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The Key to Spiritual Growth

6 prominent thinkers share their insights on how to nourish your soul

En español │Though we tend to lose certain things as we age — trim waistlines, hairlines, short-term memory — there is one area where getting older can be a boon: the acquiring of wisdom.  

Religions of all kinds teach us that we can improve spiritually as we age, gaining wisdom even as we climb in years. But how?  We asked a group of prominent figures from a range of spiritual traditions to weigh in on this important question.

Dr. Charles Stanley: Radio Host and Pastor of In Touch Ministries in Atlanta

Like farmers planting a crop, we need to understand what seeds to use in order to harvest what we desire. This is because we reap what we sow — a principle that is true no matter what season in life we're experiencing. So if we wish to stay spiritually fruitful as we grow older, we should look to the One who never ages or fails.

He teaches us everything that will help us continue maturing spiritually. The deeper we take root in our relationship with God — increasing our intimacy with Him and obeying His call — the greater access we have to His eternal nature and boundless resources.

Rabbi Steve Blane: Founder and Spiritual Leader of Havurah Sim Shalom in New York

As we grow older, we tend to become set in our ways. Our opinions become our guiding lights and we often judge rather than observe. As we age, we should understand that it is far healthier to look for the light rather than the darkness. It can be so joyful to approach our mature lives with the understanding that the glass is half-full rather than half-empty.

We can learn that the greatest thing we can do as we age — is not to age! We should always continue to learn about ourselves, about those we love and the world around us. And we should simply be open to all the wonderful things the source of light brings into our lives. In this way, we are always awakened, we are always spiritual and we are always one with the source of all.

The Rev. Norman Eddy of East Harlem Protestant Parish in New York

We can learn to use "spiritual hearing aids" as we get older. That means learning to hear things you haven't heard before, listening more deeply to what spirit — the inner voice — is trying to tell you.

Often, this message is about gratitude. As we get older, it is more and more important to give thanks! I'm 91 years old and a day doesn't go by that I'm not aware of the many little things to be thankful for. It doesn't matter how insignificant they may appear to others.

A flower blossoming, a child's laughter. We must never forget to give thanks. We must also never forget to have a sense of humor! We can learn to laugh at ourselves as we age — at our absentmindedness and so on. This is helpful at any age, of course, but even more so as life's challenges increase.

Dr. Amina Wadud: Muslim Scholar and Activist

The key is renewal. We need to understand that faith is a dynamic thing. It's alive. Therefore, it must be replenished, renewed, reinvigorated, as we get older.

It is important that we practice khalwa, which means learning to be alone with ourselves, our hearts, our lord, whatever we consider sacred. Alone time for contemplation, worship and developing good intention are integral to a wise life. Often when they age, people fall into habits of redundancy instead of renewal.

They want to hold onto the old ways, to return to things they can be sure about.  But this can hold us back. If God is dynamic — and I believe that this is true — then we should aspire to being dynamic, too. 

Joseph Goldstein: Co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass.

In Buddhism, we talk about something called "attachment to views."  As we age, there can be much less attachment to being certain about things. When I look back 20 or 30 years, I see that I was considerably more attached to my view of how things were than I am today at 66!

That detachment has come through meditation. I am struck by how much I don't know. When we make that shift, it allows us to be open-minded about ourselves, the world and other people's views.

Such openness allows us to be with the aging process in a far more graceful way, because we don't know exactly how it's going to unfold for us. We can practice being much less dogmatic.

Byron Katie: Spiritual Teacher and Founder of The Work in Ojai, Calif.

Twenty-five years ago, when I was 43, I discovered the fountain of youth. I saw that when I believed my thoughts, I suffered, but that when I didn't believe them, I didn't suffer, and that this is true for every human being. I found that suffering is optional. People who are aging, just like young people, suffer from the unexamined thoughts that are causing them stress.

The life situations are different, but the thoughts are the same: "I'm not good enough," "I need my body to be strong," "The line at the grocery store should move faster," "My husband (or wife) should agree with me." These thoughts are ways of wanting reality to be different than it is.

Here's what you can do to stay vigorous and stress-free. Whenever you have a problem, write down the thought that you're believing at that moment.

Then investigate that thought, using the four questions and turnaround of The Work. If you had to choose between "My body is young, flexible and beautiful" and "My mind is young, flexible and beautiful," which one would you choose?