There is a vital relationship between creative expression and healthy aging. When we draw and paint, certainly we delve deep into the springs of vitality, increasing our sense of self worth, determination, and achievement. But the University of Kentucky’s Prof. David Snowdon, who tracked the health of 678 Catholic nuns over 70 in his important Alzheimer’s study, showed us much more: he was once given a priceless ceramic sculpture of Santa Claus perched atop a John Deere tractor by one of the nuns. She was Sister Esther Boor, who had taken up ceramics at age 97. When asked by Prof. Snowdon to join his project, Sister Esther had originally told him, “I’m too busy with my art to take part in a study of old people.” She was not very aware she was old when she passed away at 107.
All of us know that, when deep in the process creating a short story, painting, a new business, or an innovative invention, time seems to stand still in the now. Creating something totally new freshens something in our whole system and frees us from limitations that otherwise can hold us down and drain us of life. Here are four ways you can counter the effects of aging by unleashing your creative energies, testing your own powers of making new things, and breaking through to new solutions:
1. Make a beginning: Just start, don’t think. If you feel emotionally drained or blocked, just get a pad of paper and write stream of consciousness all the nagging resentments, fears, and worries that prevent you from starting an important project. Acknowledging feelings can enable us to move past them and really get started. This, of course, also means dedicating ample time and a place for the creative work. A friend of mine had trouble realizing his true gifts until he freed enough time to tinker in a more ample garage space. Now he boasts dozens of ex-motor scooters, cars, and even a bread truck, all artistically converted to brightly painted electric-powered vehicles. I ask him how old he is and he says it’s tough to keep track.
2. Spruce up your workplace: Try making your place of work a piece of art– and while you’re at it, have some fun! We all start with a blank slate. Whether it is through better organization of your office, redecorating your home, enriching your relationships, or landscaping and gardening in your yard, try to unleash your creativity to make your whole environment mirror the best and most beautiful in you. My wife and I purchased five very barren acres some years back and have since spent every spare minute we have planting flowering herbs, luscious berries, stately fruit trees, and hardy landscaping bushes. In comparatively little time, the parched landscape has given way to lush green views spreading in all directions. And inside, a neglected, ramshackle farmhouse now boasts rich French country pallets of colors on all its walls—a perfect place for writing. So don’t be afraid to test your creativity out in playful ways all around you, even if you muff it up once and have to start over. The playful energy all of us have not far beneath the surface helps us feel young and free, regardless of our body’s age.
3. Follow your hopes and dreams: Strangely enough, researchers who investigate longevity are finding old age can be a time of more, not lesser, creativity. “We always think of winding down in old age,” says Judith Salerno, Britain’s deputy director for the National Institute on Aging. “We need to begin thinking about late life as an opportunity for people to explore.” So in the years that used to be considered old age and dotage, now we see experience is an incalculably rich resource. Don’t settle for a shut down life where the resources of youth are just vain memories; tap your rich experience, whether through art, invention, social service, or transformation of the environment. Then the higher number of years in your age will only mean a greater chance to realize your highest potential and develop talents you never knew you possessed.
4. Set aside the time: Devote time each day to creative projects, and have faith in yourself. Whether you seek in your creative time to be a writer, painter, actor, or a healer of personal relationships, you need to devote time for it every day. “But I can’t do it,” people say, “it’s too big!” Just try breaking your larger projects into smaller, more manageable pieces. As St. Francis says, “Small beginnings, greater ends”: don’t try to write the whole novel or you will clam up and get overwhelmed. Maybe today you will just write one paragraph or craft one small part of your sculpture, but that will unlock your greater resources. Over time, whether it is in art, gardening, writing, or in your relationships, you feel that something greater fills you, passes through your mind, and makes the universe—and yourself—richer, more beautiful, and full of the wealth of creative life that has no age.
About the Author
Dr. Stephen Ruppenthal is the author of The Path of Direct Awakening: Passages for Meditation.. He is also the co-author of Eknath Easwaran’s edition of The Dhammapada and the author of Keats and Zen. He has taught meditation and courses on Han Shan at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University. Dr. Ruppenthal is an international workshop leader in passage meditation and in courses for those looking for end of life spiritual care and for the spiritual step component of twelve step programs. Visit Stephen’s work at www.directawakenings.com.