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

 

The season of the Crone

This is the witching time of year, the season of the Crone!

In ancient times, the Goddess as Crone or ‘Queen of Witches’ ruled the autumn harvest festivals. Hekat in Egypt, Hecate in Greece, Latin Proserpina, Semitic Lilith with her sacred totem the owl, Celtic Cailleach, Welsh Cerridwen – these are just a few of the many manifestations of the  Crone Goddess.

The words we use

It is interesting that many of the words we apply to Crones have been twisted from their original meanings to represent something vile, ugly or evil. Hag derives from the Greek ‘hagia’, meaning ‘holy one’. There is little agreement as to the derivation of witch, but suggestions include the ancient Indo-European word ‘weik’, which connects to religion and magic; the Anglo-Saxon witega, a prophet or seer; a relationship to wit, or wisdom;  a root meaning ‘holy’ or ‘sacred’.  Some people believe that the word Crone is rooted in the meaning ‘crowned one’, though standard etymology still has it as a Middle English term of abuse.

The Golden Bough - by Jeroen van Valkenburg (This picture could represent the triple aspect of the Wiccan Goddess: the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone. The three manifestations are symbols of the cycle of life, of reincarnation and of the three phases of the human life.)

Halloween and Samhain

Halloween has its roots in these ancient traditions, particularly Samhain (pronounced SOW-en) Samhain is the most important of the Celtic festivals, the end of one year and start of the next.

It is a day on which to remember, to commune with and honour the dead. At the same time it was a celebration of the eternal cycle of rebirth.

It is a time of endings, of coming to terms with the many small deaths, the losses that are part of every life. But it is also a time of beginning, of transition and change. It is a time to go within, a time to come to know yourself, to celebrate the growth you have realized over this last cycle and release all that was in preparation for what will be.

Samhain night exists outside time and between worlds, deeply rooted in mystery and enchantment.

Visual exploration of the season of the crone
A visual exploration of the season of the Crone, October 2010, research for the Halloween ‘Crone’ I created

Crone nature

As an archetype, the Crone assists us in transition from one life to the next, leaving one level of our existence and entering the next, hence her association with Samhain.

I find this illuminating as to the nature of the Crone. For me it creates a sense of her as a midwife of the soul. She teaches us that sometimes we must let go if we are to move on.

 Looking back at the my visual exploration of the crone in 2010, I love the idea of the season of the Crone as a time to harvest experience and to become a way-shower.

In her article The Ancient CroneAnya Silverman describes the Crone as

an older woman who has learned to walk in her own truth, in her own way, having gained her strength by acknowledging the power and wisdom of the totality of her experience. She is “a wise old woman’.

A Crone is a woman burnished bright by an inner fire that sharpens both her wit and her intensity, her passion and her power.

Jean Shinoda Bolen, in her wonderful book Crones Don’t Whine, notes that ‘to be a crone is about inner development, not outer appearance’. She writes of the Crone as a potential,

much like an inherent talent, that needs to be recognized and practiced in order to develop. This wise presence in your psyche will grow, once you trust that there is a crone within and begin to listen. Then in the quiet of your own mind, pay attention to her perceptions and intuitions and act upon them. Crone qualities are the distinguishing features by which a crone (as a woman or an archetype) can be known.

 

Crone qualities

As I embrace my own season of the Crone, I have been exploring and considering what Crone qualities I would wish to make manifest in my life. These include

  • earned wisdom
  • compassion without the illusion and sentiment of youth
  • non-judgement
  • inner beauty
  • confidence
  • honesty
  • authenticity
  • self-knowledge balanced with self-compassion
  • humour
  • courage

Jean Shinoda Bolen’s list has an earthy practicality that offers some useful guidance. She says Crones

  • don’t whine and don’t indulge their whining inner child;
  • are juicy – and what makes life juicy is being deeply involved in life;
  • have green thumbs – they nurture growth, weed well, prune and build strong boundaries;
  • trust what they know in their bones – they transform their bad experiences into wisdom and embrace mystery;
  • meditate in their fashion, developing heartfulness and nurturing inner life;
  • are fierce about what matters to them – a crone is a woman who has found her voice;
  • choose the path with heart, understanding that choosing one path means giving up another;
  • speak the truth with compassion, increasingly knowing when to speak and what to say;
  • listen to their bodies, responding to their needs and hearing the underlying messages between the emotional and physical body;
  • improvise, adapting to change;
  • don’t grovel – for approval, love, acceptance;
  • laugh together, the deep belly laughs that come from a well of feeling;
  • savor the good in their lives, knowing how fortunate they are still to be alive.

Embracing the role of modern Crone

In an awesome blog post, The Rise of the Modern Crone, Diana Frajman suggests that

It takes a woman with an understanding of two of the most basic of human needs to evolve into a modern Crone. Those needs are connection and community.

She suggests that it is only with an understanding of connection that wisdom can have an impact and goes on to define the role of modern Crone:

. . .  This is an amazing time to embrace your inner Crone. More than ever the world needs the comfort and certainty that wisdom and experience from a life well lived can give. The voice of expertise and mastery combined with the sageness of maturity and wisdom assures us that there is hope. We need these enlightened guides to bring us safely into the future. That is the role of the new modern Crone.

What a challenge!

Meditating today, I remembered the sense of metamorphosis as I emerged from the stage of maiden to mother.  I had a vivid image of pouring all the learning, the experiences, the insights from my life into a great cauldron set amongst the flames and brewing an elixir of transfiguration.  I was aware of the Crone as the most powerful embodiment of the feminine, freed from earlier responsibilities and constraints, connected to mystery and a kind of primal wildness.

I am excited to embrace the season of the Crone,  to discover in myself its potential and consciously to recognize and practice those ways of being that manifest it most fully.

 

Embracing the age of the Crone – a view from a distance

At 60, I definitely feel myself entering into the age of the Crone. Some definitions would say you begin to cross the threshold at 50. But it was at 44, writing a journalistic exercise about looking forward to a specific birthday, that I first welcomed the vision of this aspect of later life as a woman.

I am looking forward to delving more into what this means to me over the coming months, but I thought I would start with that early vision.

Blue Crone


I’m looking forward to being 70.  After that I will consider myself to be on extra time, with nothing owed and naught to loose.  I will gleefully claim my freedom to ‘wear purple with a red hat that doesn’t suit me’[1].

At a mere 44, the milestone of my allotted ‘three score years and ten’ lies well beyond the horizon.  But already I feel the first intimations of the influence of the waning crescent moon, symbol of the Goddess in her final incarnation of ‘crone’.

Perhaps bound up with our contemporary obsession with physical appearance, our pursuit of an illusion of eternal youth, the ‘crone’ has had some very bad press.  The word invokes an image of an ugly, wizened, witch of an old woman, maybe embittered and very possibly evil.  Is it any wonder that so many women run scared of the inexorable accumulation of birthdays?

I am not soaked in the spell of paganism, claim no great knowledge of its lore.  But I willingly embrace its vision of the crone as the ultimate, most powerful manifestation of womanhood.  She personifies wisdom, compassion and completion.  Her closer relationship to death is not one of fear but a potent awareness of renewal. 

So, when I reach 70, dressed in crone’s purple, I will cherish my wrinkles and wear them with pride and relief that youth’s vanity is done. I will breathe deep, walk slow and do nothing, joyously!  I will undoubtedly ‘misbehave’ outrageously.  I’m looking forward to being 70.

[1] Quoted from “Warning” by Jenny Joseph, voted Britain’s best-loved poem by viewers of BBC TV’s Bookworm

Gina Bearne, 2002