When Moon student Margaret dropped this article, Your Professional Decline is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think in my inbox my first instinct was to dump it into the e-trash bin. I am a 62-year-old woman who uses her body to make a living. Her aging body. I dab increasing layers of blush on my receding check bones before I show them in front of a class. I have to plan my mornings a bit differently because my innate early bird requires a bit longer to flap her wings. A certain ferocious athleticism I relied on to own my floor as a teacher, one that was built on years of flying through the air, easily landing on grass, concrete or tatami and bouncing back up again, or sitting my rump parallel to the ground and waiting anyone out before I stood up, has receded more into the stories I tell about those times rather than active daily occurrences. The last thing I needed to do is read about my obvious decline! It is only because I have known Margaret for ten years: her mindfulness, intention and her consistent practice, that I thought there must be something here for me or she would not have bothered even reading it herself much less forwarding it to me.
In the era of “2-minute reads” this piece is not. It takes at least a cup of tea to stay with its raw, authentic and uncomfortable journey that starts out unabashedly reminding the reader of the trade-offs of aging. “Decline” however unfolds into an insightful, powerful and very well written essay of the author, Arthur C. Brooks’s experience and research who, as you will see, takes his own advice. Of particular note is the distinction he draws between Fluid and Crystallized intelligence. Youth has the former in spades, but age gets to claim the latter. This for me was an ego saving balm, since teaching is one of the activities that certainly requires the crystallization of experience and learning over time. The older we get, the better we become at conveying our history gained through experience and study. Brooks states, "That older people, with their stores of wisdom, should be the most successful teachers seems almost cosmically right." What a relief.
Brooks mentions that whereas the average age of retirement is 61, teachers usually retire well after the age of 65 and even after 80. My career is a fine example of this. It is full of aging teachers using their bodies to make a contribution. Most of them have or are living well into their 70’s-90’s, continuing to practice and teach on a regular basis. They are even better teachers, physically and otherwise, than when I first met them. They are superior examples of sharing their crystalized wisdom, which includes how to navigate age within martial athleticism. Their examples are wholly inspiring to me as I also enter this phase. He continues to state, "No matter what our profession, as we age we can dedicate ourselves to sharing knowledge in some meaningful way.”
It’s true, I’ve bartered my own youthful athletic body/mind for an aging one. Every day I feel the clock ticking. And yet as I read I recognized I could not be more grateful to have the well-honed tools of my practice to support this process. Perhaps I can’t tax my muscles or my determination the way I used to, but I also care less about doing it. It is much more important to me to increasingly finesse my body and especially my intention, on the floor and off it. Because there are so many more aspects to our practices than the physical, as I age, I see even more the robust wellspring from which to draw satisfaction. The trade-off of muscular depth for deeper insight and wisdom is worth it.
Brooks says, “no matter what mix of intelligence your field requires, you can always endeavor to weight your career away from innovation and toward the strengths that persist, or even increase, later in life.” And indeed as I begin the transition into the elder phase of my art and my career, this article ended up affirming to me that my chosen way, the way of Tai Chi & Qigong, does about as much as anything to give the body and mind a special type of accompanied resilience, longevity and meaning for this process.
It’s been one year since I let my big studio go. It’s been a big transition for me and honestly, it has been unsettling to feel more space in my life. But, my practices have supported me wholly through this phase shift as well. I can tell I'm finding a new center, some more solid ground to be present anew. It's been great to train in a new location and integrate new people with the ongoing "old timers." If there is one piece of shared knowledge we who have been with it for a bit can share with you newer folks, it would be this: “Stay with it.” Stay with your practice. We all encounter many detours in the process of cultivating one. Some of them derail us for a time and even tempt us to quit, but do not quit. Always come back. Breathe in, breath out. One step at a time. I guarantee you, it is worth it.
By the way, I have changed our school tag line from, “Find your Flow” to Taijiquan and Qigong, “A Practice for the Ages.”