It’s a good age, and I am glad to be 65… though it is a time for reviewing and perhaps re-evaluating. No time for illusions, that’s for sure. I think the best year of my life, the standout one, was 60 (yes, 60!) and yet this last five years has been like the space between adolescence and adulthood. Different and stronger, a bit more considered in my responses to people. At 35 I was probably unbearable, but then I was comparatively an infant.
Erik Erikson would have it that 65 is the last year of middle adulthood, the stage of “generation vs stagnation”, and older age is 65 to death, the stage of “ego integrity vs despair”. Well, actually, given our system of counting birthdays, I completed my 65th year yesterday and so am starting my 66th today. So, a sense of being successful brings a feeling of wisdom, and otherwise despair? Erikson’s is not quite the focus of Yoga, but let me come to that later.
I’m told I was an unusual child – with a gifted IQ, particularly in the area of conceptualisation and verbal skills, and was interested in people and interesting to them. When I was about 5, my parents ran a boarding house in a seedy area for a wealthy landowner. A variety of people sojourned a while and moved on, from a young policeman, whose motorbike windshield broke when the bike fell while I was playing on it after being told not to – I ran and hid behind the curtains – to prostitutes who hired a room until my mum finally worked out what they wanted it for. She herself was so overworked that she left me exposed to them all, and I suppose early on my experience of people was quite broad. And there was a “particularly nice” man who befriended me and took me on little excursions and let me play in his room… how could my mother have been so naive!!!!
Adults had not fazed me when I was a small child, and I liked them in middle childhood, too, when we had shifted to our own home in Melbourne’s then unformed outer north. Playing with children was fun, marbles with the boys in the muddy unmade roads, and hop-scotch with the girls at school. And I liked the people who came through my parents’ house for the many parties and fundraising events they hosted for our church community. There was nothing holy joe about the neighbourhood people, they were down to earth blue collar workers, most of them. I was always encouraged to speak my mind, and I suppose that entertained them. And I suppose it stimulated my mind, even though none of them was educated. It seems I conceptualised beyond what was expected of the other children, and I had already got the reputation of being “a bit different”. I enjoyed my Catholic schooling, too, as I had a predilection for spiritual enquiry and my mind liked what I regarded for a long time as theological enquiry. I didn’t realise until later that its agenda was dogmatic mental shaping.
I discovered my naked body – I saw it in a mirror when I was still unselfconscious – and found it to be beautiful. I rapidly developed a bad rash of Religious Scruples, though, and began a long and severe period of repression. And so my intelligent mind turned against me… my emotional life as well as my sexual urges became intellectualised and dry. There is always a penalty for repression. I did not know how to enjoy being myself anymore, and so study became a task that other people wanted from me, I did not aspire to anything for myself, and the shift into university life was beset by many constrictions. And I discovered that I had come from a disadvanted background. Curious, that – until then I just assumed that our life and our neighbourhood was what everyone had. A moment of history, too… one Saturday morning in 1963, my mother came to my room in tears, crying “They’ve killed President Kennedy!” The flash-bulb memory that is never filtered.
And so I was delivered into adulthood, with high spiritual principles and an enquiring mind, though all shrunken by the dry intellectualism that represses spontaneity. I think, despite my intellectualised emotions, I probably met Erikson’s notions of creating positive change during this stage of life. The demands of marriage and two little children finally pricked the bubble of religiosity, and for a while there was the despair of disillusionment and depression. But that also broke down the rigid guidelines by which I had made so many decisions. I began to explore life in a way that would have shocked the nuns of my schooldays, and I developed quite leftist political views. Well, to a point, anyway. Really, I developed a clear view on social justice. And I returned to study, in a more vocational way than my adolescent Arts degree. My children grew up as I was growing up, which was both good for them and very difficult for them. They grew up with liberal views on life and relationships. At the same time, I did not shake off a certain intellectualised way of relating to them until much recently. We didn’t hug nearly enough. Ah, but at 65, I’m a great mum! At 34 the biggest positive change in my life was that I discovered the spiritual path that Yoga offers, I began to meditate, I explored with fascination the different philosophical basis of Eastern ideas of self and realtiy, and I accepted my guru. And life turned for the better.
Erikson judges this to be the age between 40 to 65… As it happens with many others, I find, at 40 I took Yoga teacher training. While I just fell into university, office work, marriage, motherhood, and market research, becoming a Yoga teacher was the first thing I really wanted to do. And it was significant in another way, too… all through those earlier years, I had a sort of feeling that, so long as I didn’t choose anything, I had the option of everything. It was very irrational and dysfunctional. The humble step of Yoga teacher training was like walking out of the maze of what I should do, could do, might do, into the sunlight of what I wanted to do and actually did. The training was all about asana, which wasn’t enough. But my training in the authentic Yoga which came from the traditional ashram community, and from the discipline of sitting with my guru – not easy, believe me! – was so rich, so transformative, so deeply contenting, that perhaps I was a fairly good Yoga teacher, anyway. A bit of my brashness began to be chipped away.
And the last few years of my middle adulthood brought me to sannyas, through the astonishing benevolence of my guru. Hard to say in a few words how that has affected me. I think grace, or shakti, has been at work, because I find that there seems to be less of me in I. Does that make sense? Whereas the young Janet (yes, that’s what I was called) liked people, the older Mataji loves them. While the young mum fiercely loved her children, the old swami is contented to let her children be themselves, not demanding that they be an extension of her. She loves them with a hugging, affectionate, feeling sort of love, not mediated by intellectualism.
The path that nurtured me into relinquishing need-based relationships, and self-identity through relationships, freed me to be myself once again.
So now I enter the stage that Erikson calls maturity, 65 through to death. How would Erikson categorise my evaluation? I feel fit and strong, even though the inevitable deficits of ageing make themselves apparent. I enjoy my mind, my living breathing body, and the daily life of achieving some things and not others; I enjoy those that love me and those who are indifferent to me… the vagaries of the human mind are endlessly interesting. Life’s good and growing old is satisfying.
And today, 16th May 2013, in Melbourne, Australia, I have just loved this wintry wet chilly May day. It is the weather that has accompanied so many of my birthdays that it would not really feel like a birthday without it. Cheers!