Articles On Conscious Aging
Aging Consciously: Claiming our Elderhood
by Ron Pevny
Listen carefully and you will hear a rumbling, as the first of the baby-boom generation cross the threshold into our sixties. This rumbling will soon become a demographic earthquake. In an America that worships youth, the proportion of the population over sixty will reach unprecedented heights, and the resulting impact upon every aspect of American life will be profound. Each day, we need look no further than the media and the internet to find predictions of the demographic sea change that is nearly upon us.
Listen even more carefully and you will detect another rumbling at a different frequency. This is the sound of a rapidly increasing number of seniors and baby-boomers questioning the mainstream contemporary models for aging. These are people having a sense – sometimes a vague yearning tinged with frustration and fear, sometimes a persistent deep feeling of inner calling – that there are more possibilities for their senior years than are generally recognized and supported. They feel a call to elderhood, and sense that there is a difference between being old or senior, and being an elder.
But, they often don’t know what this would look like or how to get there. And, living in a society in which there is no designated role for elders, there is no prescription. The good news is that a general shape of elderhood in America is beginning to emerge.
Throughout much of recorded history, up until the Industrial Revolution, elders have had honored roles in society that were defined and supported. This remains true among the world’s remaining indigenous peoples. Elders have been the nurturers of community, the spiritual leaders, the guardians of the traditions, the teachers, mentors and initiators of the young. They have been the storytellers who have helped their people see the enduring wisdom and deeper meanings of life that lie beneath superficial models of reality and persist through life’s changes. Elders have been the ones who, over long lives of experience and growth, have converted knowledge and experience into
wisdom and whose revered role is to model this wisdom as they teach the younger generations about what it means to mature, discover one’s calling and use one’s gifts in service to the larger community.
So much has changed since then. The impending demographic shift is a result of societal advances that now make it possible for large numbers of people to live, often healthily, well into their seventies, eighties and even longer. Such life spans for huge numbers of people are unprecedented in human history. It is no longer just the rare few who live long lives.
At the same time, for the last century at least, modern culture has adopted the machine as the new metaphor for how human life is viewed. We are assembled and programmed during the years of
youth. We efficiently produce material goods and new ideas and information during the years of adulthood, and our value is directly tied to what we contribute to the economy. We go to therapy if we are unable to continue to be efficient. In the senior years we slow or break down, no longer able to compete with those younger, and we are taken out of service or make that choice ourselves. In a world of ever-accelerating change, most of what older people have learned about work and technology – about contributing to the economy – is considered out-of- date and no longer useful. In a world of ever-accelerating change, most of what older people have learned about work and technology – about contributing to the economy – is considered out-of-date and no longer useful. In dismissing the elderly for these reasons, modern society also dismisses its prime potential source of deep wisdom and enduring values, informed by long experience, about how to live in balance and harmony with fellow human beings and with the earth. So, we shuffle off, at an increasingly earlier age, into retirement, often leading lonely, isolated existences or segregating ourselves into communities of others like us. We have made our contribution. It is time for us to get out of the way so younger, more energetic people can have the jobs. And society races on, worshipping youth, discounting the lessons of the past, and continually looking to what is new for its “vision” of what the good life looks like.
So, we live in an America that will soon be composed of record numbers of seniors facing the prospect of many years, even decades, of life. What are the contemporary models for aging that shape our visions for how we will live these years?
Many seniors and baby-boomers, especially those with financial security and good health, see our senior years as a time of well-deserved rest from responsibility and plentiful opportunities for
recreation, travel, adventure and learning. As early a retirement as possible is the ideal for many, and moving to leisure-oriented communities of people like ourselves may well be part of this vision.
For those not so economically fortunate and healthy, the prospects for our senior years can appear much less appealing. They envision years of living alone, with our children or in elder care facilities, with few opportunities for contribution to the community and quite possibly the prospect of having to take low-paying service jobs to keep body and soul together.
Of course, this categorization is too simple. More and more seniors in both categories are volunteering in our communities. Many retirees are choosing to work part-time as consultants in their former professions or to pursue entirely different careers for reasons that may or may not
include economic necessity. The models are not nearly as clear-cut as they were ten or twenty years ago. The cultural landscape is being redefined, and will be so even more profoundly as the baby- boomers, who have led so much cultural change since the 60s, reach sixty. The distinction between being elder and being old is becoming blurred. But what is this distinction?
We human beings seem to be genetically wired with a need for living passionate lives of purpose, meaning and service to the greater good, a good which is larger than the state of the economy. Throughout the last century, the mainstream visions of aging have largely seen the senior years as a time for withdrawing from contribution to the larger community, a time for winding down. At the same time, as life expectancy has dramatically increased, for many the years after retirement can be a significant portion of one’s life. Can we find fulfillment and passion by “winding down” for twenty
or thirty years? By devoting our lives to golf or other recreation? By “puttering” around the house? And what about the urgent need for elder wisdom in a complex and threatened world where true wisdom seems to be in short supply?
The emerging definition of what elderhood can be in today’s world is very much linked to the crucial question of how, as a senior, to meet this need for purpose, meaning and service to the larger community. The challenge for those feeling these needs is to envision, create and claim elder roles for ourselves in a society greatly in need of elder wisdom but offering few such roles or models to its seniors. Meeting this challenge is not something that is easily done alone. And it requires conscious preparation at all levels – physical, psychological and spiritual.
The ways in which these elders will share their wisdom and skills with the larger community will be as unique as each individual and as diverse as the American population. What we new elders will have in common, however, is a commitment to continual growth, deepening spiritual connection, passion, discovery of purpose and service. We will realize that our wholeness, our wisdom and gifts, and the well-being of the larger society and our planet itself, cannot be separated. Current and soon- to-be seniors can play a critical role in shaping a positive future if we choose to not withdraw as we age, but rather to nurture ourselves and our communities by claiming our roles as conscious elders.
The Inner Work of Conscious Eldering
by Ron Pevny
On one of the Choosing Conscious Elderhood retreats that I lead, a participant in her early 60’s said something that had a powerful impact on all present. In reflecting on her intentions for her retreat, she spoke of two significant older people in her life. One, who was in relatively good physical health, was difficult to be around because of her seemingly constant anger, bitterness and negativity. She was old and miserable. People avoided her because she was a drain on their energy and joy. The other was a woman who, while not physically healthy, attracted people like a magnet. In her presence they felt joy, serenity, optimism, peace. People saw her as an elder whose radiance and wisdom lifted their spirits. Our retreat participant shared her intention, on this retreat and on
her journey ahead, of growing into a radiant elder rather than a joyless old person; and her questions and concerns about how to accomplish this.
The aging process seems to bring out either the best or the worst in people – magnifying and emphasizing the flaws and shadow elements of some of us; amplifying the wisdom, radiance and compassion in others. The question carried by those of us committed to becoming peaceful, fulfilled elders is, “how can my aging bring out the best in me?” The inner work known by rubrics such as “conscious eldering”, “conscious aging”, “spiritual eldering” and “Sage-ing” holds important answers to this question.
The journey from late middle-age into fulfilled elderhood is facilitated by inner work that is focused and fueled by conscious intention. This journey can lead to the pinnacle of one’s emotional and
spiritual development. Undertaking this journey is in fact what our lives to that point have prepared us for. And as conscious elders, our service to our communities and to the community of all beings can be profound. Carl Jung succinctly expressed this potential: “A human being would certainly
not grow to be seventy or eighty years old if this longevity had no meaning for the species. The afternoon of human life must also have a significance of its own…”
The word conscious is key in understanding the wide range of ways that the inner work of eldering may be done. It is also key to the distinction between being “old” and being an “elder.” Conscious means aware. Aware of whom we really are, of our authentic emotions, talents, aspirations, strengths and weaknesses. Aware of a growth process unfolding in our lives through all of our experiences, positive and painful. Aware of that within us which is conditioned by the myriad of disempowering messages that surround us, as well as that which is authentic, natural and life-supporting. Aware
of those shadow elements in us – our dark sides – which can block our radiance and sabotage our potential.
If the essence of conscious eldering is increasing awareness, then its core practice is Life Review. Wisdom does not come from having experiences. Wisdom comes from reflecting on one’s life experiences. There are many ways of doing Life Review. Some entail structured exercises to focus on challenges, learning and growth during the stages of one’s life, and they use pen, computer or art materials as tools. Oral history work with a knowledgeable friend or guide can be a powerful catalyst for remembering and finding the significance in life experiences. The grandmother of a colleague
of mine creatively memorialized key events in the life of her family by creating a “family quilt” over a period of many years. Whichever method most resonates with us, what is critical is doing it. The awareness we gain is what makes virtually all the other inner work possible and effective. The elder wisdom we arrive at is a precious gift to the generations who will remember us as ancestors.
Healing the Past
Much of the inner work of eldering focuses on healing and letting go of old baggage. Actualizing our unique potential as elders requires that our energy be free and clear, that our psyches be capable of embracing the possibilities and opportunities of each present moment rather than stuck in the experiences of the past. We can’t shine as radiant elders if our energy is continually sapped by old wounds, grudges, angers, hurts and feelings of victimhood. We can’t move lightly and serenely through our days when we have not forgiven others and ourselves for the slights and hurts we have experienced and perpetrated through unconscious behavior. We cannot display our wholeness when unprocessed grief keeps open wounds that sap our energy.
When we review our lives, we become aware of the immense power of story. We become aware of the mythos we have constructed for our lives as the result of our experiences – the stories we tell ourselves (and oftentimes others) about our lives that shape who we become as the years pass. We see how disempowering these stories can be when they contain strong motifs of victimhood,
inadequacy, unworthiness and regret. It is liberating to know that these stories can be changed, and doing so is perhaps the most powerful inner work we can do as we age. This process is often called “recontextualizing” or “reframing.”
The essence of recontextualizing is viewing painful or difficult life experiences with the intention of finding what in those experiences has contributed – or has the potential to now contribute as we revisit it with conscious awareness – to our growth and learning. In the bigger picture of our lives, the job lost may have pushed us into a difficult search that led to a fuller expression of our gifts. The wounding inflicted on us by another may have taught us compassion or empathy for the suffering of others. The hurt we inflicted on another may have been a teacher for us about our shadow side – a critical awareness if we are to grow as human beings. A career decision we made that we regret may have been a crucial step toward our becoming who we are today, even if the mechanics of this are not obvious.
Recontextualizing of experiences that do not hold a strong emotional charge can be relatively easy. But, for emotionally charged experiences, if this practice is to truly impact our lives at the level of deep feeling and allow us to reshape the stories we live by, we must allow ourselves to feel deeply suppressed emotion, and do the inner work of grieving and forgiving. At its core recontextualizing is profoundly spiritual work. It requires a deep trust that the divine intelligence present in us has a purpose for our lives and is working through our experiences to achieve that purpose. We may not understand its workings, and they may not be what we would choose. But this wise inner guidance possesses the eagle’s eye view of our lives that eludes the narrower view of our ego selves.
Deepening Spiritual Connection
Our ability to trust in a divine intelligence with a purpose for our lives depends greatly upon the strength of our connection to a Higher Power – to Spirit, Soul, God, the Great Mystery. The inner work of eldering is deeply spiritual work that requires us to find spiritual practices that nurture that connection. For the goal of all true spiritual practice is to help us experience ourselves and our lives in a wider context, framed in a truer story than the stories our ego selves tend to create about our lives. When we trust -- with a trust grounded in the deep inner knowing that flows through spiritual connection – that our lives have prepared us to become elders with wisdom, talent and wholeness to give to our people, our unfolding stories become gifts to our communities.
Our deepening spiritual connection is intrinsically related to the shift from a life grounded in “doing” to one grounded in “being” –a shift that is a key dynamic in conscious eldering. When we make this shift we move from living and acting with the primary goal of meeting the needs of our ego selves, to living and acting so that Spirit, however we may name it, shines through us as fully as possible.
The world’s spiritual traditions are aligned in teaching us that accepting our mortality is perhaps our biggest ally in helping us to truly embrace life and the wonder of each moment. Yet, we live amid pervasive denial of mortality. Illness and physical diminishment, realities for most of us as we age, have great power to transform denial into an acceptance that can give zest to each of our limited number of days.
We all leave a legacy – positive, negative or mixed – to the generations that follow us. Aging consciously implies becoming aware of the legacy we have created up to this point in our lives and being intentional about the legacy we want to create in our elderhood. As we review our lives and work to bring healing to the past, we help ourselves to acknowledge and build on the positives of this evolving legacy, and we free up the energy needed identify and move forward in building the legacy that is our gift to the future. Here again, a growing spiritual connection that allows us to see clearly our unique calling and gifts as an elder is key. This experience of calling (which is more powerful that a concept, an idea or a “should” alone) helps us become aware of the legacy we truly want to leave and of the path that will help us realize this goal. It opens our heart, strengthens our intention, focuses our action and taps our spiritual depths so that we bring our whole selves to the creation of legacy.
We cannot move fully from who we have been into the elder we can become without letting go of that which will not support us on this journey. We all have culturally instilled attitudes and beliefs about life and aging that are disempowering. Our inner work is to become conscious (aware) of these and let them go. We all have attachments to people, places, things, activities, ideologies, attitudes, old stories and self-identifications that may (or may not) have served us in the past but which will definitely not serve us in the future. Here again, our work is awareness and surrender. Life review is a valuable tool in becoming aware of what must be surrendered.
Rituals of letting go, whether conducted alone or with the support and witness of a group, can be powerful tools for transforming that awareness into willingness to let go of who we have been. Eldering rites of passage, such as those facilitated by the Center for Conscious Eldering, are powerful examples of rituals that help us to let go of outwork identifications. True, effective
surrender requires cultivating deep trust that by letting go of what has come to feel familiar and safe, albeit constricting, we are supported by the wisdom and life force which is calling us into a new identity and positive new beginnings.
While the inner work of eldering is “work” – at times quite difficult work – it is also dynamic and enlivening. It can be the most important work we ever do. It may well be accompanied by tears of both sadness and joy as bound up energies are freed to reflect growing consciousness of who we are and what is possible. Its fruit can be the radiance, passion and service so needed by a world in need of conscious elders. I wish you well on your journey.
These articles are copyrighted by the author with permission granted to IONS to reprint them here.
Ron Pevny is a life coach, organizational consultant, Certified Sage-ing™ Leader, and long-time rite-of- passage guide who, for many years, has offered wilderness quests, retreats, and other support services for people and organizations in transition. He and his colleagues have led Choosing Conscious Elderhood retreats as rites-of-passage into conscious elderhood since 2002. Ron and his Center for Conscious Eldering can be reached at 970-247-7943 or firstname.lastname@example.org.