Maybe old age IS the New Age

A few years back I attended a mindfulness conference at UCLA that featured the likes of Daniel Siegel, Jack Kornfeld and Thich Nhat Hanh.  Yet one of the presenters that has stayed most in my mind was a researcher from Harvard named Sara Lazar.  Her work looking into how the brain changes with yoga and other forms of mindfulness meditation strongly affirmed my intuitive sense that this stuff really helps.

Obviously people have been doing things like praying and engaging in other forms of meditative practice for millennia—and probably since we developed pre-frontal cortices and broke away from Neanderthal into our Homo Sapiens could-be glory.  Yet never has there been so many of us spread around the planet able to talk freely to each other via the web, our newly emerging community which is really a newly emerging way of thinking, connecting and being.

The gist of Sarah’s findings were that the more hours spent in mindfulness practice, the more a layer of brain cells build up that reassuringly buffers the worry brain from the connecting brain.  This fireproof curtain has been dubbed “the insula” by brain-studiers, but whatever we call it, the nature of its development goes against prior brain research that believed that we did nothing but lose brain cells as we age.

The results of mindfulness practice on insula development are cumulative and do not atrophy with non-mediation (it’s a you build it, you get to keep it model), with any gains made serving a person through to the end of their lives.  It also turns out that mindfulness meditation preserves a youthful layer of thickness at the outer layers of the brain, retaining memory—thus yogis and meditators have in some ways the brains of much younger people, further inducement to be quiet and breathe deeply whenever we find a spare moment, as in the market check-out line.

So… the brain starts out as wide open (ready to learn any language, any myth, live in any world really) then it begins to myelinate around ten, which allows for abstract thinking and improved judgment, yet makes the brain less open to new ideas (i.e. to new ways of seeing the world to which it has acclimated).  The capacity for “good judgment” isn’t complete until our twenties, but by the time we’re good safe citizens we’re typically rather conventional in that we’ve conformed to the group (or risk being further excluded from it; if you have no clue you’re “exploring what you want to do” at twenty-four, but even in your own eyes you’re a societal “loser” if you haven’t figured it out at thirty; and if at forty you realize that it was all bullshit and you’re not happy—at least not with the world you’ve been trying to “succeed” in, you’re just having a “mid-life crisis” rather than waking up to something more real and profound).

Then you get to be around fifty and typically people report not caring so much what others think, finding freedom even if we’re no longer “hot” (if we ever were).  From a Darwinian standpoint we’re spent weeds, but his whole survival of the fittest theory seems turbo-charged by his own lack of physical fitness (as did Hitler’s obsession with the ideal body… that lead to a lot of bodies in ovens).

And this sort of thinking has me wondering if, yoga or no yoga, by the time one is fifty one has inevitably spent some requisite amount of time staring out the window and breathing, standing in the shower and thinking about everything and nothing, lying in bed neither awake nor asleep… random mindfulness meditation, so that maybe, just maybe, the insula has naturally and organically developed to the point where we just become more chill.  Even if we’re unhappy, or mildly bitter, it seems we’re more honest about how we feel as we age, and we can start to make real relationships which, over time, say by fifty-five or sixty-five, start to result in a newfound happiness.  Now if we wise-ass old elders actually become more happy, younger people may want to know “what are you taking?”  When it turns out to be blogging, yoga, parenting, gardening, watching paint dry… we might help kids learn mindfulness meditation and begin to cultivate not gen-Why or melancholy-Millenials, but Gen-Chill.  Wouldn’t it be nice?

Now if we think anthropologically, back in the cave day, being “old” would not be a branding problem, a Willy Loman catastrophe or desperate housewife; few people lived to thirty, thus being old must have invariably been special—a sign that either you really knew what you were doing, or that the gods had your back.  Given that few people would have had the opportunity to live long enough to develop an insula, the wise old woman at her potions or the shaman with his cave paintings must have been very inspiring to the skittish youngsters who rarely made it to the point of good judgment at twenty-four or so.  And hey, it takes bad judgment to go chasing mammoths off cliffs, so developmentally, it works for the group to have rebels without a cause, but also a few calm happy people sitting quietly and smelling the flowers, like Ferdinand.

Yet for us parents, especially us yogi, mindful, blogging wise-old-mommies and daddies, what would have been rare back in the Dordogne of 20,000 years ago, or at an “art opening” in Altimira, has become common currency:  we have a world of developmental shamans, witches and high priests… only we’re running around in sweats and running into each other at Target and Starbucks.

So, my clarion call to all you parents north of thirty-five is that the trail doesn’t look so bad up here at fifty—do the yoga, breathe… in this way you speed the plow on your insula development.  Don’t despair, even without Paxil and Prozac, those worry brains may calm down eventually.  Appreciate the worry brain for keeping you alive, and get ready to calmly and confidently Caesar Milan it into relaxing with your higher brain (Whole lotta whisperin’ goin’ on).

Maybe I’ll give Sara a call and see if she thinks this is interesting, but either way, take it from a non-Harvard branded, non-high-profiled regular old parent, one who has neither published nor perished, that YOU are a fellow wise-old-woman, a fellow master in a cave who’s working together to crack the code of why we’re here:  and maybe the answer is just to be here, and love.

At the collective level, we are technologically connected, but we are also living long enough as a group to get old enough to have a lot of relatively calm minds connecting with each other.  Maybe the elusive and sketchy “new age” is really all about the mind as it matures toward old age… perhaps toward the consciousness of no-time, no-age.  Sex, drugs, rock & roll can (and sometimes do) bring good feelings, but unfortunately they do not last.  Mindfulness, it turns out, is truly a path to good feelings that do last; parenting, if we surrender to it as a sort of yoga, is in and of itself a potential path to happiness and good feelings that last.  That parenting is a path to happiness is my central idea (and readers know that I mean a parenting attitude toward the world, not just having kids).

So, if you’re worried—breathe in love, breathe out fear and desire… and do so deeply; and if you’re happy and have a little love to spare, breathe in worry and breathe out love to all the worried—and to all our collective children.

Namaste, Bruce

10 Responses to “Maybe old age IS the New Age”

  1. BigLittleWolf Says:

    This is funny, and wise. Love your assorted references. And I particularly like the concept of the “build it and get to keep it model.” That’s definitely a shift in paradigm.

  2. Alana Says:

    As a parent north of 35 on the mindfulness path, it’s nice to hear there are even greater benefits. My mommy brain could sure use a boost.

  3. Lindsey M Nelson Says:

    I’ve always been looking forward to being 50, and this just sweetens the deal 🙂

  4. privilegeofparenting Says:

    I always looked forward to being older too, but the “wisdom” is in wanting to be the age we simply are… it just takes many of us a good long time to get there. Thus if you can want to be the age you are now, you time travel to the feeling of fifty. Maybe what we’re after is really a state of mind and not a measurable metric… and maybe part of that is feeling both our unique selves and also connected. Blogging seems to be part of that dream coming into being… at least for me.

  5. 35and2 Says:

    Hi, You may or may not be interested in following my blog. It’s about being a 35 year old mother of two small children. I just started it (to-day!) and I have some questions about just how candid you can be when you are addressing what is essentially an unlimited and unknown audience. Not that I have anything THAT exciting going on…I am going to follow you, this is good stuff , keep up the good work!

  6. privilegeofparenting Says:

    Welcome to this brave new world. Thanks for visiting and I wish you all the best in discovering things and meeting kindred spirits in your blog-venture.

  7. conniedelavergne Says:

    Very nice post. I feel better about aging already. I am now ready to shower, meditate and exercise and though that may not be the most practical ordering of tasks, I didn’t do two of the three yesterday and am feeling compelled, or repelled as the case may be, to do so now. If only I could stop reading . . .

  8. privilegeofparenting Says:

    No rush, I say… to myself (as I rush off to the next thing). I write to remind myself as much as to inspire us to all calm down and enjoy the ride. Thanks for taking the time to comment—I’m off to try and follow my own counsel.

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