Light in tough times

In these challenging times, it is hardly surprising when fear creates a knotted tangle of resistance, control mechanisms, and doubt. It can be difficult to hold on to an awareness of light.

Awe versus awful

A friend commented to me that maintaining an awareness of awe didn’t seem to help that much when instead faced with awful. I think the reality is that awe, wonder and gratitude are important in nourishing joy and resilience. They are not a preventative measure or an insurance policy – life happens. But greater resilience and the ability to find joy in even small, everyday things, can provide the necessary glimmer of light to help you get through the tough times.

Not mine to fix

It is easy to find oneself on a slippery slope of self-blame or loss of faith when life doesn’t go as you hoped and expected, when illness or adversity strike. I realized in the last week that, whilst I am mostly able to understand and accept that it is not up to me to fix others, there is a part of me that wants to cling to the belief that, if I ‘do it right’, I can fix myself. It was illuminating and freeing to understand that it is also not up to me to fix myself!

I may aspire to physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing, may do my best to adopt positive choices and practices. But it is not a weakness, a failing in myself, if physical or emotional issues do not resolve immediately in response to my actions – or even ever. I simply do not have that level of control over life – no one does. There is no point, therefore, in judging and finding myself wanting. Nor does this invalidate the choices and practices. What I can do is sit with myself compassionately and with acceptance of what is. I can listen deeply for what I need and tap into that ability to connect with resilience and joy and the underpinning awareness that the light is always there.

Shining a light

When we align with who we really are, who-what we are designed to be, we unfurl. Benefit in all directions abounds that has little to do with us. We are simply being . . . and the benefit that happens, in a way, is none of our business.

~ Kim Rosen

Sitting in meditation with these ideas swirling around me, I had a delightfully ‘silly moment’ when the thought that popped into my head was ‘I want to be a lighthouse when I grow up!’ Beyond the thought, though, lies a deepening understanding that it is not mine to fix anyone and a continuing commitment to the growth of authenticity. Thus is helping to reframe my ongoing desire to ‘make a difference’. It struck me that this was a personal expression of what Kim Rosen suggests in the quote above (revisited from my Soul School post). Playing with the thought, the poem below was my destination!

Lighthouse - shining a light at the edge of the world (Cape Spear)

I want to be a lighthouse when I grow up!

I want to be a lighthouse when I grow up,
to stand tall and true at the edge of the world
mostly unremarked and unremarkable but there,
a steady light radiating outwards from within.

It is none of my business
whether the light
is witnessed
or serves any purpose.

But, on the darkest nights,
when storms rage and rocks reveal their fangs,
just maybe my light may ease some being’s passage
and help them come home to themself.

August 13, 2020

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

 

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

 

 

 

Passion and non-attachment

Passion and non-attachment are often seen as mutually exclusive.

I think this is a false assumption; indeed, without passion, we come back to ‘detachment’ rather than non-attachment.

Passion is often viewed as fire. But could it be that this is only the youthful manifestation of passion, that passion also also resides in the still waters of a deep pool?

Mindfulness, being fully present in the moment seem to be fundamental to both passion and joy. Yet these are also an essential part of non-attachment. I aspire to living this moment utterly and with integrity, yet to be unattached to the outcome. And only by being unattached to the outcome can I inhabit this moment, for otherwise there is always at least some part of me projecting into the future and the ‘what ifs’.

The place of passion

Should we ‘follow our passion’? Should we ‘bring passion’ to everything we do?  Where does this idea of passion fit into our experience of and creation of joy?

I find myself caught between these two positions, not sure which is the truer path or whether there is a middle way.

My experience and observation suggest that, in ‘following our passion’, there can be great satisfaction, richness and intensity; however, this may also be seductive. That very intensity can become one more addictive ‘high’, increasingly compulsive and often ego-driven.

Instead of leading us to fulfilment, our talents and passions may thus easily become our curse. I know that sometimes, when I face in this direction, I become caught up in a sense of being ‘driven’ to achieve an end.  I am not convinced that this ultimately leads me towards peace or joy. Perhaps there is a fine line between passion and obsession.  One’s passions can bring one utterly into the moment, yet they can also become the stuff of illusion, drawing us to some elusive ‘goal’ that deflects us from experiencing the now.

Maybe it really is the case that it’s not what you do but the way that you do it that matters. I am beginning to realise that I find it much simpler to remain grounded and non-attached when I am not over-invested in what I do. Instead, if I try to bring my passion for life and sense of joy to the task in hand, whatever it may be, to imbue it with all the dimensions that my experience allows me to bring to it, I seem to find a rich vein of transformation. The focus is not on the doing, but on the ‘being within the doing’. Flow and engagement are essentially qualities of being, not of achievement.

Perhaps passion, in this context, is essentially a quality of authenticity, which itself must be built on a clarity as to one’s sense of meaning or higher purpose.

[to be continued]