Aging seems to be inexorable, a natural and inevitable process of physical decline that we are powerless to prevent. But is this really so? A recent article by Wray Herbert in Newsweek — originally titled “Just Say No to Aging?” and now online with the title “Can We Reverse Aging by Changing How We Think?” — suggests that we aren’t as powerless as we think, for our mindset has a significant effect on how we age. This lends support to the all-encompassing theory of A Course in Miracles, which claims that all physical conditions, including the very existence of the body itself, are determined entirely by the mind. In the Course’s view, we really could just say no to aging and bodily distress of any kind, if we learn to use the body in a whole new way.
Herbert’s article describes studies, conducted by psychologist Ellen Langer and her colleagues at Harvard, which show that people’s mindsets have a significant effect on how they age. The studies generally involve some form of “fooling” people’s minds into believing that they are chronologically younger than they actually are. For instance, in one intriguing experiment, Langer placed a group of elderly men in a secluded hotel in which everything — from calendars to music to magazines to clothing styles — was designed to give the impression that it was twenty years earlier. The men were told to do everything they could to act as if they really were living in that earlier time.
The results were truly amazing. Herbert writes:
After just one week, the men in the experimental group (compared with controls of the same age) had more joint flexibility, increased dexterity and less arthritis in their hands. Their mental acuity had risen measurably, and they had improved gait and posture. Outsiders who were shown the men’s photographs judged them to be significantly younger than the controls. In other words, the aging process had in some measure been reversed.
Similar experiments by Langer and her colleagues have yielded similar results. For instance, when Langer reversed the traditional eye chart so that the letters increased in size rather than decreased as you read down, people’s vision improved — because, Langer believes, their expectation that they would be able read more letters as they went down enabled them to read more letters than they ordinarily would. In another experiment, Langer found that people who regularly wore uniforms at their workplace — and thus, if they were older, wore the same clothing their younger colleagues wore instead of clothing deemed more “appropriate” for their age — also exhibited significantly better heath than those who did not wear uniforms.
How can we explain such results? Langer’s theory is that our minds carry various stereotypes about aging and health, stereotypes that are reinforced by everything from culture to self-concepts to the clothes we wear. Our chronological age brings with it a mindset that includes various expectations about what should happen to people our age. If, however, we let go of that mindset and open ourselves to the possibility that we are not bound by those expectations — if we adopt a mindset in which we expect to be healthy rather than inevitably decline — our bodies will actually follow our expectations to a significant extent, and better health even into old age is the result.
A Course in Miracles would agree that our mindset has a significant impact on bodily conditions, but it goes much further: As I said above, it teaches that all bodily conditions, even the body’s very existence, are entirely determined by the mind. “Body appetites are not physical in origin” (T-4.II.7:7), but rather represent “the ego’s need to confirm itself” (T-4.II.7:5). What we call “reflexes” and “instincts” are also fully determined by the mind (see M-5.II.1). Sickness is not only a decision of the mind, but a conscious decision that is quickly buried in the unconscious after it is made (see W-pI.136.2:7). And even death, which seems to come to us totally unbidden, is a decision we make (see W-pI.152.1:4).
If the Course is correct, this would explain why experiments like Langer’s work. But the Course has a very different way of applying the recognition that the mind determines bodily conditions. It is not interested in using the mind to trick our bodies into being younger by adopting an “I am younger” mindset. Rather, the Course has a very different mindset it wants us to cultivate, one rooted in its teaching about why negative conditions like sickness, aging, and death occur in the first place.
In the Course’s view, the body’s condition is determined by the purpose we give it. Sickness, aging, and death happen because we have given the body the purpose of attack, the purpose of selfishly acquiring what we believe we need at other people’s expense. As difficult as this is to admit, we spend our lives attacking other people in myriad ways: We compete with them for material resources, we use and abuse them to inflate our egos, we condemn them to give ourselves a false sense of “innocence,” we lash out at them when they don’t do a sufficient job of giving us what we need. It’s a dog eat dog world, and everyone wants to be the top dog.
Our constant attacks on others make us feel horribly guilty deep down, and in the Course’s view, “guilt is…the sole cause of pain in any form” (T-30.V.2:4). Why does guilt cause pain? Because when we feel guilty, we believe that we deserve to be punished for our selfish attacks. This is where things like sickness, aging, and death come in. They are afflictions our guilty mind inflicts upon us as punishment for our attacks. Thus, in the Course’s view, the guilt that stems from using our body for the purpose of attack is the root cause of all suffering.
If this is true, then the effects demonstrated in experiments like Langer’s will only be temporary. Real, lasting healing does not come from simply imagining that we are younger or setting aside society’s expectations about aging. The Course material tells us, “False healing can indeed remove a form of pain and sickness. But the cause remains, and will not lack effects” (S-3.II.1:4). As long as the cause — guilt — remains, mental tricks will only delay the inevitable result of the belief that we are ruthless attackers who deserve punishment. And indeed, while many ways have been found to slow down aging and hold off death a while longer, no one has ever found a way to actually stop the process.
The Course approaches the entire issue in a radically different way. If the real cause of all our ills is the guilt stemming from using our body for the purpose of attack, then the cure for all our ills is to start using our body for a different purpose. What is this different purpose? The opposite of attack: the purpose of communicating the Holy Spirit’s message of true love, helpfulness, and forgiveness to other people. The Course expresses this idea many times in many ways, as in this beautiful passage:
The Holy Spirit teaches you to use your body only to reach your brothers, so He can teach His message through you. This will heal them and therefore heal you. Everything used in accordance with its function as the Holy Spirit sees it cannot be sick. Everything used otherwise is….Do not let [the body] reflect your decision to attack.…Health is the result of relinquishing all attempts to use the body lovelessly. (T-8.VIII.9:1-4, 7, 9)
What a marvelous idea! If we stop using our bodies to attack, then the entire chain that runs from attack to guilt to punishment to suffering is broken. It is replaced by a whole new chain that starts with our decision to use the body to love others instead of attack them.
As we communicate the Holy Spirit’s message of love and forgiveness to others — as we choose to be the “truly helpful” miracle workers the Course wants us to be — we heal others. Since we have used our body to heal others instead of to attack them, we no longer feel guilty. Since we no longer feel guilty, we realize we do not deserve punishment but only blessing. Since we realize that we deserve only blessing, the mind no longer inflicts sickness, aging, and death upon us. The new chain runs from love to innocence to blessing to perfect health. By using our body to heal others, we are healed. The last line of our passage expresses it perfectly: “Health is the result of relinquishing all attempts to use the body lovelessly.”
This is the mindset the Course wants us to adopt. And when we reach the point where we have fully adopted it — a long-range goal for most of us — the Course speaks in truly amazing terms about the effect this will have on our bodies. We are told that when we use the body only to serve the Holy Spirit’s purpose,
The body’s health is fully guaranteed, because it is not limited by time, by weather or fatigue, by food and drink, or any laws you made it serve before. You need do nothing now to make it well, for sickness has become impossible. (W-pI.136.18:3-4).
As long as we have this body, it will be free of all the limits that normally imprison it. It will be a perfect vehicle, not to acquire the goodies the ego wants, but to serve the Holy Spirit’s plan. And even though it is impermanent and will pass away eventually, death will no longer take “the form of punishment for sin” (S-3.II.5:1); it will no longer “come in forms that seem to be thrust down in pain upon unwilling flesh” (S-3.II.3:2). Instead, death becomes “a quiet choice, made joyfully and with a sense of peace, because the body has been kindly used to help the Son of God along the way he goes to God” (S-3.II.2:1).
I think the mindset described here is a very advanced state — as I said, it is a long-range goal for most of us. The Course, in fact, tells us that learning to hear only the Holy Spirit’s Voice was the last thing Jesus himself learned (see T-5.II.3:9-11). But while it may take time to reach this exalted mindset, we can move in its direction right here and right now by following the path of the Course step by step, one day at a time.
We can just say no to aging. But we do so not by checking into the Time Warp Hotel or turning the eye chart around or putting on a uniform, but by just saying yes to the Holy Spirit’s loving purpose for our bodies. Let’s start saying yes today. Let’s do what we can to relinquish all attempts to use our bodies lovelessly, and instead kindly use them to help our brothers along the way they go to God.