Standing in a mirrored dance studio one day, I caught a glimpse of my chin. It wasn't where it was supposed to be, firm and taut against my jaw bone as it had been (or so I thought) the day before. No, instead it was swaying just a tiny, tiny bit, like a little hammock.
Just like that, I realized my body was no longer young. I felt sad and slightly panicky. "What do I do now?" I thought. "What does this mean?" I had somehow crossed a line into the unknown. What I would confront there I couldn't imagine and
didn't want to think about. I was 38 years old.
Part of my panic had to do with vanity. What had seemed far off, even improbable, was staring me in the face: I, like everyone else, would wrinkle and age, and from that moment forward, I would never again look as good as I once had. No one—despite nips and tucks and Botox and hair dye—gets to go back.
But vanity was only the top layer of my worry—perhaps the one I thought of first because our youth-obsessed culture insists on it. Besides, by focusing on my looks, I could tamp down the more difficult news my changing face brought: Act 2 in my life had begun. Eventually, I would die.
We all face such moments—and none are easy. The question becomes, How do we handle, even embrace, these changes that seem to arrive overnight? How do we deal with the knowledge that we aren't the youthful beauties we once were—and more disturbing, that our time to live the lives we want is growing shorter?
Eighteen years after that moment in the dance studio, I am, of course, deeper into the process. My friends and I joke about our reading glasses and lost brain cells. But we're not laughing so hard when we talk about how invisible we've become. "Part of what's hard about getting older is that I used to be considered pretty, and now I'm seeing that slip away—no more whistles as I walk down the street, no more flirtations coming my way," says my friend Pat.
Harder and scarier to contemplate are the metaphysical questions. Have you accomplished what you hoped? Can you address your regrets in the time you have left? And what if you can't?
This is not easy stuff to talk about. For the most part, these moments happen in solitude, triggered by a photograph of your younger self or by hearing in a young person's unbounded ambitions the narrower shape your own goals have taken.
Losing parts of yourself you once thought were essential—youth, beauty, ambition—is painful, agrees Sharon Salzberg, 53, a meditation teacher at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies and the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. "Whatever you count on—looks, talent—is bound to change. So you naturally suffer when that change happens."
But as Salzberg sees it, the suffering stems not from change itself but from resistance to it. "Life is change," she says. "Everything gets older and dies. That's true of animals and plants and humans. But in this culture, we don't see it because we're too busy in the car and with shopping and acquiring. We're separate from the nature of things."
Working through the anxiety and sadness you feel so you can connect with the positive aspects of aging isn't simple—or possible to dispense with once and for all. Instead, it's a slow process of integrating moments of insight with those of denial. Salzberg, for instance, admits to some delusion about her own age. "I'm 53, but I think of myself as in my late 30s," she says. "There's a dissonance between the years climbing higher and my internal sense of what's happening."
And as with everyone else, when reality hits, it's not always easy. "I don't say, 'Oh good, here I am with new aches and pains,'" Salzberg says. But her experience of loss at an early age—her mother died when she was nine—made her grasp, on a profound level, that change, loss, and death are part of life. Later, meditation studies in India shaped her further. "It is accepted there that people die, that this is the truth of things," she says. "And that's what we need—an internal recognition that aging and dying are natural. We may not like them, but the feeling of resentment doesn't have to be there."
Such recognition can come through the evolution of a long yoga practice, says Patricia Walden, 58, director of the B.K.S. Iyengar Yoga Mala in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Walden admits to bad moments when she wakes up stiff and thinks, "My body feels so different than it did in my 30s." But the practice itself helps her get through such feelings. "Halfway through I feel like I did in my 30s," she says. "asana takes me beyond my age, and I start to feel free in my body and mind. That happens again and again. In practice I transcend time and age."
She acknowledges, though, that her practice is different now from what it was. In her 30s she simply wanted to get into a pose, to build strength and form. "But now I'm not as interested in outer form as in how the poses feel and what they unfold in me," she says. "I work to see what a pose evokes in me mentally and spiritually."
The embrace of age hardly comes in a straight line. The humbling reminders are too insistent. But why fight what is? "To accept the process of aging, yoga says, 'See clearly that it's inevitable,'" says internist Timothy McCall, the medical editor of Yoga Journal and author of the forthcoming book Yoga as Medicine. "Yoga doesn't promise miracles, but it can change the quality of the way you age. You may look like you have a less impressive practice at 50 or 70, but you know better. You know you have more peace of mind, that you're happy, that you have more compassion."
Grieving, accepting, and even relishing the gifts that come with age, however, doesn't mean that you don't want to look good. After a year of gray hair that I enjoyed—my head looked like a brushed silver knob—I've returned to auburn, and it feels like a bright homecoming. I don't plan on a face-lift or Botox—I'd rather take the funds and go to Italy—but I'll certainly paint my toenails and slather on face creams.
Yet I'm also sure I don't want to confuse looking good with denial. It's sad and unsettling to see a middle-aged woman who dresses like a teenager or surgically pulls her face tighter than a drawn shade, creating a portrait of her own unease.
"Wanting to look good isn't a terrible thing," Salzberg says. "But if your deepest sense of who you are is shattered by gray hair, that's a problem. You can both accept aging and color your hair, but you have to be honest about your state of mind. Everything depends on your motivation."
And having the right motivation comes from seeing things in a different way, the result of a practice that regularly turns us inward. In such a practice, "what we are seeing is the deepest sense of who we are, and that gives us meaning," Salzberg says. "Any kind of practice that explores your inner world will help you get in touch with qualities you can rely on more than looks, such as compassion or awareness or lovingkindness."
Even narcissism can help you grow wiser, says psychiatrist Mark Epstein, a Buddhist practitioner for 30 years and the author of Open to Desire. "From a Buddhist point of view, there's nothing wrong with using Botox. Buddha says, pay attention to that narcissistic attachment when it arises, because you can learn a lot about what you think the self is and who you think you are. The main point of Buddhist meditation is to see the self as it actually appears, and you come closest when you most identify with having a self, including when you feel old or ugly."
You may notice as you meditate, for instance, that your mind wanders to a memory of once-auburn hair, or smooth skin, or a svelte self. Pay attention: Those thoughts will pass, and you will see that you're chasing what's no longer there. "Buddha has no problem with relishing the pleasure of youth and beauty, only with attaching oneself to that moment's pleasure, trying to make it last longer than it can," says Epstein. It's that resistance to change that causes suffering.
My friend Elizabeth and her husband—both of whom have lost siblings—have had their own struggles with aging and the limits it imposes. "It's not easy, coming up against the face of death," Elizabeth admits. "But when you realize you're not going to live forever, the dross burns away."
Like Elizabeth, I too lost a sibling early: My twin sister died when we were 32. And like Elizabeth, I try to balance the things that matter most with honoring the simple realities of daily life, including the pleasure of looking good. For a while after my sister's death, daily concerns—certainly how I looked—became extraneous.
But as I healed, I also realized that these small daily things—worrying about deadlines, fussing over dinner, getting a lovely haircut—make up the luxurious fabric you get to wrap yourself in if you live. They are part of the luck of a survivor.
I want to be good at growing older, to feel proud and comfortable with who I become. The process isn't easy, and sometimes it's downright undignified. But it helps to remember that it's a process I'm lucky to have.
Dorothy Foltz-Gray is a freelance writer in Knoxville, Tennessee.