Over the past several months, I’ve had some tight, lower-back pain that has limited my mobility. Even after consulting my doctor and stretching, I just couldn’t shake it, so I decided to try something new for me. I’ve started to get a massage every few weeks. My friend Rick is a massage therapist. Before this, I’ve gotten maybe one or two massages in my whole life. After six weeks, I’ve noticed improvements in my back pain and tightness.
Last week, as I began a massage lying facedown, Rick rubbed from behind my right knee down the back of my right calf. About halfway, he hit a spot that made me flinch. My knee-jerk reaction (no pun intended) was to tighten up, clench my fists, hold my breath and grit my teeth.
Lying on the massage table, anticipating my next flinch, I had a thought: Why not try to breathe through it rather than tense up? The next time Rick rubbed down the back of my calf, I didn’t hold my breath, I didn’t make a fist and I didn’t clench my teeth. I did the opposite. I opened my hands, relaxed my jaw and pushed my breath right out through my lips. I still tightened up just a bit as Rick’s hands passed over that spot, but I didn’t cling to my tightening.
As I lay there, thinking about breathing through things, I realized a parallel between my massage and aging in my last third. In my life, there will always be spots that make me want to clench and grip tight and cling. There is, and will be, loss and grief as well as joy. Rather than knee jerk out of habit, I can open my hands and breathe through the tight spots, the difficulties, and try to experience them in a different way.
Conscious aging affords us the opportunity to live with intention, not just as a knee-jerk reaction. We have the choice of how to respond.
Then, as I lay on the table, another parallel between my massage and my aging popped into my head. (What a productive hour!) It’s not just how we breathe through our experiences, it’s also what experiences we are open to. Life can get better as we age, even with inevitable losses and hardships. If we expect our lives to go downhill as we age, we will be beholden to routine and boredom. Let’s age with the courage necessary to consider new things all the way through to the end. Our aging selves can learn new attitudes, and we can teach this old dog new tricks.
Marc Blesoff was a criminal defense attorney for 35 years, then he began facilitating Conscious Aging workshops, which has helped him melt the armor he’d built up as a defense lawyer. He’s a founding member of Courageus (formerly A Tribe Called Aging), a group of activists and thinkers trying to re-frame our culture’s outlook, policies and fears about aging and dying. Currently, he is the chairperson of the Oak Park, IL Aging-In-Place Commission.