This is an excerpt from my book The Translucent Revolution.
We see the fruits of a translucent life nowhere more vividly than when people grow old. Here, the contrast between a life lived in servitude to the Iago trance, and one that has been transformed through awakening, becomes stark. Just as Iago habits catch up with us and amplify as we grow old, so translucents experience old age as a time of harvest, when their translucent practice becomes a brightly shining inspiration and example.
George Leonard was seventy-nine when I first talked to him. As a trailblazer of the renaissance of awakening in the West, he has been passionate about spiritual practice for decades. He sees aging as a mind-set as much as a process in the body:
“Aging is inevitable, but many people start acting old fairly early. There’s a real advantage to it, and I can see the temptation. You get a little bored, and so you say, ‘Well, it’s time for us old folks to go home and get to bed.’ Or people say, ‘Pretty good for an old guy.’ It’s pretty good or it’s not pretty good! Don’t accept age as having anything to do with it. There’s a lot of value in acting old, you get a lot out of it, and you get an excuse for all sorts of things. Don’t do it. Eventually we’re all going to get old, and we’re going to die. But most people start acting old prematurely; even in their fifties they start using age as an excuse.”
When I met with Leonard, he had just been in the hospital for a major surgery. He had lost twenty-two pounds. When he came around from the anesthetic, the doctors asked him some standard questions to see if he was disoriented. First they asked him where he was:
“But then they had another question, which when I heard it was so bizarre I could not understand it. They said, ‘What did you used to do?’ I said, ‘What? What did I used to do? Exactly what I do now!’ They didn’t get it. I said, ‘I used to play jazz piano with a group sometimes. I play jazz piano now; I play better now than I played a year ago, or five years ago, or ever. I sing. When I was fifty I had a baritone; now I have a big deep baritone. I do better now than I used to. I do aikido. I used to do aikido; I still do aikido. I’m president of an institute. I used to be president, and I’m still president. Now tell me, what the hell do you mean by this question?’ They just looked shocked. Isn’t that terrible? ‘What did you used to do?’ Think about that. As if it’s all over, you tell them what job you used to have, and where you used to go. Good God!”
Like every translucent over seventy whom I interviewed, Leonard feels that he is in his prime.Throughout our conversation, he was brimming with new projects, new plans, new creativity. I asked him how he felt about the fact that he would one day die, and his response was, “I’m too busy to think about it.” His friend Michael Murphy was the co-founder of the Esalen Institute in the 1960s. Murphy is seventy-three and still walks four miles every day. Not long ago, his doctor said to him, “You’ve never been sick, and you have no heart disease, no diabetes, no cancer. What are you going to do for the rest of your life?” Murphy replied, “That’s the least of my worries. I’m just getting started.”
We might suspect that these men have simply been lucky to have avoided some of the ailments that often afflict the aging. But translucent aging is not a function of perfect health, but of how one lives within, and gives through, the body, whatever its condition. Ram Dass, for example, had a stroke in 1997, which left him partially paralyzed in a wheelchair, with his speech greatly impaired:
“Before I began to have awakening, even at the young age of thirty or forty, I was anxious because my body was aging. Then I realized that I was not my body, not the ego. I was much more a spiritual entity or spirit itself. There is no doubt that I am going through aging, and a stroke, and approaching death. But I am not identified with the person who is doing all that. I am enjoying my aging and my stroke. That is an enjoyment that would never have come if I had not awakened.”
In 2004 Ram Dass led seven different retreats in a year. From a wheelchair. When I got back in touch with him recently, he was away on a seven city tour, giving a talk in a different place every night and flying to a new location the next day. He has been actively involved in the Zen hospice in San Francisco, training midwives to the dying, helping people to see the dying person as not the body-mind that is dying, but as the luminous consciousness, which cannot die. If anything, Ram Dass’s stroke has increased his passion to serve and inspire.
Barbara Marx Hubbard is seventy-five. Recently she had three serious illnesses within six months: walking pneumonia, a ruptured appendix, and a rare blood disease called CLL. She told me about her health problems with the enthusiasm and excitement one might hear from someone describing a new hobby or a favorite movie:
“I took it as a signal that I had to pay attention to my body. I began to notice the effect of every thought on my body, to notice the toxic thoughts and to consciously transform them to evolutionary thoughts. One thought might be, ‘I’m a failure, I’ll never finish my assignment.’ I was rushing all my life to finish something that was too big for me, and I think the white blood cells responded. I created a new thought, ‘The process is unfolding naturally, that my work with the local self is over, I am experiencing the divine process of creation within me.’ Gradually I changed the internal pressure on myself, and I became the experience of that fulfillment. I felt lighter, I felt a gentle joy internally all the time. I began to discuss this with other women in their fifties, sixties, and seventies; they also felt they were heading into a whole new life. It really had nothing to do with ordinary aging.”
Hubbard calls the new phase of her life, which has evolved out of her sickness, “regenopause.” She sees menopause as the transition to the most active and creative expression in a woman’s life:
“Regenopause affects her body, her mind, her creativity, her spirit. It is the basis of the new feminine archetype, the feminine co-creator. Given the dangers and terror of current life on the planet, controlled by the dominator structure in large organizations and institutions and male patriarchal power, the rise of the feminine co-creator at the time of regenopause is necessary for the survival of our civilization. Women are being called forth into a new phase of life, because without that feminine expression, we don’t have the way to evolve.”
The sociologist Paul Ray also sees that our collective transformation rests in a transformation of the way we view aging and the way we treat older people in our culture. He talked to me about the need to create a “wisdom culture,” in which elders have the same position of respect as they had in many older cultures:
“The wise elder has learned to disengage, to disidentify from various occupational roles, perhaps even from the primary egoic structures. And those who have been sufficiently prepared have a very good chance of making a transition where they begin to see ‘I am part of a whole field of consciousness, and that field of consciousness is being terribly distorted by these corporate monstrosities and other bureaucratic monstrosities.’ They start saying, ‘What about the children and grandchildren of the future? What kind of world are they going to come in to?’ The deep sense of connection to the future of life on the planet, the future of children, is a crucial signature of the wise elder function.”