My Journey to Conscious Aging: From “What to Do” to “Who to Be”

by Susan S. Manning

This is my story about what brought me to attend a conscious aging workshop, and eventually to become a facilitator for the Center for Conscious Eldering. The meaning of conscious aging in my life has been profound. I was first exposed to conscious aging by attending a retreat at Ghost Ranch, a year before I retired as a professor of social work. I have always enjoyed a work life, and worked full-time since I was 20 years old. It seems odd to look back and remember my first job as a migrant worker. I dropped out of school when I was fifteen, married, and started a family. This was a not a good decision and reflected my adolescent mindset and stubbornness. However, it led me to the beginning of a wonderful career working with people – first in mental health and eventually as a professor in academia.

My first “real job” was as a psychiatric technician at Fort Logan Mental Health Center. There I was exposed to psychiatric illnesses and people with various mental health problems who were receiving care across a spectrum from outpatient visits to inpatient hospitalizations. It was a wonderful time of learning about myself and about people from all walks of life, and I loved the work. I continued my involvement in mental health for many years. I left the inpatient system and moved into community mental health, where I rose through the ranks to team leader of a community mental health outpatient branch. My experience in mental health taught me about the strengths and resilience we have as human beings – our abilities to cope with opportunities and successes as well as difficulties and tragedies as we go through life. It truly was an education in understanding the ramifications of life we all address as we walk our steps.

Eventually I re-entered the educational system and graduated with a Ph.D. in social work. It seemed a good fit for my experience and interest in working with people. I taught social work students at the University of Denver for the next 20 years, moving through the professorial series to Full Professor. I taught a variety of courses including social work practice, mental health, leadership, management, and ethics. During the process, I authored and published a book on ethical leadership in human services. My leadership philosophy and practice is based on my social work education and profession. It includes being proactive, honoring values and ethics, empowering self and others, having a vision, and communicating clearly and honestly. Throughout the years in mental health and social work education, I maintained a small counseling practice, working with adults suffering from anxiety, depression, marital problems, etc.

Celebrating birthdays in my 60s confronted me with the realization I was getting older! I began to worry about what it would mean to retire, since so much of my adult life had been rewarded through a “world of work.” A year before retirement I decided to attend a conscious elder retreat, led by Ron Pevny through the Center for Conscious Eldering. I came to the retreat with the notion that there I would find the answers to what I was going to do next. The retreat was held at Ghost Ranch, and the location was magical. As the days passed, and I absorbed the content, I found myself thinking about retirement from a different perspective. By the end of the week, I had changed my thinking. I was less focused on what I was going to do, and began to consider the notion of who I was going to be – as an older person, as an elder, as a “workless worker in a world of work.”

The week at Ghost Ranch opened up my mind and heart to who I am and could be in my elder years. I had to turn inward and realize the power, pain, joy and meaning in that process. It brought forward another avenue to do what I have always loved – eliciting in myself and others what is meaningful, empowering, and connected to our truth. It is finding our inner voice that acts as a guide to our future.

Since that time I have been a co-leader for conscious eldering retreats at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, and most recently, in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada, working with Center for Conscious Eldering facilitator Larry Gray. In that process I have learned and absorbed new truths and wisdom from our participants, as well as provided some of my own. It is always a stimulating and rewarding experience. I have learned over the years to always trust the process, and have never been disappointed. My mantra for myself and others has been provided by a wise author, Carolyn Heilbrun (1988), who so wisely suggested, “Follow your threads.”

Susan Manning and Larry Gray will be leading the Choosing Conscious Elderhood retreat at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico May 3-9.

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