The reprinting of this book several years after its first publication gives me a chance to add a few new thoughts. I have to smile when I look back at the subtitle of this book: “A Personal Guide to Life after Thirty-Five.” Few today would think of midlife as starting at thirty-five, but in the early eighties publishers controlled titles. Of course, the subtitle isn’t completely wrong. We can begin reflecting on the aging process at just about any age. These twenty-four contemplations strike me as being just as timely today as they were a quarter-century ago. The topics are drawn in part from the lived experiences of persons I interviewed for my first book on aging: Aging as a Spiritual Journey. These elders spent much of their lives as professionals in churches or academic institutions connected with religion. The themes they explored rose from long personal reflection.
Major world religions portray their meditative and mystical traditions as the bedrock of spirituality. We see this not only in Christianity but also in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. Modern brain study shows how meditation affects mind and body in ways we didn’t understand in the past. The topics in this book may seem too ordinary to be linked with mystical experience, yet, if we study famous mystics like Rumi and St. Francis, we find that they engage with the most common aspects of life: nature, friendship, forgiveness, humor, suffering, and celebration. Like my interviewees, the greatest mystics immerse themselves in the complexities of ordinary experience. They don’t oversimplify our tangled encounters with life and death. For this reason, great contemplatives are often outstanding poets. They challenge the status quo, urging us to break through our personal and cultural limitations. This is how contemplation can be a foundation for improving our ethical engagement in and with the world.
I was introduced to meditation in the Jesuit order, but, as I recount in my memoir (Taking a Long Road Home, 2011), I returned to the practice at a more mature time of life through Buddhist meditative practice. The East brought me back to my Western contemplative roots. I tell people that we are all potential mystics. Today we understand better how our minds and brains are coded for contemplative experience. Think of it in terms of artistic, musical, literary, and even scientific experiences. Many new personal-growth movements since the end of World War II have expanded the value and practice of contemplation. In our time, meditation has traveled from monasteries to the psychological mainstream. In this small volume, I adapt contemplative imagery and techniques, such as contact with the breath, to help people move into guided meditations.
Although this book was written in the early eighties, its themes seem to be even more appropriate to our new century. Modern science and technology are pushing us to ever quicker contacts across a virtually-shrinking earth. The jargon of the “global village” has become an unavoidable reality. The dark side of these developments is our growing potential for violence in weapons and ideologies; contemplative insight and practice can help us to heal our destructive tendencies and move us toward personal and collective peace. Our main calling as we age is to bring the best of this mystic spirit into the world.
Eugene C. Bianchi
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