“In youth we learn, in age we understand” wrote Marie vin Ebner-Eschenbach. Now that I’ve achieved the revered status of an ‘elder’ in today’s society I feel that I should be able to understand so much more than I actually do. After all, what was the heartache and angst, highs and lows, successes and failures about if not to help me learn and understand more about myself?
In some respects I have learnt a lot. I’ve come to appreciate the role I have played in all the conflicts that peppered my adolescence and beyond, I’ve accepted my shortcomings as a parent and been grateful I’ve learnt from my children how to be a better mother. From my grandchildren I’ve learnt the power of the imagination and the restorative powers of play. I know what my body can take and how it is affected by stress and fatigue, and understand what I need to do to stay healthy. I also know that there is no need to constantly try to improve myself because, actually, I’m fine the way I am and all I need to do is become more of who I am, not change myself into someone else. So why do I still get ill? Why do I still push myself beyond what I know is healthy for me? Why, when I intend to live with soul-felt desires, am I so infrequently the person I want to be?
I suppose it’s to do with the slight misalignment between logical thought and emotional reaction; I can intellectually know something to be true but emotionally feel quite differently about it. For example, I know it makes sense to cull animals when their species is outstripping resources to sustain them, but my emotional response to this is that it’s wrong, that there must be a better way to resolve the problems of overcrowding and food chain imbalances. Being retired and living alone logically provides the perfect opportunity to slow down, take a breath and do nothing for a while, but emotionally I’m still trying to cram everything into whatever time I have left.
Very occasionally we have ‘light bulb’ moments when the knowledge we are given illuminates our understanding of something and we are never the same again. I have been struggling with the why? why? why? of being ill again, despite all my good intentions and careful planning. I can berate myself with the best of them and had been angry about not been able to control my drivenness and for not being a calm, serene person, as if that was my true nature, who I really am. Then the light bulb shone and I realised that I have made lots of assumptions based on other’s ideas about what our ‘perfect state’ is. I’ve assumed that it is tranquil and enlightened like Buddha, or self-sacrificing like Christ or Mother Theresa, but what if it isn’t? What if my perfect state is one full of action, not one of silence and serenity? Like Yin and Yang, we each have our place in the wide scheme of life.
When I lived in Nepal I came across lots of travelling contemplative Buddhist nuns and monks. They dressed in saffron or maroon robes, wandered round with begging bowls and only owned what could be carried in a small canvas bag slung over their shoulder. They sat in prayer under trees or by the side of the road and relied on the generosity of people in the villages to feed them. I used to wonder ‘What if everyone went off to live the reclusive life? Who would be left to do the planting and harvesting of food? The preparation and cooking? Weaving cloth to make robes?’ In monasteries there are people to perform these tasks but the ‘purer’ life of enlightened contemplation actually relies heavily on the fact that only a few make it to that state and that there are plenty of the less enlightened to carry the burden of work.
To become more the person I really am is to accept that I am a driven individual and that without this drive I would never have done what I have done or achieved the amount I have. Suddenly the path is clearer, the understanding of how to proceed is filtering through and wisdom, so long in coming, may be just around the corner.