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Interview: Contemplative Aging


Dr. Edmund Sherman

Contemplative Aging: A Way of Being in Later Life (Gordian Knot Books) offers a critical counterpoint to the activity-oriented image of older age.

In this radiant work, author Edmund Sherman suggests a more spiritual and peaceful way of living in the later years. He takes us on a journey through the timeless literature on contemplative traditions. Drawing on poets, psychologists, philosophers and mystics, he offers a range of contemplative practices to those in their later years.

Dr. Sherman is the author of several books on aging. He is professor emeritus of social welfare at State University of New York at Albany. He is also a Fellow of the Gerontological Society of America.

AHB reached Dr. Sherman in Watervliet, New York.

Ruth Dempsey: As an octogenarian, what are your thoughts on retirement?

Edmund Sherman: Today, I view retirement as a surprisingly complex process rather than a singular life event. It involves a kind of searching of oneself and review of one’s life in terms of their place and meaning.

Most of our young and adult years are engaged in establishing certain social roles and responsibilities, which give us an identity and meaning in life. When many of these roles come to an end in retirement, there is a need to fill the void and re-establish an identity.

The famous expert Erik Erikson talked about the need to find, what he called, an "existential identity." This involves the questions:

"Who am I now?"

"What has been the meaning of my life?"

"What’s next?"

Actually, many older adults do not engage in this life review process, but many do, and I am certainly one of them.

After decades as a professional social worker in public assistance, child welfare, psychiatric social work and later in the field of aging, I had to confront many human problems and dilemmas that often seemed intractable, so I felt a compelling need to find out what it was all about. So, following retirement, I began reading and taking courses in philosophy, from the ancient Greeks to the modern and post-modern philosophers, as well as Eastern and Western thinkers.

Along the way, I discovered a contemplative way of being and set of practices that have provided peace of mind and meaning in late life.

RD: Contemplative aging is not a topic we hear much about. Why did you want to explore the more spiritual aspects of aging?

ES: So much of the popular literature on aging emphasizes the need to stay active physically and socially for as long as possible. That is good and sound advice. However, the problem with an overemphasis on this is that it ignores the crucial importance of mind and spirit in the later years. Cultivating inner resources can help us deal with outer losses like deteriorating health and the loss of loved ones. One way of doing this is by developing a more reflective and contemplative approach to daily life.

There is nothing mysterious about this approach. In fact, there are very down-to-earth and practical ways of cultivating it. Most of these ways have been practiced by ordinary men and women for centuries, in both Eastern and Western cultures, with lasting psychological and spiritual benefits.

RD: A central concept of your book is "gerotranscendence". Where did this idea come from and what does it mean?

ES: Lars Tornstam, a Swedish gerontologist and sociologist, conducted extensive research studies of older persons in Scandinavia. On the basis of his findings he came to the conclusion that human aging – the very process of living into old age -encompasses a general potential toward gerotranscendence. Simply put, gerotranscendence is a shift in one’s overall "take" on life from a materialistic and rational vision to a more cosmic and transcendent one.

This shift includes changes in the way we view life and death. We are less afraid of death. We become less interested in superfluous social interaction and more interested in periods of quiet or meditation. And, we experience an increasing feeling of connection with the larger spirit or energy flow, coursing through the universe. This is often experienced as feelings of communion with oceans, the starry skies and nature, in general. There is also an increased feeling of affinity with past and future generations.

RD: Some experts say people develop a natural interiority as they age . . .

ES: That’s right. The research suggests an increase in interiority as people enter their 60s. As an octogenarian, I can say that was true in my own personal experience, as well.

RD: The shift to a more interior life can sometimes be misunderstood. For example, one 91-year-old nursing home resident complained, "I’ve been called senile. Senility is a convenient peg on which to hang nonconformity."

ES: There is no question that increased interiority can be viewed as a sign of cognitive decline and even senility by younger persons and even some professionals. It may seem non-conformist, but in reality it is part of a natural aging process. In our highly socialized society, however, it is frequently misunderstood and misdiagnosed.

RD: You say contemplation is similar to play. How so? Can you elaborate a bit more on the idea of contemplative happiness?

ES: There is a real similarity to play, and happiness is an important component in contemplation.

In fact, St. Thomas Aquinas concluded contemplation is happiness. Centuries earlier Plato claimed, "The utmost happiness takes the form of contemplation." And Philo, the ancient Jewish philosopher, claimed that the goal of contemplation and wisdom is laughter and play. After all, play is something that is done for its own sake, not for some ulterior motive or practical purpose. When contemplation is done in this spirit, it is very much like play.

RD: The book contains a wide range of contemplative practices. Can you list a few of them for me?

ES: Central to contemplative practice is the concept of mindfulness. This involves being fully present and focused on what you are doing at any given moment, whether you are planting a seed or cleaning a room.

Regular meditation is essential, but in mindfulness meditation it is not necessary for an older person to sit in the difficult lotus position. It is fine to simply sit up straight in a chair with eyes slightly closed and attending to the natural in and out of your breath.

Walking slowly and mindfully step by step or lying down on your back and attending to your breathing are also good meditative practices.

A personal journal can be a very effective vehicle for contemplative practice. Ira Progoff’s intensive journal process, described in At a Journal Workshop is a good meditative approach to journal writing. Indeed, the manual act of writing itself, if done meditatively, is an excellent contemplative practice, and it doesn’t have to be elegant or even good handwriting.

Reading contemplative books, such as Seneca’s classic, On Peace of Mind, or Thoreau’s Walden is also a beneficial practice.

Other forms of contemplative practice can be done in conjunction with art of any kind: paintings, sculpture, music, dance, and so on. This can be just viewing, listening to or actually doing the art form itself. So, painting a beautiful landscape (however inexpertly) can be meditative in its doing.

Many elders become deeply, one can say meditatively, engrossed in gardening. They can become immersed in earth, planting, growth, decay, decomposition and rebirth – all the basic rhythms and processes of nature.

Movement can be another practice. Just moving rhythmically to meditative music is one form, and the gentle and flowing movements of Tai Chi is an age-friendly meditative practice, which is now prevalent in many senior centers.

RD: I was reminded of the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins: "Elected Silence sing to me. And beat upon my whorled ear, Pipe me to pastures still and be the music that I care to hear."

ES: That is a very apt quote. It can be transcendent to silently relax into that still inner space, following the breath or repeating a resonant mantra. Therein lies peace and serenity

RD: What hints do you have for people who want to improve their contemplative practice?

ES: Improvement comes with practice. If a person stays with these practices on a regular basis there is a natural improvement, even though there will be ups and downs.

RD: Finally, what impact has writing this book had on your own life?

ES: I would have to say that it represents a kind of culmination. After years of teaching, research and practice in the field of aging and years of post-retirement study of ancient to post-modern philosophy, plus much contemplation, this book enabled me to write it all down in one place.

I am grateful for that, and I very much hope the book provides other older persons some of the same psychological and spiritual benefits that I have gained.