Is Conscious Eldering a fad or a true paradigm shift? Your perspective is requested.

By Ron Pevny

In mid-July I will be participating in a panel discussion in which several of us who are seen as leaders in the “conscious aging movement” will be exploring with each other the state of our efforts in today’s culture to support people in growing into a conscious elderhood. We are meeting because we sense that the wind has diminished that is needed to fill the sails that propel this necessary cultural transformation. I’m writing this article for the “Conscious Eldering Inspiration and Resources” newsletter to ask for your perspective, which you will have an opportunity to share on the Center for Conscious Eldering website.

So, I’ll begin this article with a story. Once upon a time, not so very long ago, Ram Dass, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Joan Halifax, and several other highly regarded teachers presented several conferences at Omega Institute in which they articulated a vision for living life’s later chapters, which became known as “Conscious Aging.” This was, (and is) an empowering, life-affirming, spiritually grounded alternative to the dominant societal view of the post-retirement years as being primarily defined by disengagement from contribution to society, doing one’s best to ward off decline and diminishment, and focusing on maximizing pleasure and security.

Conscious Aging is predicated upon the understanding, shared by most cultures until the industrial revolution, of the potential of life’s later chapters to be the pinnacle of human emotional and spiritual growth, and a time of special service to the community which emerges from this growth. In the years since those seminal Omega retreats and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s groundbreaking book, From Age-ing to Sage-ing, many of us who have embraced this vision and felt called to share it through our writing, workshops and other venues have chosen to use the term “Conscious Eldering” in recognition of the fact that life’s later years offer the opportunity for people to emerge from mid-life adulthood into a culminating stage of personal development called “Elderhood.” Others favor the term “Conscious Aging,”

Materialistic contemporary societies have lost sight of the potentials and dynamics of the human psyche as we grow through life’s stages. We do not have spiritually and emotionally empowering rites of passage, and have little if any recognition of the inner work that our psyches require for us to grow from stage to stage—with each stage offering the opportunity for us to move closer to inner wholeness. Therefore, our culture offers those nearing “retirement age” no vision for the possibility of growth into elderhood. So the best the majority of us can hope for is to hold on for as long as possible to who we have been, be as secure as possible, and find as much enjoyment as we can (and can afford).

The last 20 or 30 years have seen the emergence of paradigms for aging which are empowering in some important ways, but sorely lacking in others. We are all familiar with terms like Positive Aging, Active Aging, Successful Aging, Refirement-rather-than- Retirement, etc. All of these approaches help to support aliveness and provide the opportunity to be seen as relevant, and to feel relevant) which is so critical as we age. But they generally lack recognition of the needs of our inner selves—our souls—for bringing forth the wholeness and wisdom of elderhood. With their focus on activity and “doing”, they do not recognize the importance of the inner journey of aging, of the necessary focus on the state of our “being” if we are to realize our potential for growth and fulfillment in our later life chapters.

So, with this context being set, the story continues:

In the year 2000, I knew that my decades-long calling to support people in moving through transition was leading me to focus on the life passage into elderhood. I was privileged to learn from many teachers who were models of what conscious aging/conscious eldering can be. And to witness the aspirations and challenges of those dedicated people who came to our workshops and retreats having responded to an inner call to grow into an elderhood they had a “knowing” was possible and important for them. I gave heart and soul to this work, but for many years it was a struggle to attract participants, with my work and that of my colleagues being largely a labor of love and commitment to a deep calling from our souls.

As I persisted, as did an increasing number of others who felt this same calling and shared their vision through their writing and workshops, the cultural milieu began to change. There was increasing interest in conscious aging. This fact, and a personal health crisis that forced me to acknowledge the importance to my wellbeing of making an unequivocal commitment to this work, resulted in my starting the Center for Conscious Eldering in 2010. I found the adage to be true that when one makes a total commitment, life offers unexpected support. Our workshops began to fill and workshop invitations increased significantly. I was invited to give keynotes at conferences on aging. Beyond Words Publishing called me in 2012 asking if I would write a book for them. I did, with my book being titled Conscious Living, Conscious Aging. The Shift Network in 2015 asked me to host their first three Summits on Conscious Aging, because they saw strong and growing interest in this subject. This gave me the opportunity to interview nearly 60 leaders working in a great many ways to empower older adults. They also asked me to present two online courses called “Transforming Your Journey of Aging.” And I was blessed with other wonderful opportunities.

I was so grateful that my work the work of many others in this field was thriving, and that it seemed conscious aging/conscious eldering was making inroads in modern culture. It seemed like our vision of a culture in which true elders play an honored and important role was attainable, slowly but surely, eventually.

And then, a year or two before the pandemic, I sensed a change in this momentum. The invitations to present were not coming. The Shift Network and other such spiritually oriented organizations that reach large numbers of people told me they would no longer present Summits on aging because other topics attracted greater numbers of registrants and generated more income. Their schedules of summits and courses, throughout the pandemic and as COVID eases, includes courses on all kinds of worthy personal growth topics which attract the large numbers of participants they need to be financially viable, but do not include conscious aging (or anything explicitly about aging). To my mind, their choices communicate the message that there is nothing unique about the challenges faced by, and the potentials that seek to be awakened in, the millions of people entering a distinctive stage of life that has distinctive synamics. Their choices imply that Meditation is meditation and the same for everyone. Dreamwork is dreamwork and the same for everyone. Shamanic practices are Shamanic practices and the same for everyone. Mysticism is mysticism and…….

Another example: In 2018 and 2019 I taught two modestly enrolled courses at Omega which were very well received. As much as I would like to return to Omega I no longer have that option because I am told other topics and more-famous teachers generate more enrollments and revenue.

And most recently, as Katia Petersen and I have attempted to find a publisher for our unique new book-in-the-making, The Art of Conscious Eldering: a 52-Week Personal Growth-Book for Aging with Passion and Purpose, Beyond Words and others have told us that they love our book and feel it makes an important contribution, but their research shows that conscious eldering/conscious aging is not a topic that will sell enough copies to warrant their publishing our book. They said the field is saturated with books on aging. When we asked them why they do not feel the same way about the innumerable books being published on Mindfulness, they did not have an answer.

So, that’s the story so far. Now here’s where I ask for your input. I assume you would not be on our email list if you did not resonate to some degree or other with the vision of conscious eldering. And you may well have a more accurate sense of societal culture at this moment than those of us working in the conscious aging field and being so emotionally and spiritually invested in it.

So, before I join the upcoming panel to explore the state of conscious aging, I ask for your feedback to the following questions. You can provide it on our website, www.centerforconsciouseldering.com, by clicking on the “Feedback” link at the end of this article which has been placed on the Home Page. You can also email me with input at ron@centerforconsciouseldering.com. Thank you for reading this article and sharing you feedback if that feels right to you.

  • Do you think the conscious aging/conscious eldering movement indeed lost momentum in the past two or three of years? If so, why do you think this is happening?
  • It has been suggested that factors such as the Trump presidency, the pandemic, climate change, Black Lives Matter and other social justice movements, have somehow shifted peoples’ energy and focus away from their growth in their elder years. Do you think this is so, and if so, why? Isn’t ageism and lack of awareness of the potentials of elder adults as insidious, life-draining, and disempowering as these other issues?
  • Does the conscious aging movement need to find other ways of communicating about elderhood? If so, how should we do this, and do so in a way that doesn’t dilute our message?
  • Am I (and others) having unnecessary concern about this? Should we just go on sharing our vision of conscious elderhood without concern with how many books we sell or summits we get invited to?
  • Do you have any other input you would like us to take into consideration?

Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! May we all choose to live our later chapters as the elders our world so urgently needs.

May Ghost Ranch Retreat

 

Join us for Choosing Conscious Elderhood at Ghost Ranch on May 1 @ 4:00 pmMay 7 @ 1:30 pm 2022.

It is in the natural world that we can most easily remember that which is authentic and natural in ourselves, and thus gain an eagle’s eye view of our place and potential in the larger web of life.  That is why, since time immemorial, at critical turning points in life, people have retreated to wilderness places to focus and intensify their inner questing and then return to their communities renewed and with new insight about how best to contribute in the next stages of their lives.  That is why many individuals feeling called to prepare for and claim the role of elder have chosen to experience the Choosing Conscious Elderhood retreats over the past eighteen years. 

There is a big difference between simply becoming old and aging consciously–aging with intent. This retreat, for people in or approaching their senior years (50+), provides a dynamic experiential introduction to conscious aging and the types of inner work that are important on the path toward becoming a conscious elder.  Such an elderhood is a role that is consciously chosen and grown into through  preparation at all levels—physical, psychological and spiritual. We invite you to join us for an inspiring week at Ghost Ranch, a land of great beauty long-recognized as a place with strong earth energy and spiritual power—an ideal setting for supporting the inner work we will engage in.

Download the flyer using the link below to find full information including pricing and registration.

 

Download the flyer.

When You’ve Lost Your Way

The Wisdom of Returning to the Desert by Charles Ortloff

My two experiences in the wilderness with Ron Pevny and Anne Wennhold have been nothing less than life changing. The first was in 2016 and the second in 2019, one month before I retired. Nine months after my second experience, I received a diagnosis of stage 4 prostate cancer. My doctor told me, “There is no cure. We will try to keep you alive so that you die of something else.” This was totally unexpected. My two times out in the wilderness prepared me for this unexpected journey. Let me explain.

My first time in the wilderness for a Conscious Eldering retreat was not what I anticipated. I was three years away from retirement. I was looking for some direction of “what next?” From the very first night, gazing into the starry night sky of the Milky Way, I felt my heart opening up to something, but I didn’t know what. I was excited for this journey to begin.

Each morning, Ron led us in drumming. On the second day, and each day after, a strong sense came to me that I would get nothing out of this experience unless I approached it from the spirituality of this place — native American. This was a big hurdle for me. One that I accepted after only two or three days of nudgings.

On my day alone in the desert, after giving tobacco to four directions of the compass, I sat quietly and waited. I felt surprisingly comfortable with this very foreign experience. Almost immediately, I sensed a pow-wow going on. There was dancing and chanting and smoking of a pipe. I wanted to ask my question, “What’s next?” But the celebration just went on and on. It was a sacred moment. I don’t know how long it lasted. And then, unexpectedly, I had my answer. The leader looked at me and said, “You will be called snow goose.” And that was it. Not long after this the pow wow ended, but the answer stayed with me.

In the weeks that followed that first retreat, I pondered my new name. Snow geese travel great distances. The metaphor seemed clear. I was called to travel, leave my comfortable spirituality and assumptions about other religions. Several quotes came to mind that informed me of my new name. From Matthew Fox’s quote, “one river, many wells,” I was reminded of the one truth deep within the many great spiritualities of the world.

From the quote, “From the top of every great tree in the forest, the view is the same,” I was reminded that all spiritualities in their most mature forms are the same. They are love. So for the next three years, I gave myself over to the study and practice of many of the great spiritualities. I experienced a great peace and connection to myself and my world.

With one month remaining before I retired, I eagerly went back out into the wilderness on a Next Step retreat. I had no idea what I would do in retirement. I was certain, I would get a clear message in the desert.

But nothing came, not in my long walks, nor looking at the night sky, nor in any small group time. After my day alone, with once again, nothing to show from my inner work, I walked back to the main lodge a little discouraged. As I walked, an image gently passed through my mind, hardly noticeable. Had a deer or even a squirrel come into view, I would have immediately forgotten the image. But I was all alone with an image of a small, clear votive candle. The light in the candle was flickering. And that was it. Was this my new calling? Was this my new name? It did not appeal to my heroic side that responded so well to the tribal circle of elders chanting. But that was all I had. I must have shown a little disappointment with my time alone when I returned to our small group and shared my story. One dear friend mentioned, “Well, Charlie, don’t forget that song you learned as a child, ‘This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.’” And of course, she was right. It was so simple and profound, I had missed it. But I still did not embrace it. I went home a bit confused and disappointed.

At home my confusion continued. I retired in a month with no idea what I was to do next. For eight months, I floundered. Then, I got the diagnosis of stage four prostate cancer. Everything changed. For two or three months, every morning I awoke with this elephant on my chest. I couldn’t breathe. I did not want this diagnosis. And I prayed, “When will this be over?”

After a while, remembering my times out in the desert, I got my bearings back. I had asked God to use me in retirement. Be careful what you ask for. I saw myself as that clear, small votive candle. My body would sooner or later be taken away. All the outer forms of my life would be removed, one at a time. But the light of God would continue to shine. That would be my one constant. The image of that small, clear votive candle, once so insignificant to me, has now become the answer to my question, “What next?”.

As I let go of the outer forms of my life, all the places I had been hiding behind, I now started to let other people in. I wrote a letter to my children telling them how much I loved them. I had never spoken with such forthright passion. What a gift to have that opportunity before one dies. I wrote our Christmas letter to friends and family telling them that “I am not fighting cancer. But to paraphrase, John O’Donoghue, I welcomed cancer as a guest who has gifts to offer.” My family and I have experienced these gifts from cancer many times over.

My time in the wilderness with Ron and Anne has not only been life changing, it has been life inviting. In whatever time I have left, I’m that little, clear votive candle. I try to let God’s love shine through me. I’m writing a book for my grandkids, sharing my life with them, the real me. My subtitle for the book is: “The Making of a Modern Mystic.” I co-host a weekly podcast where I share some of my spirituality. I continue my work as a spiritual director. And I am learning to play the cello. All from this new perspective of my life as the clear, small votive candle.

Life is so good.

In 2019, Charles retired after 42 years as a Lutheran pastor. He continues to do work as a mentor and spiritual friend. He enjoys writing and is currently working on a book for his family entitled “Grandpa Speaks, At Last: The Making of a Modern Mystic.” He has two other books in the works, one for those diagnosed with cancer and one outlining his own spiritual cartography, that of a contemplative. Though diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, he has never felt so alive. You can reach Charlie at ortloffcharles@gmail.com

The Evolution of Eldering

Ron Pevny was interviewed on the Mission Evolution Radio Program on the subject of “The Evolution of Eldering.”

Listen to “ME: Ron Pevny – Reclaiming the Wise Ones: Evolution of Elderhood” on Spreaker.

The host, Gwilda Wiyaka, noted that our society has lost the wisdom of elders. Ron shared information about the organization Sage-ing International and his work in Conscious Eldering.

“We allow ourselves to drift into getting old,” Ron says. “Conscious Eldering is a view of aging that recognizes that this kind of aging requires work.”

Listen to the interview on this page, or download it at Spreaker.

We Were Made For These Times

By Ron Pevny

In her beautiful essay, We Were Made for These Times, Clarissa Pinkola Estes included these powerful words: “When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But that is not what great ships are built for. Do not lose hope. For years, we have been learning, practicing, been in training for and just waiting to meet on this exact plain of engagement. The fact is that we were made for these times.”

There are days – many in fact—when my predominant feeling is something like this: “All I want is to get back to normal. To feel that I’m in control of my personal life and that at- least-somewhat conscious people and institutions are making decisions that are allowing the world to maintain a sense of normalcy. To believe that, hopefully and slowly but surely, humanity is creating a better world. In this “normal” world, I and the larger community are able to live with some degree of comfort, security, enjoyment, freedom to do what we enjoy, and live with confidence that potential crises are under control. In this ‘normal’, I and others who strive to be conscious can have plenty of opportunity to give our gifts in the ways that feel comfortable to us. We can engage in practices, go to workshops and retreats that stretch us a bit but not too much—so that we can feel good that we are growing, but not feel too disoriented or torn open by the process. We can take days off from focusing on growth, fitting it into our schedule when we feel so motivated. We can be aware that huge crises loom in the future, but take some comfort that they are dangers down the road and we can live our lives now without much disruption.”

And then, I awaken from this fantasy to see the reality of these times and remember that the crisis which are the necessary catalysts for the transformed world so many of us visualize, talk, teach and write about are not abstractions down the road. They are with us now. And coronavirus and the worldwide outrage over social injustice have right on their heals other multiple crises, including predictable yet preventable severe climate breakdown. How we respond to these, both individually and collectively, will determine whether our descendants live in a habitable, life- supportive world, or in a hell of ecological and societal collapse.

Each week I carefully choose a few webinars and podcasts to help me see the bigger picture, rekindle my hope for healing on our planet, and remind me of the importance of how I and each of us respond to the call to growth sounded by this time of crisis. Last week one of the teachers I was listening to said something that jolted me out of one of those days of hoping “normal” will soon come back. He emphatically stated that the greatest possible loss during this painful time will be if we, individually and collectively, endure and adapt to the losses and challenges, but waste the opportunity for growth—for allowing the crises we face to permanently transform our ways of relating to our planet, our selves and the humanity community.

I believe these are indeed the times we have been “learning, practicing and been in training for.” We have all been thrust into the transformative cauldron of a big-time neutral zone which, as in all significant personal and collective transition, accompanies the breakdown of old ways that are not truly life-supportive. The essential wisdom of rites of passage throughout history has been that it is in the neutral zone, with its chaos, disruption of normal life, sense of crisis, and experience of danger that the process of gestation of new beginnings happens, and the groundwork is laid for the emergence of life-enhancing new vision, new structures, and new ways of living.

The necessary collective transformations have to begin with each of us taking the importance of our growth seriously. That doesn’t mean each of us has to be doing big, visible things to promote change in society. It does not mean we forego those simple pleasures that offer us comfort and a much-needed sense of normalcy as we live each day. And our commitment to growth is certainly not served by castigating ourselves for those many times when we go unconscious, living out of habit with growth the farthest thing from our minds.

But, taking our growth seriously does require us, if we are to live as conscious elders-in- the-making, to make a priority of doing our best to get in touch with the soul wisdom within—that inner knowing of what we need to be doing, internally and externally, to grow personally and to bring healing to the human community. It means we see our growth as a necessity at a time when, with the future of humanity hanging in the balance, the contributions of true elders are absolutely necessary. And it means showering ourselves with compassion for not fully living up to the possibilities for growth that we aspire to, while remembering that each day brings with it an opportunity to reset, as we recommit to in some way using that precious day of life to grow and serve

It is a reality that our growth is, and always will be, uncomfortable. If we are to grow, we need to be willing to allow ourselves to stretch beyond our comfort zones. Growth involves cracking open our identification with our limited ego selves and the habitual ways of being that support a limited sense of self, so that new creativity, new strengths, new callings, and deepened spiritual connection can emerge. It takes courage and deep commitment to choose the challenging path of growth, and that is why this journey has often been called the Hero’s/Heroine’s Journey.

We were made for these times. Our commitment to conscious elderhood has been preparing us for these times. And now, moreso than ever, we need to find and embrace kindred spirits to support each other in taking advantage of this opportunity for personal and collective growth.

Here are three questions I suggest you take time to honestly respond to:

* What role does growth play in your understanding of conscious eldering?
* In what ways is this time of crisis catalyzing your growth as a conscious elder?

* What changes might you make in your life to support your using these crises as opportunities for growth?

Redefining Our Sense of Purpose and Meaning

By Katia Petersen

How we view the aging process affects the way we choose to live our lives. Entering into elderhood can be an amazing part of our spiritual journey especially when we choose to understand, embrace, and witness the daily miracles we experience every step of the way. Choosing to build our capacity to age consciously is one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves as we celebrate the wisdom and perspectives that come with our life experiences. As Ron Pevny often points out in his teachings, “we have the choice of either growing into and expressing our elderhood or merely aging and growing old.” Research shows that as we get older, people with a sense of purpose and meaning who feel part of something bigger than themselves, feel more joyful, heal quicker, and live life more fully. At the same time, we need to acknowledge that life is not linear as we experience ups and downs, sudden changes, shifts in our perspective and ways of being and doing things. In other words life happens and we don’t always know what will be revealed to us, why or when. That is why it’s essential to redefine our sense of purpose and meaning along the way, as our needs and priorities change from lessons learned.

The elders in my family taught me about life by example and through stories. My mother told me that part of growing and changing is our ability to create space for new experiences and knowledge along the way. My grandmother taught me that life is like a bookshelf filled with books with chapters from each year of our lives. In order to create more space on the shelves so we would continue to learn and grow, we needed to share some of the books with those we loved. My father taught me the importance of being flexible and willing to adjust to the unexpected turns of events in order to navigate through life easier. He did that with amazing grace until his last breath. I am not sure I fully appreciated the wisdom in those lessons until later in my own life. I finally came to understand that there are no time limits to learning, being curious, or experiencing a sense of wonder and gratitude for the life I have already lived.

How do you redefine your sense of purpose and meaning at this point in your life?

The Gift of Stillness

As life moves forward at what sometimes feels like light-speed I find myself trying to balance the need to be productive as I continue to follow my passions, with the need for stillness. I am finally at a place in my life where I treasure and crave stillness, and I also see its value for my wellbeing. When I am still, I create spaciousness for my body to catch up with my heart and soul, experiencing the beauty of my surroundings. When I choose to be still, I find my inner peace, a place of consciousness that allows me to open up my mind, body and heart to what is possible, to find solutions, increase my creativity and find my happy place. Each one of us has the potential to find our true self and to live life with purpose and meaning. Meditation is an important part of my life, as a daily practice to help me stay centered, feel renewed and be more mindful about the present.

Where can you create a sacred place to experience the gift of stillness? What practices do you use to enhance your inner journey?

Be the Author of Your Own Story

There is something profound and liberating when we recognize that indeed we are the authors of our own story. When we realize the strength of our voice, our ability to freely express our emotions, and surround ourselves with people who see us for who we are and support our growth, our perspective shifts from “It is what it is and there is nothing I can do about it” to “I see my potential, I believe in myself, I love myself enough to open up to receiving goodness, and I can see and feel what I was born to do.”

Our minds are powerful. If we harness that power by believing that anything is possible, the rest of our being will take over and move us forward in the right direction. Conversely, if we give up, to stay in a negative place believing that the universe is out to get us and there is nothing we can do about it, that is likely the direction we will move in.

As you allow your story to unfold, imagine yourself walking with purpose and with your destination in mind. Choose the people you wish to encounter along the way, the places you want to explore; ask the questions you believe will lead you to the next chapter, and use the language that brings you inner peace, calm, energy and fulfillment.

If you could change your story, what would it be about and what would you call it?

The Fear of the Unknown

There are times in our life when an unexpected event or person shows up just at the right moment, when we need them the most. Is it a coincidence or do we energetically call for it? Maybe these are reminders to stand up for ourselves, to speak our truth, to set clear boundaries, to throw caution to the wind and do something totally out of the ordinary. I personally embrace the unexpected, sit with it, reflect on it, let go of what is not serving me well while keeping only what helps me grow. I allow myself to look at new opportunities from a place of curiosity rather than fear. I communicate with sincerity making sure I speak my truth, follow my intuition, and learn form the wisdom of the people who support me to be the best version of me.

In what ways can you choose to step into new experiences with an open heart and mind, free of fear of the unknown or of being judged for following your passion?

Celebrate the New You

We spend so much time of our lives trying to prove our worth, to please others, to live within the expectations of others. Deepak Chopra says, “Don’t step outside the box, throw the box away.” This is our time to live our lives according to us, to feed our soul with things that nurture our spiritual selves, to pay attention to our inner journey as much as we did our outer journey, because our motivation comes from a sense of new purpose. It’s time to celebrate who we are just because we can. I was blessed to have a strong foundation and a great understanding that I was my own person, with unique gifts, a voice, and the capacity to choose how to best live my life as each chapter unfolded. I love being the author of my own story and as I get older I finally own and honor the person I am meant to be and what I still have to offer. My sense of purpose and meaning continues to be redefined as my story unfolds.

How do you choose to celebrate the new YOU?

Katia Petersen, PhD, brings to the conscious eldering field decades of experience as a psychotherapist, educator, story teller, author, and director of the Conscious Aging Program of the Institute for Noetic Sciences. She and Ron Pevny team up to present the “Aiming High” retreat for the Center for Conscious Eldering, and are collaborating on a new book titled “The Art of Conscious Eldering: Your 52-Week Growthbook for Aging with Passion and Purpose.” She can be reached at katia.petersen@gmail.com

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

by Susan S. Manning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Befriending Difficult Emotions in a Time of Crisis


by Ron Pevny

Like many of us these days, I recently participated in a virtual sharing circle. In this gathering, members of a spiritually oriented community shared their experiences of sheltering-in-place, aka mandated social distancing, during the first stages of the age of coronavirus. One of the focusing questions which we were asked to address was, “what do you do to help yourself feel better when difficult feelings arise?” I personally found this question powerfully evocative, multidimensional, and a doorway to deeper personal and collective exploration than what arises as a first response for most people. I’d like to share with you where this question has taken me.

As I experience the myriad of emotional states that arise each day, I realize that this question about feeling better is predicated upon a mindset that grief, loneliness, fear, disorientation and hopelessness, in their various shades, are negative experiences which call for a response of finding whatever ways we can to counter them, temporarily forget them, or overlay them with positive feelings. This mindset is bound together with the belief that crises such as the current pandemic, with all the inner and external turmoil that they engender, are painful interruptions in normal life to be endured and toughed out until life again returns to normal.

However, I and many others committed to our growth are asking if returning to normal, if that is even possible, would best serve humanity and our imperiled planet when normal means climate breakdown, extreme polarization, ever-escalating income inequality, and pervasive worldwide breakdown of human-centered cultural mores and values. The coronavirus pandemic has compellingly reminded many of us of what virtually all the world’s spiritual traditions have long taught. Life-supportive personal and cultural transformation occurs only through crisis. Individuals and societies tap strength, vision, creativity and connection with our deepest wisdom when old structures and ways of identifying ourselves are cracked open; when our complacency is shattered; when we are thrust out of our comfort zones; when we are forced to acknowledge that the lives we have been living and the attitudes we have been carrying will not be sufficient for the new realities we are facing and for the possibilities that the next stages of our growth call us to manifest. This is the essence of the wisdom about growth and change reflected in the world’s wisdom traditions and in the rites of passage grounded in those traditions. Crisis is the essential catalyst for growth.

But, crisis itself is only a necessary condition for growth to happen. It is what we do with the disorientation, the grief, and hopelessness, the loneliness, the fear and vulnerability and all the other inner experiences evoked by crisis that determine whether our potential for growth is actualized. All growth experiences are passages involving two difficult dynamics: one is a severing from, or breakdown, of a sense of identity that is no longer expansive enough to hold the potential that seeks to arise in us. The other is an immersion in the painful, disorienting process that is in various growth traditions called the neutral zone or liminal (out of normal) time. A global human family in danger of ecological and cultural collapse, but full of the potential for living in mutually supportive community and for healing a gravely wounded planet, has been thrust into a crisis with the potential to be a global rite of passage. And as members of this community, each of us has been thrust into what can be our own rite of passage.

The world’s wisdom traditions tell us that in this hero/heroine’s journey of growth, the new life, the new beginnings, the new potential are found only by facing the dragons that guard the treasures. These are the dark, painful emotions that arise as the challenges of crisis seem immense. For me, facing those dragons means allowing myself to acknowledge, be with, and work to befriend these emotions when they arise rather than following the impulse to push them away with distractions to temporarily make myself feel better. This can involve just sitting with these emotions as they rise and fall. It can include journaling about them. Having conversations with them. Sharing about our difficult emotions with true friends of the heart. Creating simple rituals to honor these emotions as teachers.

By being with my grief and feelings of loss, I see myself getting in touch with what is most deeply meaningful to me—what is most essential to my well being—as I also see more clearly what activities and things tend to encourage me to live superficially day to day.

By feeling the pain, hopelessness, fear and vulnerability that arise, I am more deeply getting in touch with my compassion for my basic humanity and for my brothers and sisters in the human family who live with these emotions in situations much more difficult than mine. This is leading me to be better able to acknowledge my professional work, as well as the everyday acts of caring and compassion I have opportunities to perform, as vital service to others and to the planet, and to even more deeply commit to using my gifts in service.

My allowing myself space to feel loneliness, rather than immediately jumping to
making connections with others, I am more aware of the difference between relating to people who are true kindred spirits who feed my soul, and people with whom connections are shallow and sometimes draining. I’m becoming more aware of the difference between solitude, which feels full, and loneliness, which feels empty.

During this time when social distancing is required and I painfully feel the loss of many of the structured outdoor activities that I so enjoy, I am gaining an even deeper appreciation for my relationship with the natural world. By spending precious time outside without performance oriented activities, I’m viscerally reminded that my relationship with the life-giving beauty, bounty and energy of the natural world is more important than the role nature plays as a venue for recreational activities that I love and miss.

I’m seeing that my feelings of being lost and disoriented, without a roadmap for my future in a changed world, are showing me the limitations of my mind to plan my way forward and of my ego to control outcomes. I feel the necessity for even more strongly

committing to deepen my relationship with my inner sense of guidance, with my Soul, which knows how I can best give my gifts and thrive during this crisis and in the changed world we will live in after this crisis is over.

Perhaps the most powerful gift I am receiving from these difficult emotions is the heightened reminder of my mortality provided by the reality of being in the at-risk age group. I am making a practice of allowing my fears of death to be the ally that various spiritual traditions teach about—the ally that reminds me of how precious is each day and each experience, and how consequential each choice I make.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that we will be served by spending large amounts of time inviting or wallowing in difficult emotions. We all need at times to engage in activities that simply help us to feel better. My words here are not meant to produce guilt. But the reality is that, for most of us in this time of crisis, waves of difficult emotions will inevitably arise. We must each find our way to navigate these turbulent waves of change, and it is essential that we extend to ourselves and others plenty of healing compassion as we do so.

What I do want to communicate is that there is a big difference between “feeling better” and feeling that kind of centeredness and aliveness that comes from being fully present with our experiences. I know that when I allow myself to be present with, and work to befriend, the difficult emotions that arise, they are teachers providing important guidance for my growth. And, I also can trust that if I allow myself to experience them without judging them as negative and trying to push them away, each wave will gradually give way to a sense of centered, trusting relationship to my self and to spirit that is very satisfying and enlivening—much moreso than when I choose instead to search for activities just to help me “feel better.”

If your growth is truly your highest priority, then I encourage you to use this liminal time between an old way of being and the new one that seeks to emerge, as retreat time to deeply engage with the growth practices and spiritual disciplines that are important to you. People spend lots of money to go away on retreats where productively engaging with difficult emotions and attitudes is the goal. Now coronavirus has given us that opportunity and all it costs is willingness to, as best we are able, live beneath the chaotic surface of this extraordinary time. We have the opportunity to do the inner work through which this crisis can truly be a rite of passage for ourselves and potentially for the larger human community.

Ron Pevny is Founding Director of the Center for Conscious Eldering

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.

Sun and Snake

by Shaun Dempsey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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