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.

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What We Believe Shapes How We Age

What do you believe your later years will look like?  Many of us never even think about the beliefs we carry inside us as our months become years and years turn into decades. Your beliefs may well determine the answer to this question.

In recent years, a host of research has been adding its voice to the age-old wisdom of the world’s spiritual traditions in emphasizing the importance of belief and attitude in determining how our lives unfold. Some compelling and well-publicized research was done in the Yale School of Public Health by professor Becca Levy. In the study, a very large number of middle age people were interviewed six times over the course of 20 years. They were asked whether they agreed with statements like: “As you get older, you’re less useful.” What they found was the perceptions held by people about aging had more impact on how long they would live than did their blood pressure, their cholesterol level, whether they smoked, or even whether they exercised.

The study found that the people who had positive perceptions of aging lived an average of seven and a half years longer than those with negative images of growing older. They also found that those with negative images of aging not only had compromised health and shortened lives; they also had more distress and depression in the present. People with negative perceptions of aging were more likely to consider their lives in the present worthless, empty or hopeless;  those with more positive perceptions of aging were more likely to view their lives as fulfilling,  joyful, and having meaning and purpose.

Let’s look at two very different sets of beliefs about aging. Since the “modern” era began, aging has largely been seen as a time of decline, loss, and withdrawal from active contribution. Look up the word “retire” in the dictionary; most of the definitions include the word “withdraw.” Accompanying this view is the belief, held in both overt and subtle ways, that once we retire, “it’s all downhill from here.” Our best years are over, with us by and large having made our significant contribution to society. Loss of a sense of purpose and meaning, and a flagging of our passions for life, is to be expected. The best we can do is hold on to who we have been for as long as possible; do our best to stay healthy; enjoy life to the extent our health and finances will allow; find things to keep us occupied; and hope things turn out okay.

Contrast this with another set of beliefs that sees aging as a process of development of character analogous to the development of fine wine over time. Aging is understood as a necessary prerequisite for developing the wisdom that comes only from experience and reflection upon that experience. This stage of our life provides time and opportunity for focusing on our deepest values, our personal development, our spiritual life, and our relationships with our loved ones and communities. These decades are not just the final chapter after we have passed our prime, but rather a time full of possibility for fulfillment, meaning, passion and active community engagement—if we consciously work to make them so.

If we resonate in some way with this second view of aging, a critical first step, whether we are past so called “retirement age” or in midlife and becoming to think about our elder years, is exploring with as much honesty as we can muster, the beliefs we hold about aging. Living in a youth-obsessed society and being surrounded by disempowering beliefs throughout our lives, most of us have disempowering beliefs engrained in our minds and are strongly influenced by them. One way to know how much they influence us is to honestly look at the fears and beliefs we carry about aging. We can reflect on questions such as these, and do our best to honestly answer them:

  • Do I find myself trying to convince myself and others that I am not getting older? If so, what beliefs about aging does this reflect? How does it benefit me to continue to hold these beliefs?
  • Do I believe that once I reach retirement age, it’s basically all downhill from here?  If so, why?
  • What is the vision I have for what my elders years can be? If it is a positive, empowering vision, am I willing to live intentionally so that my vision can become reality.  If I have no vision or a negative vision and am content with letting things unfold as they will, will that serve my wellbeing as I age?
  • Do I believe my worth is primarily tied to what I can do, or is it a reflection of the kind of person I can be?  Which of these beliefs will best serve me as I age?
  • Do I see my life as an unfolding process of inner growth, or is growth not something important to me? If I consider growth important, what opportunities can aging offer me to grow?
  • Do I believe I can move forward gracefully in the face of loss, such as the increasing losses that accompanying aging?  If so, how can I further strengthen my resilience? If not, why not?
  • Do I believe it is worth it for me to stretch beyond my comfort zone in order to find fulfillment as I grow older? If so, am I willing to do so?
  • Do I believe I can learn from people I know or know of who seem to be models for aging well, and from people who seem to age without joy and purpose.? Am I willing to observe, reflect and learn from both types of people?
  • Do I believe that my beliefs make a difference in how my life turns out?

The more we engage in denial of our aging, the more we allow ourselves to buy into our culture’s belief that older adults are largely irrelevant, the greater our risk of being painfully unprepared for the inevitable losses as well as the unique opportunities that accompany us on our journey through our elder life chapters. We have the power to choose the beliefs that shape our lives. We have the power to act intentionally to chart a course for an elderhood of purpose, passion, service and continual growth in whatever circumstances life presents.

If we are in midlife, it is not too early to begin to focus on developing those personal qualities and beliefs that will best support a vital elderhood when we reach that point.  Most of us begin many years before retirement to prepare financially for the elder third or fourth of our life.  Isn’t it at least as important to prepare emotionally and spiritually?

If we are in our 60s, 70s and beyond, it is certainly not too late.  Using the power of positive beliefs, commitment to continual growth, refusal to let ourselves be marginalized because of our age, and dedication to making a difference through serving others, our elder years can be the pinnacle of our development as human beings.  Such an elderhood  will only happen if we are willing to believe it can be our reality, and to do the inner work of growing into that reality.

Ron Pevny is Founding Director of the Center for Conscious Eldering,), a Certified Sage-ing Leader with Sage-ing® International, and author of Conscious Living, Conscious Aging published by Beyond Words/Atria Books.

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Building the Foundation for Fulfillment as We Age: Five Critical Building Blocks

Let’s be honest about aging. Most of us do and will suffer losses and diminishments of certain of our capacities as we age. Unfortunately, our culture in general has come to define our elder chapters by these losses and diminishments.  This all-too-narrow understanding of aging relegates older adults to being seen primarily as needy, diminished beings who will likely require expensive care, while no longer having a relevant role to play in society as they live out the ever-increasing number of years after retirement age.  And because it is so pervasive, most of us have internalized these beliefs, and they influence how we deal with our own aging and the aging of others.

But there is another side to this coin of aging, and this has become known as Conscious Aging. This understanding of aging focuses on our great potential for continuing emotional and spiritual growth in life’s later chapters. It focuses less on what we want to do, or can no longer do, as we age and more on who we want to be. The old adage is true that wherever we go and whatever we do, there we are.  Our elder chapters give us a precious opportunity to grow toward a personal wholeness which can infuse whatever we do and whatever we experience with joy, peace, meaning and service. This is a time in life that calls us to grow beyond who we have been into the person we have the potential to be.  It calls us to do the inner exploration and inner work than can keep us alive and thriving in whatever circumstances life presents.

I’d like to share with you what I see as the key tenets of Conscious Aging—the critical foundation of a fulfilled, growthful elderhood.  These can be summed up in five words:  Belief; Baggage; Purpose; Community; and Spirituality.

Belief

A recent study, well publicized in the press, confirmed what many of us have long known, and which lies at the heart of most of the world’s spiritual and growth traditions.  What we believe shapes who we become.  Those who believe they can stay healthy, have fulfillment, enjoy meaningful relationships, and somehow serve others in their elder years do indeed tend to stay healthy (living on average 7.5 years longer), feel more fulfilled, and do find ways to be of service, as contrasted with those who believe it’s all a downhill slide after retirement. We all create lifestyles, make choices and carry attitudes that reflect and support our beliefs, and shape the way we age.

Throughout recorded human history, the role of elder was an honored role, with elders expected to contribute their wisdom and gifts in meaningful ways to their community.  We don’t live in such societies, and our culture revers youth and newness and doesn’t even recognize the role of elder.  But the human psyche doesn’t change just because our society doesn’t see elders as relevant to its wellbeing. There is an elder in each of us that wants to emerge as we age; but we need to believe in our potential for personal growth, meaning and service or that potential may never see the light of day. We have to believe that it is possible for us to aim high, rather than just spending our later years in a holding pattern not aiming for much of anything, as seems to be the case with so many people.

Baggage

Having a positive vision for our elder years is important, but we won’t get very far with making it a reality if we are worn down with lots of emotional baggage accumulated throughout long lives.  We all know many older adults who have lost motivation, joy, energy, passion—and it is often assumed that is the inevitable result of aging.  While we all lose some physical energy as we age, Conscious Aging sees much of the loss of energy and motivation as being due to regrets, resentments, unprocessed grief, and old stories about our lives and worth that so many of us carry into our older years.  We become beaten down by life, with little energy to engage with life and others and to thrive. There is greet value in doing life review work to help us see both the strengths and gifts we can carry forward into our elder years, and those unprocessed drains on our energy that, with some effort, can be healed, freeing up much energy to support our aliveness as we age.  And there are many fine resources to help us do this important inner work.

Purpose

Leading researchers into healthy longevity around the world seem to be in agreement that a critical (perhaps THE most important) correlate of a long and healthy life is purpose; having a reason to get up in the morning that provides meaning for oneself and is bigger than oneself.  I find it a sad fact that so many people in today’s world feel that whatever legacy they will leave has been created by the time they reach retirement age. Many believe that, after working hard all their lives, they deserve to live just for themselves in their final chapters.  With many people living 20 or 30 years after retirement age, that’s a lot of time to live just for oneself. One of the tasks of aging consciously is finding purpose and continuing to create a legacy of service for as long as we live.

Community

All the studies on aging well say that having healthy relationships is crucial to wellbeing.  Those I know who are models of aging well have such relationships, and it’s not just about having a bunch of people in your life.  It’s about having people with whom you can share what is truly meaningful to you, what matters to you—your doubts and fears, your joys and visions for the future—knowing that these others really care about you and you care about them.  It’s about having people in your life who bring out the best in you, rather than draining your energy and optimism.  This is critical so that we have the support we all need to embrace and live a positive vision for our aging. Finding community as we age can be difficult and take us out of our comfort zone, but the results can be life-enhancing, and even life saving.

Spirituality

As we age, most of us experience an inner call, sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic, to deepen our relationship with the spiritual dimension of life and of ourselves.  Issues of meaning, of the value of our lives and of our contributions, of our relationship to something greater than our personality selves call to be attended to. This is a very individual process, and it is the responsibility of those committed to aging consciously to find the path to spiritual deepening that is best able to open their hearts and minds.  It is this spiritual connection that is the source of healing of the past and vision for a future of true fulfillment.  It is the necessary foundation of wholeness.

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