The Most Important Key to Healthy Aging

In my recent post, 4 Ways to Embrace Aging, I offered five hints but should have offered a sixth. What’s most important when growing older, I believe, is to treat the body with compassion.

There is a temptation to micro-manage our physical forms as they age. Cosmetic surgery, anti-aging creams, hair-growth formulas, erectile drugs, and innumerable other interventions promise to halt, reverse, or compensate for deterioration. Their massive market success is testament to how we resist growing older, how we struggle to hold time at bay.

From one perspective, steps to slow the aging process make sense. It is surely a good idea to eat well, exercise regularly, stretch out the muscles, and maintain sleep hygiene. In later years we do well to eliminate destructive habits and reduce stress. The wise person lives as healthfully as possible.

But from another perspective, striving to stay young sets us in opposition to Nature. The battle against aging must be lost sooner or later, so why battle at all? Why not just treat our bodies with kindness, support them as best we can, but grant them the freedom to follow their inevitable trajectories without criticizing or feeling ashamed of them?

Compassion is key to feeling satisfied during later years: compassion for our companions and their struggles, compassion for our own foibles and difficulties, but most of all compassion for our physical forms. This organism that is the human body deserves affection and appreciation for the way it tries so hard, the way it does so much to support our personalities on this journey of Life. Such gratitude for our own biology nurtures feelings of rootedness in the world, feelings of belonging to an ecosphere that is vast, ancient, and luminous.


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The Most Important Key to Healthy Aging — 9 Comments

  1. Thanks my wise and humble friend. Self compassion for me is very difficult, the likelihood is to move on to self degradation, negative ego. I know these things but it seems the only way I ever change is little repetitive positive choices. Grand revelations are nice, but will fade away.

  2. Craig–

    I agree. Grand revelations tend to fade away. When first encountered they fade so quickly as to mock the peace that comes with them. But with repeated reaching toward these higher states, they begin to feel more stable and more accessible. The changing quality of consciousness remains as present as ever, but the dominant hues of the shifting scene, or the dominant themes of the ongoing composition, gradually change. Where there were once mainly dark obscurations and oppressive chords, one begins to experience longer moments of clarity and and lighter interludes.

    This slow, arduous work of building a better mental environment proceeds exactly like you say: through the repetition of little positive choices. The choice to forgive; the choice to forget; the choice to not ruminate; the choice to relate to life as if it were a power of great beauty, subtlety, and love. Which, one finds, is exactly what life becomes when it is so approached.

    Self-compassion isn’t always the easiest place to start. I began by feeling compassion for my dogs. Then compassion for my wife who, although sometimes a person who frustrates me, is always someone I trust. Then I worked toward feeling compassion toward those I see around me, whom perhaps I barely know, but who are clearly suffering. Thence to feeling it toward the ones who have harmed me, about whom I know enough to understand why they acted so destructively. Finally, I can begin to feel compassion for those who’ve caused harm even when there is no explanation I can find.

    After all that work to feel compassion for others, I can then begin to turn the same sense of context and history driving behavior toward my own life and difficulties. My own poor choices. I see myself as a product of conditioning that may well stretch back generations.

    It all gets lighter, more humorous and free. But even at my best I alternate. The grandness still fades away regularly, but it takes longer to do so, and remains absent for shorter times.

    This is my current experience of this work and its fruits.

    Thank you for the conversation. It helps me to work this through.



  3. Lady Quixote–

    Self-compassion takes a long time in part because it properly only works well once we’ve found compassion for others. That’s a big job, as my note to Craig on this thread describes. But it is, as you say, ‘huge.’ Whenever we find it, we benefit. We begin to feel like we have failed, and more like we have done our best in the face of huge historical forces and personal conditioning that placed us in difficult straits.

    Thanks for the insight.


  4. Thanks Will,

    So many of us “Boomers” need advise, counsel, support, inspiration with aging issues. You remind me that I do have some “choice” how to relate/integrate/embrace this inevitable aging process. Thanks for sharing, teaching and reminding me of my daily freedom of choice.

    I have been suffering from depression symptoms of late and find myself ruminating with negative self talk, past failures, hopelessness, focus on physical pain in back, hip, feet, knees. Nasty negative space! Reading your blog reminded me of my power and freedom of choice. On this Monday morning, start of new week of work, I choose not to ruminate in negativity. Reading your Blog is a good start to chose a different neuro path in my mind. I can feel hope and positive choice returning already!! How about that! I never know what spark of thought, idea, or support shared will inspire my spirit/mind to find strength to choose change. I have lived this depression dance for so many years, that I am gaining a strong faith that my melancholy/depression will certainly pass if I continue the “repetition of little positive changes.” I plan to continue my seeking of “grand revelations” as well. Most of my “grand revelations” come in ordinary life when my mind/soul is open to see, feel, internalize. This morning my grand revelation is simply to get up again, start another day, read your blog, comment, take some moments to breath, meditate, hug/kiss my wife, and once again realize “this too shall pass” and today I do have choice and power to change my perception, thoughts and feelings. It helps to know I am not alone and feel supported by friends. Craig is me, I am Craig. We are brothers in suffering, healing, and support!

    Thanks – your Blog is the spark needed on this dreary foggy Monday morning!! I choose to see through the fog into the sure to come sunlight.

  5. Dave–

    I’m so glad the writing helps you. As has happened over and over since this blog began, I’ve lately been feeling as if it isn’t worth continuing. But if it reaches others, and if it helps me, too, how much sense would it make to quit?

    With regard to depression, it always does lighten in time, like you say. However, as I’ve been lately influenced by books about ‘Focusing’ (that I’ve been reading in exploration of my new teaching direction), I’m now working on allowing the depression to linger. To let it have its say rather than always hoping for its departure. There is a kindness, an inner compassion, that arises with this approach. It feels healing. The depression that lives in the sphere of the body (as opposed to the thoughts about it that live in the sphere of language), is a consequence of a great deal of history. It isn’t my fault. It isn’t my responsibility. It simply IS.

    Remember early in the movie, Wild, where the man who helped Cheryl Strayed early on says something like: “there never were any forks in my road”? That’s the way life actually unfolds for most of us. The biggest decisions aren’t thought through, they just happen. We may find reasons for them in our thoughts, but they have momentum all their own. I look at how my life turned out and find it hard to imagine things going much differently. Sure, I can think of better choices, but I can’t envision the person I was then actually making them. The person I was made the choices he made, and I can both understand and forgive him for it.

    We’re all part of a much bigger story. My life, your life, everyone’s life, are just tiny parts in a vast play of time and circumstance. I didn’t choose my upbringing; I didn’t choose my neurochemistry. Yet the effects of both, more than any personally constructed flaw, determined my trajectory through time and space. I can let go of blame and, what’s most important, I can live at ease with the consequences of my past choices. That includes, necessarily, the consequential depression. With that ease depression no longer torments. It just becomes another stage in life, one I can move through–when able–with curiosity and affection rather than aversion.

    Thanks so much for your honesty and openness.

    Your Friend,


  6. Dave, in a very real way I feel closer to you in our recent emails and through Will’s blog than when I was in California. I think of sunshine when I picture you, not fog. The sunlight is pretty much always there, just above the fog. There is a chapter recommended to me, “The Gift of Depression,” in a book by Thomas Moore titled “Dark Nights of the Soul.” The theme of it and of what Will is saying seems to be that depression is not something to be avoided, but recognized as transitional, not “cured” but experienced and appreciated. Believe me, I can not often get there. It is not at all easy, but when I can slow down enough it helps. The suturnine disposition has its place. Take care, Dave, and you, too, Will.

  7. I thought of Isaac B. Singer’s famous quote, “We must believe in free will – we have no choice.” Despite what has happened to us, historical forces, our lineage, place and time of birth,etc. – all affecting us but given, as you, Will, so much more eloquently say. What we have is a moment by moment choice to accept, forgive and create, and I think it is more about letting than doing. Letting is the courage to let go and have the brilliant unknowable shine through in creation, to trust that all is more than OK, that it is just fine. I ask for strength to let it be, that’s where the fun is.

  8. Craig–

    Beautifully said:

    Letting is the courage to let go and have the brilliant unknowable shine through in creation, to trust that all is more than OK, that it is just fine. I ask for strength to let it be, that’s where the fun is.

    Thank you,