In connection with my upcoming book MEN AGING WELL I have created a contemplative inquiry which I call Every Breath, New Chances as a way for men (or women) to move beneath the surface of thinking about aging to the “subterranean river” of emotion and intuition where the deeper changes and transformations of growing older actually happen. The name of the inquiry, “Every Breath, New Chances” points out that while we may imagine that our waking self is a fixed, static entity, in reality we are changing all the time. Every breath is a chance to re-invent ourselves anew. This renewal is particularly important when we consider our own aging process, which seems to be a fixed, irrevocable fact about ourselves that we cannot fundamentally change. With each new birthday we think “Okay, I’m sixty four now, next year I’ll be sixty five. That’s just how it is.”
But the thought “I am sixty four” (or whatever age you are) is just a construct, a mechanical counting of birthdays. In truth there are many “ages” simultaneously alive within you. There is some aspect of you that is six years old, for example, whenever a memory from that time surfaces in memory with all of its associated images and feelings. There is a deeply unconscious aspect of you that hovers over the moment of your death, in the sense that we all have, all of the time, some level of awareness that one day we will die. Then there is your present-day age, which can fluctuate hour by hour, day by day, depending on how you feel, physically and emotionally.
For example, when you fall ill with the cold or flu, you are bedridden and have no energy. You languish in bed, bored, probably depressed, and maybe a little anxious. There is the irrational thought, “Suppose I never get better?” When I was 52 I was struck down by a life-threatening brain infection and after emerging from coma spent two months bedridden in a rehab hospital. I sometimes refer to that time as the time I “felt like I was ninety years old.”
Every Breath, New Chances is a method to dive beneath these surface intimations of aging. It begins by sitting quietly somewhere where you can be undistracted. It helps not to visit any “screens”—your laptop, Ipad, smartphone, or similar device—for an hour before. Once you have cleared your mind of all distractions, bring a single word to mind—for example the word “aging.” Let that word float lightly in consciousness, like a buoy on water. You can repeat the word silently every so often. It may help to add an image to the word. It could be an image that is familiar to you, like seeing your graying hair in the mirror—any image that conveys “aging” to you. Let the word “aging” and the image fade in and out of your attention as other thoughts come and go. Note what other words or images come into your mind.
What you are actually doing is evoking the faculty of intuition. Intuition is like a largely invisible room or compartment inside our mind that scans and responds to the environment (including our thinking) looking for helpful cues and associations. It seems to be in an older part of the brain than the cortex—older than thinking and reason. For a long time intuition was neglected by psychologists as an uninteresting or unimportant faculty. It was also assumed—by men—as something associated with women, hence the term “women’s intuition.” Recently intuition is being more rigorously studied by scientists. One of their conclusions is that men and women are equally capable of intuitive responses, though men may be less conscious of those responses.
Aging is partly personal, and partly archetypal or transpersonal. What this means, simply put, is that every creature, every form of life, every human being ages; it is a universal process. But each of us has our own way of experiencing that process. The “every breath, new chances” contemplative inquiry invokes intuition as a way to connect directly with both the personal and transpersonal aspects of aging.
In my next post I will continue my discussion of this contemplative practice, the insights that can emerge from doing it, and how it can help you connect to the “subterranean river” of aging. Stay tuned!