On Faith: Entering into a new stage of life

Turning 60 provides a special opportunity for spiritual growth. The milestone birthdays — whether sweet 16, of-age 21, over-the-hill 30 or a centenarian at 100 — naturally invite age-specific reflections about life, a summing up of what has been learned so far and a fine-tuning of aspirations for the future.

Each age of life brings its own challenges and satisfactions. In the Hindu tradition, a child's first eating of solid food is ritualized, as is the first hair cutting and the other amazingly rapid developmental steps occurring in the first year of life.

The "terrible twos," "adolescent identity crisis," "midlife crisis, "middle-aged" and "empty nest" are familiar terms that underscore common experiences in our life journey. According to the developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, I am now in the stage of life described as "old age."

Erikson viewed the human life cycle in eight stages: infancy, early childhood, play age, school age, adolescence, young adulthood, adulthood and old age. Gerontologists added "young-old age" (60 to 74), "middle-old age" (75 to 85) and "old-old age" (86 and older) to further refine this long and varied 35+ year season.

Is it true that "age is a matter of mind: if you don't mind, it doesn't matter?"

Birthdays remind us of when we were born, but they also remind us that we will die. The older we are, the longer the alarm rings. According to the online government Social Security calculator, my life expectancy is 85 years and 3 months. If I am average, I still may have 25 years left, but 60 are definitely behind me.

I checked a few "real age" or "health age" calculators and, despite a sedentary lifestyle, weight management problems, and parents who died before 65, I am surprised to find I am 52 in biological age and have a life expectancy of 91! Yet deaths that come at 70 are considered well within the natural order of things and an average or expectancy is no guarantee.

I don't plan to retire as long as physical and mental health permits. As a pastoral counselor and Zen teacher, I believe my best years are still ahead of me. My spiritual mentors were in their 70s when I studied with them, and they continued to work very productively well into their 80s. What plans can I make for the smooth transition of the Zen Center and my counseling practice?

At the very least, I want to leave "my effects" in good order when I die. For me, this means going through filing cabinets and reducing paper by at least half. My "Upon my Death" file needs to be reviewed and updated. I want to clear out items stored in closets and keep my household simple.

But what about spiritual baggage? In our 50s, we can see the shape our life has taken, which may include successes and satisfactions, but also mistakes and disappointments. Our response will shape our senior years. Will my life experiences result in greater wisdom and compassion, or will I become sad and bitter?

Will my concerns be self-centered — my comfort, my achievements, my safety — or will my interests continue to broaden to the community, to service to others, to a caring about humanity and future generations? Am I comfortable walking around all the rooms of my "interior house" or are some rooms off-limits? Is there unfinished business? Should I reexamine my philosophy of life and my interpretations of my experiences?

The senior years can be a time for the spiritual journey to begin or to intensify. Carl Jung said that the spiritual life begins at 40, when some of the tasks of young adulthood have been accomplished. From the vantage point of 60, 70 or 80, a life review can be a powerful tool in appreciating one's journey, healing scars and developing wisdom.

Churches, temples, senior centers, health providers and other professionals can offer resources and support for spiritual growth for seniors.

In Zen, we try to appreciate each day, each moment, without the distortion of past concerns or future worries. But it takes awareness of the attitudes we have developed, the views which have hardened, and the life story we have created to be free of them. A poem by the Chinese Zen teacher Wu-men's clearly describes it:

Spring comes with flowers, autumn with the moon

Summer with breeze, winter with snow

If your mind is not clouded by unnecessary things,

That is your best season.

DEBORAH BARRETT is a Zen teacher, minister and counselor at the Zen Center of Orange County in Costa Mesa. She teaches comparative religion at Cal State Fullerton.

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