My previous blog stimulated me into thinking about the process of aging. It seems that the moment we are born, we start inching towards our death. The two monumental events of our life, the two poles of our existence – our birth and our death – are separated by the continuum called life. The two events are like the bounded ends of a string, and the elegant string, to use Brian Green’s term, produces the harmony of life. However, it seems as we move away from the birth end of the string, as we seem to come closer to death, our psyche uses more and more avoidant and dissociative strategies to keep the existential awareness of death and dying deeply repressed. For a large majority of people, the closer they get to death, the more they are dissociated and distracted away from the process of aging also. And I often wonder why. What is it that prevents us from accepting our aging process gracefully? Why is there this quest for youth? Why do some of us want to always look younger than our age, to the extent that we would accept painting layers of color on our faces in the name of make up? Why would we accept self mutilation in the form of plastic surgery? Is there a cultural component that promotes or fuels such an aversion to aging process? Is there a developmental piece to it?
In keeping with all my writings, this piece arose in my psyche thru personal experience – as the consequence of a recent encounter with an acquaintance of mine. A kind and warm gentleman (not a client) in his mid sixties, has fuelled this thought process. This is a man who has lived, and loved gracefully, and achieved most of what he probably had aspired to achieve. He has made a mark on the world in his own ways, he has beautiful children, successfully placed in their careers, married to good people. He has wonderful grandchildren. He has a beautiful home, in an upmarket suburb of a large metropolitan. He has been terribly in love with his wife of more than thirty-five years who succumbed to a terminal disease couple of years ago. He insisted that he was done grieving 6 mos ago, and strove to prove it immersing himself into the rigors of life so rigorously that I had to wonder what was going on. He underwent plastic surgery, took flying lessons, bungee jumped, and what has concerned me the most, hooked up with a bunch of women, some half his age, from across the world. I felt drawn into understanding him, and how the death of his wife may have probably compounded the fear of his own vulnerability to death, especially since I am pretty sure this was not his usual style of living prior to his wife’s death. To my amazement, these efforts of his have been applauded by his children, and by others which led me to observing how the world wants us to disrespect the process of aging, and helps us in disavowing an acceptance of our limitations. In the process we are deprived of the introspection and the introversion that such a process ought to encourage. Be that as may, this piece isn’t about his analysis, I merely provided this background as a context against which my thinking was stimulated.
We all know that everyone carries a deep, inborn fear of annihilation, of caesing to exist. It is innate, the cause of existential anxiety. This fear comes more and more into awareness as the body ages. When there is a loss of a close relationship at an advanced age, say at an age beyond 45 or 50, the psyche is rudely awakened to a new reality. First of all the loss triggers the emotions of emptiness, abandonment and betrayal. The self feels alone after a long long time, and a sense of resentment and injustice must creep up. This wasn’t supposed to happen. In some ways the event is like any other severely traumatic event in which the sense of self, and self existence is severely threatened. It spawnes off a process that is anomolous to PTSD – flashbacks, feelings of deaths and dying, dissociation, derealization, scenes of impending doom, a sense of reduced faith in the world, a sense of time either stretching forever, or of flying by, vividness of memories, or some degree of amnesia about the immediate past, impaired ability to look outward into the future, rage, anger, irritability, depression, panic, etc etc etc. One may look up these symptoms in any DSM, and the feelings arising out of partners death would probably mirror all of them. And hence the strategies that evolve out of thus traumatised psyche are probably the same that arise in a psyche traumatised by PTSD. They are simply experienced, and expressed differently, but its the same wine in new bottles.
In parallel to these feelings of abandonment and betrayal, there must also arise in the psyche, the realization and awareness of our own vulnerability to death and annihilation. As someone has said: When you look into the abyss, the abyss looks back at you. The departed is spared the experience, but we who are left behind recognize the painful reality of death much more poignantly than the departed. It’s a strange paradox – the dying person experiences, but cannot witness his own death. The people who are left behind witness the death, but cannot experience it. The gap between the two states of knowing – the cognitive understanding of death, and the actual experience of death– is filled with uncertainty, unknowability and helplessness, all of these being prime ingredients for terror.
The psyche prefers predictive validity. It cannot survive in an unpredictable environment. All unpredictability is terror inducing. Our abilities of learning are but compensatory defenses that serve to alleviate, or minimize the terror. Uncertain environments bring the primal anxiety – the survival anxiety – to the forefront. In witnessing the death of a loved one, in some ways we must all unconsciously be tapping into and reconnecting with the terror of our own birthing process, and our experience of it. That terror, felt inwardly, is probably is projected onto death, which in fact may (or may not) be exactly a transformational process of equal significance. In witnessing the death of the loved one, we must also be tapping into those very primal feelings of vulnerability and abandonment that we experienced at birth, otherwise, never having lived thru death, how could be know or fathom what death is? Why would we be so terrified?
Since the processing needed to manage birthing trauma is beyond the abilities of the infant, it is tucked away at the innermost kernel of the unconscious mind. It is integrated into the soma and the body carries these traumatic memories in the stead of the mind. Dr Stanislav Grof, an eminent Jungian Analyst, has developed a technique where he helps people access the birthing trauma, and helps them process it through breathwork. When I compared his work with the tenets of Eastern philosophical schools, I came across the Hindu belief that since breath carries the burdens of life, any meditations pertaining to breath will trigger memories of life. Indeed I have found this to be true in my own practice, especially with severe disorders. A casual sentence like “breathe deep” may push a person with schizophrenia into hallucinations tha are reminiscent of their past, or a person with dissociative disorder may begin having flashbacks. There are specific types of meditations that allow people to access, re-experience and express bottled up parts of themselves, including the birthing process. The expression of this trauma from the body enables a feeling of lightness, and bliss.
The above digression was meant to provide a context that enables an understanding of how trauma may be somatically hidden in the body, continuously accessible to the unconscious. It is possible that these unconscious processes are triggered in witnessing death. The annihilation anxiety is not only about our own death, it is probably complemented by the unconscious memories of the metaphorical death and subsequent transformation of the fetus, as it emerges into the human world. In witnessing death, we are also witnessing our own birth, and reliving all the uncertainty, unknowability, helplessness and terror that was associated with it in our infancy. Although we are crying for the departed, and the memories of the time we spent with them, at the same time and on another level we are experiencing these feelings of love and loss thru the pre-existing filters of our own lost love, and the lost security of the womb. But for the unconscious memories of the birthing process, death wouldn’t be half as frightening perhaps.
Thus, it seems to me that our understanding of death comes not from the experience of dying, which we can never really capture, but from the experience of watching someone die, and dead. It comes from watching someone struggle at the threshold that joins the two worlds. The experience of dying seems to parallel the newborn infants experiences with birth, for the infant – through extreme pain and trauma – abandons a confinement and emerges into a newer, more freedom oriented reality, than it had been used to. Such a afterworld is entirely possible, of course, because nature seems to have only a few notes that it playes repetitively and patterns of existence repeat themselves at all levels of existence. But as stated above, it is also entirely possible that our views of death (even after-life) are unconsciously shaped by the memories of our own birth, or our birthing process. Our view of afterlife would then be based on the understanding, experience or imagination and hope that we had held for our life on earth. That would make afterlife a wish fulfillment fantasy, wouldn’t it? Well, I did say we lived in a sea of projections, and it is impossible to know what the external reality is really like! Any intelligent and analytical mind has an obligation, and always carries the burden of throwing a backward glance, and question where there beliefs MAY stem from. We will, of course, never know for sure.
In life, we are attached to the body, we derive our identity from it, and hence loss of the body creates a void, an identity-less existence. This struggle between death and identity has been beautifully captured by a contemporary philosopher John Perry who has written very insightful material on the nature of personal identity and how the self could be either attached to the body, or to the mind, and what death in each case may look and feel like.
Given the terror of death, experienced thru the filters of birth, as we have discussed, what is the psyche to do when faced with such extreme conditions of distress ? The problems and the knowledge pertaining to death is beyond the understanding of human mind. Just like the problems pertaining to the sexual or other abuse is beyond the understanding of a little child. And just like a child’s psyche cannot deal with trauma that exceeds the child’s understading and meaning making capability, the adults psyche cannot deal with the existential death anxiety in any meaningful way. So just like a traumatized child’s psyche will conjure up defensive strategies to minimize, negate, repress, or avoid in whatsoever way, the awareness of trauma, an adult psyche does the same. The strategies too, are pretty similar. A traumatized child may pretend that the distress does not exist, or the parent is not abusive, for example. An adult too, pretends that death is not creeping up, that age is not an issue, that he or she is still younger than they are, and they try to hide away the traces of age by makeup, plastic surgery, or ridiculously flambouyant dresses that would be more befitting a 20 year old than the 80 year old. It is as if by negating age, they are trying to wish away their age. But it is, of course, a mere delusion. The process of aging cannot be wished away, it cannot be reversed, or even halted. The adult psyche forgoes an understanding of the aging process, and the wisdom arising out of such understanding. Perhaps that is the reason why there is so little written, or known about the process. Even the aging psychologists and experts – with the exception of Jung – would rather be thinking, and writing about the infants and children.
As an alternate strategy, an extremely traumatized child may fantasize about an imaginary friend to escape the reality. An adult will fantasize about an imaginary friend as well, except in their case, the friend takes the form of a partner. Someone who can take their mind off of the existing debilitating anxiety pertaining to their perceived annihilation. As such, as the degree of death anxiety increases, men and women look at other women and men as an escape route, hoping their partner, or the act of sex, will rescue them from their painful and distressful anxiety. Sex – because it is an act of procreation – must provide a perfect compensation for death anxiety. Perhaps that is why people trapped in the middle of distressful and life threatening situations sometimes report a heightened responsiveness to sexual stimulation. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why war has historically been linked with sexual excesses.
Or perhaps the psyche clamors to be associated with youth for vicarious living, as if the ambrosia of youth would rub off on the age and erase a part of that advancing age. Perhaps the psychic strategy is a combination of all three, and some other strategies, in varying degrees. Perhaps this explains the behavior of the millionaire oil tycoon and then husband of Anna Nicole Smith, J Howard Marshall who, at 80 something, dated and then married the 18 year old nymphet he met at a tittybar.
People can also turn towards other addictions as a compensation strategy, addiction being the foremost among these. Gambling and alcohol are common – one has only to visit the casinos to see how a significant number of elderly man and women spend their time avoiding the future. Religion, meditation and spirituality also represent addictive phenomenon, even though we may not acknowledge it as such. I had argued this position in a paper titled “The Shared World of Religion, Meditation, Alcohol, Drugs and Sex” that I presented at the Annual Conference of Transpersonal Psychology last year. However, addictions such as religious devotion, meditation, worship etc are in the service of healthy self awareness, and hence do not become labeled as addictions. In essence they are just mere addictions as well, operating from the same psychic base.
There are cultural pieces I wish to add, and developmental aspects, of course. For example, age is synonomous with power and wisdom in some areas of the world. And aging is a matter of a necessary regret, but also a matter of enormous pride. Why these societies would negotiate this journey different, and what the underlying tenets of such thinking are, well, in the interest of brevity, we must keep that thought for another day, for another blog, else this discussion would become too long, and complex. And the psyche prefers complexity to be presented in bite sized pieces. So I must close this writing with a suggestion that may help the reader explore their own mortality, their own fear of death. Next time you look into the mirror and are tempted to dress, or present in a way so you can hide your natural looks, ask yourself these question and listen to the answers that arise in the psyche : What is that makes you willing to trade the immense wisdom of age, with the ignorance of youth? What is the underlying feeling? What is the image that flashes in front of you, if any? What, if anything, keeps you from psychologically moving forward in time? What does it mean to you to acknowledge your age? Since people often say “You don’t look your age,” what would it mean if someone said “You look your age, and more?” Would it offend? And why? Interesting questions. More interesting answers.
In the end I would like to reinforce that there isn’t a right or wrong way of living. There is nothing wrong per se when we engage our bodies thru plastic surgery or make-up. However, there is always benefits in analysing why we choose to do anythingm why we live and behave a certain way. And choices made of out of such awareness are conscious choices, whereas choices made out of following the collective fashions of the society, or from the whims of our mind just mean that we are letting the dark, mysterious and irrational unconscious dictate our everyday life. There is a place for that, I must admit, as in the world of art, dreams, literature, music etc, but the most wonderful life arises when ego and Self are aligned in the same direction – towards conscious awareness.