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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Navigating Life’s Passages: Wisdom for Times of Crisis

“Navigating Life’s Passages” is an online course in four weekly sessions, Wednesdays — October 28 through November 18, 3:00 – 5:30 pm Eastern Time.

Throughout these four dynamic, interactive sessions, Ron Pevny will share understandings, practices and rituals from the world’s wisdom traditions that will support your journeys through your personal transitions and through the huge transition that Coronavirus is catalyzing in the human family.

You can find more information about this unique program, which will be presented in collaboration with Sage-ing International, at the Sage-ing website.

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

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.

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.

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

Choosing Conscious Elderhood October 7 – October 13 Ghost Ranch

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.

An Encounter with Red Rocks, Snake and Transition

By Wendy Dudley

My pulse tripled and my muscles tightened. Only two hours had passed on my solo day in the desert at Ghost Ranch. And here I was, high on the cliff rocks, facing a snake. I live in the foothills of Canada’s Rocky Mountains, so am used to dealing with bears and cougars, but not a venomous Snake. My adrenaline still rushing, my inner voice began to tell me I was fine, that this was meant to be, that things were unfolding as they must. I was outside my comfort zone, and I knew this is where we learn the big lessons. 

Meeting Snake was the pinnacle moment of my week-long Choosing Conscious Elderhood (CCE) retreat, held under the masterful guidance of co-leaders Ron Pevny and Anne Wennhold. 

Our group was well prepared for our solo. We had discussed our inner fears, and what we needed to release, so that we could move forward in a more free and joyous state.

We learned how important it is to come from our hearts, and to speak our truth, and how anything is possible if we overcome our self-limitations and remain open. 

Using intent as our gateway, we opened ourselves to receive light and love, and messages that can arrive through visions and from Nature. 

Surrounded by magnificent red rock cliffs and an oceanic sky, Ghost Ranch is the ideal setting for the CCE retreat, as it is in Nature where we often come face-to-face with our truths.  With daily opportunities to commune with the high desert environment, participants are washed with birdsong and the beauty of the spacious and humbling land. Science has proven that being in the natural world can take us into a peaceful state, where we often find clarity in our focus, thoughts and intentions. Some may call this space the Field, the Mystery, the Cosmos, God, or Spirit.  The label does not matter.  What is important is that we hold this sacred space dear to our hearts, for this is where we seek authenticity and our personal truths which help guide us on our unique paths. It is for this reason that indigenous peoples sought their life purpose through vision quests, when they left their villages and spent time alone steeped in Nature. 

By wandering among the trees, along creeks, or in the mountains, we are reminded that we are not separate from Nature. Rather, we are part of it.  We are all interconnected through a web of energy.  And in doing so, we welcome Spirituality into our lives. 

Nature is an integral element of the CCE program, whether sitting under a sea of stars, hiking mesa trails, or simply meditating beneath a canopy of arroyo cottonwoods.  With loving and caring support by fellow group members, and respectful guidance from the co-leaders, Nature also becomes our teacher and healer. 

Basking in the outdoors, we learn that Nature is full of signs to help guide us on our paths.  We may find meaning in a particular bird, the shape of a cloud, or an animal crossing our path.  The CCE program teaches us to be open, to be willing to receive and accept what is shown us. 

And so on this day, I was given Snake, symbolizing transformation since it sheds its skin, casting off an old identity for a new one. According to many cultures, it is also the sign of a medicinal healer, which mirrored my interests in Medical Qi Gong, Shamanic work, and art therapy. Snake rested half in shadow, half in sunlight, marking the importance of seeking balance in all that we do. It also was stretched out, an indication of awakening from a coiled state, as we move from karma to dharma. These signs of healing were significant, as I had arrived at Ghost Ranch with broken trust. Through the letting-go ceremonies and heartfelt group discussions in the retreat, I began to heal, to feel I could trust again — as in trust myself, trust Nature’s signs, and thus begin to trust others. 

After spending five hours with Snake — during which time I rattled to it and played my flute — I walked up a windy ridge. I felt like I was wrapped in a ceremonial blanket, as I gazed over the mesa and incoming rain squalls. I let the wind rustle my hair, as the rain washed and cleansed my soul. In that moment, I took back all the power I had mistakenly given away. I was now truly the co-creator of the rest of my life, consciously aware that my path was a worthy one, and that I myself was worthy. I felt my calling, as I received affirmation that I was to teach and share my love of Nature through my practice of shamanism and my painted drums which send out healing vibrations when played, echoing the heartbeat we sense and hear when we are still in the womb. To know one’s sense of purpose, and to answer it, is transformational and life-changing.

And so, without surprise, when I returned to the rock I had shared with Snake, my reptilian teacher was gone. Its lessons had been passed. My old skins were shed. 

It was up there, along the cliffs, where the eagles nest and the ravens dip and dive and dance, that my life began to take on a different shape. This could not happen in a boardroom, or among the competing distractions of an urban environment.  This could only happen in Nature, in the truth of its songs and chants and meaningful encounters. 

From modern-day spiritualists to monastic monks to native North Americans, many spend time in Nature. It is the ideal environment for meditation, since the Earth’s electromagnetic frequency is one that promotes relaxation and restoration.  When we are in Nature, the tendency is to synchronize with its healing frequency, which also puts us into a state of increased happiness and compassion. 

If there is one animal that reflects the essence of the CCE program, it is Snake. 

Through loving and gentle support, Ron and Anne assist Elders-in-the making with shedding patterns, releasing what is no longer serving us well, and setting intentions as to how we wish to live the rest of our lives.  I left the CCE retreat with increased awareness of the conscious state, which is where our dreams and wishes reside, and awareness of the importance of a caring and supportive network. I knew I would always embrace Life with passion, and that our truth comes from deep within our souls. Others may guide us, but only we hold the answers for our unique path.  

Building an altar is part of the CCE program, and today, a Zuni stone carving of a fully stretched snake holds a place of honor there, as does the CCE program that allowed me to so fully transform, so that I may trust myself to become the keeper of my own flame, knowing no one has the right to blow it out. 

The drumbeats and rattling, which welcomed each morning of our retreat, continue to vibrate throughout my very being.

Ron Pevny on Mission: Evolution Radio

Ron Pevny was recently interviewed about the role of conscious elders in today’s world on Mission: Evolution a radio show broadcast around the world and hosted by Gwilda Wiyaka. Mission: Evolution is dedicated to supporting the healthy evolution of humankind through spiritual and scientific dialogue. Listen to Ron’s interview at the Mission: Evolution website or in the player below.

Listen to “ME: Ron Pevny – Knowledge VS Wisdom: Evolving Purpose” on Spreaker.