Two Years in One Woman’s Conscious Eldering Journey

By Barbara Roth

“Getting older is great, you learn to let go of stuff, like yourself.” The Nualas from The Irish Women’s Quotations Book

I used to think the only way to cope with getting older was with humor, and that you truly did have to let yourself go as you aged.

October 1, 2020 is the two-year anniversary of my retirement and the two-year anniversary of heading out to the Choosing Conscious Elderhood  Retreat! These anniversaries are giving me the opportunity to reflect on these first two years of retirement. It was serendipity that led me to head out the day after retiring to this retreat, a retreat I would share with my friend and colleague Gail Vessels. We both wanted to get away after retiring, both love New Mexico and Ghost Ranch in particular, and we were initially looking for a knitting retreat. What we found was actually way more life changing for me.

I feared aging, had no plan for how to deal with it, had no idea that I would encounter the physical struggles I’ve had. Post-retirement life seemed literally like simply wasting time until you die.

I have worked since I was 14 years old. One of the early batches of women to have it all, I was a working Mom, unaware until years later how the stress of doing neither my job nor parenting as well as I wanted took its toll on me. However, my life has been one of blessings, fears, love, losses, health, illness, and survival. I have two wonderful adult daughters and four adorable grandchildren. My career took me places I could never have imagined. None of the jobs I held after my first position right out of college existed when I graduated, so I could not have aspired to them. Moving from local to state and finally national positions, allowed me to use my skills and knowledge and have a positive impact on the world, which was my goal. My work provided meaning in my life beyond the personal and I felt I made contributions that were significant in my fields. I used to say I would never quit work, I loved working, and would not know what to do with my time. I need meaning in my life, and that came from my work.

In 2018, when my organization offered early retirement to my department, I thought it made sense to take them up on it as I was 65 and tired of traveling. This brought me to the precipice of my eldering. Several things contributed to my transition being much better than I’d feared.

I believe one of the biggest contributions to the positive nature of my transition into retirement was the participation in the Choosing Conscious Elderhood retreat.

Having never attended a retreat that was not part of my work life, I really didn’t know what to expect. I read the description and did (most of) the pre-work. It all excited me and piqued my interest. I went into the retreat with an open heart and mind, albeit with a few fears. Those fears focused mostly on the day of solitude and fasting. That seemed out of my comfort zone!

The retreat provided so many enriching experiences and served as a real and specific transition for me. The day of fasting and solitude was actually wonderful, as the preparation and instructions for it were gentle and helpful. The night before our day of solitude included a ritual to offer up something in our lives we needed to shed to be able to move on. The send-off the morning of the day of solitude was at once deeply spiritual and supportive. My day of solitude provided me with a new sense of time, a renewed comfort with nature, and a heightened confidence in my own physical abilities. These three things have been a thread throughout the first two years of this journey for me.

I never imagined what could unfold for me in this conscious eldering process. Much like the fact that none of the jobs in my career existed when I graduated, the options and freedoms for this last third of my life were unknown to me. That retreat at magnificent Ghost Ranch was truly a rite of passage for me, helping me to start the process of shedding what I needed to shed to move forward, to catch glimpses of the richness that life could now be for me, and developing practices that have continued to be crucial in this process.

My body and mind have changed as I’ve delved into the third wave of my life. I recognize the richness, growth, and opening that are possible. I know that my wisdom is important to the world, even as I struggle to find the right ways to share it. I now know that this is not a time of simply waiting for death as I’d feared in the past. It is a time to prepare for death, but also a time of inner awareness, of mining the truths in my soul, and a time of patience for myself and others.

Some of the practices that I started developing at the retreat are now effortlessly woven into my life, including: Journaling:  Contemplation and Tonglin Prayer; Spiritual and other daily Reading; Connecting with Nature/ Forest Bathing/Learning from animals;  Sitting with myself/Being Patient with myself (and others); Days of Solitude

There are of course even more, but what I want to emphasize here is that when this eldering journey began for me these all seemed like another list of goals, like my work had been, a check list of “to-dos”. But as a result of my conscious eldering journey my daily life has become more and more integrated and calm, and these practices aren’t a to-do list, they are the essence of my growth.

Wisdom from Sonny Rollins, jazz legend, at 89 when asked if he gets lonely living all alone, perhaps says it best: “I have a lot of spiritual materials I need to get with. I have to deal with myself. That’s what it gets down to for each of us. Understanding is up to you. It’s up to me. There’s no escape. I got pains and aches all over, but spiritually, man, I feel better than I’ve ever felt. I’m on the right course.”

Man, so do I!

Barbara Roth has been retired form non-profit work in child and youth development for a little over two years. You can reach Barbara through email at barbaraanneroth@gmail.com

An Elder Vision Quest Story

by Larry Gray

One of my favorite quotes from Henry David Thoreau echoed in my mind as I recently headed out into the Yukon wilderness for a 3-day vision quest:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

I went to the woods this time to explore what it had to teach me about being a conscious elder. I had a lot of resistance to acknowledging my age because of the tremendous amount of cultural baggage, negative stereotypes and downright ageism that exists in society. I knew in my heart and mind these cultural messages were simply wrong. They certainly didn’t mesh with my own lived experience.

I spent three days and nights on a high ridge with an expansive view of a river below, forested hills and mountains in front of and behind me and the ridgetop leading upwards to a high peak. No sign of any human presence on the landscape.

There, I walked daily – more like meandering as the river was doing. I love Thoreau’s word for it: “sauntering” from his famous essay: Walking. I became acquainted with the many beings who live here – the aspens, spruce and pine, the sage and grasses, the eagles and chickadees, the wind and the rain, the hard earth and the soft composting leaves on the forest floor. Over time, I allowed all this to seep into my consciousness. Messages from Nature come in many ways and forms. But this form of wordless communication takes time, something in short supply for many of us and certainly for the culture at large. In this article, I would like to share two of these communications with you.

 

Meanders and Oxbows

When a river reaches a low-lying plain in its final course to the sea or a lake, it meanders widely. Deposition occurs on the convex bank because of the ‘slack water’, or water at low velocity. … When deposition finally seals off the cut-off from the river channel, an oxbow lake is formed.”

The environment surrounding me on that ridgetop afforded an expansive view of the river, its steep sandy banks, the nearby hills, the more distant mountain peaks, the dome of the sky, the movements of birds on their aerial traverses, the forests and alpine meadows and more. It was an eagle’s-eye view, as Ron Pevny has described the vantage point of an elder. Over time, I saw the meandering river before me as representative of my own life’s journey. The current was visible – a relentless onward flow of time and energy.

I was facing south and off to the east below me I could see an oxbow lake. Having taught geology before, I understood how it was formed and I could visualize the process at work over many years that formed the oxbow. One of the main intentions of doing this quest was to make peace with my former “selves” and all the hard experiences that those selves went through. These experiences had been crystallized into my neural pathways in the form of traumatic memories. I began to see the oxbow lake as representative of a traumatic memory. I realized and I could see directly that the oxbow was no longer part of the main current of the river. It had been cut off.

I walked down to the oxbow a couple of times. It was quite different than the river it was once part of. Crescent-shaped in form, it was quite swamp-like with more grasses and sedges than actual open water. I began to see my life’s journey in a new way, from a different and more expansive perspective – an eagle’s eye view. I began to see these traumatic memories that haunted my consciousness as “oxbow lakes”, no longer connected to the main flow of the river of my life. I could visit them, but no need to stay long. The river calls to me to continue my journey – ever onward.

Later in my quest, while I spent an afternoon sitting beside the river, somewhat entranced by the swift current flowing by inches from me, I was gifted with a process to heal my wounded psyche. Whenever I encounter an “oxbow lake memory”, from my elder perspective, I send love, forgiveness and gratitude to the person I was then. It’s a personal ritual or ceremony. And when it’s over, I rejoin the river of my life in the present moment, the here and now. The memory is further integrated into my psyche. For me, that’s what healing is.

Life in Death, Death in Life

When you immerse yourself in wild Nature and drop your defenses of fear, anxiety and perhaps internalized nature-averse cultural stories, strange things can happen. Boundaries become blurred, perceptions shift, perceived alienations become opportunities for deep affiliation. Even the demarcation between life and death becomes indistinct. This happened to me. Spending a prolonged time deeply immersed in and in reciprocal relationship with so many diverse natural beings, my awareness became sharpened, senses attentive and alive, perceptions crisp and clear. Where previously, I always saw life and death as discrete entities, this was not so in the natural world.

I dwelled in a world of eagles soaring on updrafts, light rain falling from grey clouds caressing the sage that embroidered the hillside, orange and rusty brown leaves composting on the forest floor giving rise to an incredible array of wild mushrooms. Aspen leaves trembled in the afternoon breeze, the river’s current visibly moving ever onward, a startled mule deer darting into the forest. Wildflowers – some still blooming – others having transformed into the dry stalks that will provide nutrients for the next generation. And on and on it goes, without beginning or end. One unbroken continuum of life and death, the two phenomena forever yoked to each other in a sublime and eternal dance that is Nature.

All these beings and all these ecological processes – growth, becoming, allowing, nurturing, being, transforming – implanted themselves into my psyche and even into my body. I realized that life and death were all around and it was impossible to distinguish between the two – living and dying are one ongoing concurrent process! Guided by this growing realization – an awakening fostered by my surroundings, I needed to look no further than my own body to deepen this even further. As I sat in the forest or on the hillside or in the meadow or lay under the bewildering maze of stars we call the Milky Way, I felt and knew deeply that life and death are happening to me right here, right now. Millions of cells in my body are dying in each moment while millions of cells are simultaneously being born. It’s all right here. My body is my home – the temple of my spirit. Nature/Earth is also my home – a home that I share with all other beings – the temple of the Great Spirit.

In order for something new to emerge, to be born and to grow, something else has to die. That is the way of Nature. I saw, smelled, tasted, touched and felt this truth directly all around me, unmediated. Amidst the rotting compost of the recent leaf fall, amongst the brown dead grasses on the hillside, mushrooms and new plant growth were emerging. So it is, I realized with myself. For my true and conscious elder self to emerge I had to let go of my attachment to my former selves. They had to become compost and fertilizer, providing the life-giving nutrients for my nascent elder self to grow.

I feel that the Nature-disconnected environments we have created (like cities, where over half of humanity lives) fail to support our most authentic selves – what I sometimes call our “ecological self”. For me, wild Nature is the healing environment that bests supports my journey of growth and expanding awareness. I have now made a personal pledge to undertake a vison quest each year – to nurture and foster my truly authentic self.

Let us all use our remaining decades to become who we truly are and thereby heal ourselves and this beautiful and wondrous Earth.

Larry Gray is a professor in Environmental Studies at Yukon University in northern Canada and a guide with the Center for Conscious Eldering. He can be reached at lgray@yukonu.ca

COVID Disciplines as Spiritual Practice

by Arden Mahlberg

With social distancing, I am enjoying daily walks in our neighborhood in a new way. Following that discipline with fellow walkers and joggers is like dancing with strangers. People change course onto the grass to give safe passage to the walkers they meet. There are gestures of thanks. Joggers flow into the street’s bike path until the walkers have passed. Walkers glance behind them to avoid being in someone’s way. In the military, they call this situational awareness, a constant monitoring of the surroundings in order to act accordingly. Not everyone has developed this skill. It is an exercise in mindfulness, to not let ourselves be preoccupied or inattentive. This is a spiritual discipline that combines care of self with care of others. When others are similarly engaged, the resulting sidewalk dance is a thing of beauty and an occasion for joy.

All of the disciplines that are involved with COVID-19 are easier to do and have more depth when we relate to them as spiritual disciplines. This will also give them lasting value beyond the length of this crisis. Care of self and care of neighbor have the same expression. I have never before encountered such a strong sense of shared vulnerability and shared responsibility. The deeper we go into this, the more it may transform how we conduct other parts of our lives.

Stay-at-home orders provide fertile ground, especially for those of us with few or no housemates. What does alone even mean? And how do we experience it? A breakthrough understanding for me came in the 70’s when I read about a man who had been on a life raft in the Pacific for over 30 days before being rescued. Much to the amazement of the reporters who interviewed him, he described how connected he had felt with everything in his surroundings. “At night,” he said, “the stars were so close, it was like a blanket.”

I realize that with this perspective, there is no such thing as being alone. We always exist in context. We only feel alone when our awareness has become constricted or we have set conditions on what counts as an other worthy of connection. From that point on, at times of so-called physical isolation, I came to experience further, that every place and every time reveals an aspect of the Divine.

Let me invite you into a little exercise. Consider the number of souls who are in the same neighborhood as you are right now. Consider all living beings in that space. Extend a blessing to them all for their well-being and the well-being of those they love. Notice how good it feels to do so. Then expand the circle farther and farther until there is no farther to go, always noticing how good it feels to be participating in the well-being of others. As a daily spiritual practice, this helps us keep the important sense of mutual vulnerability and mutual responsibility.

I have been on a couple of retreats, one led by Ron Pevny, where we had extended periods of staying in place as a solo practice. In that time, I found myself engaging more in the few things around me and experienced a fascination with each of them. Also, somehow the few turned into an abundance. I was also better able to notice and value what was happening inside me. It is similar to the spiritual discipline of savoring, where we slow down to explore what we eat and engage it more fully. Often my mind goes to the life that was lost on my behalf, where the food came from and the people who tended to it and made it available to me. The amazing qualities of sun, water and soil. The beautiful environment fish live in compared with factory farming. To treat living things as food is spiritually and morally challenging when we pay attention to it.

Whether our homes contain a little or a lot, there is rich opportunity to marvel and savor. Trees were cut down for my benefit so I could enjoy the beauty of their grain. I benefit from human curiosity, discovery and ingenuity with the amazing inventions available to me. How did someone figure that out, I wonder? What about ceramics and glass – humans finding ways to create what volcanoes create. Metal working, wood working, art, music, cooking and baking, were all originally recognized as magical, mystical processes of alchemy. With the space for such awareness, things in our homes are no longer mere functions. They are worthy of our attention and reflection.

Stay-at-home has also meant that my calendar of obligations has been wiped clean. This freedom allows me to have more awareness of what is going on inside me. I notice priorities and interests being rearranged and reordered. Because of this I have less sadness that things may not return to normal. I’m less sure I want them to. I don’t know.

Uncertainty – not just mine, but the shared uncertainty all human beings have. This is a spiritual/existential matter. How do we reconcile with uncertainty? I say, when we relate to it as a spiritual practice. This pandemic is the result of chance occurrences. Chance viral mutations in bats were transmitted by chance to a human being. People around the world don’t know when they will work again. Don’t know how they can pay their rent. In the midst of this uncertainty, people in positions of responsibility are having to make decisions with huge implications for masses of people. Financial security has evaporated for many. Front-line medical personnel face uncertainty about having the necessary resources to help the expected influx of patients. They don’t know if they can even keep themselves safe. Hospitals face bankruptcy. Any and all of us could become infected. We don’t know how bad that would be.

The human brain has a love/hate relationship with uncertainty. It can become addicted to the uncertainty involved in gambling when there is a potential upside. But when there is no possibility of winning, there is only a downside to be faced. We hate taking losses.

The importance of reconciling with uncertainty is reflected in the fact that the Greeks and Romans gave chance the status of a god. Fortuna was her name. For people who design and administer vaccines, chance is the enemy of their efforts. Viruses are always randomly mutating, and some of those mutations will not be controlled by the vaccine. Some people in cancer treatment face the threat of random mutation every day.

With no certainty, there is only probability. There is something spiritually and morally important about living with this realization. This is how people stay sober. All we can know is now and that is challenging enough.

A spiritual and moral aspect of integrated uncertainty and vulnerability is that it can open the doors to greater awareness of the needs of others and activate the compassion to be of help. While there is research evidence to support this, it is also part of ancient wisdom.

A man who had everything going for him came to the Teacher seeking reassurance about his place in heaven. He sought certainty. His concern was only for himself. The Teacher gave him advice that would make him more vulnerable. He told him to sell everything he had, which was considerable, and give it to the poor. He wanted certainty, and was told to make himself more vulnerable.

The Teacher also told a story of a man who was robbed, beaten and left to die on the side of the road. Three people encountered the situation. The only one who stopped to help was the most vulnerable of the three, a man from a foreign country that was hated by the locals. He could easily be victimized himself.

While we shouldn’t glorify vulnerability, there is no denying that it has heart. In facing our shared vulnerability, many of us are responding with compassion and generosity. Vulnerability can open the window into the needs of others, when we acknowledge it and make our peace with it. As we know, people who have the least are the most generous. While resources of money and power provide security and predictability, they also make compassion and generosity more difficult.

The current vulnerability is not just a feeling; it is real. It is a shared reality. To deny the risk leads people to act carelessly and endanger themselves and others. To believe that everything will somehow be okay closes us off from our real needs and those of others. Some people are even predatory, seeking to exploit vulnerability.

When we treat the disciplines we need to keep ourselves and others safe as practices that are really spiritual in nature, we can calmly recognize our shared vulnerability and shared responsibility. Then these practices do more than provide safety, they open our eyes and our hearts.

Arden Mahlberg is a psychologist in Madison, Wisconsin. Follow his blog at ardenmahlberg.com.

Resistance to Growth is Futile

by Larry Gray

Up until a few weeks ago, the global consensus was that climate change is the defining issue of our time. Then came COVID-19. Of course, the two are not unrelated, but the global pandemic is an acute infection requiring heroic measures whereas the climate crisis is more of a chronic disease requiring ongoing management.

Like everyone else, I have been trying to make sense of the times we live in and to seek the deeper meaning of it all. I consider myself both a scientist (biologist) and a mystic and I see no conflict between these two perspectives. I see no conflict either between personal human experience and planetary experience. In this short essay, I will draw upon science, mysticism, personal and planetary perspectives in one of my many attempts to make meaning of COVID-19.

I’ll begin with a cartoon. There are two lineups of people to get into two different places. There’s a sign above the entrance to each place. One sign reads “Heaven”. The other sign reads “Books about Heaven”.

One of my dominant emotional patterns that came into the glaring light of consciousness during one of my periodic exercises in life review put me squarely in the line, “Books about Heaven”.

What does that mean? It means rather than simply DOING something (writing an article, initiating a potential relationship with someone, beginning and sustaining a solid exercise regime, eating the kinds of food I absolutely know are right for me, etc., etc. ad infinitum), I have chosen to instead buy books (yes, lots of books) on writing, relationships, exercise routines, untold number of diets and so on and so on. Not just buying and reading books, but engaging in any activity that might fall under the category of “procrastination”.

Why choose “books about heaven” over “heaven” itself? Well, the dynamic I uncovered within me and which I have since discovered is a universal energy pattern might simply be called Resistance.

In scientific terms – the terminology of physics – Resistance is “a measure of the opposition to current flow in an electrical circuit”. As a product of developmental trauma, I know resistance well. I began blocking and distorting my own authentic energy flow very early on in life. It was my way of surviving an uncertain and confusing family of origin. That resistance to my own energy flow has been devastating to so many aspects of my life and my capacity to experience the full joy, the unbridled aliveness and authenticity of living fully.

So, as a result, my life (until I began my conscious eldering journey) has been I think unnecessarily stressful and painful. There’s a huge cost to self-repression. Its stressful.

This brings me the next scientific term Stress. Again drawing on physics and engineering, Stress can be defined as “force per unit area applied to a material”.

It was pioneering Canadian physiology and stress researcher, Hans Selye, who borrowed the term and applied it to the fields of physiology, medicine and health. Now, when we use the word Stress in the way he used it, I think we can all relate – Stress is “the body’s reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response”.

We know that in response to stressors in the environment, organisms in Nature have a few options, such as fight, flight, freeze or even faint. My response to stressors (as learned and internalized in childhood) has been primarily “freeze”. In other words, shut down my energy flow. That’s pure animal survival instinct. Useful in certain moments, for sure. But completely detrimental and disabling when it becomes a lifestyle. Psychologists call it “learned helplessness”.

What, in any way, do these two stories (the heaven/books about heaven story and the resistance/stress story) have to do with the current global pandemic? Here enters the third scientific term – Fractals.

Fractals are “objects in which the same patterns occur again and again and again at different scales and sizes”. For example, the network of veins that move fluids around a leaf shows clear fractal structure. It is the same pattern as the tree itself.

Here is where science meets mysticism. I believe human beings are fractals of Earth itself. The same elemental energies that flow through the air, water and land are the exact same energies that course through our human bodies and minds and psyches. Humans and their societies and cultures are in, of and from Earth itself. We are individually and collectively intertwined with Earth’s elemental forces. This is reality, always has been and always will be. Ask any indigenous elder.

Can we see the dynamics of stress and resistance and fractality in the current global crisis – the COVID-19 pandemic? Can we see it the climate emergency (remember that?) or the current mass extinction of species? The answer, for me, is a resounding yes! And therein lies hope.

Humanity has been resisting change – changing the way we practice economics, how we consume resources, how we perceive our relationship with Nature and the biosphere, for example. Our collective Resistance has put the whole planet into a state of chronic Stress.

The first step in any program of change, personal or planetary – is awareness. As it took me the better part of a lifetime to become aware of these energy dynamics within myself, it has taken me a lot less time to become aware of their fractal counterparts in the bigger planetary picture.

If I can change and transform myself as a result of my growing self-awareness, of course, so can the whole planet. And this global scale change is happening – right now!

The Agricultural Revolution was a necessary stage in our species’ evolution. So, too with the Industrial Revolution. Both revolutions have given us much; both have also taken. But it is clear that the next revolution is underway – call it the Ecological Revolution or the Great Turning. The seeds of this revolution (already there in small ways before the pandemic) are now sprouting in an accelerated way. A new global, social, economic and natural order is emerging as surely as the butterfly emerges from the cocoon. Both involve resistance and stress.

Our global civilization is waking up – growing up. Awakening can involve pain and suffering (and that involves resistance and stress). It surely does at the individual level. I experience this pain and suffering in my own continued awakening. My struggles have been compassionately witnessed by many others during conscious eldering retreats, just as I have compassionately witnessed the struggles and transformation of others emerging from their cocoons.

I know I am healing when, more and more, I choose the “Heaven” door over the “Books about Heaven” door. My Resistance is melting. So is humanity’s.

As I contemplated all this a couple of days ago, I became aware of another dynamic within myself. I had learned early on to see myself as a helpless victim and I have spent my life looking for someone to take away my pain and suffering. Now that I am an “elder-in-the-making”, through my tears that day, I finally realized – I am the one I have been waiting for.

Similarly, the current COVID-19 pandemic and related global ills such as climate change and mass extinction has surely woken us up to the fact that no one is coming to save us. Or to save the natural world of which we are an integral part.

As the wise Hopi elder has said – we are the ones we’ve been waiting for. And there’s the meaning I’ve been looking for.

Larry Gray is a professor of Environmental Studies at Yukon University in northern Canada, a guide with the Center for Conscious Eldering and Research Affiliate with the Institute for Aging & Lifelong Health at the University of Victoria. He can be reached at lgray@yukoncollege.yk.ca

Stages of Aging

by Anne Wennhold

When I retired at 70 years of age a physician friend invited me to work with his group of Seniors in Recovery from alcohol. At the time I had never given a thought to what aging was about, how to work with ‘seniors’ or even that I myself might be considered an ageing senior.

I consulted a social worker about what to expect. She told me that seniors come in three stages: the Go Go Stage, the Slow Go Stage and the No Go Stage. The wording made me laugh.

Another friend suggested I attend a Choosing Conscious Elderhood retreat with Ron Pevny and other leaders, explaining that this would be a good way to learn about the aging process. I went to what became a life changing, goal setting experience for me.

I am now 85 years old. Old enough to look back at my 70 year old self: to marvel at the last 15 years and, with some objectivity, to review both the colorfully described three stages of aging and the path to ageing that opened during the Choosing Conscious Elderhood week.

The 70’s were clearly a Go Go decade for me: a time of high activity. Hyped by the retreat experience, I threw myself into a life focused on becoming a spiritual and Wise Elder.

Abuzz with intention I mentored the Seniors in Recovery group, explored Native American Spirituality, studied and became a Shamanic Practitioner, made jewelry, developed art workshops, hosted a variety of spiritual groups, started weekly discussions called Transitions in Ageing, traveled, and gave library and weekend presentations on Ageing.

Early on in the Choosing Conscious Elderhood retreat I developed a clear intent to become one of its facilitators. The initial experience had been so life changing for me I wanted to be a part of helping others to see ageing as a time of inner and outer growth for themselves.

Working with Ron Pevny at Ghost Ranch and at other venues, I discovered the truth of the concept that when you teach something you learn it really well. I became imbued with a sense of aging as my own life practice and process. Teaching it cemented my goal of becoming a Wise Elder.

The Slow Go stage began with a wonderful 80th birthday celebration cheered on by 35 friends and family. It is a sneaky stage though. It came in with gusto but soon limped to a milder pace due to a broken hip, Lyme disease, high blood pressure, eyesight and other physical changes that made it clear the Slow Go part of ageing was knocking at the door.

Now I’m halfway through my 80’s and am seeing how the vigorous activity of the 70’s has morphed into a focus on balancing activities rather than just getting up, going out and doing them: balance as in having to set priorities differently.

The question becomes not only what activities I want to have in my life but which activities best renew my inner energy and growth plus promote my ability to be of service. So, understanding that the balancing process requires daily reassessment, here’s what I’ve done to re-prioritize life. First I let go some of the weekly outreach work. Next I added to my morning reading and contemplation time. This addition became the most calming yet resourceful of all choices.

Another change includes selecting stimulating reading materials and having an art project at hand to replace some of the goings ‘out and about’ that filled the more active days. After spending so much time working with people I realized I need compelling activities at home to motivate the time spent alone. I now also experiment with homemade soup recipes in the hopes of becoming a better cook.

For the first time ever I am allowing time to enjoy being me rather than going out and doing whatever is probably a worthwhile but no longer fruitful outreach for me. And since I can only speculate what the Slow Go years might bring, I choose to wait until they arrive before deciding how to face them.

Perhaps it’s the age or the stage but I no longer aspire to become a Wise Elder. Life is full enough with the challenges of living in the here and now to devote further energy to the fashioning of a future self.

Connecting with My Spiritual Ancestors

by Don Adams

I am a Capricorn. Like a mountain goat, I love to climb to high places, pinnacles. For this day- of-solitude, I set out to climb up to the highest point above C.O.D. Ranch where there is a small meadow-like opening in the rocks and thorny vegetation, which I had discovered earlier. As I sit viewing the panorama, I see in the near distance huge house-sized boulders. In the far distance I see the high mountains of central Arizona. I am physically uncomfortable. It is hot and getting hotter as sun rises. The breeze is steady but coming from the east making me choose between breeze or sun as the shade from the bushes block them both. I set up on my altar an unlit candle (fire danger here) a seashell, a multilayered rock, a piece of local wood and a red pouch of blessed Indian tobacco and herbs. I wait in the “neutral zone” with no expectations.

Soon a parade of huge orange boulders seems to me to be like big animals on a long slow arduous journey. I identify a father and mother animal followed by an angry big child (my brother?) and way behind is a smaller boulder that suddenly seems to be my sister hanging back from now what seems my family making slow progress. But where am I?? Then I spy myself, another rock much further away, separated from the family, and huddled and crying. I do not like looking at all this, it all seems so trudging, sad and lonely. I move my sitting spot several times a few feet to try to stay in the shade as the morning progresses. Now as I look at the rock I had identified as me, I see that I am now (from the changing play of the light) more upright and surrounded by many smaller rocks. This is more like my adulthood, away from my first family, but then surrounded by a newer family, many needful children and clients. This brings me some peace, as I sit there. I feel, however, that this tableau of me and my family is old business, already attended to in my life and in my previous (2017) vision quest in the NC mountains with Ron and Anne. What I am seeing now is simply my past grinding along in its own pace on the horizon.

After a visit from a black buck deer with a white tail, several songbirds, and three vultures circling in the steady breeze over this alive landscape, and the passage of time, I focus in on two yucca plants with 12’ high stalks with beautiful feathery fronds on top. I am taken with their poise, and then with their nodding gently and wisely at me. They seem very happy to be here. They seem to be greeting me. Feeling a little happier, I meditate on love, connection, and spirit, and find myself longing for some sort of completion. I see puffy little clouds in the blue sky behind these fronds and remember my childhood church with murals of angels sitting on clouds and my loving minister, Dr. Schwartz. Suddenly it dawns on me that these friendly nodding yucca fronds could be ancestor spirits reaching out to me. But who? I decide I want a spiritual grandfather and a spiritual grandmother and begin wondering who they will be.

I soon settle on Grandfather Winfield and Grandmother Teresa. Can I create these myself for me? Can I invite them in? I have never met these two grandparents (my mother’s father, who died long before I was born, and my father’s mother who died 2 years after I was born). I can recall the picture of Winfield taken at age 41 just before he died of flu. He is blonde, short hair, glasses and has a wise face. I have more trouble visualizing Teresa, as there are no good pictures of her. I experience her as pretty, short, slender, with black hair, in farm-wife’s clothes and apron. I want Grandfather Winfield and Grandmother Teresa present here to help me remember love and goodness, and to recognize and minimize my ego worries and fears. I want to be able to shut my eyes and have them there as coaches, support, founts of love, and sources of wisdom to help resolve the conundrums of my life. Then I openly speak to them inviting them to me, and they nod and wave in the breeze back to me. I now have called them and eagerly await their presence. I want to feel their pervasive warmth and love and to be wrapped in their gazes and smiles. I make a sketch of the scene before me and take a photo of it so I can recollect it whenever I need it.

It is getting blistering hot here on this peak. Around 1pm, I decide to return to the ranch area for shade, water and relief from the heat. I maintain silence and separateness from others. Fearful for my health, I turn on the A/C in my bunk room, and lie down and take a siesta, a two- hour dreamless nap. I awaken thirsty, get water and a piece of fruit from the dining area, and find a shaded spot to continue my silence and solitude. Remaining in the zone, I reflect on how I wish I could live like Jesus–coming from love, protection, kindness, understanding, and a demeanor that infuses others with love, trust, and faith that goodness can prevail. I want everyone to know that being driven by fear is not necessary in order to thrive in the world.

Now after, 7 pm, I am sitting alone in the warm evening in a fire-pit patio. I have my candle safely lit with my altar items placed on the retaining wall around this area. No more desert wilds for me. I have wounds, scratches and barbs on my arms and legs. “Stigmata”, I think to myself. I want to know more about Winfield and Teresa. I wonder if their wisdom has grown beyond my parents’ childhood memories. I make a note to research their historical realities some day later. Right now, I need to form a face and voice for these special elders. I want them to be present to me. I write down in my journal my new intention: “Find a way to bring form and access to Winfield and Teresa to become allies upon whom I can draw.” I noted to myself, “I am open to dreams, surprise experiences, flashes of intuition and even messages left in crotches of trees.”

So, I reflect, what do I know about them? I recall that Teresa brought music, poetry, literature, and love of learning to my father, her only child. Winfield brought missionary zeal, education, science, botany, and botanical art to my mother. Each married rather ordinary, practical partners. Teresa married Herbert, a steady reliable farmer. Winfield married Grace, a competent, kind, but uninspired wife and mother.

I first reach Teresa: dark hair, pretty face, but the image in my mind blends with the feathery stalk of the yucca plant. She tells me (I can hear her voice in my mind), that I am very special, that she had died before meeting me, and that she had been watching me and loving me all my life. She had loved Alfred (my father and her only child) and treasured his brightness and his love of both nature and the spirit. She tells me that she is excited to have me reach out at this precious moment, because she had gone many harvest seasons to the Arizona desert for fresh air because the pollen and dust in Ontario made her breathing impossible. She had hoped I would reach out to her while in this beautiful, warm, dry place. She tells me she had wished my dad had been less serious and more playful and imaginative. She then she tells me that she watched me grow up, and that I was her joy on Earth. I melt emotionally to hear this. She explained that she lost her family as a child and had been shipped as an orphan to Canada from England and was adopted by a good family in Ontario. She married Herbert, she said, because he was a serious, down- to- earth man with whom she could feel secure. She went on, “I was pleased when Alfred did well in school, went to college and became a scientist, yet I knew he was always concerned about God and spiritual truth. He was too logical at times, but on the right path.” She adds, “My big regret was that I never met you on earth. And now that you have opened this door for us, I am feeling squeaky (her word) with delight to be here with you.”

I look up (in my mind) at the other yucca frond and see that it is indeed Grandfather Winfield, my mother’s father. He looks fortyish, crew cut blond hair, glasses, and handsome. “Grandson.” I hear him say, “I never met you either. I died many years before you were born. I was not ready to leave that plane. Grace and I had such joy and tragedy in our life. We lost dear Robert, who was so bright, fun, and had such a brilliant future, to a terrible accident when he was 10. I tried to give Ruth, who was only 7 then, the love and father-child partnership that I had had with Robert. Ruth was a bright student, a lover of nature, and a superb artist. As a teenager, she trekked in the Himalayas with me as we discovered new plants unknown to the Western world. I wrote up the botanical descriptions and she drew pen and ink pictures of all the plants’ parts for inclusion in the World Encyclopedia of Botany. I was so proud of Ruth. She went on to live and prosper and she was so wonderfully competent and sensible.”

Winfield smiles broadly, “I was thrilled when she married Alfred, a kind gentle scientist, and lover of nature like me. “But,” he sighed, “I had died before any of Ruth’s children were born. Your brother Gordon turned out to be my “nature protegee”, whereas you turned out to be my “budding missionary”. I am so proud of you and of all the help and solace you have given to hurting people and their children. I am also proud and delighted with your own family, especially your marriage with Jo whose love for family is very much like my wife’s, Grace’s. “

Around me night is falling. Winfield pauses and then goes on. “You know, there is a reason why they gave you my name as your middle name. Your parents were hoping my spirit would reach you someday, and today is the day!” Tears well up and I feel flooded with joy. He goes on, “I am thrilled, as if a spirit can be even happier, to have you reach out to me. I have been with you all your life and saved you from accidental death many times. I remember that little garden of woods-plants you made when you were 10. But people’s souls were more important to you than plants. I always thought you would teach, but you went for emotional health, not just intellectual knowledge. I respect you for that. If I had lived longer, I would have done much more helping the poor, broken, sad people. Oh, and I am glad that you got to know Grace in her later years. You, with your cheery personality, became the Robert I lost so long ago, and you become the Robert that Grace lost as well. Your bouncy spirit, love of play, and friendliness gave her back some of the boy-child she lost. You were a comfort in her elder years.”

I ask Winfield how I was meeting his spirit and Teresa’s spirit both at the same time. He laughs, as if a spirit has lungs to laugh, and explains, “I guided your mother to your father because Alfred was both a scientist and a deeply spiritual person and Ruth needed that in her life. I regret that I never was able to hold you as a baby. I have watched you as you have grown up. You remind me so much of my lost Robert that I sometimes even confused you two. You became the symbolic son I never saw to adulthood. Teresa joined in my vigil over you when she died when you were only two. She grieved not meeting you, and our grief linked us, and we have been watching over you together for all these years.”

The next part was a bit overwhelming to me. Winfield added, “Teresa and I became spiritual friends and now that you have reached for both of us to become your spiritual ancestors and guardians, we will draw even closer and form a celestial family for you.” As he tells me this, I see Teresa’s frond nodding at me. I reach for them with my heart, and they together beam to me the essence of their long association, their wisdom, and their patience with the world. In one voice they tell me that I have nothing more to prove and that it will be my task to be present to our descendants (my large family). They ask me to pass on the love and wisdom they will channel through me. I feel deeply seen, loved, beheld, treasured, safe, and overjoyed. I am brimming over with tears of joy. I am no longer alone with just myself.

I promise myself to write up this experience of my newly discovered Guardian Angels. As I commit to visiting with them regularly to keep them alive in my heart and mind, I wonder where they might dwell in me, — perhaps in my vagus nerve that connects my mind and heart. I no longer feel the shadow side of self-doubt. I am illuminated from within. I am thrilled to observe that all my negativity and self-deprecation goes away in their presence. At the end of this experience, I write this journal entry: “I am reassured of my worth. I want to feel their presence in my life all the time, and to wear them like a sweater on a cold day. I have little need now of my fear-based chatterbox, nor of my dark defensiveness. I feel that I have reached the pinnacle of being. I doubt that I have many more mountains to climb. I feel that I have been to the top and gathered up the golden fleece. I tell myself: “Simply be! Listen deeply! Speak from my heart! Love! And keep breathing! Visit with your ancestors regularly. Now, at last, there is time for everything!”

It is now the next morning in Arizona, I look inward while our group outwardly witnesses and drums in the gorgeous sunrise. I see Winfield and Teresa and hear them say to me, “Thank you for being our eyes on earth, as we can only actually ‘see’ through the eyes of someone who has called us and makes us present. By your seeing it with such awe you make this sunrise even more beautiful for us.” I make one more intention: I will experience wonderful earthly features with awe for these two ancestral spirits to experience though me, because they, themselves, left this earth much too early.

Later, as I prepared in January 2020 this abbreviated account for the Center for Conscious Eldering newsletter, I checked inwardly regarding this experience. I still can feel, see, and converse with my spirit grandparents. Winfield and Teresa live in the “mountains” around me and remain available for me to restore love, kindness, and joy back into my day. While I do not have them block my every negative thought or reaction, I am blessed to have them immediately accessible whenever I reach for them. I know they are with me for the rest of my life and beyond. Amen.

Don Adams is a 79-year-old retired Child & Family Psychologist who lives in Cary NC and who has dedicated his senior years to human service and personal enlightenment. He is the Leader of Sage-International ‘s Education Team, an avid personal legacy writer, the loving grandfather of 17, a life-long seeker, and an explorer of his own gerotranscendence This is an account of his experience in his third Center for Conscious Eldering program. He can be reached at adamsvisions@gmail.com

Sun and Snake

by Shaun Dempsey

Growing up in a vigorously catholic household had its benefits and challenges. On the one hand I was introduced to prayer and ritual – staple disciplines of my life today even if they take on a very different appearance to what they did when I was a child. On the other hand I was denied access to a whole range of thoughts and feelings that my soul was looking for to make itself whole.

So I limped through childhood, willed myself through early adulthood and by the time I was in my 40’s I’d had enough stumbles on the road of life – a complete change of career, one failed marriage, some chronic health problems – to have landed safely inside my mothership of a supportive second marriage with one beautiful wife and two beautiful children. This gave me time to think, and at the age of 50, I arranged to go to the US to engage in a conscious eldering retreat in the hope that I would be able to unlock some of the secrets that I knew lay inside me.

Ghost Ranch in New Mexico is a serene retreat location in the high desert surrounded by red rock country and yellow mesas. The purity of sunlight there encouraged the regular pilgrimage of the much beloved artist Georgia O’Keeffe who made it her home and studio for 40 years. The ideal place for retreat and ritual. And so I invested time to create prayers and a ritual to allow me to imbue three wooden sticks that had been resting on my altar back home prior to the retreat for a quarter of a year, with some long terms qualities I wanted to transform – shame, naivety, and powerlessness. When I burned the sticks on the retreat, I underwent an internal transformation replacing those qualities with courage, discernment and visibility respectively. It felt important to not reject these long term qualities outright, but to recognise how they had literally kept me alive for many years. My prayer to transform shame went like this:

I want to express my deepest gratitude to that part of me that felt shame for such a long time. If it wasn’t for that part I think I would have been so much more visible and vulnerable and been exposed to so much more negative attention from my mother, or just people in general. Shame kept me small, unseen and safe.

But now in my life I’m fortunate enough to be surrounded by my family who constantly allow me to feel safe and who consistently provide an environment in which I can be appropriately vulnerable without fear of criticism or shaming. So, I’m releasing that part of me that tends to feel shame solely to provide a sense of safety and I’m going to ask that part of me if it will focus instead on feeling courageous enough to feel secure in my worth. It’s the same part and the same energy but instead of feeling ashamed about who I am, it will help me to be courageous, quietly confident, and stand securely in the world knowing I have something worthy to offer. I think this will serve me better as I turn 50 years old and grow into my elderhood.

Similar prayers were created for the qualities of naivety and powerlessness. The burning of my shame, naivety and powerlessness sticks in the fire that evening during the retreat, preceded a day of silence spent in solitude and out in nature. So the next morning I made my way out to the location I’d chosen and set up my space. But it wasn’t long before the effects of another disrupted night’s sleep kicked in and I found myself a soft sandy place in which to lie down. The morning was just the right temperature and I was able to take off my grey hoodie so I could use it as a pillow. I had my soft black hat over my face and eyes and I was lying on my right-hand side and feeling very comfortable. The clouds were present, but themorning sun was trying to break through and I felt myself drifting into a different level of consciousness. Suddenly, even with my eyes closed, I became aware that the sun did break through the clouds with its full force as if accompanied by a clap of thunder. And literally at the same moment I felt it hit my cheek, I also had a visual flash of lights in my closed eyes – exactly the same as I do when I’m drifting off to sleep and there’s a sudden noise. Aware that something had changed, I allowed myself to drift into a place of magic.

I was warming up nicely and felt very heavy and dense – but because I had all day to spend in this location, I knew I had as much time as I wanted and I was able to fully relax into the sensation of heaviness and warmth. There was no urgency and no time frames and no responsibility. All I had to do was lie there and soak up this feeling. It was almost as if I couldn’t get up. Suddenly I was struck with the thought that was a cold-blooded snake and the sun was warming me up after a cold night, or even after hibernating through the winter. And by the grace of magic, in that moment I actually was a snake! I felt sluggish and heavy and I was just soaking up the sun and all the ‘snake’ energy through the ground. There was a real connection between being on the ground and soaking up ‘snake’ energy, and feeling the sun coming down at me from the sky. It also occurred to me at this time that the moment I felt the sun break through the clouds above me, and heard the thunderclap, and saw the flashes was the same moment the snake energy pierced me upward like a broadsword through the earth. Sun and snake. Snake and sun. I felt myself surrendering totally to this experience and lay fully immersed in my new identity.

For as long as I can remember I have worshipped the Sun and sun symbols – particularly Celtic spirals. And in that moment on the ground, I also became aware of my recent exposure to snakes: my beloved 12 year old dog had been killed months before by a snake in the back yard; a client brought in his pet snake several weeks prior and entwined it gently around my neck and arms; and internally I had become aware of a benevolent, serpentine, protective part inside me that had kept me safe for decades. These two elements of sun and snake mingled together as I lay on the ground, and in that moment, understanding tumbled down and collapsed on my crown. St Patrick did not banish the snakes from Ireland. In fact there never were any snakes in Ireland. The ‘snakes’ he was alleged to have driven out of Ireland were actually the pagan Druid priests who had tattoos of serpents on their forearms. The reference to the snakes is a metaphor for St Patrick driving the Druids out of Ireland – driving the pagan magicians out of Ireland. I became acutely aware of my second name being Patrick and the role that my catholic upbringing had in banishing my own snakes, my own Druids, my own inherent spiritual, magical, earthy connections. But now, the sun, snakes and understanding had come flooding back in. Penetrating me through some cosmic hole in the ground at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico where I had been laying down to warm up.

Some hours later, as I finally left the earth and stood up, vertical, but still aware of my snake energy, I felt my old skin drop away and hit the ground at Ghost Ranch. My understanding is that it remains there – having decomposed into the dirt. But of course, I moved on. A few days later I took the flight back home to Australia and touched down into Sydney airport. When I arrived back onto home soil, like the good pagan I am, I thanked the spirits of the North, East, South and West for my safe journey and then commenced the two connecting flights home to my regional town in North Queensland. After nearly 48 hours in time and 12,000km in space from having left the US, my wife picked me up at the airport and as we drove the final few kilometres home – not 50 metres from the front door as we were slowing down to enter the driveway, a snake crossed the road in front of us. We slowed down to let it slither off safely into the bush – gone but not forgotten.

Shaun Dempsey is a psychotherapist in Queensland, Australia. He can be reached at tcps@aapt.net.au

What do Elders know and why is it still important?

By Dennis Stamper

Dennis Stamper is a Commissioned Lay Pastor and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. He has worked as a hospital chaplain for the past 17 years. Dennis has attended both the Choosing Conscious Eldering and Next Steps Retreats. 

 

Several years ago, three significant events occurred in my life that would propel me on a journey, a journey that would ultimately change how I see and how I live my life.

The first event was a sudden and very serious heart attack for which I, like most people, was totally unprepared.  I had always been in excellent health.  But suddenly one day without warning here I was speeding down the highway in the back of an ambulance with a complete blockage of a major artery in my heart.  Not only was I facing my own mortality, the reality that I would someday die but I knew that in that very moment, I WAS dying.   The only question was whether or not they would be able to open the blockage in time to prevent what would otherwise be inevitable.

I was told that the doctors would first attempt to open the artery through a cardiac catheterization and stent but if that did not work they would need to “crack my chest” (which is the most unpleasant sounding phrase in the English language) and do emergency coronary bypass surgery (the second most unpleasant sounding phrase).  Spoiler alert, I made it. The stent worked but never the less, that my friend will get your attention.

The second event to occur was my 65th birthday. I had a Medicare card in my wallet. I was now receiving the senior discount at the movies without even asking. I was now wearing glasses AND hearing aids.  Although thoughts of retirement had been rattling around in my head for the past few years it was always about when I might stop working.  Now the question became more complicated.  The question was no longer just when I might stop doing what I was doing but also what was I going to do next. What was I going to do with the rest of my life after that?

The third event that happened was that I woke up one day older than my father (or at least older than he was when he died).  It felt strange.  I was in my 30s when my dad died and from that vantage point, he seemed old to me, old enough to die at least.  Also, I had always felt that in some sense I was following in my father’s footsteps through life but now the footprints had disappeared.  I was walking further down the road now than he had ever walked.  I had a growing and unavoidable realization; I’m old!

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Cancer As a Rite of Passage

By Maureen Dobson

It was 7 pm and there was a knock on our door.  A colleague had stopped by our home to share his concern and support in person.  He and his wife had just been through cancer themselves.  A breast cancer diagnosis, chemotherapy, radiation, time off work for treatments, and fear, fear of the unknown.  He had already walked this path I was now facing and wanted to help.

And then it began.  The phone calls, the emails, the gifts, the hugs, the tears, all expressions of empathy and compassion and unlimited offers to “help”.  “Let us know how we can help…you should talk to so-and-so…go see Dr. such-and-such…try this supplement…or that acupuncturist…explore this research…etc, etc, etc”.  Everyone felt helpless and was yearning to help.  Bringing me gifts or offering advice were the most genuine ways they knew to help.

Fast forward six years.  I was unemployed, cancer-free, and attending my first “Choosing Conscious Elderhood (CCE)” retreat.  I did not know what to expect, but I was excited to be there.  I had just come through one of the most horrendous experiences in my life.  I wanted some time in the company of fellow wisdom-seekers to reflect on and share my story.  And I wanted to uncover more of the hidden mysteries behind my life and my very close brush with death.

Beating cancer, stage 4 melanoma, was no easy feat.  Six years prior, my doctors predicted a 5-10% chance for my survival.  To increase my odds, they recommended a heavy-duty six month bio-chemo regime.  After lots of research, I did not choose their route.  Instead, I quit my high stress job, my partner and I moved back to our hometown, and together we walked a most unusual path towards healing.  This journey included a simple lung surgery to remove the tumor, a short three-month cancer vaccine trial, and a long, uncharted course of natural medicine.  Good, clean nutrition, Chinese Medicine, emotional and financial support from loved ones, and deep spiritual work, were my primary components for healing.

I had not realized it at the time, but I had come to the CCE retreat to give thanks to all who had supported me and to do some soul searching about the next few steps of my journey.  Deep reflection, journaling, story-telling, and ritual shared with a community of other wisdom-seekers created a powerful passage into the next new phase of my life.  I had spent all my financial resources and needed some clarity about what to do with my life now that I passed the five-year mark of being cancer-free.  So, I dialogued with myself, with Mother Nature and her creatures, and I uncovered my new story in solitude and in council.  I dialogued with the fox, the ants, the birds, the cow pies, and I uncovered the biggest lesson of all— in this most lonely time I experienced complete support.

My experiences during the CCE retreat deeply paralleled my experiences with cancer.  In many ways, it was my own solitary journey, but I never would have come this far without the circle of support around me.  As we moved back and forth between individual reflection and solitude, then back in to council to witness and share our stories, I relished in the balance and the health of it all.  And I reflected on the first days of my diagnosis and the many offers of “help” from my family and friends who needed to “do” something.  And I gave deep thanks for my new friends who were helping most by just simply witnessing and listening to me telling my story—letting me “be”.  That initial knock on the door, six years prior, was now a new door opening to the next adventures in my life.

Maureen Dobson teaches Sage-ing in northern Colorado and directs Boulder County’s senior services programs. She may be reached at maureen@wisdomwork.org