Positive Aging

Equanimity is the Key to Aging Well

Equanimity is the Key to Aging Well: Man peeling back gray sky to reveal sunlit blue skies.

By Michel C. Patterson

I’ve come to suspect that the mental state of “equanimity” is the key to aging well.

No matter how hard I try to stay fit and slow the aging process, time and fortune will eventually erode my physical abilities, subject me to increased discomfort, and shrink my world. My happiness and quality of life, therefore, will depend more on my mental attitude than on my physical condition.

I find the aphorism “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional,” instructive. I will suffer pain, loss, and disappointment. I have no choice in this regard. Shit happens! But I hope to learn to control how my mind reacts to my changing reality. I hope to interpret my experience mindfully. Rather than freak out and amplify my struggles, I hope to accept my reality and make the best of it. I hope to swim gracefully in the flow of the aging process—wherever it takes me.

The serenity prayer has been quoted so often it sounds cliched, but there still is wisdom in its advice. My quality of life as I age will hinge on having the mental serenity to accept conditions that cannot be changed, the courage to change what can be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference. This is a workable definition of equanimity.

I have some ideas about the mental changes that might help me develop greater equanimity about my advancing age.

Oddly enough for a lifetime atheist, I think a good checklist for mental change can be found in descriptions of mystical experiences. Mystics identify a consistent set of mental adjustment that I associate with equanimity.

In a mystical experience, for example, there is a dissolution of the sense of self, coupled with a profound feeling of unity with “the great beyond,” or however we want to characterize the mystery of existence (God, tao, chi, the web of existence, cosmic consciousness, natural forces, physics and so on.)

One important mental adjustment, therefore, will concern my sense of self. I’ll need to ramp down my egocentrism. I am not—it turns out—the center of the universe. Life does not exist to serve my needs. Life isn’t fair and I was never promised a rose garden. Greater humility will help reduce my attachment to pet projects, favorite ideas, strong likes and dislikes. Buddhists tell us that attachment is the root of all suffering. So, there you go. Less ego, less attachment, less suffering—better quality of life.

For the mystics, loss of self leads to—or perhaps is derived from—the revelation that we are not rugged individuals. We are, instead, highly dependent and interconnected expressions of the entirety of existence. I understand, and am awed by, this revelation on an intellectual level. I haven’t felt it to the core the way mystics do. I’ll keep working on that.

I have made a significant mental adjustment that, I believe, gets me closer to mystical revelation. I’ve come to realize that my lifelong fascination with science will not—cannot—answer all the mysteries of existence. Existence is just too complex, bizarre, and creative to be comprehended by the human mind.

But—and this is the real revelation for me—not knowing is okay. Ambiguity, contradiction, uncertainty, and mystery are acceptable states of mind—even desired states. They lead to a sense of wonder and awe. I no longer feel compelled to understand the mysteries of life. This revelation allows me to relax into my old age. No need to understand or explain it—just live it. And be amazed.

The term equanimity is constructed around the idea of equality. When we relate to life with equanimity, we give everything equal value, weight and importance. Now, on the one hand, this can mean that our emotional reaction is modulated and perhaps muted. The mental attitude of equanimity reins in our emotions so that they don’t run amok. Shit happens, but it’s okay—not that bad. Terrific things happen. Enjoy them while they last. They will fade. All is good. This is a very useful mental attitude.

But I’m more excited about cultivating another possible expression of equanimity. In this expansive sense of equanimity, everything is equally miraculous. It is a miracle that existence exists. Every single expression of existence can and should be seen as wonderful, awesome, and breathtaking. This is not the equanimity of acceptance and adjustment; it is the equanimity of transcendence and revelation. And it is a joyous awakening.

My mind still struggles to embrace this mystical relationship with existence. I probably need to stop thinking about it and surrender to a state of uncomprehending awe. The wonder of life just is. I can’t explain it, nor is there any need to do so. Life and death are different expressions of existence and, as such, are to be fully embraced and celebrated. This is a state of joyous equanimity, of transcendent equanimity.

If I can embody this exalted form of transcendent equanimity—get it into my bones—life, old age, even death will not only be tolerable—it will be fantastic.

Still working on it.

Michael C. Patterson helped provide funding for Gene Cohen’s Creative Aging research when running AARP’s Staying Sharp brain health program. With Cohen, Patterson started and led the board research committee for the National Center for Creative Aging. Patterson now produces and hosts the MINDRAMP podcast and publishes a weekly newsletter featuring new research reports that shed light on issues pertaining to successful aging.

More on maintaining a positive mental attitude as we age:

Set a Goal of Happiness for Your Longer Life: What kind of intentional activities consistently contribute to happiness? Research by positive psychologists finds that happy people are grateful, forgiving, kind, optimistic, and resilient. The happiest people spend time with family and friends. And they set goals.

Can a Positive Attitude Lead to Better Aging? 6 Steps to Improve Your Outlook on Life in 2024

Aging Successfully Requires Vigilance: Why is attitude important? Research shows that long-term negative emotions are actual risk factors for heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, digestive problems, and other conditions that can reduce our independence and shorten our lives.

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