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

 

Soul School – navigating the anatomy of the soul

In February of this year, in company with a small online community and led by Kim Rosen, I embarked on a five month adventure, Soul School.

Poetry, music, presence, and the wisdom in our own bodies / feelings / knowings, as well as readings and videos from many sources ignite and waken us. This is an invitation to radical self-honesty, realness, curiosity and community that will at least disrupt who you think you are, and possibly leave you, as Mary Oliver writes, “a bride married to amazement.”

~Kim Rosen

This was quite a journey, intentionally touching on both light and darkness. In this post I gather together of some of the key strands from my personal perceptions and responses to the invitations. This is partly a record for myself. But I hope that, just as the poems and sharings of the course ignited sparks of awareness for me, so there may be something here that leads you deeper into yourself.

What is the soul?

Soul is . . .

Soul is the meeting point
of the impermanent
and the eternal.

Soul is the deep calm
beneath the crashing waves
of a turbulent sea.

Soul is sun’s abiding presence
behind storm’s devastation,
beyond the darkest night.

Soul inhabits stillness,
is the ‘still, small voice’
that speaks the language of silence.

It is the tendrils of soul energy
that weave connections
to other souls and to the soul of the world.

My soul is not contained by my body;
rather, my body exists within the boundlessness of my soul!

My soul is fueled
   by unsentimental compassionate love;
     by joy and wonder;
         by gratitude;
            by acceptance;
              by laughter;
                 and by the depths of the living silence;
                    all of which bring me to the place of presence.

Walk softly on the earth
holding nothing but an open heart . . .

The land of my soul
The land of my soul . . .

The False Self

This was an opportunity to look at the imperatives that bind and keep me from my fullest self.

These are the building blocks of the learned impulses, the self-image that defines me as ‘facilitator’, ‘changemaker’, the one who makes things happen and who makes things right, who does what must be done.

And, though they are not in themselves false, indeed encompass much of value, they cannot resonate as ‘true’ when they become rigidified and ‘absolute’; when they are rigid, they build a prison for the soul.

Ruach*

The Siren call of ‘should’
recedes into the tide
of accumulating years.

Beneath the surface, though,
still swirl the subtler soundings
of impulse and desire: 

    to ‘make a difference’ or
    to ‘make it so’;
    to ‘go the extra mile’;
    to ‘live life to the full’;
    to ‘keep my word’ and
    ‘fill the need’

Recurrent melodies
within the song of ‘I’,
these deepest ‘truths’
constrain the deepest lie.

 *************************

For the wind to blow through me
I must open
to the cracks in the universe
that let the light shine in;

must move
with the ability of grass
to give way
yet return to itself;

must dance
with the fluid abandon
and ecstatic release
of autumn trees.

 *************************

Let the wind sing
through me,
carry the breath
of ‘I am’
into the greater chorus
that is life.

Let me continue
to shed old skins,
strip away
the shielding shadows
as I expand
into my fullness. 

Let me humbly inhabit
the cyclical rhythms
of the universe
that take me
beyond question and answer
to the paradox of all that is.

* The Hebrew ruach means “wind,” “breath,” or “spirit.” The corresponding Greek word is pneuma. Both words are commonly used in passages referring to the Holy Spirit.

I want to know if you know how to melt into that fierce heat of living falling toward the center of your longing.

~ David Whyte in Self Portrait

I am learning the distinction
between capability and capacity.
I am learning to sit with the silence
and listen to the wind.

Any thought, no matter how wise, is a rigid form, and life is movement and constant change. Any rigid form obstructs the flow of life, even a beautiful one.

~ Kim Rosen


The Beast and the Beauty

The focus of this session was to open to the darkness, the beast within, to reveal, acknowledge and own it so as to reclaim its energy. By definition, this was difficult material and it feels inappropriate to share too much detail.

As I searched, I discovered that my deepest fear is of the distortions and perversions of power in both the interior and exterior worlds.

It was interesting that, in a guided meditation exploring the feminine archetypes, the ones I shied away from were the ‘power’ figures.

In an apparent contradiction, I am afraid both to be powerful and of being powerless.

I also learned that even a ‘wise gift’ carries with it potential distortion. An early message that ‘making a difference can be as simple as a smile to a stranger’ and other similar transmitted wisdom from my mother has simultaneously been a powerful positive force in my life and has bound me to my false self.

The most important question for me, as I emerge through a time of very conscious transition into my Crone years, is this:

How may I open and deepen into the embrace of my own innate wisdom and power to the benefit of myself and others?


The Essential Self

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

Coming home

As I have entered this new stage of my life in which I am consciously embracing ‘the season of the Crone’, there is a deepening sense of coming home to my truest self. Increasingly the pervading qualities are authenticity, presence and love. These are underpinned by a deep knowledge of a calm place of awareness, of a ‘secure base’ that lies within and is always available to me.

I think this has only become possible as I have embraced the beauty of imperfection, most particularly in self and others. Perhaps the most glorious human quality is that of compassion; in a perfect world filled with perfect beings, compassion would have no place! This realization allowed me finally to release the last remnants of the need to be perfect.

I believe that this is what it means ‘to be who I am meant to be’. It is at the heart of both self-acceptance and of a letting go of external agendas and attachment to outcomes.

I am still working towards understanding my purpose as (hopefully!) a ‘wise woman’ or ‘elder’ in a society that is only beginning to re-discover these concepts. But it may well be that living truly to the best that I am, present, authentic, loving, accepting, without expectation, is the greatest gift that I can give to others, to the world. Is this how ‘making a difference’ seeps into the fabric of ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’?

Listening

My listening and ‘received guidance’ so often come through a deep attention to the natural world. I learn that I am made of the same stuff, that my patterns are also the ones I see every day in the lake, the trees, the creatures around me and in the turning of the seasons.

I am both as precious and as insignificant as the wondrous, diverse lives I see around me. I value, hold to my heart every living thing (even if I admit to a certain ambivalence when it comes to ticks and mosquitos!). Yet when the hawk swoops on the chipmunk, I accept this too with love. This is at the heart of what I mean when I speak of ‘unsentimental compassion’.

I think for a long time that my perception of wisdom and the way I thought an ‘enlightened’ human life was meant to be was to reach a place where I was always able to be calm, never losing my temper or feeling angry or depressed. But when I look at the constant change in nature, the storms, the subtle shifts of wind, and light, the impact of freeze and thaw or heat and drought, I am so conscious that I too am part of this. These shifts are important, a necessary part of living and being, part of the richness.

All things pass – both life’s challenges and its gifts. What remains with us is what we have made of the experiences. So now I have no expectation that I will feel a particular way, will maintain an unruffled calm. Instead there is a growing ability to retain an abiding consciousness of that ‘calm place of awareness’ in just the same way that, in becoming intimate with the shifts in the lake that is the backdrop to my life, I am aware of the calm that lies beneath all.

When the wind blows and white caps form, when rain falls in torrents to break the surface, when ice forms and makes the surface static, that living, fluid state of calm still exists. And before long there will be another moment of exquisite stillness or of evening light reflected back, painting the trees copper and gold.

The Return

I had supposed
it was sun’s warmth
that allowed the frozen lake
to remember its fluidity.

**************************

This year, I watch, I listen.

**************************

Sun carves
holes in ice;
night recoats them
with transparent stillness.

Wind comes,
blustering, buffeting force.
Ice creaks and groans
and breaks apart.

The lake
remembers movement;
its interior currents
persevere with wind’s work.

With thaw
come surge and flood,
release and ecstasy,
unbridled power and overwhelm.

The land
slakes its thirst,
opens into
its own messy awakening.

The lake returns to itself,
its fluid, shifting moods,
and, beneath,
that deep reflective calm.


The Unnameable Vastness of Being

There are no words for that inner space beyond all the assumed identities, but the nearest I can get, inspired by John O’Donohue, is ‘eternal presence and belonging’.

I had not consciously sought to ‘just sit’ but was called to it one extraordinary afternoon by the visiting presence of Scarlet Tanager, Redwing Blackbirds, Baltimore Orioles, Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Indigo Bunting.

This Wondrous Now

Spring green and dappled sunlight,
shot with transient jewel bright
flashes of delight:

scarlet, blood-red on coal,
gilded crimson epaulettes;
vivid orange-gold, blazing;
rose breast bursting from black and white;
a brilliant scrap of indigo sky,
all held within an exuberance of song!

My heart leaps with joy
at the unfolding moments;
I cannot bear to tear myself
from this wondrous now!


To sit with no defined purpose or structure is still somehow disorientating, sometimes challenging; and even though it is like a homecoming, there is a kind of resistance. There is also a pull to ruminate.

The flow of sensory input intensifies, and I am aware of thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations as part of that input.

Yet I also become vividly aware of this sensory information as just another construct; my experience is partial – other species see, smell, hear (and probably taste and feel) within totally different ranges; their reality is not mine. However wondrous, absorbing, awe-inspiring I may find that which I experience through my senses, there is a consciousness that this is just a tiny part of something so much bigger!

Who sees, hears, smells, tastes, feels, thinks?

How does that which experiences in me connect
to that which experiences in you?

Allium
Allium

Sitting gazing through the window’s glass . . .

A few feet from me, a honeybee works diligently, collecting nectar from a vivid purple allium. Do the florets shift with the subtle disruption of the bee’s wings, or is it just the breeze?


Story

A story unfolds – why is this so compelling?

An invisible filament of spider’s web is strung between allium stems – I deduce its presence because of the catkin and the mayfly apparently suspended in mid-air. For a few moments it seems as if the bee will be likewise captured, held, and my heart lurches – I want to rush outside, to liberate it. But the bee reclaims its freedom, returns to its business of scouring the purple blooms before spiraling into the great beyond – a somewhere that exists beyond my peep-hole into its world.

The story fades.


Colours gain intensity; the furred texture of the poppy stem and buds makes me want to reach through the glass, to experience with touch, maybe to smell and taste, to hear the bee’s almost imperceptible hum.

This reminds me that, even if I have cultivated sensory presence and relish the joy it brings, it is still all too easy to forget, to fall into the habit of experiencing as if through glass, from a place of separation.

I am also aware that, joyous as the sensory experience is, there is another layer, the “invisible world” of the Celts, the great unknown and the source of eternal wonder. I feel blessed always to have carried this awareness with me, a small but widening tear in the fabric of this limited reality through which I sense that ‘eternal presence and belonging’.

Paraphrasing John O’Donohue, may you be at ease with the unsolved and the unfinished and be able to recognize, in the scattered graffiti of your desires, the signature of the eternal.

Can knowledge amplify joy?

Walking in snow-like-sand, entranced by each grain’s iridescent glitter.  Does the knowledge of the unseen, the microscopic beauty of the crystal structures, increase my sense of wonder, of joy?

I have always perceived joy as being fed by wisdom rather than knowledge, yet I can see the possibility that humankind’s amazing curiosity and creativity open up ways of knowing, of seeing or otherwise experiencing that amplify perception even when that mode of perception is not available.

Or is this merely an intellectualization?