By Ron Pevny
In mid-July I will be participating in a panel discussion in which several of us who are seen as leaders in the “conscious aging movement” will be exploring with each other the state of our efforts in today’s culture to support people in growing into a conscious elderhood. We are meeting because we sense that the wind has diminished that is needed to fill the sails that propel this necessary cultural transformation. I’m writing this article for the “Conscious Eldering Inspiration and Resources” newsletter to ask for your perspective, which you will have an opportunity to share on the Center for Conscious Eldering website.
So, I’ll begin this article with a story. Once upon a time, not so very long ago, Ram Dass, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Joan Halifax, and several other highly regarded teachers presented several conferences at Omega Institute in which they articulated a vision for living life’s later chapters, which became known as “Conscious Aging.” This was, (and is) an empowering, life-affirming, spiritually grounded alternative to the dominant societal view of the post-retirement years as being primarily defined by disengagement from contribution to society, doing one’s best to ward off decline and diminishment, and focusing on maximizing pleasure and security.
Conscious Aging is predicated upon the understanding, shared by most cultures until the industrial revolution, of the potential of life’s later chapters to be the pinnacle of human emotional and spiritual growth, and a time of special service to the community which emerges from this growth. In the years since those seminal Omega retreats and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s groundbreaking book, From Age-ing to Sage-ing, many of us who have embraced this vision and felt called to share it through our writing, workshops and other venues have chosen to use the term “Conscious Eldering” in recognition of the fact that life’s later years offer the opportunity for people to emerge from mid-life adulthood into a culminating stage of personal development called “Elderhood.” Others favor the term “Conscious Aging,”
Materialistic contemporary societies have lost sight of the potentials and dynamics of the human psyche as we grow through life’s stages. We do not have spiritually and emotionally empowering rites of passage, and have little if any recognition of the inner work that our psyches require for us to grow from stage to stage—with each stage offering the opportunity for us to move closer to inner wholeness. Therefore, our culture offers those nearing “retirement age” no vision for the possibility of growth into elderhood. So the best the majority of us can hope for is to hold on for as long as possible to who we have been, be as secure as possible, and find as much enjoyment as we can (and can afford).
The last 20 or 30 years have seen the emergence of paradigms for aging which are empowering in some important ways, but sorely lacking in others. We are all familiar with terms like Positive Aging, Active Aging, Successful Aging, Refirement-rather-than- Retirement, etc. All of these approaches help to support aliveness and provide the opportunity to be seen as relevant, and to feel relevant) which is so critical as we age. But they generally lack recognition of the needs of our inner selves—our souls—for bringing forth the wholeness and wisdom of elderhood. With their focus on activity and “doing”, they do not recognize the importance of the inner journey of aging, of the necessary focus on the state of our “being” if we are to realize our potential for growth and fulfillment in our later life chapters.
So, with this context being set, the story continues:
In the year 2000, I knew that my decades-long calling to support people in moving through transition was leading me to focus on the life passage into elderhood. I was privileged to learn from many teachers who were models of what conscious aging/conscious eldering can be. And to witness the aspirations and challenges of those dedicated people who came to our workshops and retreats having responded to an inner call to grow into an elderhood they had a “knowing” was possible and important for them. I gave heart and soul to this work, but for many years it was a struggle to attract participants, with my work and that of my colleagues being largely a labor of love and commitment to a deep calling from our souls.
As I persisted, as did an increasing number of others who felt this same calling and shared their vision through their writing and workshops, the cultural milieu began to change. There was increasing interest in conscious aging. This fact, and a personal health crisis that forced me to acknowledge the importance to my wellbeing of making an unequivocal commitment to this work, resulted in my starting the Center for Conscious Eldering in 2010. I found the adage to be true that when one makes a total commitment, life offers unexpected support. Our workshops began to fill and workshop invitations increased significantly. I was invited to give keynotes at conferences on aging. Beyond Words Publishing called me in 2012 asking if I would write a book for them. I did, with my book being titled Conscious Living, Conscious Aging. The Shift Network in 2015 asked me to host their first three Summits on Conscious Aging, because they saw strong and growing interest in this subject. This gave me the opportunity to interview nearly 60 leaders working in a great many ways to empower older adults. They also asked me to present two online courses called “Transforming Your Journey of Aging.” And I was blessed with other wonderful opportunities.
I was so grateful that my work the work of many others in this field was thriving, and that it seemed conscious aging/conscious eldering was making inroads in modern culture. It seemed like our vision of a culture in which true elders play an honored and important role was attainable, slowly but surely, eventually.
And then, a year or two before the pandemic, I sensed a change in this momentum. The invitations to present were not coming. The Shift Network and other such spiritually oriented organizations that reach large numbers of people told me they would no longer present Summits on aging because other topics attracted greater numbers of registrants and generated more income. Their schedules of summits and courses, throughout the pandemic and as COVID eases, includes courses on all kinds of worthy personal growth topics which attract the large numbers of participants they need to be financially viable, but do not include conscious aging (or anything explicitly about aging). To my mind, their choices communicate the message that there is nothing unique about the challenges faced by, and the potentials that seek to be awakened in, the millions of people entering a distinctive stage of life that has distinctive synamics. Their choices imply that Meditation is meditation and the same for everyone. Dreamwork is dreamwork and the same for everyone. Shamanic practices are Shamanic practices and the same for everyone. Mysticism is mysticism and…….
Another example: In 2018 and 2019 I taught two modestly enrolled courses at Omega which were very well received. As much as I would like to return to Omega I no longer have that option because I am told other topics and more-famous teachers generate more enrollments and revenue.
And most recently, as Katia Petersen and I have attempted to find a publisher for our unique new book-in-the-making, The Art of Conscious Eldering: a 52-Week Personal Growth-Book for Aging with Passion and Purpose, Beyond Words and others have told us that they love our book and feel it makes an important contribution, but their research shows that conscious eldering/conscious aging is not a topic that will sell enough copies to warrant their publishing our book. They said the field is saturated with books on aging. When we asked them why they do not feel the same way about the innumerable books being published on Mindfulness, they did not have an answer.
So, that’s the story so far. Now here’s where I ask for your input. I assume you would not be on our email list if you did not resonate to some degree or other with the vision of conscious eldering. And you may well have a more accurate sense of societal culture at this moment than those of us working in the conscious aging field and being so emotionally and spiritually invested in it.
So, before I join the upcoming panel to explore the state of conscious aging, I ask for your feedback to the following questions. You can provide it on our website, www.centerforconsciouseldering.com, by clicking on the “Feedback” link at the end of this article which has been placed on the Home Page. You can also email me with input at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for reading this article and sharing you feedback if that feels right to you.
- Do you think the conscious aging/conscious eldering movement indeed lost momentum in the past two or three of years? If so, why do you think this is happening?
- It has been suggested that factors such as the Trump presidency, the pandemic, climate change, Black Lives Matter and other social justice movements, have somehow shifted peoples’ energy and focus away from their growth in their elder years. Do you think this is so, and if so, why? Isn’t ageism and lack of awareness of the potentials of elder adults as insidious, life-draining, and disempowering as these other issues?
- Does the conscious aging movement need to find other ways of communicating about elderhood? If so, how should we do this, and do so in a way that doesn’t dilute our message?
- Am I (and others) having unnecessary concern about this? Should we just go on sharing our vision of conscious elderhood without concern with how many books we sell or summits we get invited to?
- Do you have any other input you would like us to take into consideration?
Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! May we all choose to live our later chapters as the elders our world so urgently needs.