The Inner Work of Conscious Eldering

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 who 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.

Life Review

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.”

Recontextualizing

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.

Accepting Mortality

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. CREATING LEGACY 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.

Letting Go

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.

This article is copyrighted by the author.

Ron Pevny is a life coach, organizational consultant, Certified Sage-ing TM 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 offered Choosing Conscious Elderhood retreats, to serve as rites of passage into conscious elderhood, since 2002. Ron and his Center for Conscious Eldering can be reached at 970-247-7943 or ron@centerforconsciouseldering.com.

Download a PDF file of “The Inner Work of Conscious Eldering”.

Thriving or Surviving, Trust or Fear: What Is Your Mindset for 2017?

As I become more reflective during this season that calls all life in the northern hemisphere to quiet down and go within, I look back on a tumultuous, bi-polar year for planet earth.

On one hand, the human community has been inundated with disempowering images of (and for so many people and our non-human relatives direct experience of) violence, greed, cruelty, exploitation, fear and inability or unwillingness to seek a larger vision of the greater good, beyond short-term self-interest.

On the other hand (and much less visible in most media), the creativity, vision, consciousness, passion and compassion of the human spirit are shining brightly amid the darkness, providing hope and dynamic energy for a world perched on a razor’s edge between collapse and transformation.

As I look at 2016, I see two vastly different levels of consciousness driving these two realities: the “leaders” who promote and shape them, and we, the people whose personal and political choices are shaping our collective and personal futures.

As we approach a new year, I would like to share with you some of my thoughts about the importance of being aware and intentional about the consciousness that we who aspire to age well carry into the year.

Do we approach our lives through the lens of survival, or of thrival?

Does our predominant disposition seem to be fear or trust, and which of these do we feed in our daily live.

I define survival consciousness as being primarily focused on safety, holding on to what we are and have against the fear-inducing onslaught of change, threat and uncertainty from the world around us and from the reality of our aging. The survival mentality sees change as inherently dangerous and to be resisted, while stability is the most highly valued goal.

The consciousness of thriving acknowledges the need for safety and takes appropriate steps to support our security, but looks beyond safety to what it means to be truly alive, growing, and expanding. It holds as the highest value aiming high toward fulfilling our potential as beacons of light during these critical times and to trust that we are supported in doing so.

We humans cannot have true wellbeing without continually growing, stretching beyond our perceived limits, shedding old skins that constrict our potential. People cannot remain stable, cannot stay on a plateau for long periods of time. We either grow or stagnate, and we have choice about which path to embrace.  We have a choice as to whether we confront our resistance and fear and expend the effort to grow toward the light of our potential, or allow ourselves to die slowly, to gradually wither and withdraw from life.

The great Chilean poet and politician Pablo Neruda wrote beautifully of this choice in one of my favorite poems, “You Start Dying Slowly.”  Here are two of the stanzas from this poem:

You start dying slowly

When you become a slave of your habits,

Walking everyday on the same paths…

If you do not change your routine,

If you do not wear different colours

Or you do not speak to those you don’t know.

 

You start dying slowly

If you do not change your life when you are not satisfied

With a job, or with your love,

If you do not risk what is safe for the uncertain,

If you do not go after a dream,

If you do not allow yourself,

At least once in your lifetime,

To run away from sensible advice.

 

Perhaps the most important realization along my journey of growth is the huge role fear and trust play in defining how I experience my life. I have seen how easily fear arises in me, and my automatic inclination to expect the worst. When fear reigns, my moods, attitudes, choices and perceptions are colored by it, and I feel disempowered, vulnerable and hopeless.

Survival consciousness reigns supreme. In stark contrast, when trust is strongly present, I am hopeful, I feel strong, and I am in touch with the best in me, so that I can contribute my best to my wellbeing and that of the world around me. Transforming fear has not been easy for me. I am grateful that over many years I have been blessed with experiences of deep, heart-level knowing that I am supported by a loving power much greater than my fearful personality. I imagine that this is true for all of you also, but these experiences are easy to forget when our attention is elsewhere, and especially on safety. My challenge when I am assailed by fear has been to intentionally focus on remembering these experiences of support—remembering how they felt as they stirred my body, mind and spirit.

My most important daily growth practice is to spend a few silent moments each morning, outdoors or at my altar, before engaging in any other activities, remembering and affirming that I am supported in my growing and thriving. I commit to living in trust that day, acknowledging fear when it arises but not giving my power to it. And slowly but surely my tendency toward fear is being replaced by a deep trust in my life and the LIFE I’m part of. Such reprogramming of old, disempowering patterns is possible. It takes commitment and effort, but is crucial if we are to thrive rather than just survive in our later chapters.

Using whatever ways work for us, it is critical that we strive to be aware and intentional of which consciousness in ourselves, survival or thrival, we feed each day. Do we feed ourselves a steady diet of fear and greed-inducing imagery, life-numbing foods, various addictions, and disempowering relationships. Or do we feed ourselves inspiring words, ideas and images, and meaningful relationships that bring out the best in ourselves and others? Do we feed our bodies health promoting foods and plenty of exercise, and feed the spiritual dimension in ourselves from which trust and vision springs? Do we live for ourselves (which feeds only survival) or be of service to others so that together we can all thrive?

I believe it is impossible to truly thrive if our daily consciousness is primarily one of fear and survival. With such consciousness, we will choose “safe” numbness rather than risky aliveness. We will settle for aiming low or not aiming at all, telling ourselves we are OK being less than we can be. But if we want more, if we want to thrive in whatever circumstances life presents, then our starting place needs to be an honest assessment of the filter, the consciousness, through which we view our lives and the world around us, followed by a determination as to whether this consciousness will truly help us create lives of hope, service and fulfillment.

As you look toward the new year, I encourage you to commit to something more important than just a self-improvement resolution or two. Even if you are successful at keeping these, you may accomplish little more than imp   roving who you have been when what you most need is expansion into the new, empowered self you can become. I encourage you to take time to honestly examine the consciousness you are carrying into 2016, because that lens through which you view life will play a major role in shaping how the year unfolds for you. I can think of no more-valuable resolution New Year’s resolution than to do this. If you decide to commit, or recommit, to trusting and thriving, the principles and practices of conscious eldering can offer invaluable support. May you thrive in 2017.

 

Ron Pevny is Founding Director of the Center for Conscious Eldering He is also a Certified Sage-ing® Leader, is author of Conscious Living, Conscious Aging  published by Beyond Words/Atria Books, and serves as the host/interviewer for the  Transforming Aging Summits presented by The Shift Network.

Download a PDF file of this article.

Elders and “Youngers” Taking a Stand for a Healthy Future

Elders throughout History

For most of recorded history until relatively recent times, the role of elder was an honored one, with the wisdom, skills and personal qualities of elders understood to be critical for the wellbeing of communities. The role of elder was that of mentor to the younger generations in the enduring values that support harmony in the community. Elders initiated the young. They helped adults find and develop the gifts they were to share with the community. Because they had developed the bigger picture understanding of life that sees human wellbeing and that of the earth that supports them a inter-related and inter-dependent, it was the elders whose role it was to serve as the voice for future generations, reminding their community of the importance of making decisions with the sustainability of the culture and the earth in mind.

Unlike the situation in industrialized societies today in which there is no defined and honored role for its older adults, and most seniors live in their own homes or retirement communities, in “traditional” societies throughout history all the generations lived together in family groups. The roles and responsibilities of elders were integrated into the daily life of the community. The elders lived with children and adults in a web of mutual respect for the important roles all had in supporting the life of the family and the community.

Collaboration is Key to Survival

A growing body of research is pointing to a new (to the modern world) understanding of a key dynamic in the survival of both human and non-human communities. The Darwinian model of competition in which the “fittest” survive is being recognized as being a distorted and only partially true depiction of life’s dynamics. 1 This broader understanding shows that all members of communities, whether human or non, must contribute to the health of the larger systems in which they are imbedded if they are to remain healthy. They must continually balance independence with interdependence, cooperating in win-win dynamics that support the wellbeing of all. (1)

In contemporary culture, where older adults are largely seen as having made their contribution to society before retirement, a critical element is missing from this dynamic of cooperation. Seniors are not expected to continue cultivating elder qualities in themselves and to use these in service to the community. A great many seniors have little regular contact with young people, aside from occasional visits with grandchildren. By and large, young people and seniors have little in common, live in vastly different subcultures, cannot understand each other, and find it difficult to bridge the gaps if doing so does feel important to them.

Crisis Can Bring Out the Elder in Us

However, I believe this can change. Already, a rapidly increasing number of people are embracing an empowering vision for their aging. Rather than drifting into a disempowered old age, they are focusing on continual personal growth work to strengthen those qualities and commitments to service that have traditionally defined the role of elder. They recognize the importance of using their passion and talents in service to their communities and the ecosystems that support life. It seems to take crisis to galvanize people into action, and the imminent danger of human-induced climate change may well be the crisis that can bring out the elder in millions more of us as we age, impelling us to begin looking at the legacy we will leave our descendants. The magnitude of this crisis is such that we cannot afford to have millions of older adults and young people standing on the sideline, not interested or not believing they can make a difference. Collaboration between elders and “youngers” can be key to success in dealing with climate change and other crises that loom before us.

Elder-Younger Partnerships Create Synergy

Elders can bring to the table time, money, experience creating change (e.g., the environmental, anti-war and civil rights movements). They can contribute long-term perspective, political and financial clout, and a sense of urgency that time is limited for them to make a difference. Many elders have an experiential understanding of the importance of healthy ecosystems for human physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. Elders can also bring an awareness, often not yet reached by younger people, that environmental and social action grounded in hatred and demonization of opponents most likely will only increase polarization, whereas willingness to truly listen to opposing viewpoints and act with an open heart (characteristics of true elders) can bring healing.

Youngers bring energy, idealism, and a wealth of experience with social media and technology in general. They bring concern about their futures and the problems they are inheriting, and anger at the generations ahead of them that created these problems. Elders can show them how to transform this justified anger into passionate commitment and engagement.

As the viewpoints, ideas and skills of different generations are brought together in service to the wellbeing of all, a synergy is created that expands the vision, creativity and effectiveness of any one group. But just as important, such collaboration can result in a long overdue cultural change, in which elders are again honored and needed, and younger people have models for healthy aging whom they can aspire to emulate. Besides helping to create environmental balance, such elder-younger partnerships can help restore social balance within our human community.

1 Sidney Liebes, Elizabet Sahtouris, and Brian Swimme, A Walk Through Time: The Evolution of Life on Earth (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1998), 164 and 166.

 

Ron Pevny is Founding Director of the Center for Conscious Eldering He is also a Certified Sage-ing® Leader, is author of Conscious Living, Conscious Aging  published by Beyond Words/Atria Books, and serves as the host/interviewer for the  Transforming Aging Summits presented by The Shift Network.

Download a PDF file of this article.

Creating the Legacy of Your Elderhood

By Ron Pevny

“Please don’t let me die or lose my health before I have had the opportunity to fulfill what I feel called to do.”  Lying in that hospital bed, assaulted by waves of fear and bouts of irregular heartbeat, this is the prayer that most frequently arose from the depths of my being. Nothing is more likely to provide insight into what we deem most important than facing one’s mortality, and that early-May week in 2007 brought me face-to-face with my mortality for the first time.

“Be careful what you pray for, because you may get it” is an adage that became a reality for me that Springtime. I had been deeply yearning for experiences that would serve for me as an initiation into my elderhood and help me gain a gut and heart-level understanding of the conscious eldering I had been teaching and promoting.  The many gifts from this health crisis have been precious and powerful responses to my yearning.  My experiential understanding of the importance of legacy is one of those gifts.

For several years before this health crisis, which my highly intuitive naturopath called a “healing crisis,” I lived my life torn between seeking “regular” work to earn income I felt obligated to produce for my wife and myself, and making a total commitment to the work my heart has known as my calling for most of my adult life—supporting people in moving through life transitions.  It is no wonder that this ongoing inner conflict resulted in a physical health crisis, with my heart literally beating to two different rhythms.

One night toward the end of this big initiation, as I tried to fall asleep I was filled with despair as I felt my heart again beating irregularly. As I drifted into some kind of a dream state I saw and felt a darkness that felt like death approach and began to envelop me. Knowing there was nothing I could do to fight off this darkness, in an act of total surrender, I cried out to what I call the Great Spirit to save me if there was indeed a purpose I had yet to fulfill.  And at that instant I felt the darkness explode out of me and I awoke knowing a healing had happened.  That was the end of my irregular heart rhythm, and the catalyst for my making the commitment to follow the calling of my heart without reservation, without equivocation, a commitment that resulted in my founding of the Center for Conscious Eldering.

“Calling” and “Legacy”—I see these as two very related words for those committed to a conscious elderhood.  In a modern culture which has no honored role for older adults, a great many people view their legacy as a body of work that is complete by retirement age (whether one is able to retire or not), leaving the years or in many cases decades that remain as a lengthy period of diminished relevance to the world around them.  Conscious elderhood offers an empowering vision of relevance and meaning for these years and decades by reminding us that we will indeed create a legacy in our later chapters, and have a choice as to what that legacy will be. We have the opportunity to serve others by claiming the role of elder, which has been critical to the wellbeing of humanity for most of known human history, and to claim it in a way that has never before been possible in human history. Or we can choose to grow old with our primary focus on ourselves, the dominant paradigm for aging in today’s world.

Elders have always been the ones whose wisdom and big-picture perspective, forged in the fires of experience, have been critical to remind their societies of the importance of making decisions with the wellbeing of descendants the foremost consideration.  Elders have channeled the voices of future generations calling for a healthy world and society in which to live and thrive.  With life expectancies being much shorter, people who lived to  elderhood throughout most of human history were a relative rarity.  In contrast, millions of us around the world are entering our 60s at a unique time in history. By and large we are living long lives; the world needs the wisdom and gifts of all its citizens as we stand on a narrow edge between transformation and collapse; and the inner elder in each of us is seeking expression in a society that provides few structured means for this. This expression is the powerful positive legacy we have the opportunity to leave in our elderhood. And the fullness of this expression is very much related to “calling.”

I believe that at the core we are spiritual beings living within bodies and personalities. Each of us has a gift to give to life, a gift that is grounded in both our outer talents and wisdom, and in the spirit or soul within.  This gift is our calling. Some of us, for whatever reason, have a strong sense of connection to the calling from that deepest, most authentic voice within us.  Many of us, however, especially in a society that doesn’t recognize this dimension of human experience, are not aware of this inner compass or have difficulty accessing it.  Uncovering this source of vision for our later chapters is the opportunity and the work of those committed to aging consciously.  The more we are able to do so, the more likely we are to tap into the sense of purpose and passion that can make all the difference in how we age, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Passion and purpose are the stuff of which elder legacy is made.

There is a common misperception that legacy, purpose, and calling are necessarily equated with large visible projects, actions, commitments. For some of us that is the case.  For others, our elderhood calls us to less visible ways of being and serving.  What is most important are those qualities of presence, open-heartedness, authenticity, trust and peace that we bring to whatever we choose to do, to however we offer our gifts. It is true that the impact we have upon others and what they will remember about us—a good definition for legacy—has much more to do with the kind of person we are than the deeds we do. When we bring these life-enhancing qualities to our days, we are shining a critical light in the darkness. This light can directly touch many, as in social and environmental action.  Or it may directly touch fewer, as in offering our love, wisdom and presence to grandchildren or young people who look to us as mentors, helping them to let their own light shine. What’s most important is that we are shining our elder light, and the combined elder light of ever increasing numbers of us is absolutely necessary to pierce the darkness of unconsciousness in which our world is mired.

A useful way to get in touch with the importance of the legacy you create in your later chapters is engage in an imaginary conversation with those who will be your descendants one hundred years hence, or with a group of children from that era if you will not be a biological ancestor.  Imagine them asking you how you are choosing to age during a time when the world is so full of both danger and opportunity.  Imagine them asking you what legacy you are creating with the unprecedented longevity and resources you are blessed with.  And perhaps, hoping you don’t need an encounter with mortality to provide the answer, ask yourself how you truly want to live the elder chapters of your one, precious life.

Ron Pevny is Director of the Center for Conscious Eldering and author of “Conscious Living, Conscious Aging” published by Beyond Words/Atria Books

Download a copy of this article.

Aiming High: The art, the practice, and the gift of conscious aging

by Ron Pevny

The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.   Michelangelo

What do you aim for as you age?  Other related questions:  What does aging mean to me?  How do I deal with my fears of aging?  How can I find fulfillment and dignity as I age?  What is the purpose of my life after retirement?  Such questions of meaning and purpose arise in the quiet hours for many of us but are seldom asked, answered or even acknowledged in public.  Modern culture usually considers only the monetary aspects of aging.  While addressing our financial and physical security is certainly important, it is equally important to address the needs of our emotional and spiritual selves –our needs to thrive as well as survive.

My work is to share with others a vision of aging, often called “conscious aging” or “conscious eldering”, that recognizes and supports all that is life-enhancing and passion-awakening to aim for as we contemplate the later chapters of our lives. These years can be a time of deep fulfillment as we reach the pinnacle of our personal and spiritual growth. They can be an opportunity for the kind of service to community and sharing of wisdom that, throughout most of human history defined the honored role that cultures accorded their elders.  For those inspired by this vision, conscious aging is a path characterized by meaningful goals for our elderhood that spring from our authentic selves (rather than the images of the society around us), and by our use of the power of intention and inner work to make our sense of what is possible a reality.  It is a challenging path that requires the courage to aim high, bringing awareness and intention to our aging, rather than merely drifting into old age with few if any goals that can bring out the best in us.

This is not just about aiming for lofty goals, however.  Our ability to reach our outer goals is very much dependent upon the state of our inner life and the inner development work we do to bring clear, healthy energy to our lives as we age.  We have all heard the old adage, “wherever you go, there you are.”  There is great value in seriously reflecting on the question, “what kind of a self am I bringing to my later life chapters?”

As we move through our lives, all of us suffer the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” We are all wounded by others, by painful experiences, by our own misguided choices and actions.  These woundings often produce lingering, heart-closing resentments and numb our emotional lives.  Many of us harbor regrets and are weakened by disempowering internal stories of ourselves being victims, or inadequate, or unworthy. We have all absorbed and internalized countless messages from the society around us about who we are and what should have meaning for us, and in the process become to a greater or lesser degree estranged from our own authentic selves and our internal guidance for our lives.

All of these realities, largely unconscious for most of us, bind our life energy to emotional baggage, sap our passion, and blind us to our unique potential.  The lack of energy, passion and sense of purpose that so many experience in their senior years is not primarily a function of age, but rather of these life-draining inner dynamics.  Critical to conscious aging is commitment to inner work to free up our energy and passion by healing old wounds, forgiving resentments, transforming regrets, re-writing disempowering old stories, replacing counterproductive habits with conscious choices, and getting in touch with the spiritual dimension in ourselves from which the visions and goals that are authentically ours –that enable us to aim high—can emerge.

Conscious aging is not a path that everyone will resonate with or embrace.  However, a growing number of baby boomers and well as those beyond their sixties are indeed hearing a strong call from within the depths of themselves to age consciously.  Are you one of them?  What do you plan to do with the remaining chapters of your precious life? If you recognize that call within yourself, I encourage you to respond as if your deepest fulfillment depends upon it and as if the wellbeing of the generations to follow you depends upon the choices you and others make. Because they do.

Collectively we can lay the foundation for a healthy world in which our descendents can thrive.  There is no greater legacy we can leave to future generations, and no greater gift we can give to ourselves, than to aim high as we age, ever reaching for our best.  The world needs the wisdom, wholeness, passion and gifts of conscious elders.

Ron Pevny is Director of the Durango, Colorado-based Center for Conscious Eldering and author of Conscious Living, Conscious Aging: embrace and savor your next chapter published by Beyond Words/Atria Books. 

Download a PDF file of this article.

Moving From Who We Have Been to Who We Can Become

 By Ron Pevny

As someone who is deeply committed to supporting people who feel called to age consciously, the terms elder and elderhood are integral to my work. In the modern world, the term elder tends to be equated with that disempowering word elderly, which so often means frail, vulnerable, or just plain old.  But it can mean so much more if we understand the role it has played throughout history.

Elder is a role and elderhood a life stage that has been critical for the wellbeing of the world’s cultures since time immemorial, but which has been lost in today’s world. It was the elders whose role was to embody the wholeness, and share the hard-won wisdom, that their communities needed to survive and thrive, especially in difficult times when the ability to see the bigger picture was critical.

It was the elders who recognized the responsibility to share the fruits of their lives and experiences with the younger generations. It was in elderhood, as physical abilities weakened and day-to-day responsibilities lessened, that people could more strongly focus on their inner lives and on allowing Spirit to shine through, so that their biggest impact came more through the wholeness of their being than through the amount of their doing.

While modern culture no longer acknowledges the role of elder, the inner call to true elderhood as we age is still there. It is an archetypal dynamic built into each of us which seeks expression as we begin to move from the stage of mid-life adulthood toward our next chapter.

Many of us are unable to hear this call because it speaks to us in a language of feelings, experiences and intuitions that is foreign to our culture and its values.  Others may sense this call, especially in times of inner or outer crisis when we are potentially most open to our inner guidance, but try to ignore it. In either case, by not responding to the call to elderhood we run the risk of stagnation and depression. The nature of life is growth through stages, and when the growth that enables life transitions is prevented, all living things, including us humans, wither.

Each new stage presents us with challenges and opportunities for growth. As one stage is nearing its natural completion, we have a choice: to either try to hold on to what has been (risking withering and loss of our aliveness in doing so) or to embrace the challenging but renewing process of transition. Healthy transition between life stages is a three-phase process, with all these critical phases interweaving as we move toward the new life chapter that calls us.

The first phase is severance, the time of inner autumn, harvest and endings We are called to review and take stock of our lives and who we have become—with  our mix of strengths and weaknesses, joys and sorrows—seeking  to learn and distill wisdom from our many experiences. We become aware of and begin to release or heal attitudes, fears, beliefs, behaviors, attachments and self-identifications that may (or may not) have served us in the past but will certainly not serve us in the future we envision for ourselves.

As we do the work of this phase, we find ourselves more and more aware of being in what is often called  the neutral zone. This is time of being betwixt and between life stages, often feeling lost and confused with no map to follow into the future, knowing that who we have been doesn’t feel alive anymore and may not even be possible to continue, but not knowing who we have the potential to grow into.

While the neutral zone is difficult, it is through allowing ourselves to experience this discomfort and disorientation, without grasping for the certainty of clear goals and direction, that we move forward.  This is a time for giving ourself the gifts of silence; solitude; reflective time in nature; deepening of our spiritual connection; inspiring images, poetry and ideas; and exploration of possibilities, without making long-term commitments, to see what feels truly alive for us.  If we embrace and support this winter time in our journey of transition, we can trust that the vision, creativity and strength that will define our elderhood will begin to emerge according to a timing that comes from layers of us deeper than ego.

As we emerge from the neutral zone, we find ourselves entering the phase known as reincorporation, or new beginnings.  This is spring for us, when we experience the emergence of a new life stage, with seeds of possibility sprouting and emerging into the light of a new life stage.  We experience gradually increasing clarity about who we can become, what brings us meaning and purpose and how we can best serve life in the new chapter we are entering.

One of the most profound experiences in my 15 years of leading conscious eldering retreats involved a retreat group that shared profound awe as, over several days, we watched three caterpillars undergo transformation within a wire enclosure on a table in our meeting room in Vermont. The retreat center owner had carried them, along with bunches of the milkweed they feed on, from a verdant hillside to this enclosure. As each caterpillar clung to a small branch, it gradually turned into a chrysalis, losing all its caterpillar characteristics and becoming a green fluid contained within a translucent ovular membrane.

The caterpillars had entered their version of the neutral zone, no longer what they were but clearly not yet what they would become. That green fluid contained a pattern or image for the butterfly that would emerge from the goo when the inner process was complete. Then over a couple of days we began to see within each chrysalis vague outlines of a new form beginning to develop.

On the final day of our retreat, as we were reflecting on what we had learned about the dynamics of our own transitions, one chrysalis broke open and a magnificent, wet, fragile monarch butterfly emerged, ready to grace the world with its beauty and contribution to the web of life.

It needed an hour to dry its delicate wings in the sun, and shortly before our retreat ended we opened the enclosure and off it flew to begin its new life. Shortly thereafter we left that place to embrace new chapters in our journeys toward new life as conscious elders.

Ron Pevny is Founding Director of the Center for Conscious Eldering, (www.centerforconsciouseldering.com), a Certified Sage-ing Leader with Sage-ing® International, and author of Conscious Living, Conscious Aging published by Beyond Words/Atria Books. He can be reached at ron@centerforconsciouseldering.com.

Download a PDF file of this article.

Shedding Old Skins So We May Grow

by Ron Pevny

An important aspect of the inner work that supports us in moving through the transition from mid-life adulthood into the Elder stage of our inner and outer lives is letting go.  It is necessary to consciously shed those elements of our lives that keep us bound to the past when the possibilities of the future require us to travel lightly, carrying only that which will support us in this new life chapter.

Images from the natural world around us can serve as potent reminders that we are natural beings.  We live and grow in the same way as all living beings—death always precedes new life—and this process always requires the death or letting go of what we have been so that we can move to the next stage of our growth. It’s no surprise that indigenous peoples who live close to the land understand this, and their rites of passage are designed to reflect this understanding. For many of us, a beautiful reminder of this dynamic is the image of a snake having to periodically shed its skin, and in many cases become blind and vulnerable for a while, before growing a new skin that is large and healthy enough to contain the snake in its next stage of growth.

In our modern world that has lost touch with understanding of the dynamics of life transition, we too often try to move into a new external life stage without doing the inner work that supports our psyches in making this journey.  We too often give no thought to the reality that, if we are to realize our potentials in our lives after “retirement age”, important changes must be supported in our inner lives.  We can’t take all of who we have been into our next life stage and thrive.  Our old skin will become too constricting, too unhealthy, too rigid to support a being who is growing.  So, conscious eldering requires us to become conscious of and to release those aspects of ourselves that, if we hold on to them, will constrict our energy and won’t serve us moving forward.  This includes attitudes, beliefs, attachments to ways of identifying ourselves, stories about who we are, resentments, regrets, and habits.   Equally important, the path of conscious eldering calls us to become conscious of qualities, attitudes, beliefs, gifts and wisdom that are truly our strengths and that can form the foundation for the new beginnings ahead of us.

Letting go is so often difficult.  Most of have a sense—sometimes a very clear and compelling sense—that there are aspects of our lives that just don’t serve us, and may even be seriously undermining our joy, effectiveness, love.  But the reality is that these aspects often become part of our sense of identity. It feels safer to associate with what is familiar than to open ourselves to the unknown.  And yet, conscious acts of letting go are critical to our growth.

  • They are critical because of what we are releasing.
  • They are critical because they free up the energy that has been bound to them, so this energy can support the development of new vision and new beginnings.
  • And they are critical because of the reality that as we age, we will inevitably experience more and more losses, including our very lives at some point. These losses send many people into long-term hopelessness and bitterness. But we have another option.  As we come to recognize the pain that results from holding on to a past that is no longer possible, and experience the new emotional and spiritual energy that results from letting go, we come to see opportunities for growth no matter what we lose. The more capacity we develop for letting go, and trusting that each time we let go we open the door to some new possibility for LIFE, the more resilience and peace we will have as we age.

There are some important realities to understand about letting go.  First, it is a misconception that letting go is primarily the result of a strong act of will, and that letting go happens in one powerful, dramatic release.  Yes, strong will is necessary but it is usually not sufficient.  For most of us, letting go is a process that happens over time, just as a snake sheds its old skin gradually over hours or days.  Letting go requires ongoing commitment to a process that is like peeling off layers one by one, until finally all that is left is the core, and then that is released as we touch it with the power of our love for ourselves and our commitment.

Much of the time, letting go of something that has felt like a part of us involves some grieving at the same time we may well feel a sense of liberation.  It’s important to allow ourselves to feel grief if it arises as we let go.

Another reality is that we cannot force out of ourselves something that needs to be shed.  There may be a lot of painful emotions attached to what we need to shed, and a sense of revulsion or anger at it, e.g., “I’m sick of you, so I’m throwing you out.  Good riddance. I don’t want to ever see your miserable face again.”  Here’s the reality.  This just does not work.  These things we need to let go have become part of us.  Our energy is attached to them and gives them their life.  Trying to throw them out with revulsion or anger only empowers them as they struggle in our psyches to hold on to their roles in our life. It becomes an unending battle.  It is no more productive than ignoring them in the first place.

So, what is the alternative?  The alternative is approaching them with the transformative energy of love, honoring them for having in some way or other served us in the past, and releasing their energy to serve us in new ways in the future.  We honor their role in our journey of growth.  We express gratitude for what they have taught us and how they have shaped us into the unique individuals we are, with elder wisdom and gifts honed from experiences positive and negative. We don’t try to tear off an old skin, but rather gently release it with trust that our psyches will support us in engaging in this natural process.  Nothing supports this process more than bringing our love and compassion to ourselves and to what needs releasing.

There is also value in working to understand what you intend to replace it with.  For example, if you need to release an old pattern of allowing fear to keep you from doing what you really want to do, you can make a practice of working to develop and nurture trust, fear’s opposite. Throughout this process, know that you are supported in your growth by that spirit in you that calls you to grow and thrive, and that helps you to follow each small death with a new beginning.

You are a hero on a hero’s journey of growth through endings and beginnings, sorrows and joys.  It is a journey whose very nature is change.  Fighting change is futile, and can only result in stagnation.  Courageously facing change brings life and renewal. The essence of our humanity is our ability to choose whether to stagnate or grow, in whatever circumstances life presents us.

Download a PDF file of this article.

Which Self Will Win? Making the Choice to Live and Age Consciously

Many of you are familiar with the oft-told teaching story, attributed to the Cherokee people, where the young person asks the wise elder, “Which wolf will win?” I’d like to offer you a revised version of this story as it relates to conscious eldering.

A passionate woman in her early sixties, feeling she was finally emerging from a difficult passage that led her out of her mid-life adulthood into her next life chapter, approached a wise, white-haired elder widely recognized in the community as an exemplar of wisdom. The young emerging elder said to the wise elder, “I have within me a beautiful vision, or at least parts of a vision, of becoming like you. I have an inspiring sense of how I can use my best qualities, skills, and gifts to serve our community and be personally fulfilled as I age. I’m having some wonderful experiences of spiritual connection. My creativity seems to be coming to life again. I’m feeling more peace, joy, and optimism than I have in a long time.

“However, I’m also very aware of a whole other side to me. I often feel fear. Sometimes it is fear that I’m just deluding myself about conscious elderhood, and that growing old is really just a drag. Sometimes it’s fear that no matter what visions I have, there’s no way I can achieve them in the real world I live in. Sometimes, it’s just a free-floating fear of the world and my life and the future. I’m also aware that I have so many habits that I can’t seem to change that seem to numb me out. My passion and optimism seem to fade so easily, and I don’t know why. My heart feels open one day and closed the next. It seems there are two selves within me, at war with each other. How can I resolve this painful conflict?”

The elder looked into younger woman’s eyes with understanding and compassion and said, “The self in you that will win is the one you feed.”

Most of us who feel the call to age consciously recognize the importance of finding ways to remain conscious when we have received a glimpse of what is possible for us as we age.

We know what a challenge it is, no matter how inspired and motivated we feel at times, to grow into a conscious elderhood in a culture that offers little support for doing so. There are many practices that aid in keeping our hearts and minds open, with meditation and journaling about our goals being invaluable for many of us. Such practices are vitally important, but alone are often not sufficient.

At least as important are those things we choose to remove from our lives. Which self will win—whether we are increasingly able to live consciously or not—depends very much upon what self in us we feed. Healthy, conscious bodies, minds, and spirits cannot thrive on a physical, mental, and emotional junk food diet.

So, I pose these questions for your reflection, as aids in determining whether you are nourishing the self you aspire to be as you age.

  • Do you feed your body healthful, vitalizing foods, most of the time—or artificial foods with no vitality?
  • Do you daily feed your mind uplifting food, such aspoetry, beautiful music, artwork, inspiring films, and stories of people who are helping to heal the world—or is your diet filled with media-generated images of fear, greed and crassness?
  • Do you do your best to spend your time with people who uplift you, support you, bring out the best in you—or do you have many people in your life who are drains on your joy and energy?
  • Do you spend time amid the healing, soul-invoking energies of the natural world—or is your life confined to man-made environments and influences?
  • Do you feed your spirit with activities and practices that bring you alive and make your heart sing—or are you in a rut, surviving but not thriving?
  • Do you feed yourself with the gift of doing your best to live consciously and intentionally in each situation, making a practice of noticing when you are living on automatic so you can make the choice to be more conscious in those moments—or do you primarily live out of habit with little true intentionality?

We all feed ourselves plenty of devitalizing, disempowering things, images, addictions, and experiences.

It is extremely difficult to experience vision, inspiration, and passion for life when we are filling ourselves with toxins, no matter what spiritual practices we add to our lives.

Conscious eldering implies a commitment to doing our very best to increase our awareness of what nurtures the best in us and what feeds unconsciousness and spiritual/emotional numbness.

And it asks us to make lifestyle decisions that reflect this awareness. A conscious elder is committed to living more and more with intention and less and less out of habit. What changes are you willing to make so that your body, mind and spirit thrive as you age? What self are you feeding?

Ron Pevny is Founding Director of the Center for Conscious Eldering He is also a Certified Sage-ing® Leader, is author of Conscious Living, Conscious Aging  published by Beyond Words/Atria Books, and serves as the host/interviewer for the  Transforming Aging Summits presented by The Shift Network.

Download a PDF file of this article.

Claiming Your Elderhood

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 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 truewisdom 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.

This is where meaningful rites of passage, in critically short supply, can play such an important role. Throughout most of known human history, significant changes in life status have been marked by rites of passage or initiation into the next stage of life. The intent has been to provide extensive psychological and spiritual preparation for the transition, followed by a significant ceremony to mark the life passage,with the goal being to help the initiate to consciously and fully move into his/her next role. Through such powerful processes, people were assisted in letting go of attitudes, behaviors and self concepts that would not fit their new life roles.

Concurrently they were guided in identifying and strengthening the wisdom, the psychological resources and the spiritual connection necessary for claiming and effectively filling their new statuses.

Contrast this with today’s world, where meaningful, empowering rites of passage are rare, and people are expected to move from one stage to another largely on their own, with little psychological and spiritual preparation. Teens graduate and are assumed and expected to be adults. Adults retire and are assumed and expected to be—what? Old? In decline? No longer able to significantly serve the community? Out of the way so the young can make the contributions? Drains on the budget?

This is a call for meaningful rites of passage for those feeling the call to elderhood. It is a call to the leaders of the many spiritual traditions in our country, as well as those others who, through various means have stepped into and owned the wisdom of their own eldering, to develop inspiring programs of preparation for elderhood, culminating in ceremonies of passage. It is also a call to seniors and soon-to-be-seniors who feel called to serve their communities as elders to request and seek out such support. A few programs already exist and are having a dramatic impact upon those who utilize them. As burgeoning numbers of people stand on or near the threshold to their senior years and feel a call to an elderhood of passion and engagement, the need for rites of passage for elders will greatly increase.

Whatever form they take, effective rites of passage into elderhood will not prescribe a particular form or role for emerging elders. 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.

Ron Pevny is Founding Director of the Center for Conscious Eldering He is also a Certified Sage-ing® Leader, is author of Conscious Living, Conscious Aging  published by Beyond Words/Atria Books, and serves as the host/interviewer for the  Transforming Aging Summits presented by The Shift Network.

Download a PDF file of this article.

The Art of Pilgrimage: Meeting Ancient Wisdom in Copper Canyon

As the Giver of Life touched the eastern horizon above Barranca del Cobre, piercing the darkness and winter chill with its light and warmth, drumbeats sounded in the rugged canyons below. The ancient inhabitants of Copper Canyon, the Raramuri (Tarahumara) were greeting the sun, as they have done during late winter since time immemorial, in anticipation of spring equinox and the renewal of life for the earth and all her beings.

High above on the canyon rim, other drums were sounding their prayers of gratitude as the promise of a new day touched the sixteen pilgrims, from across the United States seated among the boulders, yucca and ponderosa pine. The drumbeats from below and above pulsed through one corner of Copper Canyon, Mexico, as those visitors visualized the heartbeats of two very different cultures, separated by distance, world view and pain-tinged history, beating as one.

The Raramuri, whom many authorities consider to be relatives of the Anasazi (Ancestral Puebloans) of the southwestern U.S., experienced their first contact with Europeans when Spanish expeditions came to north-central Mexico in the 16th century seeking gold. Having difficulty pronouncing “Raramuri”, which roughly translates as “people of light feet”, the Spanish called them “Tarahumara”, and this corruption of their preferred name is how the Raramuri are commonly known today.  In the ensuing 200 years, the Raramuri suffered profoundly at the hands of the Spanish, who often brutally tried to eradicate indigenous spiritual practices and replace them with Christianity.  Jesuits and Franciscans brought Christianity to the Raramuri around 1600. The Jesuits were removed from Mexico by the Spanish King 150 years later.  When they returned in 125 years they found the people had integrated various Christian symbols and beliefs  into their rich indigenous nature-based spirituality.

Today the Raramuri number between 50,000 and 70,000, approximately the same as their estimated numbers 300 years ago.  Probably the most unmixed of any of the North American Indians, more than 95% have pure Raramuri blood.  They are among the least changed by modern civilization of the indigenous peoples of this continent. They are best known to the outside world as long-distance runners for whom  running up and down the steep canyons, for sport as well as transportation and communication, is integral to life.  Most live in small houses made of wood or stone or in large caves as isolated family units or small settlements.  Thirty-two Raramuri dialects are spoken throughout the Sierra Madre and its magnificent Copper Canyon complex.

The Copper Canyon area—Barranca del Cobre—is a complex of several majestic canyons, most deeper and larger than the Grand Canyon.  Each continues to be sculpted by wild rivers that eventually join, then empty into the Gulf of California.  Over the years mining of silver and gold has played an important role in the history of these canyons and their inhabitants, whereas copper mining has been relatively insignificant.    The canyon system gets its name not from the metal, but from the brilliant copper color that frequently suffuses canyon walls and sky above as sunset  gives way to twilight.

On that February morning, as the colors of dawn gave way to bright sunlight, the drums and rattles from above and below went silent.  We drummers descended from the canyon rim to our awaiting vans and proceeded on the next leg of what for us was a journey enacted in the spirit of pilgrimage. Ever since we committed to “Meeting Ancient Wisdom, Growing Into Elderhood” months before, we sixteen Americans, ranging in age from 50 to 76, had prepared to come to the magnificent homeland of the Raramuri as pilgrims rather than tourists. Our guides to Copper Canyon and the Raramuri were Jan and Mireya Milburn, who through their Milburn Foundation have devoted decades of their lives to the preservation of Raramuri culture.

The difference between a tour and a pilgrimage is as immense as the canyon itself.  A tour is a trip to an exotic locale to see beautiful natural or human-made features and to learn about the culture and history of the place. The focus is on doing this and that with each step planned and the experiences and insights mostly predictable. The tour leaders strive to offer a “controlled” experience where little is left to chance.

In contrast, a pilgrimage is a journey to touch and be touched by the sacred.  As such it is deeply grounded not in doing, but in being.  The known must be left behind, and Mystery surrendered to and embraced. It is taking a journey with the intention of being fully alive and present to the guidance, mystery, magic and transformative potential of each moment and each experience. Expectations must be let go and the unexpected welcomed. One must trust that a greater Wisdom travels with us and opens us to experiences that—with acceptance, reflection and intention— will further our psychological and spiritual growth.

Despite their widely diverse professional and spiritual backgrounds, what our group of pilgrims held in common was a calling to claim and live the role of elder in our senior years. We all believed that becoming an elder is not the same as becoming older or senior. Understanding and honoring this calling to elderhood can be very difficult in a modern world where the importance of elders is forgotten and their role denigrated

In stark contrast, until the Industrial Revolution, the role of elder was held in high esteem in most societieties. Elders have been the nurturers of community, the spiritual leaders, the guardians of traditions, the teachers, initiators and mentors of the young.  They have been the storytellers who have helped their people remember the enduring wisdom and deeper meanings that persist through life’s changes. They have been the ones who, over long lives have transformed experience into wisdom and whose revered role has been to model this wisdom.

Among indigenous peoples this ancient tradition is still vital, playing a critical role in their survival and health.  The Raramuri respect all people with gray hair and honor their experience and contribution to their community, but they reserve the designation of Mayori, the fullest expression of elderhood, for those who have undergone years of intense training, spiritual practice and deep commitment to their personal growth. Mayori must know everything about the tribe and the way of life that have long made survival possible.  They know the songs, legends, dances, ceremonies, and healing practices.  They serve as counselors and teachers.  They teach their people how to receive and understand spiritual guidance, and how to use heightened awareness to court the synchronicities and miracles that are central to the spiritual lives of their people.

It is the Mayori who hold the cultural fabric of the Raramuri together, a fabric that has as its source an ongoing experience of relationship with the living earth and the Mystery that created and sustains it, and them.  Many of us who embrace a new paradigm for aging believe that the wisdom of true elders is necessary in our world as well if our civilization is to face, successfully, face the momentous challenges that lie before us.

“Meeting Ancient Wisdom, Growing into Elderhood” wove together four strands in our quests to define and live the role of elder in the modern world.  We spent time in solitude on the heights above Barranca del Cobre and in the depths of one of its canyons to strengthen our experience of the sacredness of our relationship to the earth. We explored sites of historical and cultural interest. We engaged in practices, such as sharing councils, drumming circles, guided imagery, dreamwork and give-away ceremonies, to share the joys and struggles of our quests to become elders, to open ourselves to our our creativity and intuition, and to deepen our bonding as community.  And we spent time with Raramuri and their elders, trusting that the impact of being in the presence of indigenous people for whom the archetypal role of elder is alive and strong would serve as a catalyst in our own journeys toward full elderhood.

Many Raramuri still experience their lives through an expanded consciousness (what some scholars call “indigenous soul”) in which they are able to be present for, and creative in, worlds other than the material.  When choosing how, or even if, to relate to outsiders, they read our energy even before we are in their presence.  We knew, therefore, that, if we approached them full of expectations, projections and judgments, they might interact with us only superficially, if at all.  On the other hand, if we went to Copper Canyon with true humility and a beginner’s mind—if we allowed ourselves to be in each moment without expectation—we would come with an energy they could resonate with.  And  by befriending them in this way, we hoped to befriend a basic part of our own human nature, a state of consciousness that enables us, like them, to have living experience of our relationship to all of creation and its Creator.  With this heightened awareness, we come to know our unique roles as elders in supporting the health of earth and the human community.
We began to recognize this shift of consciousness early in our pilgrimage as we experienced our first striking example of synchronicity, or meaningful coincidence. When we left El Paso for the five-hour drive to Chihuahua, a major storm was passing through the area, with the weather forecasters predicting strong, dangerous winds that could very well cover the highway with sand and close it for hours.  We offered our prayers for protection, visualized a safe journey, and began the drive in our caravan of two vans and one truck.  Five hours later we arrived at the Westin Hotel in the city of Chihuahua, having passed through miles of barren, sand dune- landscape with little wind.

Several days after our drumming session on the canyon rim, another wonderful “coincidence” resulted in an unexpected, highly impactful experience for our group.  We had the rare opportunity to spend the morning with an 83-year old Raramuri shaman named Lorenzo and his wife Conchita, who is a healer talented in the medicinal use of plants and herbs. Mireya Milburn, who is Raramuri, spent much time in her childhood with her family’s neighbors, Lorenzo and Conchita.  She introduced them to Jan thirty years ago, but Jan and Mireya had not seen these friends in fifteen years.  One morning Jan learned that Lorenzo, who is often away from his home doing his healing work, would be at home that day and was eager to offer his blessings to our group. With only a brief handshake, this life-long shaman assessed each of our physical and spiritual selves and prescribed practices and remedies that would help us restore balance. He then used both Christian prayer and sage incense to cleanse energies of fear, which are so pervasive these days, so that we could more fully embrace trust, a critical doorway to indigenous soul.

Later, trust was a valuable resource, for some of us, on the seven-hour drive from Cusarare at 7,500 feet down to the former silver-and gold-mining town of Batopilas at 1,200 feet.  We envisioned this descent as both a journey into the depths of Copper Canyon and into the depths of ourselves. The dirt road down into Batopilas Canyon is a one-lane ribbon of rock and dirt, full of switchbacks, awe-inspiring and for some, frightening. Burros and goats roamed the hillsides and meandered along the road.  Passing Raramuri families, dressed in their multi-colored traditional dress lent brilliant color to a starkly beautiful landscape of gray and brown volcanic rock. Later, in the spring and summer, rains would brighten the landscape with a riot of greens, reds and yellows, but not so during our descent into the canyon.

We spent three days basking in the 75-degree warmth of the canyon bottom and the quaint town of Batopilas.  In the early 1900’s, Batopilas was the largest silver-producer in the world.  Now a town of 1100 residents, mostly of Indian-Mexican (Mestizo) heritage, Batopilas boasts a charming hotel, the Riverside Lodge, that was a magnificent hacienda during the silver boom. With every room different and having its own small courtyard, this hotel provided us with elegant yet simple comfort and an inspiring place to meet as a group for sharing circles. We enjoyed our excellent traditional Mexican meals on the front porch of the home of a Milburn friend named Belia, who cooked for us on a small stove in her kitchen.
On our first morning in the canyon, we hiked four miles following the Batopilas River to the Lost Cathedral of Satevo, whose history remains a mystery lost in the mists of time. The formerly red brick church was being renovated and covered with cream-colored stocco. It is commonly believed that this cathedral was already in a state of decay when the Jesuits arrived around 1600.  Its architecture is unlike that seen in Jesuit and Franciscan mission churches throughout Mexico and the southwestern U.S.  Rather it contains prominent characteristics associated with churches and monasteries found in Austria and Bavaria, leading to Jan’s theory that Austrian monks from one of Columbus’ expeditions had settled here a century before the Spanish missionaries.

Our focus shifted from exploration back to inner work the next day as each of us spent a morning in solitude and silence along the Batopilas River. This watercourse was a small, placid stream at this time, in contrast to its rainy season face as a raging, rock-rolling torrent. Our individual and communal prayer was to use this time to even more deeply open ourselves to indigenous soul and its guidance for our lives.

My own most powerful personal experience of the pilgrimage occurred during this time.  As I waded a small channel, reflecting on events of the past few years, I came to understand my dream of the previous night in which the key symbol was a boy being baptized. I suddenly “knew” that I needed, with Jan’s participation, to create a personal ceremony to mark the end of one chapter in my life and baptize myself, with the waters of the Batopilas River, into full commitment to the next stage. I related to my dream as the Raramuri do to theirs, as an important vehicle through which indigenous soul makes itself known.  Such a relationship with their dreams is integral to the psychological and spiritual lives of the Raramuri and other indigenous people, and is one that all of us can cultivate. To honor this relationship, Raramuri  believe it is essential to tell ones dreams upon awakening, and, in certain cases, to translate dream images into personal ceremonies or commitments.

Our experiences in the canyon were instrumental in preparing us for our ascent to Cusarare and what for most was the defining moment of our pilgrimage, the opportunity to spend time with Raramuri elders. Throughout the journey, we knew this meeting was a possibility but not guaranteed.  Months earlier, Jan Milburn had invited several of the elders, including Mayori, to spend an afternoon with our group.  These are leaders with whom he had close relationships during those years when he lived and worked with the Raramuri building schools and health clinics, creating work opportunities, and winning back the millions of acres that had been stolen from them by timber and hotel interests.   He had not seen most of them for several years, and did not know if they would choose to join us.  His two closest mentors had died in the previous year.  He told us that the others he invited were, like most Raramuri, naturally shy and not eager to spend their time with whites.

It was not until the morning of the scheduled day that Jan learned that sixteen of the elders had accepted his invitation to join us for an afternoon meal in the cave home of friends of the Milburns. It seemed fitting that we begin that day with the future of the Raramuri, their children, by visiting the local school for Raramuri children, hearing them recite their lessons, delighting in their laughter and smiles, sharing their nervousness, and presenting them with markers, pens and pencils, and notebooks.  Then, we drove on to the cave home.

The elders who greeted us at the cave home—governors of communal lands called ejidos, two Mayoris, a healer, several others and their wives—all had dark, weathered faces lined with age.  The men dressed in western clothing—jeans ,shirts, and hats—with several wearing handmade sandals.  The women were dressed in brilliantly colored ruffled skirts, blouses and head scarves, and wore sandals. Curious children whose school day had just ended shyly watched us from behind large boulders above the cave.  We suspected that the Raramuri shared  our nervousness at not knowing what to expect. Jan advised us to become comfortable being with the elders in silence, sharing all those many elements of communication that are non-verbal. He told us that a slight brushing of their fingers against ours would be the appropriate form of greeting.  To be offered a firmer handshake at some point would be a special gift. Try to feel their energy, he told us, as surely they would be feeling ours—let  Raramuri indigenous soul touch ours and trust that to be enough.

In the spacious, smoky cave home, we and these elders and children shared a large meal of tamales and blue corn tortillas, prepared by Mireya’s mother and relatives the night before (probably all night!) As some of us played with the children, their smiles and laughter began to relieve the mutual nervousness. Then we went outside to a circular grassy area bordered by large boulders, where we sat alternating Raramuri with white visitors. Using Jan as their translator, several of the elders made short welcoming speeches and extended their blessings toward us.  As is customary when meeting elders of all indigenous cultures, we offered gifts that they value: beautiful cloth and sewing materials for the women, flashlights and Leatherman tools for the men. Each of us gave our gifts to an elder with whom we felt connection, evidenced by a smile shared or one of those subtle yet tangible feelings of being in relationship.  And then Jan asked if the elders would accept a rhythmic blessing from our group.

The pulse of our drums and rattling of our shakers carried our prayers for the wellbeing of the Raramuri. With the drumming, we were bringing healing to the old, pain-tinged relationship between these humble people and the often arrogant white man.  It touched us deeply to have several of these elders offer us full handshakes as we were leaving. When the elder who best knew Jan asked if we would/could come back, our feelings were confirmed that our unique overture to Raramuri elders was also valued by them and seen as an important beginning.  Unlike tourists, we had not come just to get something for ourselves. We had done our best to meet and honor them without judgment or projection. Our innate goodness had met theirs, the indigenous soul that is the essence of our shared humanity had shone forth and was felt by all—and all are all better off for this encounter.

As I write this account in mid-March, it is now the beginning of the season of renewal in the northern hemisphere. The Life-Giver rises and sets each day to the sound of Raramuri drums beating deep in the canyons. The starkness of the winter landscape is giving way to the lush colors of spring.  The spiritual practices and beliefs that are the life of Raramuri culture live on, grounded in both Christianity and an indigenous tradition of deep reverence for the earth.

Out of the canyon and many miles to the north, the heartbeats of a group of sixteen aspiring elders continue to beat in resonance with those of our Raramuri brothers and sisters. We still have much to learn about the fullness of our potential to serve as true elders in our communities, but we have made a beginning.  We, and others like us, are on the leading edge of a necessary paradigm shift in how aging is viewed in America.  As we learned from the Raramuri, aging need not be defined by decline, loss and withdrawal from active contribution to the community. Aging done consciously, with intention and inner work, can be a time when, like finely aged wine, we are at our best, giving our gifts and sharing our wisdom as we fulfill a role that since time immemorial has been vital in the lives of communities—that of the elder.

Our pilgrimage to Barranca del Cobre was a practice in the art of pilgrimage, demonstrating to us our potential for honoring and living each day as another day on our pilgrimages through life. We now know we can journey through our days carrying trust that a greater Wisdom, and its gift of indigenous soul, is traveling with us.  The Giver of Life rises each day to remind us, as it does the Raramuri, that all life is sacred and inter-dependent.

The “Meeting Ancient Wisdom, Growing into Elderhood” pilgrimage described in this article, was co-guided in 2009 by Ron Pevny and Wes Burwell, in collaboration with Jan and Mireya Milburn of the Milburn Foundation (www.milburnfoundation.org) a non-profit organization built on Jan’s more than 40 years of dedication to the preservation of the indigenous culture of the Raramuri (Tarahumara) Indians and their Copper Canyon homeland.  
 
“Meeting Ancient Wisdom” is offered each year as an opportunity to do conscious eldering work while being inspired by the wisdom of the indigenous people of Copper Canyon in Mexico, Hawaii or other magnificent places. Ron Pevny is a life coach, organizational consultant 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 offered Choosing Conscious Elderhood retreats and wilderness quests since 2002.  Ron and his Center for Conscious Eldering can be reached at 970-247-7943 or info@centerforconsciouseldering.com.

Download a PDF file of The Art of Pilgrimage