Aging body, unchanging spirit
Andrew Weil, M.D., a graduate of Harvard Medical School, serves as director of the Program in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona, and is the author of Spontaneous Healing, Eight Weeks to Optimum Health, among other bestsellers. In his latest book, Healthy Aging, Weil encourages readers to embrace, rather than deny or fight, the aging process (and explains why he believes so-called “anti-aging” products do not work anyway).
In this interview he talks about the spiritual virtues of aging, why no one should be afraid of getting older, the benefits of meditation, and how he feels about his famous white beard.
You write that aging can be “a catalyst for spiritual growth.” How?
In the book, I used an example of the legend of the Buddha’s enlightenment. When he was the young prince Siddhartha, he was kept by his father in a fantasy palace where he wasn’t supposed to see anything that suggested aging and death or anything unpleasant. Then he goes out of the palace and the first thing he sees is an old man. Subsequently, he sees a corpse, a sick man, and a monk — these four sights or visitations are what really stimulated him on the path of enlightenment. So I think there is a way in which awareness and mortality and aging are certainly the most powerful reminders that we’re moving in that direction; it can be a profound spiritual awakening.
I also quoted Carl Jung, who said that he thought that the major focus of the second half of life should be mortality and that anything that took away from that was in the direction of not being mentally healthy. I think in our society we see so much denial of aging and ways that people try to pretend to themselves that aging is not happening and I worry about that being a not-healthy direction. I think a common correlation we see as people become older is that they have greater interest in things spiritual or non-physical.
What do you think is at the heart of our fear of aging?
I think the root is the fear of death, which is the great mystery; it’s what we don’t understand and I think that’s really why people turn to religion, turn to spiritual paths, to come to grips with mortality. And aging is a constant reminder that we’re moving in that direction. So I think that’s the root fear. Then on top of that, I think there are more specific fears: the fear of losing independence, losing pleasure in life, things of that sort.
How can we overcome these fears?
Well, I think by facing them squarely and being honest about them, that’s the first step. It is very helpful to seek out people who are examples of healthy aging and see what they have to teach us. Information is a very powerful antidote to fear, having truthful information.
In terms of spirituality, are there particular things that people can do?
Well, I think there are a lot of things that people can do to attend to their spiritual health and well-being. Some of the suggestions I’ve made over the years include bringing fresh flowers into your house, listening to music that elevates your spirits, reading spiritual literature-inspirational literature that has that effect, seeking out the company of people in whose presence you feel more elevated, spending more time in nature. I think there is an endless list of what people can do.
On a personal level, what does aging mean to you? Is it something you look forward to?
Well, I certainly am not going to deny the aging process. I really want to think about its challenges, particularly how I want to spend my last years, and I’m in discussion with some contemporaries. We’ve had a lot of thoughts about trying to custom-design some kind of living facility for ourselves in which we all have our private spaces but will be able to do some things communally. That’s one example of some ways I’m thinking.
Your beard is such an iconic part of your image, and you write that you have no interest in dyeing it. Do you think of it as a way to keep you mindful of the aging process?
I think so. I started getting white in my beard long ago, I think maybe in my late 30s, the first gray hairs showed up in it so it’s something I’ve lived with and watched for a long time. But I rather like the way it is now. It’s a white beard — I think it gives me more authority, and I think a lot of people look at me as a Santa Claus figure. That’s fine with me.
You write about many things that become better with age. Can you share an example?
I had a lot of fun writing about that since I hadn’t seen it in print before. The examples I used were whiskey, wine, cheese, trees, violins, antiques. If you look at whiskey, aging of whiskey smoothes out rawness and greenness, it adds depth and complexity and smoothness, it adds flavors, it concentrates what’s desirable. At the same time, there is the evaporation of what’s less consequential and I think it’s fairly easy to see analogies in human life with that process. Aging can increase value by concentrating what is most worthy and by allowing what’s inconsequential to dissipate. It can smooth out roughness, add depth of character, so I just find it a useful exercise to think what aging brings out in these other areas of our experience that makes us willing to pay more money for old versions.
So you would recommend that people concerned about aging should explore these positive aspects?
Absolutely. I think in this culture especially, we are so programmed to see aging as a catastrophe and to look only at the negatives and I think it would be extremely helpful if we could look for the positive aspects as well. And I think it’s exactly these positive qualities for which elders are revered in other cultures, in many traditional cultures. I think we’ve just got way off the beam here.
A few weeks ago I had lunch with a scientist-a very hardcore scientist who surprised me by saying that he was 80. I would have guessed his age at 62, so he was doing it very well. He said that one of the qualities that he had observed in himself that had gotten better with age was pattern recognition. When something new came by, he was better able to recognize it and know how to deal with it. And the reason he said was obviously that he’s got more stored in his memories, so when something happens, he’s got more against which to compare it. Therefore, he knows how to maneuver through the world better than he did when he was younger. That’s just an example of something that gets better with age that we just don’t hear discussed.
You make a distinction between age-related diseases and the natural aging process.
Absolutely. The main question that I tackled in writing Healthy Aging was, is age-related disease synonymous with aging? Does getting old necessarily mean getting sick? And I think the answer clearly is ‘no’. It is possible to reduce the risk and delay the onset of age-related disease so the goal is to live long and well and then have a rapid drop-off at the end.
Many consumers are seduced by the claims of anti-aging products. What do you hope your own products, through Origins, can do for people?
The products I develop for Origins are emphatically not anti-aging products. They’re not represented that way, they’re not sold that way. These are anti-inflammatory products that can improve the health and the resistance of the skin and thereby its appearance.
I have developed products for several reasons: First, I had to identify needs in the marketplace for them and I think with skin products, there clearly was a need. Second, Origins is a company that I feel very philosophically aligned with. We have the same ideas about nature and health. Third, and most important, I wanted to find a way to develop a revenue stream to support integrative medicine education, which is really my mission. So the way that I’ve set all of this up is that I don’t get profits from these products; my profits go to a foundation which is giving grants to institutions that are doing integrative medicine education, so it’s a kind of Paul Newman model.
Can you tell us about your own spiritual path?
I was raised in a Reform Jewish household. I did not find that that really answered my spiritual hunger and needs.
How old were you when you figured that out?
I think in my teens, and then when I was 17, I traveled around the world. I went to a great international school and I lived with native families in many countries and I think that really gave me a great interest in other cultures. It got me very interested in Asian culture and I began being interested in Eastern religion, which certainly got me interested in meditation. I would say if there’s any body of philosophy that I’m drawn to, it’s Buddhist philosophy, although not necessarily Buddhism as a religion or as an institutional system.
How has meditation helped you?
I have had a meditation practice for a very long time. I still find it hard but in looking back, I think meditation has, first of all, really helped stabilize my moods. I think it has also increased my concentration and made it easier for me to be more mindful in all the things that I do in daily life and I think it’s made me more aware of my non-physical self.
One of the questions that I ask readers in the book is to think about the part of you that does not change as you get older. On some level, I feel the same now at 63 as I did when I was six, and I’m curious about that. What is that unchanging part of ourselves? I think that’s spirit.
You mention prayer a couple of times in the book, but don’t really get into it very much. Do you think prayer can help people in the same way that meditation does?
I think it can. I generally make a distinction between spirituality and religion, and my advice is mostly in what I would call the spiritual realm. Because prayer is more associated with religious practice, I don’t discuss as much, but I think it certainly can serve that function.
I’ve also been very interested in the use of mantra, which occurs in many spiritual and religious traditions-repetition of sacred syllables or phrases as a way of centering the mind.
You don’t believe in stress “reduction”.
Right, because I think that stress is really a constant of human life, and I also think it’s a mistake to imagine we have a corner on it in the modern Western world. I think that at any time you live, life is stressful. The forms may change from age to age and culture to culture, but what we can do is learn ways of managing stress or protecting our bodies and minds from its most harmful effects. So I think that’s better called stress management.
Do you find that one reason people are attracted to alternative health practices is because they feel more empowered by these approaches than they do with mainstream Western medicine?
I couldn’t agree more with that. This is something I’ve been saying for a long time, and it represents a social-cultural change. People want to be more in charge of their own lives and destinies, and they’re not willing to be passive recipients of authoritarian care in medicine. We see this in other areas of society as well, so I think this is an underlying change in world psyche.
I think one of the real secrets of happiness and success in life is to understand that while we can’t control what happens to us, we can control how we react to events.
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