Thousands of years ago the greatest of Indian sages, Shankara, declared, “People grow old and die because they see others grow old and die.” It has taken us centuries even to begin to catch up with this extraordinary insight.
As a physical process, aging is universal and, to all appearances, inevitable. A steam locomotive doesn’t wear out over time and fall apart because it sees other locomotives doing the same thing. The only conditioning that affects any machine is simple wear and tear; certain parts get worn down faster than others because they absorb the most impact or friction.
Our bodies also absorb impact and friction; various organs and tissues wear out before others. This physical picture looks so much like mechanical wear and tear that we are blinded to Shankara’s deeper point – the aging body is responding to social conditioning.
There are societies in which people share very different styles of conditioning and therefore very different styles of aging. In recent decades anthropologists have been surprised to discover how many so-called primitive peoples are immune to signs of aging that the West has long accepted.
S. Boyd Eaton, co-author of a fascinating book about early man’s health, The Paleolithic Prescription, points to at least twenty-five traditional societies around the world where heart disease and cancer, two diseases long associated with aging, are almost unknown.
These societies are our best testing ground for the hypothesis that “normal” aging is really a collection of symptoms born from abnormal conditioning.
Adapted from Ageless Body, Timeless Mind, by Deepak Chopra (Three Rivers Press, 1998).