10/05/2011 10:49 am ET | Updated Dec 05, 2011

Aging as a Spiritual Practice

Growing old is something we all experience (if we are lucky) -- except that the parameters of "old" continue to expand. As recently as 1900 the life expectancy of the average American was 45 or 50. Now it is 80, and many people can look forward to living an active, productive life even into their 90s. What are we going to do with all that extra time? I am coming out with a book on aging in January, and based on my research and workshops over the last 2 years, I hear many answers.

"I can't retire," one man in his early 60s said to me. "I can't afford it. I'll be working forever!"

"One word," said a woman about the same age. "Grandchildren. I have five with a sixth on the way. That's my life now, and I love it."

"I don't know," said a busy executive in his fifties. "It scares me. I watched both my parents go under from Alzheimer's and it was ghastly. If that happens to me I think I'll just shoot myself -- if I can still remember where my guns are."

Meanwhile, the financial, political, and familial implications of millions of baby boomers reaching 65 continues to reverberate throughout our society. Not only are we all going to live longer, but there are so many more of us! What indeed are we all going to do with that gift of years?

As someone who has been a Buddhist meditation teacher for over thirty years, I have come up with my own answer, summed up by the title of my new book: Aging as a Spiritual Practice: A Contemplative Guide to Growing Older and Wiser. I think that aging is an ideal time for spiritual practice -- for growing not only older, but wiser. In other words, "growing older and wiser" is not just a saying, it is an activity. OK, my workshop participants say, but then they ask, What do you mean by a spiritual practice? I have a simple definition, one that transcends any particular religion or faith. I define spiritual practice as "paying close attention to the things that really matter."

I think it takes having lived a full life to finally figure what really does matter. When we are children, what really matters is growing up, being an adult -- we want to be older! When we are in high school, we want to get into a good college, then get a good job (good luck!). Then there is career, family, children of our own and our aspirations for them. The answer to the question "what really matters" keeps changing.

When we finally are older -- middle aged or beyond -- but not yet OLD (no one wants to say they are OLD), we are finally in a position to reflect on all the provisional answers that have come to us throughout our life, and consider again, What really matters? What is really important?

I've asked this of older people, individually and in groups, and their answers tend to be similar. They say, "Family", "Being kind", "Leaving the world a better place than I found it", "Feeling that what I did in my life counted for something", "Love", "Children", "Grandchildren", "the planet," "figuring out what it all means."

Few people say money, beauty, power, or fame -- though since it is a Buddhist meditation teacher doing the asking, there is probably some self-selection going on. Putting those answers together -- or reading them one after another like a kind of talking poem -- evokes a feeling that I would call spiritual. Those words point to spiritual matters, and they are indeed important -- to everyone in every society and culture. We are united by these universal aspirations; together they serve as a description of a life well lived, a life oriented toward wisdom and a higher purpose.

This is what I call "Aging as a Spiritual Practice," and each chapter of my book explores a different aspect of aging from this wisdom perspective. I don't shy away from the negative or difficult aspects of aging -- illness, financial insecurity, worry, loss -- but I make sure to also stress the positive side. I must, because so many people to whom I have talked to tell me that on balance they are, as they age, happier than they have ever been. Yes there are fears, and the older we become to closer we come to the end of this life's adventure. But to the question I posed at the outset -- what will we do with this extra gift of years that modern life expectancy has offered us -- I answer, Enjoy it! Enjoy it as much as possible, and share that joy, because the younger generations coming up behind us need our example and our encouragement. So it has been in every generation, and will continue to be.

This is our job, those of us who are older but NOT YET OLD! It's a good job, arguably the most satisfying we have ever had, even though the pay is not great and the opportunities for advancement are -- well, we have to create them as we go.

In future posts in this new division of Huffington Post I hope to expand on these and many other topics related to aging, the spiritual life, and the things that really matter.