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It seems to me that ‘joy’ is a word that has become unfashionable and, perhaps, lost meaning for the modern age.  My aim is to explore the meaning of joy, the ways in which we can develop a capacity to tap into joy, and the qualities of being that contribute to this capacity.

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(See also Why Passage to Joy?)

Sage in training – modern elderhood

When you let go of the career and life goals that have driven you forward throughout adulthood, it is hard to escape the questions ‘who am I now and what is my purpose in being?’ Earlier this year I identified that for me, at this point in my life, my most important role is as sage in training.

The unexpected adventure of growing old

I am very much at the beginning of this life-stage, the start of an exploration that will underpin however many years I may have ahead of me.

Building on my initial delving into the qualities and role of the crone, I delighted in the wisdom of Leah Friedman’s The Unexpected Adventure of Growing Old. This joyous and eloquent examination of the decades beyond sixty inspires a sense of real excitement in looking at the road ahead, even as it is obscured by mists of unknowing.

As we enter our later years all of us are fools in the sense that we are stepping off the edge of our early lives in order to explore new territory, that of elderhood, a place unknown and strange to us.

Leah Friedman, The Unexpected Adventure of Growing Old, page 96

Friedman reflects that, in Hindu tradition, sixty represents a point of transition from ‘householder’ to ‘forest dweller’, one who begins to separate from the daily demands of life in order to spend more time in contemplation and in preparation for death. Though I am not sure I can make such a complete shift in our modern age, I love the idea of embracing at least parts of the identity of ‘forest dweller’!

It is perhaps important to remember that it is only relatively recently that many of us have had any significant expectation of life beyond sixty. Jean Houston observes that

The years beyond sixty, the years of our second maturity, may be evolution’s greatest gift to humanity.

Jean Houston, Life Force: The Psycho-Historical Recovery of the Self

At a more individual level, Leah Friedman speaks of an increasing coherence, perhaps a reconciliation with the paradoxes that so often define our humanity:

By our seventies we have lived long enough to forge our oddities and our conventionalisms – these disparate and sometimes contradictory qualities – into a more or less coherent whole. We can begin to see all of our characteristics as demonstrations of our selfhood.

Leah Friedman, The Unexpected Adventure of Growing Old, page 58

She encourages us to let go of the ‘depressing D words’ (decrepitude, decline, diminishment, death . . .) and instead embrace the ‘encouraging E words’ (expansion, experience, expertise, enlightenment, equanimity, emancipation). We can choose how we focus our gaze.

Sage-ing

Elders practice contemplative disciplines from our spiritual traditions and come to terms with their mortality. They harvest their life experiences, pass on their wisdom to younger people, and safeguard the health of our ailing planet. Out of their late-life explorations in consciousness, elders bestow upon the world the life-giving wisdom it desperately needs . . .

Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Ronald S. Miller, From Age-ing to Sage-ing; a revolutionary approach to growing older, Preface xiii

To my surprise I discovered that From Age-ing to Sage-ing was written some twenty years ago – it’s a fairly laborious read but repays the effort! At that time, I was working in dementia care, increasingly conscious of the lack of any clear social valuing of aging and feeling a strong impulse towards redefining a model of elderhood. Of course, in my early forties, life took over and that impulse was temporarily shelved.

Now, using The Sage-ing Workbook to provide focus and structure, I am diving into what I think will be both a challenging vision of what aging can be and an excavation of my own story. This is core work for a sage in training.

The curriculum of life’s second half involves more than the completion of our biological imperative. It involves the evocation of soul and spirit . . . a homecoming with our inner nature.

Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Ronald S. Miller, From Age-ing to Sage-ing; a revolutionary approach to growing older, pages 23 & 27

In From Age-ing to Sage-ing, the ‘jobs’ of old age are defined as

  • Self-realization
  • Service to society
  • Being society’s ‘futurists’

Instead of being retired to uselessness, you can now graduate into the global function of seership, involved in the larger issues of life, the wider cultural and planetary concerns.

Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Ronald S. Miller, From Age-ing to Sage-ing; a revolutionary approach to growing older, page 30

Further, the authors identify five key roles of old age, which I think of as the ‘5 Ms’

  • Mentor
  • Mediator
  • Monitor
  • Mobilizer
  • Motivator

Potential tasks of elderhood might include:

  • Coming to terms with our mortality
  • Healing our relationships
  • Enjoying and celebrating our achievements
  • Healing the earth
  • Legacy creation
  • Storytelling
  • Visioning / pathfinding
  • Stewardship
  • Spiritual connectedness

Phew, not much to tackle then!

Where am I now as a sage in training?

My aspiration, perhaps the most fundamental focus of this period of my life, is to become truly an ‘elder’, not just an ‘old person’, exposing new dimensions of personhood, new strength of being, the continued and marked evolution of uniqueness and discovery of ‘am’. My aim is to embrace ‘eldering’ as a state of growth, not a static condition. My job is to become a sage, an elder, a wisdom keeper,

a harbinger of the possible human . . .

Jean Houston, Life Force: The Psycho-Historical Recovery of the Self.

Implicit in this is a commitment to spending time looking inward, yet also to reflecting this outward. As I age, I hope increasingly to be able to draw on my reserves of knowledge and wisdom while letting go of that which no longer contributes to my wellbeing – a shedding of leaves.

This is our time of ripeness, of the harvest of all that we have been.

As a sage in training and based on my reading so far, as I look ahead, I seek

  • to weave together the needs for solitude and for connection.
  • to allow meaningful transformation.
  • to process at the deepest level my past, my story.
  • to learn gratefully and gracefully to receive, to accept what I need.
  • to be ‘an agent of evolution’.

Elders function like old cobblers and dressmakers, sewing us back into the fabric of creation. Through their compassionate relatedness to all of life, the reduce our sense of alienation by helping us rediscover our sacred roots. And they do this without suffering from the disease of deadly earnestness. Elders have a wild, almost prankster-like quality that enables them to see the humor in every situation.

Joan Halifax, Anthropologist

Positive images of ageing

Collage - Positive Images of Ageing from a sage in training

The initial exercises in the Sage-ing Workbook focus on existing perceptions of elderhood. I had a lot of fun creating a collage to represent the positive images of ageing that I have internalized! I am fortunate to have in my life some amazing role models for positive ageing who provided real inspiration as I thought about this. All the women pictured are in their 70s, 80s or 90s and all are feisty boundary pushers in different ways!

My ideal elder

An extension of this exercise was to create an image of my ideal elder, flowing out of those positive perceptions. What came to me feels like a blueprint for becoming.

My ideal elder

  • remains active and engaged within whatever constraints they may experience.
  • is open-hearted and loving, with a continuing zest for life.
  • is curious and continues to be engaged with their own growth.
  • has many connections with people of all ages.
  • is able to accept what age brings and to let go of what they can no longer do and what no longer serves them.
  • is authentic and full of character but also humble – they don’t pretend to have all the answers!
  • finds ways of being that support and inspire others.
  • is feisty and funny.
  • is deeply connected – to self, to the wider community, to nature, to mystery, to spirit, to all that is.

Elders are the jewels of humanity that have been mined from the Earth, cut in the rough, then buffed and polished by the stonecutter’s art into precious gems that we recognize for their enduring value and beauty. We sense their radiance in our youth, but we cannot contain it. It requires a lifetime’s effort to carve out the multifaceted structure that can display our hidden splendor in all its glory.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, The Sage-ing Workbook

 

Love in the shadows – the gifts of the 5%

Love in the Shadows

Even the greatest love stories have their moments! For many years I have referred to this as ‘the 5%’. From a personal perspective, my husband and I rub along pretty well for 95% of the time – sometimes better, sometimes worse, but generally OK. Then, suddenly, love in the shadows; the unfathomable distance between separate identities becomes insurmountable, overwhelming, unbearable.

What I’ve realized is that, although these times feel like a threat, are full of pain and anguish, they are but another part of the gift of enduring compassionate partnership.

The Shadow Hordes

The Warrior Queen rises up from the shadows, fierce, proud, self-righteous, magnificent and lethal. She seeks only to protect her realm, yet her wild, wounding words are laden with destruction.

Beside her a weeping Child begs for comfort, “what about me? See me, love me, save me!”

Behind them lurk the Troll of resistance barring the way forward, the Grey Goblin of anxiety wringing her hands, and more.

The many voices of the shadow self become a cacophonous clamour that threatens to drown out any possibility of perspective or partnership.

Love in the Shadows

Where else do we have the safety to confront the shadows so openly? Love is possibly the only power that can talk us down from the ledges. It is only in the context of love that we can see the damage our shadow army inflicts on self and other. And it is only in the context of love that we can find the compassionate understanding to forgive ourselves for their existence within us.

If we never allow ourselves to see the shadows, we lose the opportunity to know them.

In truth, it is not the purpose of the Warrior Queen to destroy, of the Grey Goblin to disable, of the Troll to stand in the way; they seek to protect. They bring shadow, darkness in which to hide, to find safety. They are the wild, untamed aspects of our psyche. They are capable of evil but they are not inherently evil in and of themselves. Indeed, they can be instructive and empowering aspects of who we are.

Only as we develop our capacity for compassionate love can we begin to realize how to embrace our shadows, to acknowledge their purpose, to befriend them enough to listen calmly to their promptings, to draw on that wild wisdom without unleashing their destructive force.

This, to me, is the gift of the 5%. We are challenged at the deepest level to engage with all that it is to be human. This offers us not only the opportunity to make peace with ourselves but also deepens our compassionate understanding of shadow as it manifests in the world around us.

If you have found some value in this post, you may also enjoy Love Stories

The shadows I refer to are of my own naming, but if they intrigue you, you may be interested in the work of Caroline Myss on archetypes.

Love Stories

‘Happily ever after’ or true partnership?

Rock love heart

Why is it that so many of the ‘great love stories’ seem to end just when the real work of love begins? ‘Happily ever after’ is such a cop out!

Why is so relatively little written about love that has had decades to ripen and mature, forged and strengthened by the shared joys and pains of a lifetime together?

As a culture, it seems that we glorify the exhilaration of new love, extol its romantic and sexual highs. We talk so much less about the depth and richness that develop when we genuinely choose to partner with another.

Reflection 1

Waking in the night . . . reaching out and linking arms like otters as we drift back into a sea of sleep.

Morning comes. Holding each other close, we welcome the day and the joy is like a shaft of sunlight, even when the world outside is dark and gloomy.

Enduring love

The love that endures the decades is not the sentimental, delusional stuff of glossy romance. Time has exposed unexpected strengths and skills, but also vulnerabilities and inabilities. There is nowhere to hide.

In this narrative, the rich colours of joy and contentment, of achievement and fulfilment, are intertwined with the darker shades of despair, of doubt, of dashed dreams and struggle. These form a resilient rope of experience that connects us ever more deeply, yet never binds.

To live this long this close is to witness both the best and the worst of self and other.

There is something truly profound in knowing that your loved one has, at the very least, caught glimpses of your shadows, your demons, and not run screaming for the hills. I call this ‘embracing the 5%’. Sometimes I think it is harder to accept this gift than it is to give it.

With the passing of time, I have come to understand that love exists not ‘despite’ our human imperfection but rather ‘because’ of it. The beautiful ability for true compassion is nourished by this understanding, not by the sterility of perfect people living perfect lives.

To know another deeply is also to know how much you can never know; exquisite closeness and unfathomable distance co-exist.

I’ve never been sure of the idea of a soulmate – sometimes this seems to be represented more like a narcissistic reflection. It also sets us up to expect something that ‘just happens’. Yet so much of learning to love requires the choosing of an investment of our deepest self.

Reflection 2

Walking into a crowded gig and knowing instinctively where to find you – even then, a fine thread connected us.

Red roadside poppies on Valentine’s Day (no, it can’t have been; it must have been a birthday!) and the importance of blue moons . . .

Shared dreams and adventures, the same words tumbling at the same time from two mouths, passing kisses, flirtatious glances (yes, even thirty years on), the hugging, the holding; our story.

The years have tested and strengthened that thread with the countless strands of our shared existence.

It is hard not to imagine that this connection might endure beyond time and space . . .

Ice Storm

The trees are freighted with the accretion of ice; branches that normally spread above our heads are bowed with heaviness, fingering the surface of the skating pond. Crystal coated grass, each blade distinct, and branches held in thrall create a crunching, crinkling, eerie cascade of sound.

Beauty and brutality in equal measure – there is real destructive power in this slow layering of ice on ice.

I am reminded that if we encase ourselves in a brittle, rigid shell – of pain, of grief, of pride or anger – we are more, not less, likely to be broken.

Revisiting Joy

Joy is to be found in a place of inner quiet, the point of light within – the divine spark? It is more the manifestation of a quality of spirit than an emotion, existing only in the ‘now’.

Back in 2010, when I started this site, this was my first attempt at a definition of joy.

Revisiting joy nearly ten years on it is interesting to see where this perception has led me.

I see joy as a momentary glimpse of absolute belonging within the flow of all that is, a moment of total connectedness.

Joy is not happiness. If anything, I think it provides a glimpse of the unlimited capacity to encompass both the ecstasy and the agony of living and being human, both heart-filling and heart-breaking.

I perceive joy to exist at the level of our essential being. Young children access it more easily than adults because they have not yet fully constructed ego’s walls.

Still wilderness. The place that is most us yet remains beyond us.

Christian Wiman, Joy – 100 Poems

Those with a deep spirituality often seem to radiate joy (the Dalai Lama comes to mind). Is this, perhaps, because they have worked to shed layers of ego, to access and stay connected with the depth of being, the flow?

Let there be light

. . . joy is a flash of eternity that illuminates time.

Christian Wiman, Joy – 100 Poems

Often when we experience joy it is as an incandescent flash, almost outside of time. It is not something we can hold onto, yet it nourishes us to the core. It is, in the words of Derek Walcott, an illumination, a benediction, a visitation.

Cultivating our capacity to experience joy is also a process of honing our ability to connect, as well as to contain and to accept every shading of existence. This encompasses both the ‘natural’ and the ‘human’ world, which in the end is simply another manifestation of all that is whether you define this spiritually or in terms of particulate matter.

It is interesting that, at least according to Buddhist academic and teacher Reggie Ray, if we go back far enough in time to archaic, pre-agricultural civilizations, life’s purpose was perceived not as ‘progress’ but to stay connected with the depth of being expressed in creation. It seems to me that joy re-opens that gateway to connection and to that ‘still wilderness’.