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.
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
- 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’
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
- Visioning / pathfinding
- 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
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