Aging Well

Aging Well

Know yourself: Wisdom practices that can help you weather the crises that come with aging

Posted May 16, 2019 8:23 a.m. EDT
Updated November 29, 2019 8:58 a.m. EST

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Recently, while leafing through a decade or two of past journals, I kept running across quotes I had copied from various books I was reading at the time, all having to do with becoming familiar with your own thoughts and mind.

“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom." - Aristotle

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” - Socrates

"Knowing others is intelligence, knowing yourself is true wisdom." Lao Tzu

"While we may not be able to control all that happens to us, we can control what happens in us." - Ben Franklin

From the classics to Christianity, Buddhism to Zen, psychologists to poets to presidents, this simple truth, conveyed through the lenses of different speakers, is a constant message.

Some kernel of myself has been writing its variations in the daily journal I have kept, more or less, for over thirty years. For periods, in an attempt to become more familiar with my mind, I’ve tried to honestly pen my thoughts. Unfortunately, that method has usually fallen by the wayside within days or weeks, sometimes months.

And this, in spite of the fact that nineteen years ago, when I found myself mired in severe postpartum depression after my firstborn, one of the things my physician prescribed (in San Francisco) was a daily mindfulness practice. She said becoming intimately familiar with one’s own mind could help me see that emotions pass, rather than diving down the rabbit hole of negative thinking.

Duke Integrative Medicine, after seeing the mounting evidence that a daily mindfulness practice can physically change the brain in as little as six to eight weeks (as demonstrated using MRIs), began offering the 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979

In other words, not only spiritual practices throughout time and the words of wise elders, but even western medicine now promotes the demonstrated benefit of knowing oneself and one's mind.

This year, finally, when a close friend (and Dean of the Nicholas School at Duke) Toddi Steelman shared the benefits she had experienced through daily meditation via an app called Headspace, I downloaded it and plugged in.

Today marks six months of daily practice, 396 sessions, with an average duration of 6 minutes. Some days I listen to no more than a single meditation first thing in the morning that lasts just three minutes. Other days, when either my external world or my internal one presents many provocations, I listen to as many as ten. The app (and there are at least a dozen good ones) offers hundreds of meditations and series based on different themes. The app tracks your history, too.

Recently, as Toddi and I were paging through our respective Headspace histories, we chuckled over the weeks rife with meditation themes like “Transforming anger” or “Difficult Conversations” or “Feeling Overwhelmed” versus those with meditations on “Kindness,” “Listening to Others,” and “Relationships.”

This field test of mine has brought home the age-old lesson in how my mind changes over weeks, days or even hours. Something that feels unbearable in the morning can shift by midday. Sometimes I can trace a clear line between something that happens and then how I feel. Other times, I can't.

Knowing that so many of my clients and their families struggle with their internal emotional landscape--with good reason, I offer this as a tool. It’s not the quick fix I wanted during the many times I tried it on a short-term basis over the last thirty years, but with persistence—and research bears this out—I am here to tell you, it truly can help even out the ups and downs that come with any life and any set of circumstances. If nothing else, perhaps it's worth a try?