"May I write words more naked than flesh, stronger than bone, more resilient than sinew, sensitive than nerve." _ Sappho

Sunday, April 29, 2007


The word "age" means, quite simply, "a period of existence." It is one of the more fascinating words in the English language, because it is significantly more complex than it sounds. First of all, it has a curious etymology. Its Latin root is aetus. Its form, aticus, meaning "belonging to" or "proper to," was commonly used as a termination to many words: for example, silvaticus, "of the wood" (silva), and viaticus, "of the way" (via). Later, aticus evolved into the French suffix, age, and silvaticus passed into English as "savage" and viaticus as "voyage." Age became a common suffix in many English words: language, village, marriage, postage, and so on.
Moreover, even though "age" means simply "a period of existence," it refers more broadly to that which characterizes a period of existence. It is particularly interesting when it becomes a verb- to age -for then it means "to grow old." What, we must ask does it mean "to grow old"? "Old," in its Latin root, alo, and in its ancient Germanic form, alt, means- quite surprisingly -"to nourish" and "to bring up."More generally, alo means to strengthen, increase, and advance. It means to become taller and to become deeper. In its root meaning, then, "to age," and to get older, means "to grow up." In view of the etymology of "old," it is fascinating to note that "growing old" has come to mean exactly the opposite of the original meaning of "old": that is, "old" has come to mean worn out, deteriorated, decayed, dilapidated, and no longer useful.
Thus, in plumbing the meaning of the simple but curious word, "age," we come upon a fundamental ambiguity: "To age" means either to decrease, decay, wear out, and become decrepit and discarded or to grow, increase, and become taller and deeper.
It is most provocative that a word as basic to human life as "aging" can mean either of two opposite possibilities: degeneration or growth. It suggests that what is characteristic to the period of existence of a human's lifetime is neither programmed or predictable. It implies that the direction of a human life is not fixed but open.
This fundamental ambiguity reflects an abiding human insight into the uncertainty of aging: A human life can unfold in the direction of decay and steady degeneration, or it can just as well unfold in the direction of growth and increasing strength.
From the layered depths of our language arises the tantalizing suggestion that aging might mean growth rather than decay. This linguistic implication is tightly interlaced with the etymological roots of "aging," almost like the expression of a "collective unconscious" of our 'homo sapien group,' wherein lies a collective insight into the authentic possibilities of human life. This insight has for millennia lain glowing within the heart of our language, awaiting full discovery and confirmation.
We now know enough about expectation and the way it mobilizes our bodies to realize that it is crucial, when we think of aging as a process, to distinguish between the two opposite meanings "to age" - that is, to decay, or to grow. If we think of the coming years of our life as a continuing process of wearing out and becoming decrepit, it is more than likely we shall experience just that. And it is just as likely that a constant, daily expectation of advancement and strengthening will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. So, focus on expecting continued growth!
Expectation is the leading edge of a belief system, and it has the curious feature of being self-justifying. As a leading edge, belief predetermines our future. (I would add in my own words this idea of one's belief system also determines the quality of our life!) It programs what is to come, so that 60 years later one human grimaces at his self-predicated decrepitude, saying, "That is just what I expected": yet another, who also says, "This is just what I expected," smiles and affirms the progress of her life. Both got what they expected. They could not imagine it happening any other way.
Time is the currency spent by life, so we cannot wait 60 years, wondering indecisively what to expect. Sixty years will be too late. As the saying goes, your life is your personal currency, so, invest it wisely...
We see in this situation an extraordinary truth about human life: whether we will degenerate or grow during the course of our lives is a question not of known fact but of expected possibility. Time, as the currency of life, is always futurity; it is not yet spent. How, we expect it to be spent predetermines the plan for its expenditure. Once we realize that the investment we make in our lives is parallel to many other investments, we may adopt a very different attitude about what possibilities we expect for our future years.
I do not think it improper to say that when we invest in life determines how much we get out of it. It is a question of whether we think that our lives are at the very least as important an investment as, for example, real estate or stocks. It is my observation that many humans do not value their personal bodily future as highly as they value the future of their material possessions. Undoubtedly, they get their reward, which is "what they expected." To expand slightly a famous comment on the situation: 'For shall it profit a human being, if that person shall gain the whole world, yet lose their own soul and body?'
However, life need not unfold this way. We now know enough about expectation and the way it mobilizes our bodies to willingly choose the expectation that our conjoint souls and bodies - our "somas" - will "increase," "advance," become "deeper and taller" - partly because they are "nourished" and "brought up" with this happy expectation. The human who knows that her or his being is growing, is a human who usually has the strength and endurance to prevail over defeats, stresses and traumas that occur in each and every life. Such a person knows that the inevitable pains and dysfunctions occurring in the body are not "inevitable signs of degeneration," but typical adjustments that all bodies go through in regulating and readapting themselves with life as it is occuring.
A human who knows aging to be a process of ongoing growth is a human who has the ongoing power to overcome ailments, surmount malaise, and triumph over the worst defeats. Not to countenance defeat, not to accept failure, not to give up, is to drink from the well of life's richest nourishment: the wisdom that, in its depth, life is ever redemptive and rejuvenating.

A Pride In Age

One effect of the myth of aging is that it induces us to despise old age and adulate youth. Worshiping youth is the inverse side of hating advancing age, or as it is appropriate here to emphasize, that of hating becoming "deeper and taller". It is regrettable that this attitude seems to have become steadily more popular, almost directly counter to the recent sudden expansion of our elderly population. Can the word "elderly" begin to be equated with growing into grace and wisdom?
Or is it only that there are more people now who see their advancing years as something ominous and catastrophic, hopelessly yearning for a state of youth that can never again be? Is this yearning so desperate that they will do anything to have at least the semblance of youth, masking (what is dominantly socially associated with) the shameful signs of age, so that at least externally, they seem to give lie to the inescapable fact of aging skin and hair? In other words, skin and hair in which are also inherent, the capacities for growing deeper and better.
Let me say this as emphatically as possible: To despise the fact of aging is not only to despise life but also to betray a pitiful ignorance of the nature of life.
Youth is not a state to be preserved but a state to be transcended. Youth has strength, but it does not have skill, which in the long run, skill is a most potent strength. Youth has speed, however it does not yet have efficiency, and in the long run, efficiency is the most effective way of attaining goals. Youth is quick, and does not deliberate, yet deliberation is the often the best way to make solid decisions. Youth has energy and intelligence, yet not quite the judgment necessary to to make the best use of that energy and intelligence. Judgment that is reflective of life-experience in the end, is more often a true guarantor of intelligent behavior. Youth has beauty of genetic endowment, yet not the deepened beauty of real achievement. Youth has the glow of promise, yet not quite the radiance of accomplishment. Youth is a time of seeding and cultivation, yet not quite the time of fruiting and harvest. Youth is a state of ignorance and innocence, not a state of true knowledge and wisdom. Youth is a state of emptiness awaiting fullness, a state of possibility awaiting actualization, a state of beginning awaiting transcendence.
In short, youth is a state to be released and left behind, as we grow taller, deeper and more full. Unless we understand that life and aging are processes full of growth and progress, we can never know the first principles of living. Nor can we understand what youth is all about: an explosive yearning to grow taller, deeper and more full in the transcendence of oneself. It is by losing this yearning to grow taller, deeper, and more full that we forget the first principles of living and begin to worship a false and superficial image of youthfulness.
The human species, possessed with a brain whose genius is unlimited learning and adaptation, is a species that is genetically designed to age by growing. To not expect to grow is to misunderstand what it means to be human. Not to grow is to fail in the divinely-given task of living a fully human life. To expect the opposite is, in effect, to act against life and its biological promise.
As we move toward a new moment in history when one-quarter of the population will be 65 years or older, we must remind and reeducate ourselves to the full possibilities contained in the entire human life span. In our worship of youth, and in our frantic scramble to falsify our age, we have blindly ignored a growing number of discoveries that can make life and aging a continuing process of growth, achievement, satisfaction, and pleasure. The author's primary concern here is to present scientific and practical information about discoveries that can free us from the fear of aging. Fear of aging is a product of ignorance, and this ignorance is no longer defensible, any more than the myth of aging is defensible. Laboratory and clinical research and Somatic Exercises are the instruments with which we can begin to reverse our traditional superstitions about aging. This reversal can come about, not with more doctors, more hospitals, and more nursing homes, but with more self-conscious, self-regulating, individuals who have educated themselves in the ways of consciously working with the processes of their own lives.
During this epochal upward shift in population, it is not more "hard" technologies that we need. It is new "soft" technologies, such as those we have discussed. The soft technologies are the somatic technologies that teach us internal awareness of our own physiological, psychological, as well as point to the emotional and considerations for the potentials also in our spiritual lives. Somatic Exercises- are not to be read with the "mind," but to be learned through both the body, mind and heart -are a soft technology.
In this age of "software," the "programs" for the machines are more significant than the machines themselves. Computers are totally useless without their programs. It is the right program in the right computer language that unlocks the magic of the cybernetic process. In this same consideration, it is the right method and the right understanding of somatic practice that is the key for unlocking the magic of the human central nervous system, and of keeping it unlocked during the whole of one's life.
Not only is it possible to overcome and avoid the effects of sensory-motor amnesia, it is also possible to have a body and a life that are lasting sources of productivity, satisfaction, and pride. I believe that, more than anything else, it is pride in age that must be restored to our era since to be happy with aging, is to savor age's promise and thereby enjoy its unfolding. Every human being must educate oneself in looking forward to aging as a promise to be fulfilled. If, we are to learn anything from youth, it is just this - that the burning essence of youthfulness is to look forward to aging as a beckoning promise of happiness and fulfillment.
This is the attitude of youth that we must keep from birth through maturity until death, for it is an attitude of positive expectation: to expect the best of our lives and to have the basic somatic skills to guarantee this expectation. Such an attitude and such skills can make for the most extraordinary gerontological event will not be the age shift in the population but the shift in attitude and accomplishment of the elderly, the deeper, the more wise.
I envisage the totally practical possibility of an emerging elderly population with the skills, efficiency, deliberation, judicious use of energy, measured judgment, and real abilities of achievement and accomplishment, to become the most significant portion of the population. Even the briefest reflection tells us that this is obvious: that the most experienced, skilled, and learned portion of our population must be the most reliable leadership, and most impressive abilities. It is my contention that, with the means of avoiding the old-age plague of sensory-motor amnesia, and with a positive expectation that creates pride in age, this event has every likelihood of coming about. The enormous capacity of the human brain almost guarantees that such a shift in the quality of mature human life can occur, once humans master the personal, adaptive skills of consciously learning from the internal processes of their lives.
To say that aging is an adventure is the same as saying that life is an adventure. Indeed, each individual life is the greatest adventure, and together, they are part of the larger adventure_ a life of community evolving on a blue and green planet as it spins its course through a measureless universe. The human race is changing, at the present moment this change is accelerating, and it is charged with the thrill of danger and promise. This is what it often feels like when the currents of futurity gather momentum and move us forward headlong into the future.
We must make our way through this great time of change, expecting that it will be good. We must make our future the way we want it to be_ that is what human freedom is for. If it is true that in the deepest reaches of the human heart, we all live according to myths we may find that, from the ashes of the old myth a new myth of aging is arising: that life is a continuous process of growth and expansion. Consequently in this process, we may discover that the myth of aging has been replaced by another brighter myth.

paraphrased from: Hanna, Thomas. Somatics, Reawakening the Mind's Control of Movement, Flexibility, and Health. pp 88 - 92. Former Director of the Novato Institute for Somatic Research and Training. Cambridge: Perseus Book Group, Da Capo Press, 1988.

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