The Art of Pilgrimage: Meeting Ancient Wisdom in Copper Canyon

As the Giver of Life touched the eastern horizon above Barranca del Cobre, piercing the darkness and winter chill with its light and warmth, drumbeats sounded in the rugged canyons below. The ancient inhabitants of Copper Canyon, the Raramuri (Tarahumara) were greeting the sun, as they have done during late winter since time immemorial, in anticipation of spring equinox and the renewal of life for the earth and all her beings.

High above on the canyon rim, other drums were sounding their prayers of gratitude as the promise of a new day touched the sixteen pilgrims, from across the United States seated among the boulders, yucca and ponderosa pine. The drumbeats from below and above pulsed through one corner of Copper Canyon, Mexico, as those visitors visualized the heartbeats of two very different cultures, separated by distance, world view and pain-tinged history, beating as one.

The Raramuri, whom many authorities consider to be relatives of the Anasazi (Ancestral Puebloans) of the southwestern U.S., experienced their first contact with Europeans when Spanish expeditions came to north-central Mexico in the 16th century seeking gold. Having difficulty pronouncing “Raramuri”, which roughly translates as “people of light feet”, the Spanish called them “Tarahumara”, and this corruption of their preferred name is how the Raramuri are commonly known today.  In the ensuing 200 years, the Raramuri suffered profoundly at the hands of the Spanish, who often brutally tried to eradicate indigenous spiritual practices and replace them with Christianity.  Jesuits and Franciscans brought Christianity to the Raramuri around 1600. The Jesuits were removed from Mexico by the Spanish King 150 years later.  When they returned in 125 years they found the people had integrated various Christian symbols and beliefs  into their rich indigenous nature-based spirituality.

Today the Raramuri number between 50,000 and 70,000, approximately the same as their estimated numbers 300 years ago.  Probably the most unmixed of any of the North American Indians, more than 95% have pure Raramuri blood.  They are among the least changed by modern civilization of the indigenous peoples of this continent. They are best known to the outside world as long-distance runners for whom  running up and down the steep canyons, for sport as well as transportation and communication, is integral to life.  Most live in small houses made of wood or stone or in large caves as isolated family units or small settlements.  Thirty-two Raramuri dialects are spoken throughout the Sierra Madre and its magnificent Copper Canyon complex.

The Copper Canyon area—Barranca del Cobre—is a complex of several majestic canyons, most deeper and larger than the Grand Canyon.  Each continues to be sculpted by wild rivers that eventually join, then empty into the Gulf of California.  Over the years mining of silver and gold has played an important role in the history of these canyons and their inhabitants, whereas copper mining has been relatively insignificant.    The canyon system gets its name not from the metal, but from the brilliant copper color that frequently suffuses canyon walls and sky above as sunset  gives way to twilight.

On that February morning, as the colors of dawn gave way to bright sunlight, the drums and rattles from above and below went silent.  We drummers descended from the canyon rim to our awaiting vans and proceeded on the next leg of what for us was a journey enacted in the spirit of pilgrimage. Ever since we committed to “Meeting Ancient Wisdom, Growing Into Elderhood” months before, we sixteen Americans, ranging in age from 50 to 76, had prepared to come to the magnificent homeland of the Raramuri as pilgrims rather than tourists. Our guides to Copper Canyon and the Raramuri were Jan and Mireya Milburn, who through their Milburn Foundation have devoted decades of their lives to the preservation of Raramuri culture.

The difference between a tour and a pilgrimage is as immense as the canyon itself.  A tour is a trip to an exotic locale to see beautiful natural or human-made features and to learn about the culture and history of the place. The focus is on doing this and that with each step planned and the experiences and insights mostly predictable. The tour leaders strive to offer a “controlled” experience where little is left to chance.

In contrast, a pilgrimage is a journey to touch and be touched by the sacred.  As such it is deeply grounded not in doing, but in being.  The known must be left behind, and Mystery surrendered to and embraced. It is taking a journey with the intention of being fully alive and present to the guidance, mystery, magic and transformative potential of each moment and each experience. Expectations must be let go and the unexpected welcomed. One must trust that a greater Wisdom travels with us and opens us to experiences that—with acceptance, reflection and intention— will further our psychological and spiritual growth.

Despite their widely diverse professional and spiritual backgrounds, what our group of pilgrims held in common was a calling to claim and live the role of elder in our senior years. We all believed that becoming an elder is not the same as becoming older or senior. Understanding and honoring this calling to elderhood can be very difficult in a modern world where the importance of elders is forgotten and their role denigrated

In stark contrast, until the Industrial Revolution, the role of elder was held in high esteem in most societieties. Elders have been the nurturers of community, the spiritual leaders, the guardians of traditions, the teachers, initiators and mentors of the young.  They have been the storytellers who have helped their people remember the enduring wisdom and deeper meanings that persist through life’s changes. They have been the ones who, over long lives have transformed experience into wisdom and whose revered role has been to model this wisdom.

Among indigenous peoples this ancient tradition is still vital, playing a critical role in their survival and health.  The Raramuri respect all people with gray hair and honor their experience and contribution to their community, but they reserve the designation of Mayori, the fullest expression of elderhood, for those who have undergone years of intense training, spiritual practice and deep commitment to their personal growth. Mayori must know everything about the tribe and the way of life that have long made survival possible.  They know the songs, legends, dances, ceremonies, and healing practices.  They serve as counselors and teachers.  They teach their people how to receive and understand spiritual guidance, and how to use heightened awareness to court the synchronicities and miracles that are central to the spiritual lives of their people.

It is the Mayori who hold the cultural fabric of the Raramuri together, a fabric that has as its source an ongoing experience of relationship with the living earth and the Mystery that created and sustains it, and them.  Many of us who embrace a new paradigm for aging believe that the wisdom of true elders is necessary in our world as well if our civilization is to face, successfully, face the momentous challenges that lie before us.

“Meeting Ancient Wisdom, Growing into Elderhood” wove together four strands in our quests to define and live the role of elder in the modern world.  We spent time in solitude on the heights above Barranca del Cobre and in the depths of one of its canyons to strengthen our experience of the sacredness of our relationship to the earth. We explored sites of historical and cultural interest. We engaged in practices, such as sharing councils, drumming circles, guided imagery, dreamwork and give-away ceremonies, to share the joys and struggles of our quests to become elders, to open ourselves to our our creativity and intuition, and to deepen our bonding as community.  And we spent time with Raramuri and their elders, trusting that the impact of being in the presence of indigenous people for whom the archetypal role of elder is alive and strong would serve as a catalyst in our own journeys toward full elderhood.

Many Raramuri still experience their lives through an expanded consciousness (what some scholars call “indigenous soul”) in which they are able to be present for, and creative in, worlds other than the material.  When choosing how, or even if, to relate to outsiders, they read our energy even before we are in their presence.  We knew, therefore, that, if we approached them full of expectations, projections and judgments, they might interact with us only superficially, if at all.  On the other hand, if we went to Copper Canyon with true humility and a beginner’s mind—if we allowed ourselves to be in each moment without expectation—we would come with an energy they could resonate with.  And  by befriending them in this way, we hoped to befriend a basic part of our own human nature, a state of consciousness that enables us, like them, to have living experience of our relationship to all of creation and its Creator.  With this heightened awareness, we come to know our unique roles as elders in supporting the health of earth and the human community.
We began to recognize this shift of consciousness early in our pilgrimage as we experienced our first striking example of synchronicity, or meaningful coincidence. When we left El Paso for the five-hour drive to Chihuahua, a major storm was passing through the area, with the weather forecasters predicting strong, dangerous winds that could very well cover the highway with sand and close it for hours.  We offered our prayers for protection, visualized a safe journey, and began the drive in our caravan of two vans and one truck.  Five hours later we arrived at the Westin Hotel in the city of Chihuahua, having passed through miles of barren, sand dune- landscape with little wind.

Several days after our drumming session on the canyon rim, another wonderful “coincidence” resulted in an unexpected, highly impactful experience for our group.  We had the rare opportunity to spend the morning with an 83-year old Raramuri shaman named Lorenzo and his wife Conchita, who is a healer talented in the medicinal use of plants and herbs. Mireya Milburn, who is Raramuri, spent much time in her childhood with her family’s neighbors, Lorenzo and Conchita.  She introduced them to Jan thirty years ago, but Jan and Mireya had not seen these friends in fifteen years.  One morning Jan learned that Lorenzo, who is often away from his home doing his healing work, would be at home that day and was eager to offer his blessings to our group. With only a brief handshake, this life-long shaman assessed each of our physical and spiritual selves and prescribed practices and remedies that would help us restore balance. He then used both Christian prayer and sage incense to cleanse energies of fear, which are so pervasive these days, so that we could more fully embrace trust, a critical doorway to indigenous soul.

Later, trust was a valuable resource, for some of us, on the seven-hour drive from Cusarare at 7,500 feet down to the former silver-and gold-mining town of Batopilas at 1,200 feet.  We envisioned this descent as both a journey into the depths of Copper Canyon and into the depths of ourselves. The dirt road down into Batopilas Canyon is a one-lane ribbon of rock and dirt, full of switchbacks, awe-inspiring and for some, frightening. Burros and goats roamed the hillsides and meandered along the road.  Passing Raramuri families, dressed in their multi-colored traditional dress lent brilliant color to a starkly beautiful landscape of gray and brown volcanic rock. Later, in the spring and summer, rains would brighten the landscape with a riot of greens, reds and yellows, but not so during our descent into the canyon.

We spent three days basking in the 75-degree warmth of the canyon bottom and the quaint town of Batopilas.  In the early 1900’s, Batopilas was the largest silver-producer in the world.  Now a town of 1100 residents, mostly of Indian-Mexican (Mestizo) heritage, Batopilas boasts a charming hotel, the Riverside Lodge, that was a magnificent hacienda during the silver boom. With every room different and having its own small courtyard, this hotel provided us with elegant yet simple comfort and an inspiring place to meet as a group for sharing circles. We enjoyed our excellent traditional Mexican meals on the front porch of the home of a Milburn friend named Belia, who cooked for us on a small stove in her kitchen.
On our first morning in the canyon, we hiked four miles following the Batopilas River to the Lost Cathedral of Satevo, whose history remains a mystery lost in the mists of time. The formerly red brick church was being renovated and covered with cream-colored stocco. It is commonly believed that this cathedral was already in a state of decay when the Jesuits arrived around 1600.  Its architecture is unlike that seen in Jesuit and Franciscan mission churches throughout Mexico and the southwestern U.S.  Rather it contains prominent characteristics associated with churches and monasteries found in Austria and Bavaria, leading to Jan’s theory that Austrian monks from one of Columbus’ expeditions had settled here a century before the Spanish missionaries.

Our focus shifted from exploration back to inner work the next day as each of us spent a morning in solitude and silence along the Batopilas River. This watercourse was a small, placid stream at this time, in contrast to its rainy season face as a raging, rock-rolling torrent. Our individual and communal prayer was to use this time to even more deeply open ourselves to indigenous soul and its guidance for our lives.

My own most powerful personal experience of the pilgrimage occurred during this time.  As I waded a small channel, reflecting on events of the past few years, I came to understand my dream of the previous night in which the key symbol was a boy being baptized. I suddenly “knew” that I needed, with Jan’s participation, to create a personal ceremony to mark the end of one chapter in my life and baptize myself, with the waters of the Batopilas River, into full commitment to the next stage. I related to my dream as the Raramuri do to theirs, as an important vehicle through which indigenous soul makes itself known.  Such a relationship with their dreams is integral to the psychological and spiritual lives of the Raramuri and other indigenous people, and is one that all of us can cultivate. To honor this relationship, Raramuri  believe it is essential to tell ones dreams upon awakening, and, in certain cases, to translate dream images into personal ceremonies or commitments.

Our experiences in the canyon were instrumental in preparing us for our ascent to Cusarare and what for most was the defining moment of our pilgrimage, the opportunity to spend time with Raramuri elders. Throughout the journey, we knew this meeting was a possibility but not guaranteed.  Months earlier, Jan Milburn had invited several of the elders, including Mayori, to spend an afternoon with our group.  These are leaders with whom he had close relationships during those years when he lived and worked with the Raramuri building schools and health clinics, creating work opportunities, and winning back the millions of acres that had been stolen from them by timber and hotel interests.   He had not seen most of them for several years, and did not know if they would choose to join us.  His two closest mentors had died in the previous year.  He told us that the others he invited were, like most Raramuri, naturally shy and not eager to spend their time with whites.

It was not until the morning of the scheduled day that Jan learned that sixteen of the elders had accepted his invitation to join us for an afternoon meal in the cave home of friends of the Milburns. It seemed fitting that we begin that day with the future of the Raramuri, their children, by visiting the local school for Raramuri children, hearing them recite their lessons, delighting in their laughter and smiles, sharing their nervousness, and presenting them with markers, pens and pencils, and notebooks.  Then, we drove on to the cave home.

The elders who greeted us at the cave home—governors of communal lands called ejidos, two Mayoris, a healer, several others and their wives—all had dark, weathered faces lined with age.  The men dressed in western clothing—jeans ,shirts, and hats—with several wearing handmade sandals.  The women were dressed in brilliantly colored ruffled skirts, blouses and head scarves, and wore sandals. Curious children whose school day had just ended shyly watched us from behind large boulders above the cave.  We suspected that the Raramuri shared  our nervousness at not knowing what to expect. Jan advised us to become comfortable being with the elders in silence, sharing all those many elements of communication that are non-verbal. He told us that a slight brushing of their fingers against ours would be the appropriate form of greeting.  To be offered a firmer handshake at some point would be a special gift. Try to feel their energy, he told us, as surely they would be feeling ours—let  Raramuri indigenous soul touch ours and trust that to be enough.

In the spacious, smoky cave home, we and these elders and children shared a large meal of tamales and blue corn tortillas, prepared by Mireya’s mother and relatives the night before (probably all night!) As some of us played with the children, their smiles and laughter began to relieve the mutual nervousness. Then we went outside to a circular grassy area bordered by large boulders, where we sat alternating Raramuri with white visitors. Using Jan as their translator, several of the elders made short welcoming speeches and extended their blessings toward us.  As is customary when meeting elders of all indigenous cultures, we offered gifts that they value: beautiful cloth and sewing materials for the women, flashlights and Leatherman tools for the men. Each of us gave our gifts to an elder with whom we felt connection, evidenced by a smile shared or one of those subtle yet tangible feelings of being in relationship.  And then Jan asked if the elders would accept a rhythmic blessing from our group.

The pulse of our drums and rattling of our shakers carried our prayers for the wellbeing of the Raramuri. With the drumming, we were bringing healing to the old, pain-tinged relationship between these humble people and the often arrogant white man.  It touched us deeply to have several of these elders offer us full handshakes as we were leaving. When the elder who best knew Jan asked if we would/could come back, our feelings were confirmed that our unique overture to Raramuri elders was also valued by them and seen as an important beginning.  Unlike tourists, we had not come just to get something for ourselves. We had done our best to meet and honor them without judgment or projection. Our innate goodness had met theirs, the indigenous soul that is the essence of our shared humanity had shone forth and was felt by all—and all are all better off for this encounter.

As I write this account in mid-March, it is now the beginning of the season of renewal in the northern hemisphere. The Life-Giver rises and sets each day to the sound of Raramuri drums beating deep in the canyons. The starkness of the winter landscape is giving way to the lush colors of spring.  The spiritual practices and beliefs that are the life of Raramuri culture live on, grounded in both Christianity and an indigenous tradition of deep reverence for the earth.

Out of the canyon and many miles to the north, the heartbeats of a group of sixteen aspiring elders continue to beat in resonance with those of our Raramuri brothers and sisters. We still have much to learn about the fullness of our potential to serve as true elders in our communities, but we have made a beginning.  We, and others like us, are on the leading edge of a necessary paradigm shift in how aging is viewed in America.  As we learned from the Raramuri, aging need not be defined by decline, loss and withdrawal from active contribution to the community. Aging done consciously, with intention and inner work, can be a time when, like finely aged wine, we are at our best, giving our gifts and sharing our wisdom as we fulfill a role that since time immemorial has been vital in the lives of communities—that of the elder.

Our pilgrimage to Barranca del Cobre was a practice in the art of pilgrimage, demonstrating to us our potential for honoring and living each day as another day on our pilgrimages through life. We now know we can journey through our days carrying trust that a greater Wisdom, and its gift of indigenous soul, is traveling with us.  The Giver of Life rises each day to remind us, as it does the Raramuri, that all life is sacred and inter-dependent.

The “Meeting Ancient Wisdom, Growing into Elderhood” pilgrimage described in this article, was co-guided in 2009 by Ron Pevny and Wes Burwell, in collaboration with Jan and Mireya Milburn of the Milburn Foundation (www.milburnfoundation.org) a non-profit organization built on Jan’s more than 40 years of dedication to the preservation of the indigenous culture of the Raramuri (Tarahumara) Indians and their Copper Canyon homeland.  
 
“Meeting Ancient Wisdom” is offered each year as an opportunity to do conscious eldering work while being inspired by the wisdom of the indigenous people of Copper Canyon in Mexico, Hawaii or other magnificent places. Ron Pevny is a life coach, organizational consultant and long-time rite of passage guide who, for many years has offered wilderness quests, retreats and other support services for people and organizations in transition. He and his colleagues have offered Choosing Conscious Elderhood retreats and wilderness quests since 2002.  Ron and his Center for Conscious Eldering can be reached at 970-247-7943 or info@centerforconsciouseldering.com.

Download a PDF file of The Art of Pilgrimage

Releasing the Past in the Death Lodge

Endings and Beginnings—Keys To Conscious Elderhood

The journey into a conscious elderhood is one that very much involves recognizing and dealing with both dying and living, ending and beginning. It is a journey of recognition of these powerful dynamics as intimately woven together while we concurrently prepare for two endings and two beginnings. Both physical death and the passage into conscious elderhood are, for the psyche, a death to an old way of being. And they are both doorways into new chapters in life’s journey of growth. One of the core tenets of conscious or spiritual eldering (two names for the same transformative inner work) is that the work that prepares us to be at peace as we leave this life is the same work that prepares us to become conscious elders. It is the work of healing our past and leaving behind our self-identification with our previous life stage so that we can move without encumbrance into the mysterious next chapter that awaits us.

When we reflect on our mortality and the passage from this life to whatever comes next, most everyone hopes to die in peace. We want to be able to feel that our lives have been well-lived, that we have done our best to use our gifts, that we have loved and been loved, and that we can let go of this life with grace and without regret. Yet, so many people do not die this way. Colleagues, friends and participants in our Choosing Conscious Elderhood retreats who work with hospice all say that, generally speaking, those who die the most peaceful deaths are those who come to their deathbeds unburdened by a lifetime’s accumulation of resentments, regrets, dysfunctional relationships, unhealed grief and closed hearts. Besides manifesting as emotional turmoil, such unfinished business often results in prolonged physical agony and clutching to a life that feels incomplete and unfulfilled. An important aspect of the work of hospice spiritual directors is to help dying people deal with some of their unfinished business so that they can let go of this life with hearts that are more open to love and peace.

Healing the Past, Completing Unfinished Business

While the conceptions of what comes after this life vary greatly among the world’s spiritual traditions, they are unified in their belief that what we carry internally to our deathbeds is critical to what we experience thereafter. In various traditions, heaven and hell are not places but, rather, magnified reflections of our inner state at the time of death. Whether we die with peaceful, loving hearts or conflicted, closed hearts very much determines our experience when we are without a body. And, according to those traditions that include reincarnation, the extent to which we have healed the past plays a key role in determining our experience when next we inhabit a body.

Doing the inner work of examining and healing our past helps us to complete unfinished business that ties up our energy, closes our hearts and dims our vision as we enter our elder chapters. This work also helps us to keep current internally so that we are ready whenever death calls. I know that when I had my first encounter with my mortality several years ago, I became acutely aware of healing that needed to be done and legacy stories that needed to be shared with my loved ones. Yet, I felt too weak, ill, fearful and emotionally drained to do any inner work at all. It was all I could do to hang on and keep the myriad of strong emotions that swept over me from turning into overwhelm. That experience taught me the importance of keeping current in my inner work in an ongoing way so that I can shine my light brightly in my elder years and be ready for leaving this life whenever that time comes.

The Death Lodge Tradition

Here, I would like to describe one of the most powerful practices I know for bringing together various aspects of the inner work of healing the past. This practice is called The Death Lodge. Because the work of this practice feels so very freeing and enlivening, some of our retreat participants prefer to also call it The Life Lodge. Choose whatever name you prefer. I’ll use the term Death Lodge because the work done there is the work of dying to the past to open the door to life in the future.

I first learned about the Death Lodge many years ago from my teachers Steven Foster and Meredith Little, the pioneers in the modern rite of passage movement. In their book on vision questing, The Roaring of the Sacred River they describe the Death Lodge as “a little house away from the village where people go when they want to tell everyone they are ready to die.” (#1) Foster and Little attribute the Death Lodge concept to the Cheyenne tribe of the Native Americans of the Plains. To begin to understand the power of this practice, imagine you are an indigenous person who has grown old and weary of this life and knows your death is near. You attend to those practical matters that need to be done at the end of your life such as passing on your belongings. Then you leave village life behind to enter a special place, the Death Lodge, where you will focus on reviewing your life, repairing or completing your relationships, and preparing to move from this life into the mystery beyond.

In the Death Lodge you remember the important events dynamics and people of your life. Situations may look very different from the perspective of your approaching death than they did at the time they happened. You reflect on how you have used your gifts. You acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses, and forgive yourself for the harm you have done to others. You explore your relationship with the Great Spirit throughout your life and now at this point of nearing your passage into the great unknown. Then, when the time feels right, you invite those in your village who have played important roles in your life to come visit you, one at a time. This is the time for bringing your relationships to completion. You and each of your visitors do whatever needs to be done so that your relationship feels complete, with no unfinished business. From the perspective of being about to die, the dynamics of these relationships may appear quite different than previously. You thank and honor each other for the role you have played in each other’s lives, and you say goodbye. Once this work is complete, you are at peace with your life, your community, and your God and are ready to move into the world of spirit.

The Death Lodge Practice As A Rite of Passage

We obviously live in a very different world than the indigenous societies where the death that happens at life’s major passages is acknowledged and honored as part of the cycle of life and is consciously prepared for. Our modern world has few, if any, true rites of passage that require a conscious death to our old sense of self as a prerequisite for moving into life’s next stage. However, deep inside each of us is an indigenous self that remembers that nature’s cycles of life and death, with death being necessary for new life, are also the cycles of our lives. Conscious eldering is very much a process of becoming conscious of these rhythms as they operate in us, making way for the birth of new possibility when we begin to leave mid-life adulthood. I believe that one reason the Death Lodge practice resonates so deeply with our retreat participants is that it’s imagery taps into that indigenous knowing in each of us about how to align ourselves with the cycle of life and death.

The following is my recommendation for how you can employ the Death Lodge as work to support your passage into a conscious elderhood. By doing so, you will also keep your inner work up-to-date as you draw ever nearer to life’s final passage. First, be aware that Death Lodge work is not something you do one time and then it’s complete. It is best viewed as a practice that you periodically revisit as part of your commitment to your inner growth. I encourage you to view Death Lodge work as a sacred ritual done with care and intention. If possible, do it outside in a natural place, as this will serve to align you with nature’s cycles. Give yourself enough time to do focused inner work without distraction. Ideally, find a small area that has the feel of an enclosed little house or lodge, such as a spot in a grove of trees or a cave-like space amid rocks or under overhanging bushes, Before you enter, offer a prayer or state an intention that the sacred, however you name it, be with you supporting and guiding your work. You might bless and purify your Lodge with incense or bring in some flowers. Be sure to bring along your journal and perhaps an object that you consider sacred. This work is most profound if you approach it imagining, as best you can, that you have only a few weeks left to live and that you are indeed preparing to die. You never know. That may indeed be the case.

Once inside your Death Lodge, be quiet and wait to see what type of life completion/life healing work feels most alive for you. Are you aware of a painful experience that needs to be examined, felt more deeply, and reframed so you can understand how it contributed, or can now contribute to your growth? Are there regrets that disempower you and diminish your sense of self worth and the worth of your life? If so, how can you change the way you relate to these regrets? Are there experiences of joy or accomplishment you want to spend time reliving, and perhaps reviewing to remember your strengths and gifts? What is the state of your relationship with the Spirit (however you name it) that is your source and essence? You might want to spend time focused on gratitude for all of the incredible journey that is your life.

For many people, the most important work of the Death Lodge involves bringing healing and completion to relationships. In your Lodge you have the opportunity to spend time, in spirit, with people who have been significant in your life. What needs to be said to bring completion and, if needed, healing to these relationships? What needs to be forgiven, and are you willing to do so? What contribution has the other made to your life and growth that needs to be acknowledged? How can you best honor the other before you say goodbye?

Who to Invite for Relationship Completion

There are several different possibilities for who you can invite into your Death Lodge (and sometimes you may find that some of these knock at the door without an invitation, making it clear that they belong there.)
• You can become aware of others who are alive, with whom healing needs to happen, and with whom a face-to-face conversation is possible if you make the effort. You can use the Death Lodge to practice what you will say to them and to make the commitment to try your best to meet with them in person.
• You can invite others who are alive but with whom a face-to-face meeting is an impossibility for whatever reasons. Picturing them in your Lodge with you, and imagine yourself talking to their spirits—to the best in them—saying what you need to say and hearing their response. Using your journal for such conversations can help make this process more tangible. The Gestalt process of moving back and forth from one seat to another is also helpful for some people.
• You can invite people who have died with whom you have never had or made the opportunity to share what’s in your heart. Does grief need to be expressed? Anger? Gratitude? Forgiveness? A request for forgiveness? Again, speak to their spirit and imagine what that wise, loving essence in them has to say to you. If you cannot connect with a sense of what their spirit has to say, only remembering their personality selves which may have been hurtful to you, that’s OK. Speak the truth of your heart, doing your best to recognize and honor their role in your growth while acknowledging the pain they may have caused you.
• For many people, the most important and difficult Death Lodge work is the work of forgiving and honoring themselves. Or, to be more precise, those parts of themselves that have made errors and poor decision, have hurt others, are weak, are imperfect. Nothing is more disempowering than resenting parts of ourselves. Nothing closes our hearts and fills us with conflict more than self hatred. Here we have the opportunity to forgive these parts of ourselves for their weakness and to thank them for what they have taught us about our shadows and our values. From the perspective of our conscious, aware selves we can dialogue with and extend love to these parts of us (using our journal can be very helpful) with the goal of re-owning disowned aspects of ourselves. The more we do so, the more whole we become.

A Hospice-Derived Template for Death Lodge Practice

The hospice tradition has identified five pieces of unfinished business that are important for people seeking peace and wholeness as they approach the end of their lives. These can serve as a useful template for the relationship completion work we do in our Death Lodges.
• Asking for forgiveness from those we have offended
• Forgiving those we need to forgive
• Expressing gratitude toward those who have made a difference in our lives, whether this impact brought happiness or pain at the time
• Expressing affection
• Saying goodbye

In addition, my dear friend and mentor Wes Burwell, a long-time hospice spiritual director with whom I co-created the Choosing Conscious Elderhood retreats over several years, adds a sixth: Blessing those who have made a difference in our lives. I believe the blessings help to consciously invite the spiritual dimension to this work.

Death Lodge work is not easy. It requires us to face our mortality and to uncover and deal with difficult dynamics in ourselves and our relationships with others. It is work that is very easily postponed with the rationale that we’ll do it later when we are really old and death seems nearer and more tangible. I encourage you to remember these two facts: You don’t know when death is near. And, the more of this work you do as you age, the more alive, vibrant, inspired and peaceful you will be in life’s elder chapters. The inner work of conscious eldering plays a critical role in determining whether you become merely old, or a passionate and ever growing conscious elder. For many people the Death Lodge is a deeply healing practice for weaving together various strands of this inner work, so that each day is, to use a powerful Native American image, a good day to die. And in so doing, we clear the way for the new beginnings that are possible for us.

Retreat Participant’s Healing Experience

I have been privileged to hear from retreat participants many stories about their use of the Death Lodge, on retreat and as a regular practice in their lives. I’d like to close by sharing the deeply transformative Death Lodge experience of Anette, as related in her own words.

There was a moment in time that excruciatingly split my life into the “before” and “after”—a recalibration of time that set that moment as the moment relative to which all prior and subsequent events are now remembered. The zero on my X-axis of time. June 17, 1999.

The phone rang. A voice said, “Molly has shot herself.” She had been at her father’s house. In a blur of events I found myself at the emergency room hearing a physician say the words. She is dead. She was 15. She was brilliant, beautiful, happy, precious, and so very loved by so many people. So loved by me. A moment of drama over a boy, an argument with her father, an available loaded pistol, and she gave up every sweetly anticipated experience of growing into adulthood on this earth.

My son, my living daughter and I lived in a stunned and painful silence, patient and tolerant of each other’s process in grief, absorbing our new reality. A woman from the funeral home brought me a small velvet bag with Molly’s jewelry: a watch that I had bought her, a silver butterfly pendant on a chain (the symbol of her closest girlfriends), and silver earrings. She had worn these when she died. The velvet bag held these precious objects. I held it for many months.
Four years later, around Thanksgiving, I began to feel human, and my son and I remarked that we were smiling.

Twelve years later, a colleague sent me a link to a retreat on conscious eldering, to be held at a small retreat center near Mt. Shasta. I was put off by the rude suggestion that I might be aging and that I might need to deal with it in a thoughtful way—a clear sign that I needed to go. We were to bring to the retreat significant objects from our lives to create an altar, objects that we felt identified us in some way. The thought of Molly, ever-present, kept a lump in my throat and the sorrow just slightly beneath the surface. Suicide is different from any other death. There is a stigma. It is impossible to explain, but only other parents of children who have suicided seem to understand the complexity. I took a photo of Molly.

My conscious eldering cohorts were loving, gentle, and experienced in a variety of ways, each bringing a rich perspective to life and life’s cycle. I was prepared for my day of solitude and fasting on the mountain, and content as I approached my little sanctuary of solitude. The snow had melted enough to leave patches of dry earth, on which grew burgeoning wild grasses and plants pushing their way to the sun. I sprawled on my back to watch the clouds and feel the mountain. It felt safe. It was beautiful. I spoke to a bee. I explored. I came across a circle of stones that had been laid around a small pit, an indention in the earth as if scooped out to form a bowl. This place, previously created for some sacred moment in another’s life, became my Death Lodge. Shasta offered the perfect blending of death and renewal. Felled trees, rotting where they landed, created swells in the landscape, changing the flow of runoff, adjusting the topography, forever changing the landscape by their death. How perfect. The beauty and symmetry of life amidst decomposition, prepared me for my Death Lodge work.

It felt odd, speaking aloud to my deceased family members— grandparents, aunts and uncles and friends who were so dear. There were many with whom I shared this moment, saving Molly for last. I spoke to my friend, Ann, who had promised as she lay dying that she would find Molly and let me know if there was any way possible, that she was okay. In my death lodge I loved talking to her about what she had meant to me in life and in death.

Then came my friend Bob, who had shared his death from pancreatic cancer with me just nine months before. His friendship was transforming. A few months before his death, I had been seated next to him in a pew at 18 year-old Brian’s memorial service, with the strange understanding that his service would be next. Bob’s remarks had been profound: “How perfect. Brian was in a perfect place in his life. Why do we get hung up in the idea that more is better?”

Bob’s death a few months later was intimate and tender, filled with grace and love, as he denied fear with the words, “Why would I be afraid when I get to fall asleep, relieved of pain, and awaken staring into the eyes of my God?”
I spoke to Bob in my death lodge. I thanked him for taking me with him down that path of transforming fear, as far as I could go. He gave me, in his death, the ability to see life more clearly. All those who were present for me in my Death Lodge had all felt receptive to my gratitude and amends. Now I was ready to speak to Molly.

For the first time in 12 years, I felt her presence. I spoke to her, and then with her, about my love for her, my horror at her death, and my struggle with the permanence of her choice. I wanted, yearned, for her to have lived out her life—to have survived that painful moment and to experience all that life has to offer – and to find the peace and joy that come from maturity and self-acceptance. I wanted just once more to hear the sound of her voice. I wanted her as the receptacle for immense love and devotion that had welled in my heart with no place to go for so many years. I asked forgiveness, for what I do not know. I told her that if I had hurt her, I no longer remembered having done so and wanted her to know that I had to quit trying to figure it out. She understood.
I then heard Bob’s words. “Why do we dwell on the thought that more is better?” Indeed. I had lived for 15 years with this precious, clever, beautiful, spontaneous, loving child in delight and yet spent almost all of the following 12 years in pain over her death rather than in awe of her life and the gift of her creation in my body and birth into my family.
I felt the weight lift in an instant. Tears rolling down my cheek, I pledged to honor her by living in gratitude for her life rather than in misery over her death.

Then, a butterfly appeared from the trees and fluttered through the death lodge, encircling my head and gracing me with its beauty. As she flew away, I said, “No, come back!” and then caught myself in a smile, chuckling at my own compulsion to want more.
From that day, I have loved Molly in joy more than sorrow. My tears are now of gratitude. I miss her terribly. I am so fortunate to have had her in my life.

Reference: Steven Foster and Meredith Little, The Roaring of the Sacred River (New York: Prentice Hall, 1989), p.34

Ron Pevny, M.A., recognized his calling as a wilderness rite of passage guide in 1979 and ever since has been dedicated to assisting people in negotiating life transitions and creating lives of purpose and passion. He co-created the Choosing Conscious Elderhood retreats in 2002, is founder and Director of the Center for Conscious Eldering and is a Certified Sage-ing® Leader. His life coaching practice is focused on individuals over 50 who are committed to aging consciously. This article is excerpted from Ron’s forthcoming book on conscious eldering to be published next summer by Beyond Words/ Atria Books.

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