A passionate woman in her sixties, feeling she was finally emerging from a difficult passage from 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. This emerging elder, dedicated to growth and service as she ages, posed questions that were weighing heavily on her heart to the wise elder: “I have within me a beautiful vision, or at least elements 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. At times I have some wonderful experiences of spiritual connection. My creativity seems to be coming to life again after what felt like a long drought. On many days I feel 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 her eyes with understanding and compassion and said, “The self in you that will win is the one you feed.”
Can you relate to the aspiring elder in this story, which I have adapted from a teaching story often attributed to the Cherokee wisdom traditions? A great many of us can.
Most of us who feel the call to age consciously recognize the importance of finding ways to stay intentional and focused 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, prayer, journaling about our goals, and committing to spiritual disciplines being invaluable for many of us. Such practices are vitally important, but alone are often not sufficient.
Equally 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 embody 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 as poetry, 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 drain 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, often energy-sapping 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, living out of habit, 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 or numbing yourself out, 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. Our visions for a positive elderhood for ourselves and a positive future for our country and planet can only be sustained and supported by the energy of passion. And passion is sustained and supported by the strength of the life force coursing through us. Mental, emotional and physical toxins diminish our life force, leaving us easy prey to the pervasive energies of fear, doubt, confusion and distraction.
Conscious eldering implies a commitment to doing our very best to increase our awareness of what nurtures our highest potential and of 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 self are you feeding? What self are you willing to feed?
One powerful example of recognizing and acting upon the need for a change in diet comes from a woman who participated on one of our Choosing Conscious Elderhood retreats. On the retreat she told of her sadness at how the creativity, strong intuition and inspiring night time dreams which used to be a vital part of her life had gradually faded. On the retreat she had a sense that a possible cause of this loss was the fact that a while back she had placed a television on the night stand next to her bed, and had gotten into the habit of falling asleep to TV news or late night talk shows. She committed to replacing the television set with an altar, and to spending the last few minutes before falling asleep reflecting or praying or giving thanks at this table that would remind her of the best in herself and in life. A couple months after the retreat she enthusiastically emailed our retreat group letting us know that she had replaced the TV with a beautiful altar, and that her creativity, intuition and dreaming had come alive.
What changes are you willing to make so that your body, mind and spirit thrive as you age? Is there one tangible change you commit to make within the next seven days in what you feed your mind, body or spirit?
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.