Aging Body, Golden Friend

Klimt_-_Werkvorlage_zum_Stocletfries_-_UmarmungAs we age, the body begins to fail. For those who have suffered unusually severe stress, breakdowns may happen early. For instance, neck disease ended my surgical career at forty-one. Spinal problems had accumulated because of chronic muscle tension, careless body mechanics, and poor career choice, all of which grew out of intense childhood hardship. Other people, blessed with less punishing experiences (or better genetic heritage), may live into their eighties or nineties before serious problems begin. But sooner or later, vigor falters.

Writing this in my late fifties, I have already endured major somatic and psychiatric problems, including five hospitalizations. Studies have correlated childhood adversity with adult health conditions, and I seem to be a case in point.

It is both instructive–in the sense that it helps me focus less on personal difficulties–and tragic to see a related development: as my body loses its health, so do the bodies of my friends and family. Chronic illnesses, acute infections, surgeries, cancers, and disabilities afflict many people I care about, especially those as old or older than me.

None of this should be surprising, but somehow it is. Most of us seem incapable of believing old age will ever greet us, until it does.

MindfulBiology, which has become my calling, grew out of career loss and failing health. Mindfulness helped me relax into my body, to experience its painful sensations with less resistance. A scientific perspective helped me find beauty in my living processes even when they hurt. The end result was a friendlier relationship with my body.

Feeling affectionate toward our physical forms can be a challenge when our bodies don’t meet expectations. Early in life, we feel resentful if we aren’t as good-looking or athletic as we’d like. Later, we feel fearful as health concerns accumulate, as end-of-life looms. It is natural to resist disappointing circumstances, but it is more uplifting to embrace them. (Note that neither a posture of resistance nor one of embrace determines action; one can resist illness but fail to foster health, and one can embrace disability while working to overcome it.)

This wasn’t an easy lesson for me to learn. In my early forties, unable to tolerate full employment, I suffered feelings of worthlessness and humiliation. Now, a decade-and-a-half later, I contend with chronic pain, insomnia, and fatigue. With all this going on, it can be hard to feel the love.

But it’s not impossible.

Only on rare nights does my body-mind manage more than four hours of sleep. That leaves long stretches open for meditation, and the prolonged practice often opens me to the moment-by-moment flow of pain, emotion, and thought. As I yield to inner turmoil, watching it without getting lost in it, I begin to notice something sweet: my body is holding me.

Awareness unfolds within this human organism. The tide of breath, the rush of blood, the gurgle of digestion, all work together to make meditation–and life–possible. Looked at from a certain light, this is an act of devotion. The body tries its best. In our culture, the demand is for perfection; by that standard, the organism is bound to disappoint. But it would be tragic if, in our judgments, we overlooked how much the body does to keep us going. You wouldn’t be reading this–and I wouldn’t be writing it–if our bodies weren’t working pretty darn well.

One can foster affection toward this organism we call the human body. In its complex (and ultimately mysterious) workings, it gives us the gift of life. If that isn’t an act of love, I don’t know what is. In return, doesn’t it deserve our affection? We can forgive the body its falterings, just as we forgive our loved ones their shortcomings. We can love the body as it ages, just as we love our pets as they grow old.

This is one of the most restorative messages of the MindfulBiology project. Medical school trained me to view the body as an unreliable mechanism; it taught me to diagnose and treat (though not necessarily cure) its failings. But looking at the human organism through the lens of mystery, I’ve learned to appreciate the body not as a mechanical device in need of tinkering and repair, but a living being deserving of love.