April 2, 2012

Contemplating the Aging Process. ~ Shielagh Shusta-Hochberg, Ph.D.


Turning 60 is for many of us just another birthday, and it was no different for me last summer. I became a vegan a few years ago and have found that my life is richer, more affirming and health-centered than ever before, even than in my youth.

The number of a milestone birthday can be daunting, but I’ve survived enough of its predecessors to know that they come relentlessly and have no special significance. This milestone, however, brought with it some interesting changes, some undeniably good, some more challenging.

I’m more than halfway through my year. Along with travel and helping the older folks celebrate octogenarian birthdays, I started reading the letters and memoirs of some ancestors and gained valuable insights into the whys and wherefores of their life choices a century or more ago. I learned that a great-great grandfather was an Abolitionist. I knew, but learned enlightening details of the fact that my great-grandfather died when my grandfather was a young boy, thus shedding light onto my grandfather’s complicated relationships with his mother and stepfather, and those with his wife and children to come.

He died before I got here, so what I knew of him was left to word of mouth from my mother and her surviving siblings before I started reading his letters and the memoirs his mother wrote towards her life’s end shortly after WWII. Reading about great-great grandparents and their lives, their illnesses and how they lived and died gave me food for thought in the unfolding of my own lifecycle. I finally came to a peaceful acceptance of my mother’s death a few years ago and during this particular year in my life I started a website dedicated to her work as a gifted painter whom I loved so much.


Along the way I reconnected with a long-dormant meditation practice and began reading blogs and books by others who live the contemplative life. This eventually brought me to Buddhanet and elephant journal and the tweets of Les Elephants, and led me to Bob Weisenberg and Art Mason –– two very cool dudes who share uplifting posts from here and there.

All this has rapidly redistributed my energies and restored much needed balance to a psyche prone to overload as a clinical psychologist whose practice ranges from well-grounded folks exploring garden variety life path challenges to some extremely troubled individuals who have huge issues with interpersonal boundaries and where they fit in this life after some nearly non-survivable traumas. Meditating has for me become a must that brings patience, insight, perspective, better sleep, less irritability and a mechanism for letting go of what doesn’t matter at all.

As I said, this year of turning 60 has been hugely positive thus far, but some aspects have been daunting. Since the first of the year I’ve had pneumonia, fortunately easily treated, and then a painful and potentially long-term knee problem. The knee pain, caused by a fracture, came just when I was meditating in the lotus position daily and exploring yoga with my personal trainer. I must now meditate in a chair and yoga is out for now, as is any gym activity until we better understand how a bone could break spontaneously so it doesn’t happen somewhere else.




What have I learned from all this?

We all have to die sometime.

The body is a temporary vessel, no matter how many vitamins we take.

Life is a terminal condition.

We’re marching along toward a finish line whose particulars are unknown.

My various ancestors died of pneumonia, cancer, benign tumors in places they can’t be in if they grow, heart disease, typhus, alcoholism recovered and otherwise, and old age. Of course, we all hope for the last option, preferably in our sleep without illness or preamble that would raise our fears. The fact is, we just don’t know how it will go if we let the drama play out to its conclusion, and most of us will.

So I’ve come to the awareness that 60 is not the new 40 or even the new 50, despite advances in medical science and the art of living well. Eventually we will transcend this earthly sphere. And being at peace with that realization is what serenity and spiritual centeredness is all about, no matter what awful things have happened to us along the way, or what we may encounter as life unfolds now in our enlightenment.


Shielagh Shusta-Hochberg, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Manhattan, New York slogging through life as we all do. I am vegan, happily married, the proud mother of one and grandmother of four, owned by a fine black cat named Daisy. I began my professional life in my forties. I bring a lot of varied life experience to my current professional practice. I studied and practiced TM in my 20s, and in 2011 I returned to my practice. I garden, cook, write, collect antique marbles, paint and draw a little, and generally love life. I have augmented my practice with the use of Tibetan bowls, guided imagery, and other contemplative interventions.

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