Age And Life Stage In Spiritual Development
Aging does not inevitably bring spiritual development, but aging and the cultural concepts of what is appropriate or expected in later life stages do alter the conditions of life in ways that can heighten awareness of spiritual needs and can stimulate interest in a spiritual journey. Of course, physical aging and mental aging are not unitary phenomena. Different individuals can experience quite different age patterns in terms of what changes occur, at what age, and at what rate. Differences in genes, environment, society, and culture combine to produce a staggering variety of individual experiences of physical and mental aging.
Popular stereotypes of aging portray it as a process of decline, but for most people, at least prior to age eighty, aging is a relatively neutral balance of gains and losses that is experienced as a gentle slowing down that allows them to maintain their preferred lifestyle.
What does change significantly is interest in an inner journey. Numerous scholars have observed that middle and later life involve an experience of increasingly transcendent aspects of inner life (Alexander et al.; Erikson et al.; Thomas). Achenbaum and Orwoll tied the development of wisdom to an increasingly transcendent attitude toward oneself, toward relationships with others, and toward worldly aims. As age increases, many people perceive themselves as having increasingly transcendent attitudes. They take more delight in their inner world, are less fearful of death, and feel a greater connection to the entire universe (Tornstam; Atchley).
A study of active spiritual seekers among a representative sample of people born during the baby boom found that 62 percent of active seekers were middle-aged or older, and most felt that ‘‘People have God within them, so churches aren’t really necessary’’ (Moody and Carroll, pp. 133–134). These findings affirm the ancient wisdom among groups as diverse as the Navajo and the Jewish cabalists that a person must be age forty to begin serious spiritual study. Many spiritual traditions assign special significance to age or life stage in terms of increased receptivity to spiritual development.
Social aging is mainly an experience of release from the heavy responsibilities of midlife. Launching one’s children into adulthood and retirement are seldom experienced as life crises; instead, they are experienced as newfound freedom, and many elders use this freedom as an opportunity for increased spiritual reflection. As age increases, many individuals live an increasingly quiet lifestyle conducive to contemplation.
By late middle age, most adults have long since discovered that the modern prescriptions for life meaning—materialism and social achievement—do not meet the needs of the soul. In later adulthood, many people find that their attention shifts from competition toward affiliation and from self-centeredness toward generativity—care and concern for younger generations. By late middle age most adults have struggled with the challenge to life meaning that can come with the death of people with whom they had close personal relationships. If materialism, social achievement, and social relationships are not predictable sources of meaning in life, what is? This type of meaning question is more common and becomes more salient as people move into the last half of life (Moody and Cole). The lack of reliable social answers to meaning questions can be a powerful impetus for an inner, experiential quest for meaning—for a spiritual journey.
Although a large proportion of aging adults report being on a spiritual journey, by no means do all aging people follow this pattern. Some have a philosophy of life based on everyday humanistic principles, and see little need for spiritual or religious validation. They feel no call toward a spiritual journey but are nevertheless vital and involved. Others are so stuck in their habits of thinking and behaving that there is little chance for the kind of openness that is a prerequisite for a spiritual journey.
Evidence that spiritual growth is common in later life includes gradual increases with age in the prevalence of self-acceptance and perceptions of one’s life as having integrity; service to others, especially community service and providing long-term care to family and friends; and interest in the young. This information comes from studies of earlier cohorts who have passed through the stages of later life. With their exposure to the recent heightened cultural interest in spirituality, upcoming cohorts of elders may be even more interested in spiritual journeys as a focal point of later life.
Increased perceptions of life meaning and integrity, service to others, and generativity all require an attitude of transcendence and a measure of selflessness. They suggest that growing older can represent a return home to the silence from which one came, and that on the way home, a nonpersonal state of consciousness may be gradually uncovered by conditions common in later life: a quiet mind, a simplified daily life, and a let-be attitude toward the world. The deepening spirituality of later life is often subtle and nondeliberate; it may occur naturally and spontaneously as a result of the physical, mental, and social processes of aging. Thibault described the conditions under which many people experience aging as a ‘‘natural monastery.’’
ROBERT C. ATCHLEY
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