Contemplation and Spirituality
There is ample evidence that in later life many people turn their attention inward, but not in self-preoccupied reminiscence. Instead, they engage in a new type of action called abiding. Take the topic of retirement as an example. There are certainly some aspects of retirement, such as financial management, that require calculative thinking. But there are other aspects of retirement, such as sense of purpose, that invite us to patiently wait in the large space of contemplation. Amid the swirl of thoughts about purpose in retirement, if we just abide, we may eventually be drawn to a sense of purpose. Such contemplative realizations do not result from the manipulation and push-pull of ordinary problem solving but rather from a much deeper spiritual sense of direction that we cannot force to emerge but must simply be open to.
Contemplation happens in the vastness of inner space. If we pay close attention, we may see that our ordinary thoughts and actions are playing out on a worldly stage that is merely the figure. The ground is the infinity of inner space. We can experience this vastness directly, and when we do we experience a certain amount of detachment from our personal concerns. We can have compassion for ourselves as beings, and we can have compassion for others as beings like us.
Contemplative consciousness is always with us, but most people are unaware of this aspect of their being. It is like a computer program running in the background. We have to know how to access the program in order to enjoy its benefits. Likewise, abiding in contemplative consciousness requires that we intentionally practice focusing on that aspect of consciousness and learn to look at ourselves and our world from that vantage. Interestingly, many elders are drawn to this type of consciousness naturally and gradually find themselves at home there. Many of them cannot identify a specific point in time when they realized that they were seeing with new eyes, eyes of contemplation.
Robert C. Atchley is a distinguished professor of gerontology emeritus at Miami University, OH, where he also served as the director of the Scripps Gerontology Center. Atchley was previously a professor and chair of the Department of Gerontology at the Naropa University, in Boulder, CO, and is the author of Social Forces and Aging (published by Wadsworth) and of Continuity and Adaptation in Aging and Spirituality and Aging, both published by Johns Hopkins.