The beautiful, living earth around us is turning every shade of vibrant green after months of being shrouded in a cold cloak of white. Spring has arrived in all its glory, reminding us again that after a necessary season of hibernation and dormancy, the energies of life are stirring once more, with each being—plant, animal and human—called to grow into the fullest expression of its essential nature. This is the time when seeds germinate and begin their cycle of growth-leading-to-abundance. This is the season when animals give birth to a new generation full of the energy of life. And it is the time when we humans, no less beings of nature than all those other-than-human beings with which we share this planet, are reminded by the surging life force around and within us, that in order to reap an eventual rich harvest, we must carefully and intentionally identify and nurture the possibilities that life seeks to birth through us.
A significant difference between those who grow into the fullness of elderhood and those who merely grow old is willingness, or lack thereof, to look within to identify the possibilities that seeks to emerge through them in their precious later years, and to consciously work toward nurturing the growth and eventual harvest of these possibilities.
A primary reason for my ongoing commitment to supporting the growth of conscious elders is the sadness I feel when I see older adults declaring through their actions as well as words that reaching retirement age marks the end of their opportunity to give birth to significant new life for our world.
So many believe what mainstream culture reinforces—that their significant contributions to life end when they become “senior citizens”. With millions of people living 20 or more years after retirement age, possessing a wealth of knowledge, skills, and experiences, and having access to all the wisdom traditions of the world if they choose to look, the belief that life does not ask much from us after retirement age is painfully disempowering for older adults and impoverishing for a world urgently in need of the gifts that seek to emerge through seasoned, committed elders.
If we are committed to growing into true elderhood and giving life to our world by bringing forth the gifts that naturally want to emerge in this life stage, it is essential that we live with purpose, intentionality, and courage. Without these, we exist rather than thrive.
More and more research is confirming what the world’s spiritual traditions have long understood—that our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well being absolutely depend upon having a strong sense of purpose. Purpose is often defined as having a reason for getting up in the morning that is bigger than our own pleasures and comforts. Richard Leider, author of The Power of Purpose, offers powerful guidance when he says that the foundation for discovering our unique expressions of purpose lie in a deep commitment to having our primary motivation each day be to somehow grow and somehow give. With this general purpose as our pole star, we will find countless opportunities to grow and to be of service, and as we do so we open ourselves to awareness of the unique gifts within us that seek expression and can become primary avenues for living our purpose.
Having a vision for our ideal elderhood is an equally important dynamic for living with purpose. When so many older adults are asked what their ideal elderhood looks like, they have no idea how to respond. They might talk about taking bucket list vacations or enjoying their grandkids or finding some volunteer opportunities, but beyond that there appear to be no vision—just taking each day as it comes and finding things to do to fill the hours. We get what we aim for. If all we aim for is to fill our hours and enjoy what comforts we can, that’s all we will get as we age. But imagine having a bucket list that addresses many more of our needs as human beings than just our pleasures and comforts. Imagine having a clear vision of what it can be like if your need for community is well met in your elderhood, and to be taking tangible steps to have that need become a reality.
Likewise, imagine having clear vision of how you can fulfill your need to use your gifts in service; your need for emotional and spiritual deepening; your need to continually learn new things; your need for pleasure and excitement; your need for good health of body, mind and spirit; your need for a close, life-giving relationship with the natural world; and your need to give expression to your elderhood through meaningful relationships—perhaps mentoring—with younger people.
You can begin to develop such a vision by making it a priority. You can give yourself the gift of quiet time and solitude in which you look within to see what images emerge as you focus on each of these dimensions of yourself which, when fulfilled, will contribute to your total wholeness and well being. You probably already are at least somewhat aware of various aspects of your vision, and they just need to be recognized, affirmed and committed to. With other aspects, your focused desire for clear vision will help support
your increasing clarity. Inviting contact with your spiritual guidance through prayer, meditation, and other spiritual practices that you resonate with is invaluable in helping you know what is truly coming from your deepest, most authentic inner knowing versus from just your mental self and your conditioning.
As you gain a sense of elements of your vision for your ideal elderhood, take time to imagine that they have become reality in your life. What will it look like when they manifest? What will you be feeling as you achieve these goals? This process will help you move beyond having appealing ideas to getting a deeper sense of whether each of these possibilities is truly one you should choose to aim for.
Once you become aware of at least some elements of your vision for your elderhood, the next step is to put these in written form, perhaps accompanied by photos or artistic images, that you keep in a place in your home set aside for reflection and inspiration.
Without clear statements of your goals and your commitment to work toward them, they will remain ephemeral fantasies with little chance of manifesting in your life. I encourage you to develop and periodically update your list of intentions, and keep a journal in which you identify and keep track of tangible steps you are taking and can take toward their fulfillment.
If you are working toward your ideal vision for your elderhood, you are living purposefully. You are growing, you are giving, and you are offering the best of yourself to this world.
Living intentionally is living with a clear sense of purpose and commitment. It is not hoping, or wishing, or declaring what you would kind-of-like to do or have. One obstacle to living with such intentionality is the idea I have often heard expressed that creating such statements of intention seems like adding a big “should” to their lives when they want to reduce the “shoulds” and instead enjoy each moment. I believe it takes personal self awareness—part of the wisdom of elderhood—to find the balance between these two
realities that is right for each of us. Our elder chapters are indeed a time when our psyche calls us to slow down, savor each moment, and develop our inner lives. At the same time, if we want to grow into our potential fullness as human beings, we need to have meaningful goals and work toward them. We need to have goals to focus our energy, and to give us reasons for choosing to endure the discomfort that accompanies
real growth. Goals are what help us move beyond who we are to who we have the potential to become. One of my own intentions speaks to this balance: “As I age, I intend to create a lifestyle that balances focused activity and work toward making my intentions a reality, with the time I need to just savor and reflect on life’s wonders without being goal oriented.”
I have a list of eleven intentions, created over the past few years, that guide my journey into my elderhood. I keep these on an altar I have at home where I have items, inspirational poetry, photos and objects that are sacred to me. Each week I look at my intentions and pay special attention to at least one that seems most alive time at that time. I think about it, visualize it, feel into it, consider steps I have taken and steps I can take, however small, toward fulfilling that intention. Periodically I look within to see if
one of my intentions no longer has life for me, and, if so, I delete it. And periodically when I find that a new goal becomes important, I set an intention around this element of my ideal elderhood and add this to my list.
My intentions, and yours, may not all become reality, but they keep us aiming high and searching for what is possible in our growth. Sometimes a goal that feels ever-so-right also seems totally out of reach. Rather than dismissing it, I suggest you try to take a few small steps in that direction and see what these lead to. We all know those inspirational quotes that tell us about the unexpected support that often arises when we become truly
committed to something. So many people have found that these are true. With some of our intentions we find we have to change course along the way, but without the original intention, commitment, and small steps we would not have gotten to that point. Acting on our intentions is often a catalyst for recognizing possibilities we cannot initially envision.
One of the most important questions I ask participants in our workshops and retreats is this: As you age, is it more important to you to be comfortable, or to grow? For so many people (few of whom come to our programs) comfort and perceived security are the highest priority. I believe it is a reality that little or no growth occurs inside our comfort zones. I’m not suggesting that there is not a place for comfort in conscious eldering. We all need experiences of comfort and rest. Times of comfort help us
stabilize new growth and renew our energy. But if our vision for our elderhood is grounded in continual growth and true aliveness, we need the courage and will to endure the initial discomfort and face the fears that come with shedding old skins and moving beyond our perceived limitations. Additionally, by being willing to step outside our comfort zones, we receive another, equally important gift: that unmatched feeling of
aliveness, usually accompanied by joy and pride of accomlishment, that arises when we shed self-imposed constrictions to the life force seeking expression through us. We have all known that feeling of aliveness, yet we all too often allow fear to override this deep knowing.
Rich possibilities for wholeness, fulfillment and contribution to a world in peril lie within each of us as our beautiful, beseiged planet gives us yet another Springtime. All life asks of us as elders-in-process is that we commit to growing into our very best selves, nurturing the many facets of our precious lives so that as we grow and bloom we are gifts to a world that urgently needs truly alive and whole human stewards.