Alan Heeks

Book blog: Still Here by Ram Dass

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Nov 222023

A heart and soul view on conscious ageing

In the 1970s and 80s, Ram Dass was a leading international spiritual teacher: a classic fusion of California and India, where he had met his guru. His books (such as Be Here Now), talks and workshops were inspiring, and his zest and charisma carried you along.

Suddenly, in 1997 at the age of 65, he had a stroke which left him paralysed, with impaired speech and memory loss, and needing care 24/7. The power of this book is how honestly he shares his journey from loss and anger to composure and self-acceptance as a spiritual elder.

Probably most of us will have health crises as we age, and the extreme nature of his crisis means he can help the rest of us authoritatively. He draws a useful distinction between curing and healing: a cure would mean restoring the way you were, whereas “healing means allowing what is now to move us closer to God”. Perhaps the central message of the book is to have faith that whatever comes to you is grace from God.

Ram Dass is eloquent about the ways the ego tries to run us, with its self-centred focus on material needs and emotional comfort. He explains that “the stroke cleared away ego distractions and brought me back to soul purpose”. His book offers ways for us to do this without a major health crisis, although his comment that “suffering raises consciousness” is challenging.

Still Here is a compassionate, perceptive guide to the many issues of ageing. One is doubt about the meaning and purpose of later life. He comments that wisdom can keep growing as we age, and whilst society may undervalue it, wisdom is a vital quality in these crazy times. He beautifully defines it as “the emptying and quieting of the mind, the application of the heart, and the alchemy of reason and feeling”. The benefits include seeing the whole picture, discerning what really matters, and using our limitations.

Ageing can bring up many fears. He quotes Gandhi: “Before you can get to God, you have to face your fears.” Ram Dass urges us to talk with our fears, befriend them. And he links this to our sense of time. He values Buddhist teachings on impermanence, and uses them to limit fears of the future by focus on the present moment to “awaken ourselves to who we are now”. He also urges us to learn how to grieve, so that we can release the past.

He also offers some wisdom about dying and beyond. The doctors and even family around us may be preoccupied with physical illness and treatment: we need to stay focussed on the soul, and find support for this. He is sure that physical death is just a transition for the soul, and points out that people who have had near-death experiences report them as joyful, moving towards the light.

Amazingly, I once had breakfast with Ram Dass. We were at a conference in Switzerland, around 1983. We had a brief, friendly chat, and he suggested breakfast together. I don’t recall what he said, but I do still feel his presence: his vitality, and the depth of perception in his eyes. So I can really imagine how shattering the stroke was, and his account of the faith and the soul focus which helped him reinvent himself as an elder is truly inspiring.

The Great Railway Bazaar, by Paul Theroux

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Apr 212021

What joy: a train lover writing for train lovers

Settling down with a Paul Theroux train book is like a long rail journey with a well-loved friend. You know what you’re in for, and it’s a treat in store. Theroux is great at evoking landscapes and people, and his own love for trains shines through.

One of the gifts he offers to fellow train lovers is explaining why we feel this love, articulating and justifying it. Here’s an example:

“The feeling I had on the Khyber Mail was slight disappointment that the trip would be so short – only twelve hours to Lahore… The sleeping car is the most painless form of travel… Robert Louis Stevenson writes,

Herein, I think, is the chief attraction of railway travel. The speed is so easy, and the train disturbs so little the scenes through which it takes us, that our heart becomes full of the placidity and stillness of the countryside; and while the body is being borne forward in the flying chain of carriages, the thoughts alight, as the humour moves them, at unfrequented stations.

I find this splendid, but it gets even better in the next paragraph, as Theroux continues: “The romance associated with the sleeping car derives from its extreme privacy, combining the best features of a cupboard with forward movement.”

The book is a bazaar in the best sense: a vivid sequence of episodes, as we travel right across Europe and Asia, from London to Tokyo, and back through Russia.

I’ve long believed that a country’s character is embodied in its trains, and this book supports my view. Like Theroux, I prefer the sociable trains of India and Pakistan, whose leisurely speed means you can sit in an open carriage door and enjoy the scenery, to the antiseptic bullet trains of Japan, where you’re sealed in, and the landscapes go by in a blur.

Some of the most striking episodes of the book are in South Vietnam. He’s there at a poignant time, after the Americans have pulled out, and before the North clinches victory. The railway along the coast was often attacked by the Viet Cong, but Theroux bravely travels the three segments still operating. He comments:

“From the cruel interruptions of war, they had stubbornly salvaged a routine: school, market, factory. At least once a month the train was ambushed. But these passengers made their daily trip.”

He also comments on the outstanding beauty of the landscapes and coast, something rarely mentioned about Vietnam by anyone. “Of all the places the railway had taken me since London, this was the loveliest.”

The most elegant train shows up in an unexpected location:

“Here, on the Vostok, parked on a platform in what seemed the most godforsaken town in the Far East, was a compartment that could only be described as ‘High Victorian… I had an easy chair on which antimacassars had been neatly pinned, a thick rug on the floor… my pillow was full of warm goose feathers.” Sadly, the Vostok was only a one-night prelude to the Trans-Siberian, where the train, the landscapes and the people were all dismal.

In these times when exotic foreign travel is near-impossible, this is about as good as it gets for the armchair train lover.

Victorian carriage on the Vostok Express

Resource Toolkit – Change the Story

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Nov 222020

One of my biggest insights since turning 60 has been the way repeating stories shape our lives. The older we get, the more of a limitation our stories become, and the harder it is to change them. If you dig into your worries about problems in many parts of your life, it’s likely that a Story is fuelling them.

So what do I mean by a Story? Most of us have one or two major repeating, difficult patterns in our life. We may not be aware of them, we may not call them a Story, but they really shape our experiences. Most often, a Story beings with a major upset in childhood. Our subconscious mind tries to explain and justify that first upset by repeating the situation. See Paula’s Story for an example.

Paula’s Story:
Men always put you down:

When she was a young child, Paula remembers how her Dad was angry and dissatisfied with her Mum, on the rare times he was home.

Paula’s Dad left altogether when she was six, and her Mum became depressed and unsupportive. In adult life, Paula’s partners put her down and left her repeatedly, and she had similar bosses at work.

By her late sixties, Paula had a long history of depression, but eventually realised she was repeating a Story she could choose to change.

This kind of Story is not logical: it’s usually not even something we’re aware of. It’s a primitive survival tool from early years. If you’re still repeating a Story like this when you’re over 60 or over 70, it will be a deeply ingrained habit, and you’ll need a sustained effort to shift it.

You may know about neural pathways: old habits become physically imprinted within our brain, so they truly are hard to change. But the payback to doing so is that it can transform the way you handle old age.

A repeating Story takes away your power of choice, and means that you don’t see situations as they are, because you’re unconsciously shaping them to fit your Story. Changing a major life Story is unlikely to be instant, and you may do well to get professional help from a counsellor or therapist.

Most of us have at least one major Story, and some minor ones. For example, look at your beliefs and habits around money, or food, or health. The self-help process below is designed to assist you in seeing and changing your Stories. Try it on a minor one first!

Self-help process 12: Changing a Story

Set aside at least 40 minutes for this process, and find a quiet time and place where you won’t be interrupted.

Take some long, slow breaths. Make sure you breathe out fully. Let yourself relax.

Now start to remember a few significant experiences in whatever aspect of your life you’ve chosen to explore, or for your life as a whole.

If this is distressing, keep breathing deeply, aim to witness the emotions and let them go.

Now start to look or listen for a pattern, a repeating feeling or Story. Give this time, be patient and receptive. If nothing comes up, go back over the scenes again.

What you’re aiming to find is a simplistic, sweeping statement that feels horribly powerful to you, and probably makes you tense up. A good sign that you’ve found it is words like always, never, can’t, no good.

Be very gentle with yourself, don’t blame or judge yourself for carrying this Story for so long. Be grateful you’ve found the courage to name it and face it now.

The next step is to find an antidote to your Story: a simple, positive statement that you can affirm whenever the negative beliefs come up.

Here are some examples of negative Stories and an affirmation as an antidote to them:

·         Men/women always let me down: I fully deserve love and loyalty

·         I’m just not good enough: I always do my best and deserve support

·         People never respect me: I have all the strength and safety I need

It helps to repeat frequently the affirmations you’ve chosen. And if something upsets you, use the situation to see what Story it’s showing you. Trust that you can change your Story, and choose a happy one.

Happy endings

People love stories: it’s how we make sense of life. So remember, the aim is to replace a negative Story with a positive one. Look for a simple, hopeful statement which lifts your spirits, is easy to remember, and which you can repeat to yourself often. It will raise the prospects of a Story with a happy outcome!

 This is an excerpt from Alan’s forthcoming new book: Not Fade Away: Staying Happy When You’re Over 64! For more information on the book click here…

Timeline insights

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Nov 222020

It may give you a sense of where the plotline is, of what you’re still seeking, or of missing pieces in the picture, which become a goal to complete in the future. This process of finding meaning, of giving perspective, is part of the elder’s role. If you do this, you’re probably serving others too: your family, friends, and even strangers may learn from your insights, and be inspired to seek their own. The self-help process below is one way to do this.

When you’ve done this process, notice what events were most vivid for you, and what kind of memories came up most: was it happy times or hard ones? Remember, you can change the story and choose your reality!

Self-help process: Timeline Insights

This exercise can help you review your life story, and gain perspective from it. You could do this in an hour, but more time would help you go deeper.

Start by guess at what age you’ll die. Then calculate your whole life-span as a day or a year, and work out where key events in your life would appear in this. (For example, if I am 69, and expect to live till 84, a year in my life equals 17 minutes in a day, and my current age is 7.42pm. The birth of my first daughter, when I was 29 is 8.12am.

Create a physical timeline to represent your whole life-span.

You can use rope, cable, even loo roll. Mark key events into the timeline. Now, stand at the start of the line, your birth point. Try to experience the story of your life, walking very slowly along the line, pausing at each point where a memory comes up.

You may want to repeat all or part of the journey. Spend some time in the present moment on your line, seeking meaning for the journey so far, and picturing your hopes and intentions for the years ahead of you.

Love me do: reinventing partnership in later years

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Nov 222020

The pop songs of the sixties gave us one ideal of love – a boy and a girl, together forever. Now, the possibilities are endless. In this chapter, we’ll explore four main ones:

  • Long play: a partnership which has lasted for much of your adult life, probably more than 30 years.
  • Re-release: people in a second or third long-term committed relationship.
  • Single singles: those who are not in a partnership, and are not looking for one.
  • Seeking singles: people wanting another relationship, possibly through online dating sites and blind dates.

Long-term partnerships: the art of the possible

My first marriage lasted a creditable 25 years, but I slightly envy the couples I’ve met who are still together after 30, 40 or even 50 years. There’s no one answer to how to do this, so forgive some generalisations.

Unless both partners are emotionally dead, it’s likely that sustaining a really long-term partnership will need a lot of tolerance and creativity. As one man in a 41-year marriage told me: “We’ve had to drop the big and small resentments that build up. If you can’t focus on positives, love each other as you are, you’ll be living in an acid bath.”

The level of tolerance you need can vary widely. It might mean living through a partner having an affair, or both of you having a six-month sabbatical. It might just mean accepting that you spend less time together, because your interests are diverging.

As a long-term couple move into their late sixties and beyond, finding a new shared interest seems important. You need to renew the togetherness alongside giving each other more space.

Re-release: the second (or third) time around

Divorce statistics show that the fifties and sixties are now high-risk ages for marriages to end, and the average age at divorce is getting steadily older. Many people in their later years are in a second or third, long-term committed relationship. This can add new positives and new complications.

Having one major relationship fail seems to give people a strong motivation to make it work next time. Understanding habits and patterns which caused the original breakup is crucial: we’ve probably all seen new couples unhappily repeating old stories. There are a lot of good books and therapists who can help you to avoid repeating history: see Resources below.

The potential complications may include how each of you relate to your own ex and your partner’s, and how to navigate the extended family around you. Hopefully as you get older, you can focus on the good history not the old pain, and on happiness in the present.

One benefit of being a newer long-term couple may be scope for more dialogue, more give-and- take, in how you want the relationship to be, now and in the future. This should preferably include how to handle things if one partner has major health problems (see more on this in Chapter 10).

Single singles: the happy one

I meet quite a few people in their late sixties or older who are happily single, and expect to stay that way. I believe the secret to this is understanding what kinds of connection you do want, and setting up your life to provide them. Here are some examples:

  • –  A good circle of friends with shared interests
  • –  Having a companion: a friend who’s sometimes an intimate partner too
  • –  Being part of a faith group or other network who give you whatever qualities of community 
you need.

Seeking singles: silver dating?

I still recall how tough it was to find myself single at 50, plunging into soulmates ads and blind dates. Now, you’ll find plenty of soulmates ads from people in their sixties and seventies. There’s an extensive guide to mature dating and relationship skills in my book Out of the Woods. 
My top tip is to get yourself to a position where a relationship is a nice-to-have, not an urgent necessity. Learn to look after yourself, build up your friendships, and see every date as an adventure not an ordeal. And don’t pour out all your troubles on a first date!

Here’s looking at you, kid

A big adjustment for any relationship at this age is about looks. Neither you nor your partner will look young: if you struggle to find attraction when you look at a face with lines and wrinkles, realise the other person is looking at your face too. If you can find the humour in this situation, you’re doing well. 
My advice is, focus on touch and emotion to deepen intimacy, more than looks. If you can both find real love and compassion, for yourself and the other, as you are, you won’t mind the wrinkles.

Breakin’ up is hard to do

Major separations rarely happen by complete mutual agreement. More often, one partner is pushing for it, and the other resisting. Sometimes one partner looks obviously to blame, by an affair, addictions and so on. Probably neither of you will have any precedent for this crisis, and your emotional and negotiating skills will be overwhelmed. Whatever part you’re playing in the drama, find as much compassion as you can for both of you, and go many extra miles to maintain some goodwill in your separation. 
One reason this is traumatic is that you’re probably facing a deep emotional crisis at the same time as negotiating on a mass of financial, legal and other matters, ranging from who keeps the house to equally massive questions like how you share the DVD collection. You need good support on all fronts.

Not Fade Away: The Story Behind The Book

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Nov 212020

I believe that shipwreck and re-invention are the healthy essence of the mid-life crisis, and I did mine pretty thoroughly. Two weeks before my 50th birthday, I moved out of my 27-year old marriage, leaving the family home and my two daughters. The following year brought depression, a cancer scare, and the loss of my main client for training work. It took me several years of turmoil to find myself again, but I had some rich adventures on the way, including blind dating, learning to cook, tantra groups, and a lot of solo time at Hazel Hill Wood, the retreat centre I have created.

I see the core of my writing as natural happiness: showing people how to cultivate their wellbeing and resilience through parallels with Nature. However, my second and third published books are both about creative ageing. This is clearly a major theme of interest for me, which started with the crisis I’ve just described. My first book, The Natural Advantage: Renewing Yourself, was published in 2000, when I was 52, and was one fruit of my mid-life crisis. It took another 10 years, until I was 62, for me to get some perspective on my own mid-life journey, and to start writing what became my second book, Out of the Woods: A Guide to Life for Men Beyond 50.

I wrote my second book specifically for men for three reasons: firstly, I believed that I understood their journey quite well, not only from my own experience, but from many years of involvement in men’s groups. Secondly, because I could see that men needed help more than women, as shown by the high rates of depression, addiction and other problems at this age. The third reason was that I was afraid that if I wrote a book on creative ageing for men and women, women would bite my head off and tell me I didn’t know what I was talking about.

In fact, my experience of researching and promoting Out of the Woods was that women understood the issues of creative ageing, and why men needed the book, far better than men did. I was emboldened to start running workshops for mixed groups on creative ageing, but with a female co-leader!

By the age of 67, I realised that I was hitting another stage in my own creative ageing process, with turning 70 now on the horizon: this felt seriously old, and I realised that I was not entirely walking my talk about the upsides of growing older.

It’s fair to say that the impetus for writing Not Fade Away was quite personal: I wanted to unpack and work through my fears of turning 70, and I was guessing that if this landmark was bothering me, it would also be bothering many other Baby Boomers. My research for the book, among women and men, suggests that many of the issues at this life stage are similar for both genders, whereas I saw more differences in the fifties. Not Fade Away aims to cover all the major issues around ageing for the Baby Boomer generation, with three major themes:

Value what you have

This is the focus of part 1 of the book, Finding your Gifts. Especially for people who are temperamentally anxious, like me, it’s easy to get preoccupied by worries about ageing. We need to make repeated, conscious choices to put more attention on the blessings of our life, and giving thanks for them. Doing this can really raise our morale, and make our experience of the average day a lot happier.

Be willing to face your fears

This is crucial in mid-life, around 50-60, but a fresh wave of issues is likely to hit us between 65 and 75. At this stage, we may have new challenges around health, money, partnership, plus elderly or dying parents, and facing the idea of our own mortality. Part 2 of my book, Digging the Challenges, offers various ways to do all this. I’ve seen many people at this age discover that it was taking more energy to suppress and deny the problems than to face them. Very often, there is useful wisdom in our fears if we can learn to talk with them, and there’s plenty of knowhow to help you

Take a fresh look

Over the past few years, I’ve been observing people who are in their seventies very closely. There seem to be two main patterns. Some people narrow down their life, deepen into old habits and beliefs, and just accept a steady loss of friends, work contacts and more. Others find the strength to re-invent themselves, and discover that the seventies can be a period of fresh growth, new friends, and great creativity. Part 3 of Not Fade Away, Fresh Maps, offers a range of new approaches which have helped me and others to do this. For example, one of these is Change the Story: recognise that recurring problems in our life often arise because we are repeating an old story from a painful childhood experience: if we can name the story, we can also name and consciously choose a more positive story to live by.

I’m glad to say that writing the book has helped me to move through my fears of turning 70, and I’ve had enthusiastic feedback from pilot readers. I hope that this book will help people of any age, from young adults through to the over-seventies. For example, the book explores what the 1960’s were about, and how all of us can draw on the youthful idealism, sisterhood and brotherhood of those times.

How NOT to have a midlife crisis

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Nov 212020

Therapy: the book by David Lodge

The ‘hero’ of this book is Tubby Passmore, 58: balding, bulging, and thoroughly lost.  Although he’s outwardly successful – well-off, modestly well-known as scriptwriter for a top sitcom, with a steady if dull marriage, Tubby is depressed and confused.

Through the book, we piece together his life story, and share his angst and his varied attempts to resolve it, which include various therapies.  This guy would benefit hugely from Out of the Woods, if he could only find the will to read it.

This story illustrates many of the features of a classic midlife crisis.  In his lostness, Tubby becomes deeply self-obsessed, and this proves the last straw for his wife of thirty years, who demands a separation and insists it’s too late for mediation.

I believe the root of the midlife crisis is spiritual, and Tubby’s case supports this.  Despite being resolutely ‘anti-religious’ since childhood, his first girlfriend is a devout Catholic, and he joins the RC youth club to be with her.  Near the end of the book, he ends up in Santiago de Compostela, and is clearly touched by it.  And his obsession with Kierkegaard brings out the paradox of desiring the spiritual but rejecting the religious.

The first one-third of the book is slow-moving and a bit two-dimensional, but it gathers pace and substance as it goes on.  The section with first-person accounts from the other key characters in the story is superb, and this could be a good tool for anyone wanting to understand their crisis (and its effect on others) more deeply.

Likewise, Tubby’s return to memories of his adolescence is a rich episode which rang true for me.  Part of the healing that can emerge from a midlife crisis is revisiting, reliving, re-framing one’s formative years.

Another feature of the male midlife crisis which Tubby exemplifies is the bizarre things that happen when the immature, often sex-driven impulses of an adolescent are paired with the resources and contacts of a midlife man.  Few teenagers can afford a London pad, a flashy car, or flights to LA to pursue a sexual fantasy, but some midlife men like Tubby can, and the results are often embarrassing.

So, it’s an entertaining, touching, and instructive read.  But if you’re choosing one book about midlife crisis, Out of the Woods is the more practically useful!

A view from age 74: Giles

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Nov 212020

Advice to those in their sixties:

  • Delegate to others more than you think you can safely do!  You can’t do it safely.  How did you learn? Don’t delay this!
  • Get out into nature and meditate, pray, ask questions of yourself – your god or whatever you call that thing.
  • Recognise crises as invitations to break through old patterns, beliefs and views.  They are milestones to be celebrated and a good crisis should never be wasted.  You now have the wisdom to deal with any chance or any shit that comes your way.
  • Let go of stuff you are holding onto.  For each self-imposed manacle released, there will be a boon.

How did I feel approaching 70:

Getting a hit of my teenage thoughts about the absolute improbability of being around in 2012, more the century and the year than the idea of being 70.

I had been retired for a year, but had planned that as a gradual process over 6 years, so it was not the dramatic cross-roads many experience. On the other hand, I have been just as busy in the 4 years since, but the nature of my busyness has been increasingly moving away from the preoccupations of the previous 30 years of “work life” and been more mellow than busyness.

A fuller appreciation of my partner of 42 years and my 5 sons, through calmer listening, not acting or speaking out every urge or thought I have. For me a key challenge has been to let go of having to be useful.  Another has been to avoid having an unrealistic agenda of things to do – most of them are unnecessary, can be given to others or massively simplified.

What has helped my transition to the seventies

  • Talking to young people about absolutely anything they are interested in.
  • Putting heart before head to a greater extent in deciding what to do this minute, this hour, this year or for years ahead. This is truly liberating, often adventurous and always energising.
  • My sons – vitality, different takes on life, their love
  • My wife – her changing wishes as to how our partnership works as each of us accept and pursue personal change, whether physical, mental, emotional or, combining all, spiritual
  • Staying happy in your 70’s:

*It’s the people and the truth and love you bring to dealing to them ALL that count, not your or their appearance, behaviours, plans, status, achievements &c.

A view from age 71: Gay

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Nov 212020

Staying happy in your seventies

Be proactive in caring for mind, body and soul. For me this begins with daily yoga and meditation practice. Be ever open to new experiences and ideas. Keep the brain working in whatever way is best for you. (I learn the words to happy/positive songs and sing them out loud to myself during the first few challenging hours of the day.) Keep a relationship with nature, even if it is only a plant in a pot.  Cultivate gratitude for all the blessings in your life.

How has turning 70 been?

Turning 70 was fine. I couldn’t believe it in a way – I kept having to redo the maths to convince myself this huge number related to me. I really like being an ‘elder’! The tricky one for me was turning 50 – neither one thing or the other.

What has helped?

Being the oldest in this cohousing community. Giving myself permission to grow old disgracefully when I choose, and gracefully when I want. Giving myself a 70th birthday present of a tattoo, and having red and purple highlights in my hair. Being made to feel very special on the day by my co-housing neighbours with bubbly and presents and then sharing a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party with another friend celebrating 50 years.

Any advice to those approaching 70

Spend as much time as possible with people younger than yourself. Honour what you can do rather than worrying about what you can’t. Laugh as much as possible, particularly at yourself. Have a party and celebrate. Learn something creative and non-physical. I never picked up a paintbrush till I was around 60 and it is now the greatest joy in my life.