Aging and Unfolding

by Ron Pevny

If you are reading these words, you likely are a person for whom the fulfillment of your potential in your later life chapters is a priority. You are someone who feels in your heart that your aging can be a journey of ripening—of reaching the pinnacle of your lifelong quest for emotional and spiritual growth—and grounded in that growth, finding the fulfillment that comes from serving the human and earth community as an elder.

You are well aware—painfully aware—that the mainstream culture in which your life is imbedded does not share this vision of the rich possibilities of elderhood. The cultural understanding of the critical value of true elders has largely been lost in most contemporary societies. This has left the vast numbers of us in our 60s, 70s, 80s and older without life-affirming paradigms to inspire, guide and motivate us to do the inner work of bringing forth those personal qualities that naturally seek to emerge as we transition inwardly from mid-life adulthood into that stage in our life’s journey of growth called elderhood.

Beyond the realities of ageism in the work world and the many demeaning stereotypes of older adults, an equally disempowering paradigm tells us that our aging should be a time when our priorities shift from our growth and our contribution of our talents and skills to the community, to having our primary motivations be our pleasure and security. This latter paradigm is rooted in the reality that emotional and spiritual growth throughout the human lifespan, including the elder years, are not understood, valued, fostered, taught and modeled by the societies we live in and are shaped by.

Yet, positive change is afoot. Ageism is increasingly being seen as a blight on society and an assault on the human spirit. Positive Aging, Active Aging, Healthy Aging, Successful Aging and various other models are helping to empower older adults to claim their potential to passionately engage with life. Retirement is a concept that is in the process of being re-imagined. More and more frequently we hear words like “Re-firement” being used to affirm the potential for creativity, engagement and service after so called retirement age. The millions of baby boomers turning 65 each day around the world are beginning to see many things they can be doing and lifestyle choices they can be making that could not even be imagined by our parents.

We celebrate these positive models. However, they are inadequate by themselves and can even be disempowering if they blind us to recognition of the energies, growth, motivations, wisdom and service that characterize the Elder within each of us that seeks to emerge as we age. These models largely focus on “what we can do” as we age. Conscious Eldering focuses on the Elder you can be as you engage with life in your later chapters; on the personal inner work that can bring your passion alive, open your heart and mind, and strengthen your connection to Spirit and Soul; on the inner sources you draw upon as you make choices about how you can best be of service to the community; and on ways to help foster your resilience as you face the inevitable losses and griefs that are part of—but only part of—the incredible journey toward the fullness of elderhood.

Many of you reading this are just beginning your transition into elderhood. Others have consciously (or perhaps not so consciously) already begun to manifest the qualities of elderhood.  Elderhood is a stage of growth that some people achieve as they age, and is not equated with one’s activity level or state of health. Growth is an ongoing process, and  we all have the potential to grow until the day we pass from this life. You may already have developed various of the qualities of true elderhood, but true elders are always growing, knowing that elderhood is a commitment to, and process of, continual unfolding in whatever circumstances life presents us.

The longer lifespans and health advances that make these times unique in human history support this unfolding; support from kindred spirits (friends, teachers, models of aging consciously) who are committed to this vision is absolutely necessary support for this unfolding; the reality of our mortality and its attendant losses also supports this unfolding if we allow ourselves to let go of denial of these realities. A deep commitment to waking  with our priority each day being to somehow grow and serve is essential for bringing forth the Elder within.

Striving to hold on to the identities of previous life stages without allowing ourselves to gradually grow into elderhood precludes this unfolding.  Buying into the societal belief that the best we can hope for as we age is maximizing activity, pleasure and security precludes this unfolding. Allowing ourselves to live out of habit rather than intentionality leaves little room  for us to perceive and support this unfolding.

Many people reminded me, after reading the many diverse responses to my article in the last issue of this newsletter in which I wondered whether our work is indeed catalyzing a paradigm shift, that we cannot know at this point. I know that cultural tipping points cannot be predicted, but are built up-to and then happen seemingly overnight.  The one common message in these responses was that our work and that of kindred other organizations, teachers and mentors, is vitally important to many people who are committed to the ongoing, challenging work of creating a lifestyle that will slowly but surely bring forth those Elder qualities that are their birthright.

Are you one of those people?  If so, we look forward to continuing to offer you our support.

Learning Elder Wisdom from a Fierce Teacher

By Ron Pevny

 

As coronavirus has given us all an opportunity to shift our focus from our normal outer activities to our inner lives, I have often found myself reflecting on what it will mean to claim ones elderhood in a post-pandemic world, and what we can learn from COVID-19 about the inner work that can help us grow into the kind of elderhood a changed world will urgently need. In this article I’d like to share some of my reflections and several meaningful questions for your own reflection.

Most of those who will read this article are in the demographic most vulnerable to the virulence of the virus.  However, we are also in the demographic most vulnerable to illness in general; most vulnerable to losses of friends; losses of physical and mental abilities; losses of roles that we have used to define ourselves and to provide that all-important sense of meaning and purpose; vulnerable to being seen as irrelevant by the society we live in; and vulnerable to internalizing the pervasive ageism that disempowers us by sapping our sense of worth and our trust in our potential contributions to the community.

As I look at my experiences and those of other conscious elders I have been privileged to share with during the past three months, I see where many have used the coronavirus as a fierce teacher whose gift is giving us the opportunity to practice a way of living that has long characterized those who have ripened into the fullness of elderhood.  I find that I and many others are allowing ourselves much more time than previously to embrace and savor the preciousness of each moment.

We are reveling in the wonder of the natural world emerging from dormancy yet again in this exceptionally beautiful  Springtime. We are intentionally embracing these quiet moments as opportunities to cultivate stronger relationship with Spirit. We are appreciating the difference between superficial relationships and those relationships that feed our souls, and nurturing these very special connections. We are paying careful attention to the often-strong emotions, imaginings and fears, as well as the more subtle inner promptings and visions of our potential, that are arising into our awareness during this time. And we are using a variety of resources to help us practice fruitful ways to relate to these experiences.

Many of us are feeling a heightened need to identify and give our gifts to the human family and to our wounded planet. At the same time, we are more aware than ever that our ability to serve to the fullest of our potential depends upon us cultivating a rich inner life of presence, gratitude and compassion, qualities which can be an invaluable gift of embracing our mortality as the ally that continually reminds us of the preciousness of each moment.

We can learn so very much from a fierce teacher such as coronavirus, but to do so takes commitment and courage.  It takes courage to allow such a teacher to help us examine  our ways of being in the world and our relationship with our inner life. It takes courage to acknowledge our weaknesses and our (perhaps unrecognized) strengths.  Courage is necessary if we are to choose each day to feed ourselves those experiences that bring us truly alive when it is so tempting to go on automatic and immerse ourselves in numbing distractions.  It takes courage to choose to step outside our comfort zones in service to truly living.

It requires courage to choose to acknowledge that this current COVID-19 crisis and the other crises that are arising and will inevitably be part of in the future, will all require letting go of ways of being that cannot be sustained.  All the world’s wisdom traditions teach that significant change comes only through difficult personal and cultural initiations that are experienced as crisis, when former identities, attitudes and ways of being must be let go—as painful as that can be—so that new ways can emerge that support a fuller expression of human potential. This is the essential dynamic of that archetypal process of growth that is often called the Hero/Heroine/s Journey.  And, as we enter our later life chapters, it is the essential dynamic of that archetypal process of growth from mid-life adulthood into the rich emotional, spiritual and service possibilities of true elderhood,

The coronavirus pandemic will end.  Our vulnerability to mortality will not.  Post pandemic, will we allow fear to drive us to live in perpetual psychological lockdown as we face the inevitable dangers that accompany our journey through aging? Or will we have the courage to take the risks that bring us alive?

It is important to reflect deeply and honestly about what kind of person are we committed to being after the current crisis passes. What attitudes, habits and ways of living are we being called to shed so that as a result of this crisis we become fuller versions of ourselves and not smaller, more frightened people? What can we be doing now to establish within our psyches and in our daily lives those healthy ways of being that will serve us in maturing into alive, committed elders—elders whose contributions of big-picture perspective, commitment to a healthy future for the generation to come, and willingness to give their personal soul gifts—will be more needed than ever in a world where the viruses of polarization, inequality, racism and climate breakdown loom large to threaten humanity’s future wellbeing and even survival?

As our hearts are broken by witnessing the pain of so many in the human family, what understandings of our soul gifts are being evoked by our compassion and commitment to making a difference?  Are we striving to gain a clearer sense of how, when the pandemic is over, we can serve our community as elders in ways that stretch us beyond our previously perceived limits and bring us more fully alive than before? Are we cultivating the courage to defy ageist stereotypes that view older adults primarily as vulnerable old people whose primary motivation is comfort and security and who take more than we give?  Are we willing to commit to living in such a way that we can more easily be seen by younger generations, and by ourselves, as courageous, vital contributors to the wellbeing of the community? As honored, valued elders, willing to learn from a fierce teacher.

Cultivating Purpose, Intentionality and the Courage to Aim High

The beautiful, living earth around us is turning every shade of vibrant green after months of being shrouded in a cold cloak of white. Spring has arrived in all its glory, reminding us again that after a necessary season of hibernation and dormancy, the energies of life are stirring once more, with each being—plant, animal and human—called to grow into the fullest expression of its essential nature. This is the time when seeds germinate and begin their cycle of growth-leading-to-abundance. This is the season when animals give birth to a new generation full of the energy of life. And it is the time when we humans, no less beings of nature than all those other-than-human beings with which we share this planet, are reminded by the surging life force around and within us, that in order to reap an eventual rich harvest, we must carefully and intentionally identify and nurture the possibilities that life seeks to birth through us.

A significant difference between those who grow into the fullness of elderhood and those who merely grow old is willingness, or lack thereof, to look within to identify the possibilities that seeks to emerge through them in their precious later years, and to consciously work toward nurturing the growth and eventual harvest of these possibilities.

A primary reason for my ongoing commitment to supporting the growth of conscious elders is the sadness I feel when I see older adults declaring through their actions as well as words that reaching retirement age marks the end of their opportunity to give birth to significant new life for our world.

So many believe what mainstream culture reinforces—that their significant contributions to life end when they become “senior citizens”. With millions of people living 20 or more years after retirement age, possessing a wealth of knowledge, skills, and experiences, and having access to all the wisdom traditions of the world if they choose to look, the belief that life does not ask much from us after retirement age is painfully disempowering for older adults and impoverishing for a world urgently in need of the gifts that seek to emerge through seasoned, committed elders.

If we are committed to growing into true elderhood and giving life to our world by bringing forth the gifts that naturally want to emerge in this life stage, it is essential that we live with purpose, intentionality, and courage. Without these, we exist rather than thrive.

Purpose
More and more research is confirming what the world’s spiritual traditions have long understood—that our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well being absolutely depend upon having a strong sense of purpose. Purpose is often defined as having a reason for getting up in the morning that is bigger than our own pleasures and comforts. Richard Leider, author of The Power of Purpose, offers powerful guidance when he says that the foundation for discovering our unique expressions of purpose lie in a deep commitment to having our primary motivation each day be to somehow grow and somehow give. With this general purpose as our pole star, we will find countless opportunities to grow and to be of service, and as we do so we open ourselves to awareness of the unique gifts within us that seek expression and can become primary avenues for living our purpose.

Having a vision for our ideal elderhood is an equally important dynamic for living with purpose. When so many older adults are asked what their ideal elderhood looks like, they have no idea how to respond. They might talk about taking bucket list vacations or enjoying their grandkids or finding some volunteer opportunities, but beyond that there appear to be no vision—just taking each day as it comes and finding things to do to fill the hours. We get what we aim for. If all we aim for is to fill our hours and enjoy what comforts we can, that’s all we will get as we age. But imagine having a bucket list that addresses many more of our needs as human beings than just our pleasures and comforts. Imagine having a clear vision of what it can be like if your need for community is well met in your elderhood, and to be taking tangible steps to have that need become a reality.

Likewise, imagine having clear vision of how you can fulfill your need to use your gifts in service; your need for emotional and spiritual deepening; your need to continually learn new things; your need for pleasure and excitement; your need for good health of body, mind and spirit; your need for a close, life-giving relationship with the natural world; and your need to give expression to your elderhood through meaningful relationships—perhaps mentoring—with younger people.

You can begin to develop such a vision by making it a priority. You can give yourself the gift of quiet time and solitude in which you look within to see what images emerge as you focus on each of these dimensions of yourself which, when fulfilled, will contribute to your total wholeness and well being. You probably already are at least somewhat aware of various aspects of your vision, and they just need to be recognized, affirmed and committed to. With other aspects, your focused desire for clear vision will help support
your increasing clarity. Inviting contact with your spiritual guidance through prayer, meditation, and other spiritual practices that you resonate with is invaluable in helping you know what is truly coming from your deepest, most authentic inner knowing versus from just your mental self and your conditioning.

As you gain a sense of elements of your vision for your ideal elderhood, take time to imagine that they have become reality in your life. What will it look like when they manifest? What will you be feeling as you achieve these goals? This process will help you move beyond having appealing ideas to getting a deeper sense of whether each of these possibilities is truly one you should choose to aim for.

Once you become aware of at least some elements of your vision for your elderhood, the next step is to put these in written form, perhaps accompanied by photos or artistic images, that you keep in a place in your home set aside for reflection and inspiration.

Without clear statements of your goals and your commitment to work toward them, they will remain ephemeral fantasies with little chance of manifesting in your life. I encourage you to develop and periodically update your list of intentions, and keep a journal in which you identify and keep track of tangible steps you are taking and can take toward their fulfillment.

If you are working toward your ideal vision for your elderhood, you are living purposefully. You are growing, you are giving, and you are offering the best of yourself to this world.

Intentionality
Living intentionally is living with a clear sense of purpose and commitment. It is not hoping, or wishing, or declaring what you would kind-of-like to do or have. One obstacle to living with such intentionality is the idea I have often heard expressed that creating such statements of intention seems like adding a big “should” to their lives when they want to reduce the “shoulds” and instead enjoy each moment. I believe it takes personal self awareness—part of the wisdom of elderhood—to find the balance between these two
realities that is right for each of us. Our elder chapters are indeed a time when our psyche calls us to slow down, savor each moment, and develop our inner lives. At the same time, if we want to grow into our potential fullness as human beings, we need to have meaningful goals and work toward them. We need to have goals to focus our energy, and to give us reasons for choosing to endure the discomfort that accompanies
real growth. Goals are what help us move beyond who we are to who we have the potential to become. One of my own intentions speaks to this balance: “As I age, I intend to create a lifestyle that balances focused activity and work toward making my intentions a reality, with the time I need to just savor and reflect on life’s wonders without being goal oriented.”

I have a list of eleven intentions, created over the past few years, that guide my journey into my elderhood. I keep these on an altar I have at home where I have items, inspirational poetry, photos and objects that are sacred to me. Each week I look at my intentions and pay special attention to at least one that seems most alive time at that time. I think about it, visualize it, feel into it, consider steps I have taken and steps I can take, however small, toward fulfilling that intention. Periodically I look within to see if
one of my intentions no longer has life for me, and, if so, I delete it. And periodically when I find that a new goal becomes important, I set an intention around this element of my ideal elderhood and add this to my list.

My intentions, and yours, may not all become reality, but they keep us aiming high and searching for what is possible in our growth. Sometimes a goal that feels ever-so-right also seems totally out of reach. Rather than dismissing it, I suggest you try to take a few small steps in that direction and see what these lead to. We all know those inspirational quotes that tell us about the unexpected support that often arises when we become truly
committed to something. So many people have found that these are true. With some of our intentions we find we have to change course along the way, but without the original intention, commitment, and small steps we would not have gotten to that point. Acting on our intentions is often a catalyst for recognizing possibilities we cannot initially envision.

Courage
One of the most important questions I ask participants in our workshops and retreats is this: As you age, is it more important to you to be comfortable, or to grow? For so many people (few of whom come to our programs) comfort and perceived security are the highest priority. I believe it is a reality that little or no growth occurs inside our comfort zones. I’m not suggesting that there is not a place for comfort in conscious eldering. We all need experiences of comfort and rest. Times of comfort help us
stabilize new growth and renew our energy. But if our vision for our elderhood is grounded in continual growth and true aliveness, we need the courage and will to endure the initial discomfort and face the fears that come with shedding old skins and moving beyond our perceived limitations. Additionally, by being willing to step outside our comfort zones, we receive another, equally important gift: that unmatched feeling of
aliveness, usually accompanied by joy and pride of accomlishment, that arises when we shed self-imposed constrictions to the life force seeking expression through us. We have all known that feeling of aliveness, yet we all too often allow fear to override this deep knowing.

Rich possibilities for wholeness, fulfillment and contribution to a world in peril lie within each of us as our beautiful, beseiged planet gives us yet another Springtime. All life asks of us as elders-in-process is that we commit to growing into our very best selves, nurturing the many facets of our precious lives so that as we grow and bloom we are gifts to a world that urgently needs truly alive and whole human stewards.

Envisioning Your Ideal Elderhood: An Inner Journey Toward Wholeness

I invite you to use this guided meditative journey in whatever ways work best for you. You can have a friend slowly lead you through the process. Or you can record yourself slowly reading the script, and then periodically set aside time to take the journey and see what arises. Or you can use the sections as prompts, slowly reading each one and then in a relaxed state seeing what images arise. However you use this evocative imagery, I encourage you to pay special attention to images and feelings that evoke a strong inner sense they are showing you something important about the wholeness that is possible for you in the elder stages of your unique and precious life’s journey.            

A magnificent life stage characterized by your commitment to wholeness awaits you . These next moments are a time to let your spirit soar, to ask your most authentic inner knowing however you understand and name it, for glimpses of what this wholeness can look like for you. As you choose to let go of doubt and attachment to your younger self, you have the opportunity to co-create with the divine spirit within you the fulfillment and fruition of your growth in this precious lifetime. You live in a unique time in known human history, have unique resources at your disposal, and have precious opportunity to embrace an elderhood of growth and fulfillment beyond what you have been able to imagine. So I invite you to allow yourself to get in touch with your soul’s dream for you as you look toward your future.

Begin this journey with several deep in-breaths and exhalations. Breathe in the energy of life and possibility, and exhale stress and limitation that keep the eagle in you grounded. It’s time to rise up and gain your soul’s-eye view of your next chapters. Imagine yourself soaring on the warm air currents, relaxed, free, joyous—and looking down at the elder you can become.

As you soar, focus your attention on the elder you doing all you can to enjoy health of body and mind.  See and feel yourself gratefully supporting the best health possible for you in that elder body that has served you so well and enabled you to experience so much of life for so many years. Envision yourself thriving in your elder body, and feel how important it is for you to do all you can to make such thriving possible. Solidify your vision by making mental notes of this experience.

Now it’s time for a shift in focus. As you soar through the sky of possibility, see the elder you living a life enriched by meaningful relationships.  See and feel yourself thriving, as you find the right balance for you between truly supportive relationships and private, quiet reflective time. See what having true community in your life looks like. Feel how important it is for your wellbeing to do all you can to make such life-enhancing relationships possible. And make mental notes of this experience.

Now another shift. As you savor the freedom of seeing your life as your soul sees it, see and feel how beautiful is the life of the elder you can be as you live unburdened by emotional baggage which distorts and saps life energy and keeps you bound to your past . See and feel the elder you enlivened by freely flowing life energy pulsing through you in each present moment and guiding you toward your future. Feel how important it is for your wellbeing to do all you can to make such healing possible. Make some mental notes of this experience.

It’s time for another shift in perspective. See your elder self waking each morning with eager anticipation of a day lived with commitment to service . There are so many possibilities each day to be of service. So many needs that you can help meet. So many ways to serve the community as elders have done throughout human history. Many of these will come in delightfully unexpected ways, and while others may be reflections of your abiding sense of an ongoing contribution that is uniquely yours. See and feel how important purpose and meaning are to your elder wellbeing. Feel how important it is for you to do all you can to make such a life of purpose possible. Make some mental notes of this experience.

Now, with only a slight shift in focus, you look down and see yourself as an elder whose days are brightened with laughter, joy, pleasure, excitement. You see yourself doing things that exhilarate you, that give your body and mind exciting, enlivening, and sometimes new, experiences. At a time in life that becomes bland and dull for many people, you add rich spices with your commitment to feeding yourself experiences and emotions that help you to feel alive in your body, mind and emotions. See and feel how important laughter, joy, pleasure and excitement are to your elder wellbeing. Feel how important it is for you to do all you can to bring such qualities and experiences into your life as you grow older. Make some mental notes of this experience.

Take a moment to allow yourself to feel the joy of soaring in the realm of possibility. And now see your elder self experiencing the satisfaction and challenge of learning new things and developing new talents . Can you identify what you are committed to learning? Can you see what talents you are striving to develop? Can you feel the satisfaction of knowing that you are stretching beyond your perceived limits—that you are growing and not allowing limiting, disempowering ideas about age to stop you? See and feel how important continual learning and stretching are to your elder wellbeing. Feel how important it is for you to do all you can to continue growing in knowledge and talent throughout your elderhood. Make some mental notes of this experience.

As you soar on the updrafts, you become aware of the incredible beauty, power, diversity and interconnectedness of life in the world in which the elder you is privileged to live. And you see how the wellbeing—in fact the very existence of yourself and the generation to follow you—is threatened by your fellow humans not realizing how vital is a strong, mutually supportive relationship with the natural world which is truly our earth mother. See and feel how important it is to you to regularly be enlivened and healed by the energies of the natural world, and to find your ways of helping to support the health of our mother. Make some mental notes of this experience.

As you continue to soar, reflect on the reality that the currents that allow you to rise above the limitations of your personality self are the currents of the spirit in you expanding your vision and amplifying the life force that flows through you.  Look down and see your elder self embracing that spiritual dimension that is your source and your essence. See and feel the elder you continually deepening your relationship with your spiritual essence as other aspects of your younger self are gradually shed. And then look ahead to the time of your death and see your inner self alive with the peace of knowing that, as your body and personality end your life’s journey, the spirit in you is shining brightly as you fulfill the ultimate purpose of your life. See and feel how important your spiritual deepening is to your elder wellbeing. Feel how important it is for you to do all you can to support your spiritual growth. Make some mental notes of this experience.

And now this experience of soul-soaring is coming to an end. There will be others if you allow them, because soaring is part of what you are built for. As you gently make your way back to the earth, and this room in this time, you have been blessed with glimpses of what your inner self knows to be your ideal elderhood. Now your task is to remember these glimpses, and to begin to transform them into the goals and commitments out of which wholeness in your elderhood can be shaped. So take one last minute to remember the joys of soaring. And then take three deep breaths and feel the privilege of having a body and personality, here on this beautiful planet with so much support for enjoying the wholeness that can be your elder destiny.

Moving From Who We Have Been to Who We Can Become

 By Ron Pevny

As someone who is deeply committed to supporting people who feel called to age consciously, the terms elder and elderhood are integral to my work. In the modern world, the term elder tends to be equated with that disempowering word elderly, which so often means frail, vulnerable, or just plain old.  But it can mean so much more if we understand the role it has played throughout history.

Elder is a role and elderhood a life stage that has been critical for the wellbeing of the world’s cultures since time immemorial, but which has been lost in today’s world. It was the elders whose role was to embody the wholeness, and share the hard-won wisdom, that their communities needed to survive and thrive, especially in difficult times when the ability to see the bigger picture was critical.

It was the elders who recognized the responsibility to share the fruits of their lives and experiences with the younger generations. It was in elderhood, as physical abilities weakened and day-to-day responsibilities lessened, that people could more strongly focus on their inner lives and on allowing Spirit to shine through, so that their biggest impact came more through the wholeness of their being than through the amount of their doing.

While modern culture no longer acknowledges the role of elder, the inner call to true elderhood as we age is still there. It is an archetypal dynamic built into each of us which seeks expression as we begin to move from the stage of mid-life adulthood toward our next chapter.

Many of us are unable to hear this call because it speaks to us in a language of feelings, experiences and intuitions that is foreign to our culture and its values.  Others may sense this call, especially in times of inner or outer crisis when we are potentially most open to our inner guidance, but try to ignore it. In either case, by not responding to the call to elderhood we run the risk of stagnation and depression. The nature of life is growth through stages, and when the growth that enables life transitions is prevented, all living things, including us humans, wither.

Each new stage presents us with challenges and opportunities for growth. As one stage is nearing its natural completion, we have a choice: to either try to hold on to what has been (risking withering and loss of our aliveness in doing so) or to embrace the challenging but renewing process of transition. Healthy transition between life stages is a three-phase process, with all these critical phases interweaving as we move toward the new life chapter that calls us.

The first phase is severance, the time of inner autumn, harvest and endings We are called to review and take stock of our lives and who we have become—with  our mix of strengths and weaknesses, joys and sorrows—seeking  to learn and distill wisdom from our many experiences. We become aware of and begin to release or heal attitudes, fears, beliefs, behaviors, attachments and self-identifications that may (or may not) have served us in the past but will certainly not serve us in the future we envision for ourselves.

As we do the work of this phase, we find ourselves more and more aware of being in what is often called  the neutral zone. This is time of being betwixt and between life stages, often feeling lost and confused with no map to follow into the future, knowing that who we have been doesn’t feel alive anymore and may not even be possible to continue, but not knowing who we have the potential to grow into.

While the neutral zone is difficult, it is through allowing ourselves to experience this discomfort and disorientation, without grasping for the certainty of clear goals and direction, that we move forward.  This is a time for giving ourself the gifts of silence; solitude; reflective time in nature; deepening of our spiritual connection; inspiring images, poetry and ideas; and exploration of possibilities, without making long-term commitments, to see what feels truly alive for us.  If we embrace and support this winter time in our journey of transition, we can trust that the vision, creativity and strength that will define our elderhood will begin to emerge according to a timing that comes from layers of us deeper than ego.

As we emerge from the neutral zone, we find ourselves entering the phase known as reincorporation, or new beginnings.  This is spring for us, when we experience the emergence of a new life stage, with seeds of possibility sprouting and emerging into the light of a new life stage.  We experience gradually increasing clarity about who we can become, what brings us meaning and purpose and how we can best serve life in the new chapter we are entering.

One of the most profound experiences in my 15 years of leading conscious eldering retreats involved a retreat group that shared profound awe as, over several days, we watched three caterpillars undergo transformation within a wire enclosure on a table in our meeting room in Vermont. The retreat center owner had carried them, along with bunches of the milkweed they feed on, from a verdant hillside to this enclosure. As each caterpillar clung to a small branch, it gradually turned into a chrysalis, losing all its caterpillar characteristics and becoming a green fluid contained within a translucent ovular membrane.

The caterpillars had entered their version of the neutral zone, no longer what they were but clearly not yet what they would become. That green fluid contained a pattern or image for the butterfly that would emerge from the goo when the inner process was complete. Then over a couple of days we began to see within each chrysalis vague outlines of a new form beginning to develop.

On the final day of our retreat, as we were reflecting on what we had learned about the dynamics of our own transitions, one chrysalis broke open and a magnificent, wet, fragile monarch butterfly emerged, ready to grace the world with its beauty and contribution to the web of life.

It needed an hour to dry its delicate wings in the sun, and shortly before our retreat ended we opened the enclosure and off it flew to begin its new life. Shortly thereafter we left that place to embrace new chapters in our journeys toward new life as conscious elders.

Ron Pevny is Founding Director of the Center for Conscious Eldering, (www.centerforconsciouseldering.com), a Certified Sage-ing Leader with Sage-ing® International, and author of Conscious Living, Conscious Aging published by Beyond Words/Atria Books. He can be reached at ron@centerforconsciouseldering.com.

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How Do I Know If I’m On the Path or Have Fallen Off?

by Ron Pevny

I recently had a conversation with a woman who has participated in two of our Choosing Conscious Elderhood retreats in the last ten years. She told me that while her commitment to aging consciously remained strong, she felt she had fallen off the path because her deep passion for helping ease suffering in third world countries took so much of her time and energy that she wasn’t engaged with various inner work practices. Our conversation served as a catalyst for this article about how we know if we are indeed on the path, or merely wishing we were.

Those of you who have read my book Conscious Living, Conscious Aging and other writings by me and others know that conscious eldering is both a vision of the rich possibilities that call to us as we age, and a multi-faceted foundation of inner work that can support us in fulfilling our potential as conscious elders.  The key aspects of this inner work—belief, release and healing of the past, finding and living with purpose, community, and spiritual deepening are all critical components to supporting the emergence of the fulfilled elder within each of us. It is important that we use this precious time in our lives to engage with all these key tasks of eldering. But since we are unique, multi-faceted individuals, how we engage with this inner work, when we engage with it, and how much emphasis we place on its various aspects at any given time depend upon what feels right to us as we try to be in touch with our most authentic inner voice.

For the woman with whom I had the conversation, her long-time purpose is her strong need to serve. At this point, that is what she believes is the most important expression of her life energy, for her own fulfillment and the wellbeing of others.  I can easily point to others equally committed to conscious eldering who strongly feel the need for focusing much of their energy on the inward journey with its reflective and contemplative practices. There are many ways to age consciously. And there are many ways to fool ourselves into believing we are doing so when we aren’t, and they can be so subtle.

At the top of my list of ways to deceive ourselves is equating the collection of information with growth. Information can be useful in enhancing our awareness and can give us an inspiring picture of what is possible. However, information not reflected upon and acted upon is meaningless in terms of our growth, and does not make us wiser. But it certainly can support the feel-good illusion that we are growing, and some of us for this reason become “workshop junkies.”  I believe that a true commitment to working over time with the information and practices from one good personal growth workshop that somehow calls to us is worth far more than going to many enticing workshops or listening to many webinars in the hope that ever more information or temporary inspiration will change us. We change through our intention and commitment to using the precious resources available to us.

So, since all of us are works in progress as we seek to age consciously, and our paths are so unique, how do we know if we are indeed making any progress?  I believe most everything I know about conscious eldering can be distilled down to the following.  We are on the path if each morning our strong intention is to in some way grow and in some way serve, and if at day’s end most days we can identify some way we have grown and served.

There are so many ways to grow: in curiosity, in skills; in willingness to step outside our comfort zones; in ability to be flexible; in ability to forgive; in ability to keep our hearts open as others close theirs; in self-understanding; in learning more about our world; in discovering potentials we didn’t know we have; in shedding self-limiting beliefs.

And there are so many ways to serve:  through giving our gifts in ways that fulfill a specific sense of purpose, like the woman I referenced earlier; through responding to some of the myriad opportunities that arise each day to extend love and caring to another; through being truly present to those who cross our paths each day; through engaging in social and environmental actions that help promote a better world for the generations that will follow us; through finding our best way to send love and compassion to people and events in dire need of loving energy.

Living in this way requires intentionality and focus. As we embrace ways to grow and serve each day, this commitment will gradually shift from being a practice we engage in to a way of being that reflects who we are becoming. Growing and serving will become our primary motivations. This is how we know that we are indeed growing into true elderhood.

And there will be days when we don’t live in such a way, days when we numb out, days when we live mindlessly. But each day is a new day, offering the opportunity for recommitment to our overriding goal.  Remember that nothing sabotages our noblest intentions like critical self-judgment that closes our hearts to ourselves, fills us with guilt and feelings of unworthiness.  Guilt does not support conscious eldering. Telling ourselves how weak and unworthy we are whenever we go unconscious (and all of us will often be unconscious) does not support conscious eldering.  What does support this journey is acknowledging ourselves for choosing this path and for the progress we are making; developing the self-awareness to know what from within and without pushes us off the path; committing to showering ourselves with love as we slowly but surely move forward;  and using our ability to connect with our inner knowing—our  spiritual dimension—and  from that place making choices each day, one day at a time, to be as conscious and intentional as we can.  Each day is a new day, a new opportunity for a fresh start on our journey toward conscious elderhood.

The Inner Work of Conscious Eldering

On one of the Choosing Conscious Elderhood retreats that I lead, a participant in her early 60’s said something that had a powerful impact on all present. In reflecting on her intentions for her retreat, she spoke of two significant older people in her life. One, who was in relatively good physical health, was difficult to be around because of her seemingly constant anger, bitterness and negativity. She was old and miserable. People avoided her because she was a drain on their energy and joy. The other was a woman who, while not physically healthy, attracted people like a magnet. In her presence they felt joy, serenity, optimism, peace. People saw her as an elder whose radiance and wisdom lifted their spirits. Our retreat participant shared her intention, on this retreat and on her journey ahead, of growing into a radiant elder rather than a joyless old person; and her questions and concerns about how to accomplish this.

The aging process seems to bring out either the best or the worst in people— magnifying and emphasizing the flaws and shadow elements of some of us; amplifying the wisdom, radiance and compassion in others. The question carried by those of us committed to becoming peaceful, fulfilled elders is, “how can my aging bring out the best in me?” The inner work known by rubrics such as “conscious eldering”, “conscious aging”, “spiritual eldering” and “Sage-ing” holds important answers to this question.

The journey from late middle-age into fulfilled elderhood is facilitated by inner work that is focused and fueled by conscious intention. This journey can lead to the pinnacle of one’s emotional and spiritual development. Undertaking this journey is in fact what our lives to that point have prepared us for. And as conscious elders, our service to our communities and to the community of all beings can be profound. Carl Jung succinctly expressed this potential: “A human being would certainly not grow to be seventy or eighty years old if this longevity had no meaning for the species. The afternoon of human life must also have a significance of its own…”

The word “conscious” is key in understanding the wide range of ways that the inner work of eldering may be done. It is also key to the distinction between being “old” and being an “elder.” Conscious means aware. Aware of who we really are, of our authentic emotions, talents, aspirations, strengths and weaknesses. Aware of a growth process unfolding in our lives through all of our experiences, positive and painful. Aware of that within us which is conditioned by the myriad of disempowering messages that surround us, as well as that which is authentic, natural and life-supporting. Aware of those shadow elements in us—our dark sides—which can block our radiance and sabotage our potential.

Life Review

If the essence of conscious eldering is increasing awareness, then its core practice is Life Review. Wisdom does not come from having experiences. Wisdom comes from reflecting on one’s life experiences. There are many ways of doing Life Review. Some entail structured exercises to focus on challenges, learning and growth during the stages of one’s life, and they use pen, computer or art materials as tools. Oral history work with a knowledgeable friend or guide can be a powerful catalyst for remembering and finding the significance in life experiences. The grandmother of a colleague of mine creatively memorialized key events in the life of her family by creating a “family quilt” over a period of many years. Whichever method most resonates with us, what is critical is doing it. The awareness we gain is what makes virtually all the other inner work possible and effective. The elder wisdom we arrive at is a precious gift to the generations who will remember us as ancestors.

Healing the Past

Much of the inner work of eldering focuses on healing and letting go of old baggage. Actualizing our unique potential as elders requires that our energy be free and clear, that our psyches be capable of embracing the possibilities and opportunities of each present moment rather than stuck in the experiences of the past. We can’t shine as radiant elders if our energy is continually sapped by old wounds, grudges, angers, hurts and feelings of victimhood. We can’t move lightly and serenely through our days when we have not forgiven others and ourselves for the slights and hurts we have experienced and perpetrated through unconscious behavior. We cannot display our wholeness when unprocessed grief keeps open wounds that sap our energy.

When we review our lives, we become aware of the immense power of story. We become aware of the mythos we have constructed for our lives as the result of our experiences—the stories we tell ourselves (and oftentimes others) about our lives that shape who we become as the years pass. We see how disempowering these stories can be when they contain strong motifs of victimhood, inadequacy, unworthiness and regret. It is liberating to know that these stories can be changed, and doing so is perhaps the most powerful inner work we can do as we age. This process is often called “recontextualizing” or “reframing.”

Recontextualizing

The essence of recontextualizing is viewing painful or difficult life experiences with the intention of finding what in those experiences has contributed—or has the potential to now contribute as we revisit it with conscious awareness—to our growth and learning. In the bigger picture of our lives, the job lost may have pushed us into a difficult search that led to a fuller expression of our gifts. The wounding inflicted on us by another may have taught us compassion or empathy for the suffering of others. The hurt we inflicted on another may have been a teacher for us about our shadow side—a critical awareness if we are to grow as human beings. A career decision we made that we regret may have been a crucial step toward our becoming who we are today, even if the mechanics of this are not obvious.

Recontextualizing of experiences that do not hold a strong emotional charge can be relatively easy. But, for emotionally charged experiences, if this practice is to truly impact our lives at the level of deep feeling and allow us to reshape the stories we live by, we must allow ourselves to feel deeply suppressed emotion, and do the inner work of grieving and forgiving. At its core recontextualizing is profoundly spiritual work. It requires a deep trust that the divine intelligence present in us has a purpose for our lives and is working through our experiences to achieve that purpose. We may not understand its workings, and they may not be what we would choose. But this wise inner guidance possesses the eagle’s eye view of our lives that eludes the narrower view of our ego selves.

Deepening Spiritual Connection

Our ability to trust in a divine intelligence with a purpose for our lives depends greatly upon the strength of our connection to a Higher Power—to Spirit, Soul, God, the Great Mystery. The inner work of eldering is deeply spiritual work that requires us to find spiritual practices that nurture that connection. For the goal of all true spiritual practice is to help us experience ourselves and our lives in a wider context, framed in a truer story than the stories our ego selves tend to create about our lives. When we trust—with a trust grounded in the deep inner knowing that flows through spiritual connection—that our lives have prepared us to become elders with wisdom, talent and wholeness to give to our people, our unfolding stories become gifts to our communities.

Our deepening spiritual connection is intrinsically related to the shift from a life grounded in “doing” to one grounded in “being”—a shift that is a key dynamic in conscious eldering. When we make this shift we move from living and acting with the primary goal of meeting the needs of our ego selves, to living and acting so that Spirit, however we may name it, shines through us as fully as possible.

Accepting Mortality

The world’s spiritual traditions are aligned in teaching us that accepting our mortality is perhaps our biggest ally in helping us to truly embrace life and the wonder of each moment. Yet, we live amid pervasive denial of mortality. Illness and physical diminishment, realities for most of us as we age, have great power to transform denial into an acceptance that can give zest to each of our limited number of days. CREATING LEGACY We all leave a legacy—positive, negative or mixed—to the generations that follow us. Aging consciously implies becoming aware of the legacy we have created up to this point in our lives and being intentional about the legacy we want to create in our elderhood. As we review our lives and work to bring healing to the past, we help ourselves to acknowledge and build on the positives of this evolving legacy, and we free up the energy needed identify and move forward in building the legacy that is our gift to the future. Here again, a growing spiritual connection that allows us to see clearly our unique calling and gifts as an elder is key. This experience of calling (which is more powerful that a concept, an idea or a “should” alone) helps us become aware of the legacy we truly want to leave and of the path that will help us realize this goal. It opens our heart, strengthens our intention, focuses our action and taps our spiritual depths so that we bring our whole selves to the creation of legacy.

Letting Go

We cannot move fully from who we have been into the elder we can become without letting go of that which will not support us on this journey. We all have culturally instilled attitudes and beliefs about life and aging that are disempowering. Our inner work is to become conscious (aware) of these and let them go. We all have attachments to people, places, things, activities, ideologies, attitudes, old stories and self-identifications that may (or may not) have served us in the past but which will definitely not serve us in the future. Here again, our work is awareness and surrender. Life review is a valuable tool in becoming aware of what must be surrendered.

Rituals of letting go, whether conducted alone or with the support and witness of a group, can be powerful tools for transforming that awareness into willingness to let go of who we have been. Eldering rites of passage, such as those facilitated by the Center for Conscious Eldering, are powerful examples of rituals that help us to let go of outwork identifications. True, effective surrender requires cultivating deep trust that by letting go of what has come to feel familiar and safe, albeit constricting, we are supported by the wisdom and life force which is calling us into a new identity and positive new beginnings.

While the inner work of eldering is “work”—at times quite difficult work—it is also dynamic and enlivening. It can be the most important work we ever do. It may well be accompanied by tears of both sadness and joy as bound up energies are freed to reflect growing consciousness of who we are and what is possible. Its fruit can be the radiance, passion and service so needed by a world in need of conscious elders. I wish you well on your journey.

This article is copyrighted by the author.

Ron Pevny is a life coach, organizational consultant, Certified Sage-ing TM Leader, 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, to serve as rites of passage into conscious elderhood, since 2002. Ron and his Center for Conscious Eldering can be reached at 970-247-7943 or ron@centerforconsciouseldering.com.

Download a PDF file of “The Inner Work of Conscious Eldering”.

What We Believe Shapes How We Age

What do you believe your later years will look like?  Many of us never even think about the beliefs we carry inside us as our months become years and years turn into decades. Your beliefs may well determine the answer to this question.

In recent years, a host of research has been adding its voice to the age-old wisdom of the world’s spiritual traditions in emphasizing the importance of belief and attitude in determining how our lives unfold. Some compelling and well-publicized research was done in the Yale School of Public Health by professor Becca Levy. In the study, a very large number of middle age people were interviewed six times over the course of 20 years. They were asked whether they agreed with statements like: “As you get older, you’re less useful.” What they found was the perceptions held by people about aging had more impact on how long they would live than did their blood pressure, their cholesterol level, whether they smoked, or even whether they exercised.

The study found that the people who had positive perceptions of aging lived an average of seven and a half years longer than those with negative images of growing older. They also found that those with negative images of aging not only had compromised health and shortened lives; they also had more distress and depression in the present. People with negative perceptions of aging were more likely to consider their lives in the present worthless, empty or hopeless;  those with more positive perceptions of aging were more likely to view their lives as fulfilling,  joyful, and having meaning and purpose.

Let’s look at two very different sets of beliefs about aging. Since the “modern” era began, aging has largely been seen as a time of decline, loss, and withdrawal from active contribution. Look up the word “retire” in the dictionary; most of the definitions include the word “withdraw.” Accompanying this view is the belief, held in both overt and subtle ways, that once we retire, “it’s all downhill from here.” Our best years are over, with us by and large having made our significant contribution to society. Loss of a sense of purpose and meaning, and a flagging of our passions for life, is to be expected. The best we can do is hold on to who we have been for as long as possible; do our best to stay healthy; enjoy life to the extent our health and finances will allow; find things to keep us occupied; and hope things turn out okay.

Contrast this with another set of beliefs that sees aging as a process of development of character analogous to the development of fine wine over time. Aging is understood as a necessary prerequisite for developing the wisdom that comes only from experience and reflection upon that experience. This stage of our life provides time and opportunity for focusing on our deepest values, our personal development, our spiritual life, and our relationships with our loved ones and communities. These decades are not just the final chapter after we have passed our prime, but rather a time full of possibility for fulfillment, meaning, passion and active community engagement—if we consciously work to make them so.

If we resonate in some way with this second view of aging, a critical first step, whether we are past so called “retirement age” or in midlife and becoming to think about our elder years, is exploring with as much honesty as we can muster, the beliefs we hold about aging. Living in a youth-obsessed society and being surrounded by disempowering beliefs throughout our lives, most of us have disempowering beliefs engrained in our minds and are strongly influenced by them. One way to know how much they influence us is to honestly look at the fears and beliefs we carry about aging. We can reflect on questions such as these, and do our best to honestly answer them:

  • Do I find myself trying to convince myself and others that I am not getting older? If so, what beliefs about aging does this reflect? How does it benefit me to continue to hold these beliefs?
  • Do I believe that once I reach retirement age, it’s basically all downhill from here?  If so, why?
  • What is the vision I have for what my elders years can be? If it is a positive, empowering vision, am I willing to live intentionally so that my vision can become reality.  If I have no vision or a negative vision and am content with letting things unfold as they will, will that serve my wellbeing as I age?
  • Do I believe my worth is primarily tied to what I can do, or is it a reflection of the kind of person I can be?  Which of these beliefs will best serve me as I age?
  • Do I see my life as an unfolding process of inner growth, or is growth not something important to me? If I consider growth important, what opportunities can aging offer me to grow?
  • Do I believe I can move forward gracefully in the face of loss, such as the increasing losses that accompanying aging?  If so, how can I further strengthen my resilience? If not, why not?
  • Do I believe it is worth it for me to stretch beyond my comfort zone in order to find fulfillment as I grow older? If so, am I willing to do so?
  • Do I believe I can learn from people I know or know of who seem to be models for aging well, and from people who seem to age without joy and purpose.? Am I willing to observe, reflect and learn from both types of people?
  • Do I believe that my beliefs make a difference in how my life turns out?

The more we engage in denial of our aging, the more we allow ourselves to buy into our culture’s belief that older adults are largely irrelevant, the greater our risk of being painfully unprepared for the inevitable losses as well as the unique opportunities that accompany us on our journey through our elder life chapters. We have the power to choose the beliefs that shape our lives. We have the power to act intentionally to chart a course for an elderhood of purpose, passion, service and continual growth in whatever circumstances life presents.

If we are in midlife, it is not too early to begin to focus on developing those personal qualities and beliefs that will best support a vital elderhood when we reach that point.  Most of us begin many years before retirement to prepare financially for the elder third or fourth of our life.  Isn’t it at least as important to prepare emotionally and spiritually?

If we are in our 60s, 70s and beyond, it is certainly not too late.  Using the power of positive beliefs, commitment to continual growth, refusal to let ourselves be marginalized because of our age, and dedication to making a difference through serving others, our elder years can be the pinnacle of our development as human beings.  Such an elderhood  will only happen if we are willing to believe it can be our reality, and to do the inner work of growing into that reality.

Ron Pevny is Founding Director of the Center for Conscious Eldering,), a Certified Sage-ing Leader with Sage-ing® International, and author of Conscious Living, Conscious Aging published by Beyond Words/Atria Books.

Download a PDF file of this article.

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.

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