of life as we can during these extra years, but in order to do this we must proactively seek out new sources of energy in order to stave off age-related decline. Dynamic Aging is the process by which this can be accomplished most effectively.

Dynamic Aging is not the “silver bullet” most people are looking for. We will all eventually die, so our goal should not be immortality. Instead we should have the more modest goal of maintaining as high a quality of life as possible – for as long as possible. However, instead of this goal requiring that we expend more energy in its pursuit, a mindful engagement with our environment can actually give us more energy to do all those other things we want to do as well. In other words, in order to age optimally we must become an interactive player in the dynamically changing world around us. We must become a dynamic system ourselves.

That is it for now,

Dudley

Becoming a Master of Your Own Aging Process

“Inertia” is a term from physics which indicates that physical objects have a natural resistance to any change in their state of motion (speed, direction, etc.). Inertia refers to the fact that a stationary object tends to stay stationary, while an object in motion tends to stay in motion – at its same speed and in the same direction. If we look at this from the standpoint of the human psyche we can see that human beings also have a natural resistance to change – be it thought, behavior, motion, or just about anything else for that matter. So, we too are subject to the laws of inertia (at least metaphorically). The implications for retirees are unfortunate, since it is my observation that most older adults seem to be striving for stability in their lives. The problem with this strategy is that once they are relatively stable, the tendency will be to stay that way until change is inevitably forced upon them.

I currently have 38 courageous older students (ages 52-80) who are attempting to proactively become a “Master” of their own aging process. The Dynamic Aging Program I am offering at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Furman University provides them with the knowledge, structure, and support to take a more informed and proactive stance towards their own aging process, and they are exceling at it – in spite of this human tendency to continue doing what we are currently doing.

Dynamic aging is all about change: change in speed, direction, comfort, capabilities, habit, behavior, and almost everything else except for our essential nature. My students have chosen to overcome their own inertia, and the social pressure to do what everyone else is doing, in order to systematically and proactively become as highly developed, flexible, adaptable, and changeable as possible. This is what is required if we are to optimize our aging process in today’s dynamically changing world, so why aren’t more people doing it?

Retirement is a Dirty Word

Most people who retire suddenly find themselves facing a whole new stage in life, with no outside definition of what it is they should be doing. So they usually do what they have always done, or what they always thought they would be doing after they retire: whether that is helping out with the grandkids, working on hobbies, serving on committees, helping others, working part-time, staying physically fit, playing golf or bridge, taking classes, relaxing, or having as much fun as they can. There is nothing wrong with any of these activities, but if this is all they are doing then what is the point of their lives? What is their meaning or purpose for living in this constant state of busyness until they can no longer function in these roles?

Obviously, if we give into our natural tendency to continue doing what we are already doing, this will one day become boring and otherwise problematic – but by this time it might also be too late to do anything about it. In the past, most people died shortly after retirement so this was not an issue. But today, with a healthy person’s life expectancy reaching 90 years or more, our past definition of “retirement” must change to reflect not only this reality of a longer life expectancy, but also the reality of a world that is changing around us at an accelerating rate. Retirement used to bring up visions of blissful peace, but now – given this new reality – it is a prescription for wasting the greatest opportunity a person will ever have for developing their unique potential as a human being. In my mind, retirement is now a dirty word, because the current images most of us have of retirement are completely inconsistent with the “truth” sitting right there in front of us.

I believe that people should be allowed to do as they will as long as they are not harming others, but the fact is most people who adhere to this false image of retirement are like a bunch of crabs in a pot of boiling water. They could easily allow the other crabs to use their claws to escape the pot, or they themselves could escape if that is what they wanted. Instead, they (along with a majority of their fellow retirees) prevent other people from escaping the pot by pulling them back into the boiling water.

This is normal crab behavior, so we can’t really criticize the crabs, but why do most older people resist the possibility of greatly improving the quality of their own lives and instead try to pull their more adventurous friends and neighbors back into their own state of inertia?

Mastery Has Inertia Too!

My students are courageous because they are pioneers, and pioneering is a lonely business – but they are also visionaries who have seen beyond the confines of so-called “normal” retiree behavior and are following what they view as a larger truth. And, the truth is if we want to flourish in this new reality, then we must become Masters of our own aging process.

If we want to be good at something we have to learn as much as we can about it, devise and implement practices to improve our skills, eliminate any obstacles, expand and develop our minds and hearts to accommodate a greater sense of Self, and then continue on in our quest for mastery in spite of hardship, plateaus, or a lack of support from others. This is the Path of Mastery – and in this case what we are trying to master, and thereby optimize, is our own aging process. Once we are on this path, then we might want to stay on it for good, because leaving this path is not so easy once we are on it (a body in motion tends to stay in motion), and if at any time we do decide to permanently jump off the path it will be even more difficult to get back on (a stationary body tends to stay stationary).

Inertia obviously works both ways. Once a person sees the truth about their retirement and begins to act upon it, they will increasingly grow and develop in a positive direction, become more open and adaptable, change what they are doing, how they are doing it, and move continuously towards what Abraham Maslow called Self-Actualization. Once a person is on this Path, the tendency will be to stay on it. In fact (and this is where the laws of inertia begin to change when applied to human systems), the tendency will be to continually escalate our personal rate of change – not only to match the accelerating rate of change in our environment, but also the positive changes we experience through this process will reinforce our more dynamic approach to retirement and motivate us to accelerate our efforts.

So, mastery is also subject to the laws of inertia, but instead of ultimately harming ourselves by trying to remain stationary and doing very little to optimize our aging process, we will find ourselves increasingly engaging with new people, new ideas, and new ways of doing things. Life will be exciting again – like when we were children and everything was new. We will continually be growing and developing, and moving forward in our lives – in spite of the physical problems associated with old age that ultimately and inevitably arise.

Inertia might be a natural state for human beings as well as other physical objects, but only humans can make the choice of which end of the inertia continuum to be on. Choose wisely, or you will have no one to blame but yourself.

Love, Dudley

Stability is not an option