A recent WebMD article listing “14 Things No One Tells You About Aging” offers encouragement to those who dread getting old. There are certainly downsides, but there are also upsides, like having more experience and know-how, being able to manage your emotions and get along better with others, feeling better about yourself, and experiencing less stress, especially related to the workplace.
As a grateful retiree, I would add another advantage to getting older: being able to recognize and appreciate the simple pleasures in life.
A World of Distractions
Life in the 21st century is full of distractions for all of us, but especially for younger adults. A 2018 study in the United Kingdom found that working-aged people check their smartphones for texts, emails, and social media messages every 12 minutes on average, beginning shortly after they wake up and continuing throughout the day. Most of the adults in the study (71%) never turn their phones off, 40% said they check them within five minutes of waking up, and 70% said they use their phones during the commute to work.
The result is diminished awareness and a state of constant. low-level stress. Experts say that by focusing on this one piece of technology and “adopting an always-on, anywhere, anytime, anyplace behavior, we exist in a constant state of alertness that scans the world but never really gives our full attention to anything.”
This way of living is addictive and has long-term effects on our brain cells and our mental health: “The stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol create a physiological hyper-alert state that is always scanning for stimuli, provoking a sense of addiction temporarily assuaged by checking in” (“The Lost Art of Concentration: Being Distracted in a Digital World,” 2018).
After we leave the workforce, some of us remain “switched on,” but not nearly to this extent. No longer tied to the stimuli of our phones, we gain an expanded sense of time. This has a calming effect that improves our ability to focus and pay attention to other things.
The Power of Now
If not our phones, what’s worth paying attention to? Certainly, our environment, the people around us, our memories, thoughts, and feelings. But above all, the present moment.
Present awareness or mindfulness is a central tenet of the Buddhist tradition. Spiritual teachers tell us that it deepens our understanding of ourselves and others and improves our mental health and well-being.
Many years ago, when I was in my 40’s, I read Eckhart Tolle’s now classic book on mindfulness, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment (1999). It was a wonderful book, and I highlighted many sections of it. I thought the reviewer for Common Ground was right on target: “If you are considering getting back in touch with your soul, this book is a great companion.”
Living in the Now means noticing what is happening in the present moment, without judging or resisting it. Because we are so habituated to thinking about the past (including what just happened a minute ago) and the future (including what might happen in the next few minutes, tomorrow or farther ahead), it takes a great deal of discipline and practice to live in the Now.
I realized, though, that if I could learn to do it even some of the time, I would be a better person and a happier one, too. But reading and experiencing are two different things.
At that time in my life, I was working long hours and living far into the future, seeking grants and planning articles, books and seminars that would help me get the recognition and promotions I needed to advance in my academic career. I had just embarked on a new direction in my research, studying aging and old age, and there was much to learn and many things to do. It was a stimulating time, and I was successful in my endeavors. But I made no time to practice mindfulness.
The Power of Now sat on the shelf throughout those years. I packed it up with my other books when I retired and moved to another state, and it sat on the shelf again as I established a new life in a new city, deciding how I was going to use my mind and spend my time in retirement.
But here’s the thing about a classic book – it’s a gift that’s always there when you’re ready to receive it, and it’s always relevant, regardless of how much time passes. This year, ten years into my retirement, I picked it up again and read it carefully, along with its companion text, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose (2005).
I find it very challenging to live in the moment. These days, my thoughts veer toward the past and the future, but I’m working on it, because more than anything, I want peace of mind. Tolle tells us that the root of misery is identifying with our thoughts and being trapped in the past or the future. The only way out is to “make the Now the primary focus of your life” (The Power of Now).
My Simple Pleasures
I have adopted a practice from Tolle’s book to help me reorient my thinking. At any given moment, if I feel stressed, anxious, or unhappy, I ask myself, “What is your relationship to the present moment?” The answer is always this: “I am not living in the present moment. I am living in my head.”
To get myself to focus on the Now, I have started to pay attention to the little things in my everyday life that make me feel good. These simple pleasures, unique to me, are brief, positive moments that spark happiness and inner peace. Keeping track of them is like keeping a gratitude journal. Once you start noticing, they multiply, and you find pleasures within pleasures.
For example, here are a few that occur in the first two hours of my day:
–Making the bed and finding my two orange tabby cats’ favorite mouse toys, which they have “caught” and brought to us in the night.
–Sipping coffee in a cozy chair and reading a spiritual text while Alexa plays new age piano music in the background.
–Going for a walk through my neighborhood, over to the park where people my age are playing pickle ball, and back through the neighborhood, a relaxing three-mile trek. The walk is especially pleasant in the fall, when I can hear the band practicing at the high school two blocks away.
–Stopping to organize the books in my neighborhood’s Little Library. I respect books, and I like to make them look appealing to others.
–Arriving back home and standing across the street so I can admire how beautiful the yard looks, thanks to my husband’s care and attention.
–With more thought, I could come up with lots of other simple pleasures that occur throughout the day. I am training myself to see and enjoy each of these moments as they occur.
The Only Way to Live Fully
Living in the Now becomes especially resonant as we age. We realize how quickly these moments pass, and we know that the next moment is not guaranteed to us.
The only thing we can do is to appreciate what we have right now.
As Tolle reminds us, “the present moment is all you ever have. There is never a time in your life that is not ‘this moment.’”
I am grateful to have learned this lesson because it makes aging easier. In the words of Ram Dass, another great Buddhist teacher, all I have to do is just “Be. Here. Now.”
Written by: Ruth Ray Karpen
Ruth Ray Karpen is a retired English professor who now works as a freelance researcher and writer. She has published many books and articles on aging and old age, life story writing, and retirement. She also volunteers for a local animal shelter. In our series on Heart and Soul, she explores how later life, including the end of life, offers unique opportunities for emotional and spiritual growth.
On behalf of Smart Strategies for Successful Living, our sincerest appreciation goes to Ruth Ray Karpen for her contribution to the heart and soul of living and aging.