The Ripening of the Soul: Thoughts on Aging

Printed in the Fall 2016  issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Bull, James L., "Levels of Awakening" Quest 104.4 (Fall 2016): pg. 112-113

By James L. Bull

James BullFor many years I believed that retirement was only a sad commentary on the unpleasantness of most work. After all, if work is an unpleasant necessity and to be avoided, as it is for many, then why not seek relief at every opportunity? Weekends are to the work week as vacation is to the year, as retirement is to a life’s work. The assumption is that leisure is what’s enjoyable and work is the price one pays to get it. The solution, of course, is to have not just a job but a satisfying life’s work, thereby blurring the distinction between work and nonwork.

Now in my early eighties, I’m no longer working, but I’ve found that being active as a volunteer satisfies needs that were there all along. Energy and output may not decline much, but there may be a qualitative shift that comes with age. On a deep level a shift may occur which sends reverberations to the surface that influence the course of my life. Parallel to the natural physical changes and declines, there may be a spiritual shift which is its own developmental stage, a period of reflection and deepening.

Of this the commercial world has no clue. From that point of view, aging is some sort of malady. A recent magazine cover announces that there is a “cure for aging.” Is aging a disease? Another magazine reports on an “anti-aging’’ medication. Is aging an adversary, to be fought? Of course, it is fought in countless ways, from face lifts to sexual potency enhancers. This oppositional attitude parallels other struggles against natural phenomena to be conquered or overcome, such as the wilderness. But aging, if engaged consciously and without a disabling fear of death, may open the door to a deepening of appreciation and an enhanced capacity for reflection, made possible by having more of life to remember.

To enjoy these benefits, we first need to loosen our grip on some of the skills that served us so well earlier, including rationality, linear thinking, necessity, and precision—all those left-brain qualities. Intuitive skills may now be more important, and with this softening process, we may discover vulnerability within us. The strength required to be vulnerable is more appropriate to age, just as the strength to be tough serves the young and ambitious. The deeper, more appreciative qualities that may now emerge are not as well expressed with words; when words are used, poetry probably works best.

None of this means that we leave the world of necessity and responsibility. We still pay the bills and keep the car running. But we may be able to choose more consciously between the world of adoration and the world of necessity. I was reminded of this distinction on a recent camping trip. While fixing dinner, I paused to appreciate—and to praise and pray in thanksgiving for—the setting sun and the clouds illuminated by it. But soon I was pulled back to the ‘‘necessities”—checking a pot, adding more wood to the fire.

I’m not suggesting that the perspective of necessity is any less important than that of appreciation; they are complementary. They are the two modes of attention that we carry through this life. They are the content and context of life. Because we are normally only aware of the content of our daily lives, we may naturally overlook the context in which it all takes place. Earlier in life, it may not have been useful to spend as much time in reflection. Now we can allow ourselves to drop down, away from the necessary and toward the essential, closer to the soul. There, there may be moments of nonduality, of recognition: not everything is content; there is a surrounding meaning, or context, in which all takes place. Life has meaning; we are not here by accident; there are no accidents.

In order to give ourselves to the surrender of awe and wonder, we need to be well-grounded in the first place. To be insufficiently grounded in this life, and in our bodies, is unhealthy. I have often had the impression that some mentally ill persons are not well-grounded in their bodies—not fully located here. But once we are fully grounded —and reasonably secure —we may allow ourselves a reverential pause. How absolutely natural that we should become completely absorbed in the details of this life! We are provided with the combination of extraordinary sensory equipment and equally rich experiential potential—and a world to match. We are placed in a world of such richness, how could we not been enraptured by it all—longing, sadness, taste, laughter, beauty! It can be thought of as a sort of divine joke: we are dropped into a life so inviting that we become caught up entirely, Spirit chuckling all the while. Perhaps it is useful for us not to see this life in its full context while we are living it. This way, we are allowed to focus on our present situation without distraction.

Nevertheless, as I grow older I get more of a sense of hidden meanings. Our inner task is to stay aware, to sense the context, to be in touch with who we really are and who we were all along.

Otherwise, we might be swept away and lose the self.

Kierkegaard understood the tragedy of those who live their lives “outside of themselves.” In Either/Or he writes:

And this is the pitiful thing to one who contemplates human life, that so many live on in a quiet state of perdition; they outlive themselves, not in the sense that the content of life is successively unfolding and now is possessed in this expanded state, but they live their lives, as it were, outside of themselves, they vanish like shadows, their immortal soul is blown away.

The context of this life may be far more subtle than the immediate content; it is usually sensed intuitively; it may seem elusive and more a matter of revelation than verification. It is everything we sense that surrounds this life and makes it possible, the aura of meaning and mystery which encloses all we know. Although there are effective methods for tapping into this realm, such as meditation and prayer, the maxim seems to apply that “this thing we tell of can never be found by seeking, yet only seekers find it.”

In a recent workshop, poet Robert Bly referred to a poem by Kabir that reads in part:

We sense that there is some sort of spirit that loves
       birds and animals and the ants—
perhaps the same one who gave a radiance to you
       n your mother’ s womb.
Is it logical you would be walking around entirely 
       orphaned now?

In this workshop, Bly used the poem as a point of departure to ask the question, “What did you know before you were born?” I wrote: ·

What we knew before we were born is like one of Rilke’s sealed letters, an epistle we carry through life in our bodies. Perhaps we dare to peek, tearing back the envelope at one comer, seeing a word or two. Rarely would we read the whole thing. Perhaps when we are old, the paper yellowed and brittle, we may find the courage to open, to read, to weep.

What could it be that I carried with me always, but never knew? What I knew before I was born might literally be whatever I learned in my mother’s womb, plus whatever I brought to this life before that. But in a larger, more metaphorical sense, this question asks that I pause to consider the context of this life. As I grow older, my birth and death (the two most important events of my life) may begin to come together. (As Shakespeare wrote, “This little life is rounded with a sleep.’’) If there is a part of me that transcends my birth and death—call it the soul—I can stay in touch with it along the way.

The idea that we brought something with us to this life is not a new one. It is described excellently by James Hillman, who asserts, “Each person enters the world called.” He continues,

The soul of each of us is given a unique daimon before we were born, and it has selected an image or pattern that we live on earth. This soul-companion, the daimon, guides us here; in the process of arrival, however, we forget all that took place and believe that we come empty into this world. The daimon remembers what is in your image and belongs to your pattern. And therefore your daimon is the carrier of your destiny.

Clearly Hillman believes we were loved before we were born:

Despite this invisible caring, we prefer to imagine ourselves thrown naked into the world, utterly vulnerable and fundamentally alone. It is easier to accept the story of heroic self-made development than the story that you may well be loved by this guiding providence, that you are needed for what you bring, and that you are sometimes fortuitously helped by it in situations of distress.

We are born into situations and families that give us opportunities to work out issues that require our attention. This may not be easy: the son of the macho father goes on to become a ballet dancer; the maternally overprotected child finds assertiveness and learns to be bold. So there may be a great deal, on a deep level, that we knew before we were born. Our lives take place on the surface of a very deep sea. As I grow older, I sense that all is not forgotten. The accidents of my life dissolve into purposes; the purposes become harder to explain, and explanation matters less and less.

James L. Bull, Ph.D., first learned about Theosophy from his mother, Evelyn Bull, who had a number of articles and poems published in The American Theosophist. Now a retired psychologist, he remains active as a hospice volunteer.


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