Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Not Old Age

Thinking I just could jump in and pick up from where I left off, and after a hiatus of five months I went to a bikram yoga class. Although I have been running and hiking I have not stretched. It comes as no surprise therefore that in the second warm up exercise I pull a nerve in my sacrum and ended looking at the ceiling for the next hour, while the class came to an eventual stop.

The back pain is nothing new.  It has been a few years since I had a flair up, but I have had this problem for years. So what is different now is that nearly everyone jokes that its because I am getting old. “Don’t dare say it because I’ll scratch your car” was the goodbye salute after I crawled out of the car coming back from the yoga class. But in the loneliness of my apartment, hobbling around to do the most basic of caretaking tasks, I look at myself and my personal secret narrative repeats the obvious and simplest explanation. That I am getting old.

I was divorced seven years ago. I stood in front of the mirror and for the first time saw the old man looking back at me. That same old man that looks back at me today.  Marriage deludes you, fixes you in a time when your ideals carry you over the turbulent reality like a silent fog. A fog created by all the activity around you. Living with a wife, then kids that come fast and furious, the mortgages, the cars (plural), the pets (plural) all distract you from looking at yourself. Marriage slowly pushed me out of myself, with a blindfold consoling me.

Looking back at that old man, the blindfold came down. With the release of the blindfold came the reality of the changes that took place that I was not aware. A harsh reality that scraped the cushioning tissue off and left behind the raw, exposed senses. You never feel more close to living, but also so close to tasting your internal fear. The experience leaves you without any illusions, perhaps for the first time ever there are no distractions. It takes a derailment to appreciate the foundation of the rails.  With this reality came the realization that I have aged.

I work at staying healthy. I am determined to be conscious of my aging and not to fight it. But a chronic back pain sends all of these conscious edifices that I have erected to tumble and silently crush in the quiet of my apartment. But on reflection, when I confront the narrative, I realize that it has nothing to do with age. And then I question the process. Why it is so easy for others and then for me to assign old age as the cause. What if these negative physical events "will me" to age—make me age? Can we grow ourselves to age? How strange is that, while I lie on my back holding my laptop to type?

Can I be programming my brain incorrectly by thinking that I hurt because I am aging? This is nothing new, it is as old as Ormond college where I am in right now. In 1890, William James proposed the idea of brain programming —brain plasticity—in The Principles of Psychology. However, it was much later that the Polish neuroscientist Jerzy Konorski popularized it. One of the fundamental principles is known as synaptic pruning, where individual connections within the brain are constantly being removed or recreated, largely dependent upon how they are used. Negative plasticity, assigning wrong associations to an event, create the reality of that (negative) association. So if I think that my hurting back is caused by my aging, I create that reality — those synaptic networks — so that the next time I experience a negative event, I automatically think it is due to aging. Until I end up with only associating bad events with aging. When a bad event happens my brain will be programmed to assign my age and not the fact that I need to warm up, or that I perhaps cannot just go to a bikram class after a hiatus of 4 months. It is not aging, it is not looking after the needs of my body. So the next person that tells me its because I am getting old will get their car personalized.

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