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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Contemplative Gerontology

We tried a contemplative exercise on age identity in my Embodiment in Later Life seminar a few weeks ago.

I asked students to stand in front of their desks in a circle.
Then to be still, eyes closed, feet firmly planted on the earth but body as relaxed as possible.
Then, in an unforced way, to begin breathing, sending their breaths down into their bellies and then gently back up through their nostrils.
And, after awhile, I invited them to begin silently counting their breaths…1, 2, 3…

And, after twenty or so breaths, I posed the question: “What age are you right now at this moment, standing still, breathing deeply”?

After a few minutes of silent reflection upon this question, we opened our eyes, sat down, and engaged in a round-table discussion about our experiences.

Some of the questions we explored:

Where does age reside?

In the absence of and in addition to the concept and structure of chronological age, in what ways do we categorize ourselves and others as an aging person?

In the absence of social feedback – signals from others – how do we know what age we are, that we are aging?

In the absence of embodied feedback – signals from our bodies that we’ve come to associate with aging and age – how do we know what age we are, that we are aging?

What can we describe about the phenomenon of aging, of growing older, from an experiential standpoint? What is our capacity for using words to describe our experiences? When we reach the edge of our capacity to put experience into words, what are other modes for expressing our experiences?

Some of the insights we shared:

The profound lack of solidity of the inter-related phenomena of age and aging and being old. They are concepts, they are experiences, they are social structures, and yet, in the stillness of breathing, eyes closed, they are without form and substance.

The paradox of the simultaneous experience of disembodied, timeless consciousness, on the one hand, and the embodied mind, the materiality and time-bound nature of consciousness, on the other hand.

The extent to which our experiences traveling through the life course are shaped by social constructions: about the nature and passage of time; the meaning of chronology; phases and stages of the life course; what we expect to do, and when (and what society expects us to do, and when).

And the stories we tell to ourselves and others about our embodied selves.

What stories do you tell about your embodied self?

When you stand still, feet firmly planted on the ground, body relaxed, eyes closed and your gentle attention resting on your breath, what age are you?

2 comments:

Charles Macknee, MA said...

Hi Jenny, David & All,

Don't know if this site is open to alumni, but gee, I can't resist!

Love this exercise. I wonder how it would go over with elders who are chronologically 80, 90 years old...Have you tried it outside the classroom yet?

To me personally, age is purely a social construction...even more so in the absence of "social and/or embodied feedback." I am currently studying the social construction of Alzheimer's disease and other mental health labeling.

I don't know what the elders I have known, cared for, and supported would say about this. My guess is that once the body/mind starts to disintegrate and acute awareness of impending death happens, the "soul" energy of the person starts preparing for the next plane of existence. All earthly concerns, both material and conceptual, become increasingly irrelevant. This may be especially true for elders who are considered "demented."

I am still focused on the daunting task of how we as a society might improve the elder's QoL prior to death, and in the process hopefully improve all our QoLs?

Perhaps this effort will result in assisting/enabling many of us to better achieve the (usual?) late life task of preparing for what comes next.

I believe Butler's LIFE REVIEW is key to this effort. More and more others seem to be sharing this opinion.

Thanks again for setting up this site. I will return often to see what you are up to!

~Charlie Macknee (MAIS)

tinyE said...

We're doing some cool, brave work around aging and identity in my class this week. We are attempting to identify ourselves without using our social roles as context. Who are we without the identities we've taken on as parents, children, partners, citizens, employees, students, etc.? And what about these roles ties our lives together from day to day? It has been an inspiring week as we seek to grasp who we are, as you say... breathing in and breathing out...without so much attachment.
I don't want to let go of my roles, or my embodied self, or my history, I just want to make sure the self I feel in those unguarded, unmitigated, unlabeled moments is the same person inhabiting all of those people I think I am, or try to be.
--erica