Meditation and ‘knowing ourselves in a deeper way’ can reduce our anxieties and fears about getting old, and increase our acceptance.
IN 1981, Timothy Sweeney returned from a long meditation retreat and told his mother, with whom he had a “very difficult” relationship, that he would have to discontinue it, if she didn’t change.
His mother was 65 and had, he says, a “lot of unfinished business, emotional baggage”, and had pain from spinal surgery.
Sweeney, then 27, and his mother were living in California. She decided to do a ten-day meditation retreat with Jack Kornfield.
“She was still herself, the Jewish mother — pushing all my buttons — but she started to make an effort, to take a look at herself.”
Sweeney’s mother didn’t stop there: “She did more retreats and she started practising mindfulness meditation for a half hour to 45 minutes daily, from then onwards — for almost 20 years. When she died, aged 83, she was a completely different person. Her life just shifted and she ended up, in her 70s, making a mindfulness manual for nursing homes and she taught a six-week course.”
Kerry-based Sweeney, 60, is an experienced mindfulness teacher, and tells his story to illustrate that it’s never too late to “stop and pay attention” to your life; it’s in the context of research into the benefits, for older people, of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR).
While mindfulness dates back thousands of years as a practice rooted in Buddhism, it was pioneered by US molecular biologist, Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn, in 1979. He introduced it to mainstream medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
Since then, his eight-week MBSR programme has been taught across the West. There have been numerous studies suggesting the benefits of the practice for older people, benefits for the heart, blood pressure, brain, mood and pain management.
Recent studies, including one at the Shambhala Mountain retreat in Northern Colorado, suggest meditation may delay ageing by slowing the erosion of telomeres, the protective caps at the end of chromosomes that act like a clock that limits our lifespan. Whatever the claims, there seems little doubt that meditation, practised regularly, reduces stress, which is destructive to our health at any age.
Dingle-based meditation teacher Eva Bruha says older people are drawn to the scientific research that measure its benefits.
“Around 50% of participants on my courses are over 50. Many people start meditation at that stage, because they feel some sort of dissatisfaction with their lives — there is something lacking in spiritual nourishment. Others don’t feel this — they are overburdened by illness, or depression, or have anxiety about the ageing process.
“It’s important to know that mindfulness is a process of getting to know ourselves in a deeper way. Older people usually say to me ‘I wish I had learnt that earlier and that it should be taught in schools’.”
Sweeney, who has been practising different forms of meditation for 39 years, says letting go of habits that don’t contribute to wellbeing slows ageing. “In a group of elderly people, when you bring awareness to their bodies and to their breathing, something happens — there is a shift away from being obsessed in the mind with the stories.”
But it is the same for everybody — young or old — and you have to be willing to go there in the first place, like his mother did in her mid-60s. In that context, you must be open to observing, to being with your five senses and your mind and heart, in the moment, he says.
As part of Sweeney’s involvement in a study with the regional hospital in Limerick, using MBSR with patients in pain, although their physical pain didn’t change, their sense of wellbeing did.In our older years, we can be faced with mental, physical, and emotional challenges; with fewer life distractions we can become more fearful, which, in turn, affects our health.
“The level of fear is always there,” says Sweeney. “But when the body starts to go, or you look different, the fear can become overwhelming, because it’s never been addressed — the rumination with particular stories has deepened by then.”
Becoming mindful can be healing — “the potential for clearing and focus and learning — to let go of painful things, to be in a place of more ease”.
Just like his mother experienced.
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