02/22/2013 06:48 am ET Updated Apr 24, 2013

The Key to Successful Aging: 'Be Here Now'

"We're all just walking each other home."
-- Ram Dass

Nothing brings the brevity of life into sharper focus than the death of someone you know. Last week I attended the funeral of a person in my congregation, a woman I met at a dinner party some years ago and had chatted with at synagogue and various events over the years. Beverly was a generous, caring person, devoted to the arts and Jewish study, and always ready to help others. She had been married to the same man for nearly 59 years, had two adult children, and lived a very full and active life. Beverly died suddenly from a brief illness in her mid-70s, the news of which came as a shock to all who knew her.

The memorial chapel was filled to overflowing with mourners. Among the remarks and memories shared during the service that afternoon were two stories that especially resonated with me. Although coming from very different perspectives, each pointed to the same deep wisdom, a way of being in the world that becomes more and more essential as we grow older: Be present in the moment or, as Ram Dass has famously written, "Be Here Now."

The first story that illustrates this wisdom came from Beverly herself, as reported by her husband, Bill, who even in his grief had the courage to open his heart to the large assembly with tremendous grace. On his wife's desk, he said he had found a piece of paper on which Beverly had written a note about Abraham, perhaps jotted down after the Torah study group she attended after Sabbath services each week. It sounded like it came from the biblical portion "Lech Lecha" ("Go to yourself") in Genesis, in which God tells Abraham to leave his home and all that is familiar to him and go to the place that God will show him. I have always loved this portion because it seems to me that to follow such a command would be to practice great courage and faith. I don't recall Bill's precise words, but I think Beverly's note went something like this: Abraham, put down your rules. Leave them behind and go into the new world. The past is behind you, this statement seems to say, and now it is time to be present and trust what is to come.

The rabbi was the source of the second story. He spoke with great humility and emotion, expressing his feelings of regret as he told us about last time he spoke to Beverly. She had come up to him after services just a few weeks ago, he said, and asked to speak with him. She mentioned that she had never really had a chance to talk to him and wanted to tell him how much the congregation meant to her. His response was, simply, "We have time." The lesson for all of us, he said, which brought him and most of the rest of us to tears, is that, in truth, we may not have time.

To be mindful of the fact that life can end without warning at any moment certainly makes the desire to live more authentically that much stronger, but this is not the only reason for being present in the moment; it is also that the present is where life is actually lived. No matter how much we wish we could change the past, it is over; and no matter what dreams we may have about the future, it remains a fantasy. Only here, in the now, in this place, with the people that surround us, are we able to plan, create, love, forgive and appreciate the preciousness of being alive.

To "be here now" and to hold this mind-set as a fundamental axiom of life may be the very key to changing one's attitude toward aging, transforming it from a condition of inevitable decline to a period of profound gratitude and empowerment. For only at this moment can we cross the threshold into a new world, take full advantage of the free will we were given, and really listen to what someone wants to tell us.

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