Maximizing Life

“She’s such a young eighty,” Catherine and I concurred after a delicious lunch with our beautiful friend Maxine.  Maxine, who attends Pilates class every morning and goes dancing on a weekly basis, celebrated eighty delight-in-everything years this year.

While her physical stamina is quite impressive, her status as life-inspirer comes as much, I believe, from her hale attitude as her hale body.  Chicken or egg?  Body or mindset?  Maybe they are so intrinsically linked that it’s not possible to order them. 

True, Maxine has filled many of her eight decades with exercise, but she also views the world as a very joyful, exciting place; makes time for friends (LOTS of friends); is a good listener, and expects to find good stuff in everything and everyone…and so she does.  This translates to a largely complaint-free life: when she sees something “wrong,” she seeks to improve things, rather than whah-whah-whah.  Of course, she’s had her share of expectations-gone-awry, but rather than look at them as disappointments, she inevitably sees them more as opportunities—which is how (among other things) she helped found a non-profit to protect abused children.  Her attitude helps her adapt to life and whatever that may bring, and her attitude affects her aging process.

Science once confidently declared that our genes determined what we got in life—lifespan, personality, health, etc.  But now science tells us a different story: that our attitudes, and our “proximal” behaviors (diet and exercise) can not only “up-regulate” or “down-regulate” (turn on or off the expression of) our genes, but telomeres, the protective “shoelace caps” on the ends of our chromosomes, can predict our longevity (longer telomeres indicate longer lifespans).  Even more interesting—thank you, scientific inquiry—is that we can intentionally impact our telomeres, and the expression of our genes!

So far, the best and easiest technique/idea/activity I’ve found to impact our wellbeing overall, is the practice of mindfulness.  OK, I am a mindfulness teacher, so I’ve not only witnessed its power firsthand, but I’ve read all the research, as well.  It’s now a fact: folks who spend time being mindful can change the physical nature of their brains (and even their bodies)!  Impressively, their grey matter gets thicker (usually, as we age, the opposite occurs), and their amygdala (fight or flight, worrying part) shrinks.  Though I don’t have my own fMRI, I can imagine that my hilarious octogenarian inspirational friend, Maxine, has a brain that lights up in all the right places.  And I bet her grey matter is thicker and more robust than her biological age would suggest.

The ways to incorporate mindful attitudes into our lives are myriad.  As Rumi said, “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”  Being mindful can include breathing more purposefully—in traffic, during yoga, before going to sleep, when the kids are fighting; sitting in the back yard and listening to the birds; finding more opportunities to serve your community; or even, sitting on a comfortable pillow in a group, counting your blessings.  (I know I am thankful to have a friend setting a new standard for what it means to age mindfully.)

Even if you don’t know Maxine, knowing about her can give us all new ideas of The Possible…yet another blessing she’s offering the world!