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.

September Ghost Ranch Retreat

THIS RETREAT IS FULL, WITH A WAITING LIST

Join us for Choosing Conscious Elderhood at Ghost Ranch on September 26 @ 4:00 pmOctober 2 @ 1:30 pm

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

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?