How Indigenous Elders Touched My Life

A tribute to Wes Burwell

A pioneering figure in the field of conscious eldering passed in mid-November. 

Wes Burwell was a minister, therapist, rite of passage guide, and hospice spiritual director in New England. In the year 2001 he and Ann Roberts, also a rite of passage guide, invited me, Ron Pevny, to join them in creating a program to support people in growing into a conscious elderhood. Together we developed and presented a nature-based retreat called Choosing Conscious Elderhood and, as far as I know, were among the first, if not the first, to call the inner work of aging consciously “Conscious Eldering.” Our understanding grew and evolved, as did our program and recognition in the culture of the reality and importance of a life stage that, if consciously chosen, can rightly be called “elderhood.” Wes was a wise and humble man whose elder years were beautiful reflections of what he taught me and many others about the fulfillment, growth and service that can define life’s later chapters. Wes and Ann passed the torch to me and in 2010, strongly inspired and informed by their wisdom, I created the Center for Conscious Eldering. I owe much to Wes Burwell, and am so very grateful for his gifts to me and to a world urgently in need of conscious elders. The article below was written by Wes after he co-led with me in 2009 a pilgrimage of twelve older adults to do conscious eldering work in Copper Canyon, Mexico and learn from the indigenous Tarahumara (Raramuri) elders for whom Barrancas del Cobre is home. I feel it beautifully expresses an essential quality of elder hood — a way of being that Wes grew into in his final life chapter.


How Indigenous Elders Touched My Life

by Wes Burwell


There is a substantial literature to help us understand the issues and stages of aging. But having crossed the threshold into my 81st year, I find myself listening more carefully to my own ruminations, hunches and yearnings.


Two years ago Ron Pevny invited my wife and me to join a group he had gathered for a pilgrimage into the Copper Canyon in Mexico where a friend of his had been working for a number of years to help improve health, nutrition, and education for members of the Raramuri people. Modern ways of assisting them was beginning to change their traditional way of life – schools, a few pickup trucks, and increasing numbers of stick- built houses – but many still lived in their traditional caves.


We were invited into the cave home of one of the elders for lunch and sat on the dirt floor as we ate the Tamales and blue corn Tortillas that they had prepared for us. After lunch we rejoined the others in our group that had eaten with other families, and sat in a large circle on the ground, with elders and members of our group alternating in the circle. Ron’s friend who had worked with these Raramuri, acted as Master of Ceremonies, interpreting the head elder’s greeting and welcome, and in turn interpreting our appreciation for their warm welcome of us. We lamented the loss in our society of the leadership of elders and spent some time asking them questions about their role in the community as elders.


But the most powerful experience for me was what they communicated, without words, the attentiveness with which they listened to our questions, the deep thoughtfulness with which they answered, the power of their presence. These qualities began working on me, as though they were by their very presence empowering us to become elders.


For me a new stage always begins with something “falling apart”. In fact things were “ falling apart” at the same time I was getting ready to go to Mexico. I had to push myself to get ready for the trip, whereas the excitement of a new adventure usually charges me with energy. But now my body was giving me a hard time. My knee which had never hurt before was now sore and inflamed. But it was too late to back out: tickets had been bought; arrangements had been made. I was angry but I would just have to tough it out.


And tough it out I did with mumbling and grumbling.But at the same time I kept thinking about the Raramuri elders we had met. I kept wondering how they developed such a profound depth of spiritual presence. The impact that the Raramuri elders made on me was to draw me back into a deep inner place of quietness so profound that all anxiety was swept away and I found my center in peacefulness. This sense of calm and peace has continued most of the time since.


I wonder if this peacefulness is a gift of aging. And I sometimes wonder if this is a foretaste of what lies beyond this life. If so there is nothing to fear in death.


The quality of this silent time is similar to meditation. I drop into a reverie that is much more a feeling state than a thinking state. I usually have little difficulty in stopping the mental traffic and dropping into a non-thinking reverie.


This state of quiet wellbeing is sometimes the result of my sitting meditation and sometimes the result of a quiet soft focus on nature, such as the wind moving through the leaves, or feeling a part of the natural world. Instead of thinking about “some thing” I become part of the scene and enter into it.


I like to think that this kind of quietness is an essential part of the elder developmental stage of life. It is a gift of quietness that prepares us for leaving the busyness of this life behind and begins to prepare us for leaving our body-ness behind and living as pure spirit.

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