We all know that we live in a time of intense polarization in seemingly all aspects of life. To my mind, there is a potential gift in this painful polarization, and that is the reality that the human family has the opportunity to experience in a compelling way the stark difference between fear-and -ego-grounded unconsciousness, and consciousness grounded in vision of the human potential for vision, growth and wholeness. As we are assailed each day by images, messages and energies that feed fear and unconsciousness, those of us for whom the fulfillment of human potential is the highest value NEED the support of kindred spirits if we are to shine urgently needed light in a world teetering on a knife edge between transformation and collapse. All of us of any age need the support of true community; living in a culture in which there is no meaningful role for older adults, this is especially true for those of us committed to becoming the elders whose wisdom, commitment and courage can make a great difference in what the polarization of these times leads to. This article is about the importance of community in supporting our growth into a conscious elderhood.
I invite you to use your imagination as you begin to read this. Imagine that you live, as have so many throughout history, in a “traditional” society that recognizes the dynamics of life transition and supports its members throughout their lives in their journeys of growth. You have been so-supported throughout your life through wisdom teachings, ceremonies, and modeling and mentoring from the elders. You have been part of a community that expects — in fact, needs — you to discover, cultivate, and use your gifts for the wellbeing of all.
Continuing this journey of your imagination, now see yourself at the point in your life where you are undergoing the transition, both inward and outward, into elderhood. The elders have been preparing you for a while now for this passage, helping you do the work of letting go of your past identity and opening your heart and mind to the guidance of Spirit to show you how you can best serve your community as an elder. They have been helping you to understand and grow into the wholeness that will be essential if you are to serve as an elder yourself when the time is right. When you are ready, you go off alone into nature to shed your former identity, to ritually experience the power of that in-between time called the neutral zone, and to pray for vision of the gifts you are to bring to the community in your elderhood. When you return to community, you sit with the elders and younger community members and tell the stories of your rite of passage. The elders help you clarify your understanding of the gifts and personal qualities that will define your elderhood. With your community as witnesses, you affirm those gifts and have them acknowledged through word and ceremony. In this empowering way, you take the first crucial steps into your new life chapter.
The forms vary widely, but as scholars such as Arnold Van Gennep, who wrote the seminal work “The Rites of Passage” have shown us, such a process has been the template for the transition process throughout much of human history. We now live in a different world that has lost touch with understanding of what the human psyche needs to grow through life’s inner and outer stages. Yet our human need for community support in moving through the transitions between these stages remains the same. As people seeking to age consciously, our challenge is to find such support. It is difficult, if not impossible, to navigate the life transition process without the support of at least a few kindred spirits. This reality became very real for me in this personal story I’d like to share with you.
Eleven years ago I experienced a health crisis that I have since recognized as my rite of passage into my elderhood. I came to realize as I emerged from this crisis how pivotal it was in requiring me to let go of my previous way of understanding and defining my life, and in helping me emerge from a long, difficult time feeling lost somewhere between who I had been and who I could become. This time of crisis ended with a profound spiritual experience that opened the door to my beginning to recognize and claim the role and gifts of my elderhood. However, my sense of new beginning was fragile, unfolded slowly, and at times seemed to be an illusion.
Then, a couple years later, while in a beautiful wilderness setting with a few friends and a wise elder I considered a mentor, I realized that my personal, informal rite of passage was missing something crucial – acknowledgment and ritual support from others who are my “community.” We were near a stream, and I asked this mentor to help me create a baptism ceremony for myself to mark and empower the new life stage I was slowly but surely growing into. With this impactful ceremony, my passage into a new life chapter finally felt real. It felt so very important to have others witness my telling the story of my transition, to affirm my story and my growth through this process, and to pledge their support moving forward.
I repeat: We need the support of community to successfully navigate our transition into a conscious elder hood. Here are ways you can utilize such support:
- Ask someone you consider a kindred spirit, who cares about your growth and theirs, to be a conscious eldering buddy with whom you can share honestly and deeply what is true for you as you negotiate this challenging transition.
- Find people who seem to share your commitment to aging consciously and create a support group. Together, your group can share your collective wisdom and experience, your fears and enthusiasms, on this journey. You can read and write together with focus on supporting each other’s growth.
Your support group can play a role in rituals you and they create to help support your and their important inner and outer changes. Examples include:
- ceremonies of letting go of attitudes, beliefs, behaviors and identifications that are part of your past but won’t serve you in your next chapter
- personal vision quests alone in nature, in which you open yourself to healing, guidance, and empowerment for your journey ahead, preceded by them witnessing your yearnings and prayers for your time alone, and followed by them hearing and affirming the experiences and insights you share.
- a ceremony that marks your sense of emergence into a new chapter
rituals of commitment to a way of being, a practice, an intention, or a type of service that will embody your new understandings and potentials.
- As you gain increasing clarity about your emerging new life chapter, share this with your community. Share your goals and intentions, and ask for their support in staying true to them as you nurture the new sense of self you are growing into.
- Ask others to send you their love and prayers at all stages of the process.
- Share uplifting, inspiring resources and experiences with each other.
- Make a conscious effort to engage regularly with children, youth and younger adults. The archetypal role of elder is one of sharing wisdom, big-picture perspective, and the energy of wholeness with the younger generations, while being energized, informed and kept flexible by their enthusiasm, idealism and attunement to societal changes. The elder that seeks to emerge in each of us requires being a contributing member of an intergenerational community.
Moving through the inner work of life transition requires living as consciously and courageously as possible. This is not, and has never been, a journey for those unwilling to endure the discomfort of stretching, and being stretched, beyond their comfort zones. With fear and negativity so pervasive, it is critical to counter these with the energies of hope, trust, inspiration, and love if our inner lives are to thrive and growth to happen. For most of us it is impossible to do so in isolation. We are hard-wired to resonate with the energies of the society we live in and the people close to us. Fortunately, it’s not a matter of numbers. Even a few conscious people in our lives can make the critical difference if we are to have any hope of living consciously and intentionally at a stage in our lives where losses and fears are increasingly strong realities along with vast potential for growth and fulfillment.
Finding our community of kindred spirits is, for many people, not easy. Our family or social friends may not be our “soul family.” Finding our soul community may well require us to step outside our comfort zone, taking the lead in initiating relationships, and accepting that our search may result in various “false positives.” However, if our intention and motivation are strong, we will find conscious, kindred spirits or they will find us. There is a great, growing yearning in todays’ world for the kind of community that has supported peoples’ growth throughout history. In this age of polarization, the power of the choices we make is more apparent than ever. There is no way to truly thrive without aiming to live consciously, with the support of kindred community.