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In this inspiring and informative guide, Reb Zalman shares his wisdom and experience with readers. He shows readers how to create an aging process for themselves that is full of adventure, passion, mystery, and fulfillment, rather than anxiety. Using scientific research–both neurological and psychological– Reb Zalman offers techniques that will expand horizons beyond the narrow view of “the present” into a grand and enduring eternity. By harnessing the power of the spirit, as well as explaining exactly how to become a sage in their own community, he gives readers a helpful and moving way to use their own experiences to nurture, heal, and perhaps even save a younger generation from the prison of how we typically regard aging.
In this updated version of his popular book, Reb Zalman has added a brand new introductory chapter that provides insight into the shifts that have taken place in our culture since the first edition of this book came out in the 1990s. He speaks about the role the 78 million (now aging) Baby Boomers are currently playing in how we think about aging. Additionally he provides new inspiring ideas about the importance of an elder’s role in shaping society, and explains how elders can embrace the power they have to provide value and wisdom to those around them.
Table of Contents
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Since we first introduced the revolutionary approach to aging called spiritual eldering in 1995, much has changed in our culture. At the time, most people confronted the prospect of aging with fear as they looked forward to a decades-long decline into personal diminishment and impoverishment. To reverse this negative expectation, we presented the model of the sage or "elder of the tribe" who benefits from extended longevity by developing extended consciousness. 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 and crown their lives with respect and honor.
In the years following the publication of From Age-ing to Sage-ing, the seeds we planted began sprouting in our culture. We launched the Spiritual Eldering Institute and trained more than one hundred people as seminar leaders in the theory and practice of becoming the "possible sage." Spiritual teachers such as Ram Dass, Barry and Debbie Barkan of the Live Oak Institute, and the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) did pioneering work as harbingers of the conscious aging movement. Meanwhile, advances in transpersonal psychology and a variety of meditative systems have given people the contemplative tools to age with awareness. In addition, mainstream and alternative health sciences have made great strides in helping people age more comfortably while staving off dementia and Alzheimer's.
So what is the state of spiritual eldering in our culture at this moment? Simply put, it's better than it used to be, and at the same time it isn't good enough. Much of the discussion in gerontology today still centers on "productive aging," which encourages older people to achieve and stay active, the twin pillars that support the edifice of Western culture. We also find an emphasis on diet, exercise, and cosmetic surgery to mitigate the physical effects of aging. However, we find little emphasis on the inner, contemplative approach to aging in which we transcend doing in favor of being, learning to plumb our psyche for the spiritual gems of wisdom that come from mining our depths. In other words, aging people need to cultivate the inwardness from which wisdom grows, but our culture celebrates staying in the saddle and being productive in later life without a corresponding emphasis on being contemplative.
This is not to say that I'm disappointed with the state of spiritual eldering today. I'm not—and for two reasons. First, our pioneering work has had an irreversible impact on our culture. Psychologists, gerontologists, spiritual teachers, and even popular talk-show hosts are recognizing the need for expanded consciousness, especially as the baby boom generation searches for a psychospiritual model to make sense of the elder years. Second, as someone who has been deployed to plant seeds in the garden called spiritual eldering, I've done my part in cultivating the tender first shoots that have appeared, and I'm confident that future growth rests in many able hands. So while on the surface we're still enmeshed in our culture's fascination and obsession with youth, below the surface an eldering consciousness is germinating. As it gathers force, it's providing an influx of wisdom we need to face the multiple, system-wide crises that confront us everywhere.
Consider the following:
According to U.S. Census Bureau projections, 70 million people in the United States will be 65 or older by 2030 (compared to 35 million in 2006), and 21 million will be 85 or older by 2050 (compared to about 4 million in 2006). On a global scale, demographers predict that the number of people over 60 will reach 1 billion by 2020 and almost 2 billion by 2050, making up 22 percent of the world's population. The over-80s will account for about 4 percent of the world's population, or about four times more than at present. During this unprecedented aging of the world's population, the number of people under 15 will actually drop. Clearly, the world is facing a challenge of major proportions: the shift to an older population, with all the social, political, and economic problems that go with it.
As part of this shift to a permanently older society, members of the baby boom generation—the 78 million people born between 1946 and 1964—began crossing the age-65 threshold in 2011. What challenges will the boomers face? Many will have to deal with financial problems and declining living standards. Healthcare costs will soar, while insurance coverage will most likely decline. Changes in government benefits, including Medicare and Social Security, will pose serious challenges to older people. They also will have to adapt to the economic realities of globalization and high levels of immigration.
"In the immediate future, Americans will have to trim their lifestyles and consumption," writes George Magnus in The Age of Aging. "Increased longevity means that healthcare costs and medical insurance premiums will be higher. The less affluent will face longevity with increasing trepidation. It means bigger financial burdens and sacrifices—both to pay for the coming waves of retirees and to meet the increasing costs of retirement."
Faced with a crisis of this magnitude, we need a big influx of elder wisdom to help us navigate through these perilous times. With their panoramic perspective on time and history, elders can infuse the political and economic dialogue with the wisdom that comes from taking the long view on issues. Sages can help redirect us from selfish, short-term thinking to broader, inspired approaches that take into account the welfare of our endangered planet, with its limited resources and environmental challenges. By their presence in the family and the community, they also can show us how to grow beyond our overreliance on materialism by cultivating an inner-directed lifestyle. Elders model to others how to put quality of being before standard of living. With joy and compassion, they embody the fruits of having explored the deep psychological and spiritual dimensions of life.
As we continue seeding our culture with elder wisdom, we don't necessarily need to join together in a collective movement. We don't have to wear spiritual-eldering badges to prove that we're sages. We simply need to embody elder consciousness wherever we find ourselves—at home, at work, at the supermarket, in passing conversations with strangers on the street, at the post office while waiting in line. Life gives us ample opportunities to express elder wisdom, and while we wait for our political and religious institutions to embrace this perspective, we must be the change that we want to see in the world. Just as life has deployed me to be a messenger of spiritual eldering, so, too, it can deploy you on this sacred mission to transmit your spark, your living flame of wisdom, to young people and to future generations. May God bless you in this joyous task!
I was approaching my sixtieth birthday, and a feeling of futility had invaded my soul, plunging me into a state of depression that no amount of busyness or diversion could dispel. On the surface, I had much to be thankful for. During the preceding decade, I had worked tirelessly and joyously in a pioneering movement to renew Jewish spirituality in the contemporary world. As a rabbi schooled in Kabbalah, the mystical wisdom of Judaism, I had broadened my base of operations by studying with Sufi and Buddhist teachers, Native American elders, Catholic monks, as well as humanistic and transpersonal psychologists. Besides serving as a professor of religion at Temple University in Philadelphia, I was speaking at national conferences and giving retreats at leading growth centers on the need for an ecumenical approach in renewing Western religion.
Yet while my public life was bustling with activity, beneath the surface, away from my teaching and pastoral work, something unknown was stirring in my depths that left me feeling anxious and out of sorts whenever I was alone. To avoid these upsetting feelings, I threw myself back into my work with a renewed resolve not to yield to the depression. But despite my best efforts, I could not keep up the hectic pace that had marked my previous decades of work. At night, looking at myself in the mirror in unguarded moments, I realized that I was growing old. Feeling alone and vulnerable, I feared becoming a geriatric case who follows the predictable pattern of retirement, painful physical diminishment, a rocking-chair existence in a nursing home, and the eventual dark and inevitable end to my life.
New questions began assailing me at these times. With an extended life span guaranteed by medical advances and our health-conscious lifestyles, could I convert my extra years into a blessing rather than a curse? What does one do with one's extra years? Were there exemplary long-lived people, patron saints of the elder years as it were, who could serve as inspired role models whom I could emulate? For all the earlier phases of my life, I had models to inspire and guide me, but when it came to growing old, there were no good models, codes of behavior, scripts, or social expectations to shape and give meaning to my life. As a rabbi and spiritual leader, I was supposed to provide answers to other people, but as I confronted my own aging process, I didn't know how to answer the new questions that life so insistently was bringing to my attention.
To deal with my unanswered questions, in 1984 I took a forty-day retreat at the Lama Foundation, an ecumenical retreat center located near Taos, New Mexico. I lived in a rustic cabin overlooking the Rio Grande where I spent most of my time in solitude, praying, meditating, writing, studying, and taking long walks. I was on a Vision Quest, an ancient shamanic rite of passage in which the seeker retreats from civilization, goes to a sacred place in nature, and cries for a vision of his life path and purpose.
After a few days, when the surface noise of my mind died down, I realized that I was sloughing off an old phase of life that I had outgrown. At the same time, to my great surprise and wonderment, I was being initiated as an elder, a sage who offers his experience, balanced judgment, and wisdom for the welfare of society. As I followed the intuitive promptings that came from within, I instinctively began harvesting my life, a process that involves bringing one's earthly journey to a successful completion, enjoying the contributions one has made, and passing on a legacy to the future. To initiate the process, I asked myself, "If I had to die now, what would I most regret not having done? What remains incomplete in my life?" As a first tentative step toward harvesting my life, I devoted an entire day meditating on my children and praying for their welfare. I wrote each one a heartfelt letter expressing much of the "mushy" stuff that frequently remains unexpressed between parents and children. I also set new priorities for my professional life and personal relationships.
When I returned from the retreat, I had a new spring in my step and a buoyancy in my heart. Having been to the mountaintop where I had glimpsed a vision of elderhood, I set about slowly at first, then with increased momentum, to bring my vision down to earth. Fueled by a sense of urgency and excitement, I did extensive reading in gerontology and life extension. I consulted with well-known consciousness researchers, such as Jean Houston and Gay Luce, who were doing remarkable work in developing the potentials of older adults. I applied the teachings of spirituality and transpersonal psychology to the issues of aging. Most of all, I studied my own eldering process, piecing together from my own quest the tools that lead to successful life completion. From this exploration, in 1987 I founded the Spiritual Eldering Institute, which sponsors nondenominational workshops that provide the emotional support, along with the psychological and spiritual tools, to help people become elders within our modern culture.
Giving these workshops across the country, I have witnessed firsthand how people are searching for a new approach to aging. Most of us have grown up with a deep-seated fear and loathing of old age. Our youth-oriented culture, while touting aerobically perfect bodies and lifestyles as life's summum bonum, focuses obsessively on the physical diminishments associated with old age. In the popular imagination, old age means wrinkled skin and chronic disease, rather than the wisdom, serenity, balanced judgment, and self-knowledge that represent the fruit of long life experience. Fortunately, our culture's limited, one-sided view of aging is undergoing a profound reconceptualization in our time. We are the first generation to apply the insights of humanistic and transpersonal psychology and contemplative techniques from our spiritual traditions to the aging process itself, giving birth to what some people call the conscious aging movement.
There are profound demographic forces pushing us in this direction. When the Social Security system was first designed, long-range planners conceived our life span to be no more than the biblical threescore and ten. Now, because of nutritional, medical, and economic advancements, our life span has increased to such a degree that the elderly represent the fastest-growing segment of the population. What gerontologist Ken Dychtwald calls the Age Wave is coming on like a tidal wave. Consider the following facts:
In 1776, a child born in the United States had an average life expectancy of thirty-five. In a little more than two centuries, thanks to medical breakthroughs, public health campaigns, and lifestyle changes, Americans have more than doubled that figure to seventy-five. By the middle of the next century, the National Institute of Aging projects that life expectancy will be eighty-six years for men and nearly ninety-two years for women.
One hundred years ago, only 2.4 million Americans were over sixty-five, making up less than 4 percent of the population, according to Ken Dychtwald and Joe Flower, authors of Age Wave. Today there are more than 30 million people over that age, representing 12 percent of the population. The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that by the year 2000, 35 million Americans—or about one seventh of the population—will be over sixty-five. "Throughout most of recorded history, only one in ten people could expect to live to the age of sixty-five," write Dychtwald and Flower. "Today, nearly 80 percent of Americans will live to be past that age."
As the trend toward increased longevity continues, the baby boom generation—the 76 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964—will reach retirement age early next century. This health-conscious generation will inherit a reinvigorated approach to aging that has become popular within the past several decades. Until recently, because of negative images and expectations shared by our culture, people regarded old age as a time of waning vigor, lowered esteem, and social uselessness. But the senior boom, with its interest in lifelong learning, healthy lifestyle practices, and political activism is helping to reverse the demeaning ageist stereotypes that give old age a bad name. Gerontologists no longer regard the "inevitable declines of nature"—such as reduced physical strength and mental acuity—as necessities of nature. Rather, they view these conditions as the result of a sedentary lifestyle that is reinforced by negative aging stereotypes that condition us to expect physical and mental decline in our later years.
Across the country, people are casting off the negative images and expectations that sentence older adults to the junkheap as social outcasts. In its place, they are hoisting the banner of what gerontologists call "successful aging," an activity-oriented approach that promises increased physical vigor, continued intellectual growth, and meaningful work during the elder years. This new image represents an improvement over the stereotype of the bent, shuffling older adult consigned to a life of social isolation and futility. But it does not go far enough. As the baby boomers approach their elder years—indeed, as all older adults make the transition into what sociologists call the third age—they need a psychospiritual model of development that enables them to complete their life journey, harvest the wisdom of their years, and transmit a legacy to future generations. Without envisioning old age as the culminating stage of spiritual development, we short-circuit this process and put brakes on the evolutionary imperative for growth that can be unleashed by our increased longevity.
We don't normally associate old age with self-development and spiritual growth. According to the traditional model of life span development, we ascend the ladder of our careers, reach the zenith of our success and influence in midlife, then give way to an inevitable decline that culminates in a weak, often impoverished old age. This is aging pure and simple, a process of gradually increasing personal diminishment and disengagement from life. As an alternative to inevitable senescence, this book proposes a new model of late-life development called sage-ing, a process that enables older people to become spiritually radiant, physically vital, and socially responsible "elders of the tribe."
Sages draw on growth techniques from modern psychology and contemplative techniques from the world's spiritual traditions to expand their consciousness and develop wisdom. By expressing this wisdom as consecrated service to the community, they endow their lives with meaning and avoid becoming economic and psychological burdens on their loved ones and on society. This ongoing process, which I call spiritual eldering, helps us consciously transform the downward arc of aging into the upward arc of expanded consciousness that crowns an elder's life with meaning and purpose.
In putting forth a new model of spiritual elderhood, I am not only reviving an ancient and venerable institution that has enriched civilization since time immemorial, but taking it a step further. As part of the emerging approach to late-life development, the contemporary sage draws on three sources: models of the traditional tribal elder whose wisdom guided the social order for thousands of years; state-of-the-art breakthroughs in brain-mind and consciousness research; and the ecology movement, which urges us to live in harmony with the natural world. These forces converge in the sage, whose explorations in consciousness are giving birth to an elderhood that is appropriate for the modern world.
Throughout most of history, elders occupied honored roles in society as sages and seers, leaders and judges, guardians of the traditions, and instructors of the young. They were revered as gurus, shamans, wise old men and women who helped guide the social order and who initiated spiritual seekers into the mysteries of inner space. Beginning with the Industrial Revolution, with its emphasis on technological knowledge that often was beyond their ken, elders lost their esteemed place in society and fell into the disempowered state that we now ascribe to a "normal" old age. Today, as the Age Wave crests all about us and we confront existential questions about the purpose of our extended longevity, we are searching for new myths and models to ennoble the experience of old age.
The model that I'm proposing does more than restore the elder to a position of honor and dignity based on age and long life experience. It envisions the elder as an agent of evolution, attracted as much by the future of humanity's expanded brain-mind potential as by the wisdom of the past. With an increased life span and the psychotechnologies to expand the mind's frontiers, the spiritual elder heralds the next phase of human and global development.
Until recently, the techniques for spiritual eldering were unavailable to the public. But as the consciousness movement grew in popularity during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the once-hidden teachings of yoga, Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, shamanism, and Sufism and Kabbalah (the mystical teachings of Islam and Judaism) entered mainstream Western culture. The same period witnessed the growth of humanistic psychology (with its emphasis on an expanded human potential), transpersonal psychology (which uses meditation as a therapeutic tool), and the brain-mind revolution, which uses contemplative techniques and the latest technology to expand our vast mental potential.
Spiritual elders use the tools from these disciplines to awaken the intuitive capacities of mind associated with inner knowledge, wisdom, and expanded perception. By activating their dormant powers of intuition, they become seers who feed wisdom back into society and who guide the long-term reclamation project of healing our beleaguered planet. Once elders are restored to positions of leadership, they will function as wisdomkeepers, inspiring us to live by higher values that will help convert our throwaway lifestyle into a more sustainable, Earth-cherishing one. They also will serve as evolutionary pathfinders offering hope and guidance to all those searching for models of a fulfilled human potential.
According to the new picture of aging presented in this book, extended longevity calls for the development of extended consciousness to help offset the physical and social diminishments of old age. Part One, consisting of the first three chapters, provides the conceptual understanding and historical perspective to help you begin your journey into elderhood. Part Two, covering the next four chapters, presents psychological and spiritual tools for transforming your life, such as meditation, life review, and journal writing. Besides using these contemplative tools, you will learn how to broaden your understanding of time, living with the intimations of eternity that are part of elder consciousness. You also will learn about how to approach death consciously as an opportunity for spiritual awakening. Part Three, covering the last three chapters, focuses on becoming a mentor; healing the family, the community, and the planet through elder wisdom; and creating the social structures for elderhood to emerge as a significant force in the near future.
I sincerely hope that From Age-ing to Sage-ing will help you recontextualize aging as the anticipated fulfillment of life, not its inevitable decline, a badge of success rather than a mark of failure. The book affirms, despite all the invalidations of our youth culture, that elderhood is a time of unparalleled inner growth having evolutionary significance in this era of worldwide cultural transformation. Because spiritual eldering is a call from the future, I invite you to accompany me on this pioneering journey into our unmapped potential. Whether you are young or old, I urge you to undertake this journey not only for your own personal well-being, but for the health and survival of our ailing planet Earth. Together, we will help give birth to a new civilization of unprecedented human development, spearheaded by spiritual elders working with people of all ages to create a peaceful and harmonious global society.
THE THEORY OF SPIRITUAL ELDERING
The Vision of Spiritual Eldering
To you who are taking your first steps into the unexplored territory of spiritual eldering, I say, "Bravo!" Whether you are a retired person, someone in midlife, or a younger person contemplating your future, I salute you all as pioneers in search of a more fulfilling old age. Contrary to conventional thinking, aging is a great success, a result of strength and survivorship. Aging doesn't mean diminishment or exile from the ranks of the living. As the period in which we harvest the fruits of a lifetime's labor, it gives us the panoramic vision from which spiritual wisdom flows.
Like mountain climbers who have scaled a high peak, we have achieved a vantage point in old age from which to observe the path of our ascent and to appreciate the personality that we have created with discipline and devotion. We can survey the struggles for career, marriage, and financial security that occupied much of our time and see why they were all so necessary. Putting the puzzle pieces together, we can glimpse the larger patterns that crown our lives with deeper meaning. To you who stand triumphantly at the summit, I say, "You made it!" And to you who are still climbing the mountain of life's promises, I say in all sincerity, "Keep climbing. You have so much to look forward to in aging."
Obviously, this attitude smacks of heresy in our youth-oriented society. Everywhere you look, old age suffers from a bad reputation. Because of negative images and expectations shared by our culture, people enter the country called "old age" with fear and trembling. Feeling betrayed by their bodies and defeated by life, they believe they're condemned to lives of decreasing self-esteem and respect. As citizens of this oppressed nation, they expect to suffer from reduced vigor, enjoyment, and social usefulness.
Today, there's a growing movement to rebuild this country into a healthier, more positive place. Advocates of this movement are beginning to replace dehumanizing images of old age with new ones that restore the honored elder to Western society. Elders are not "senior citizens" who get gold watches at retirement, move to Sunbelt states, and play cards, shuffleboard, and bingo ad nauseam. In the words of Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers, a national alliance of older and younger adults committed to positive social change, they are not "wrinkled babies, succumbing to a trivial, purposeless waste" of their years and their time.
Then what are elders? They are wisdomkeepers who have an ongoing responsibility for maintaining society's well-being and safeguarding the health of our ailing planet Earth. They are pioneers in consciousness who practice contemplative arts from our spiritual traditions to open up greater intelligence for their late-life vocations. Using tools for inner growth, such as meditation, journal writing, and life review, elders come to terms with their mortality, harvest the wisdom of their years, and transmit a legacy to future generations. Serving as mentors, they pass on the distilled essence of their life experience to others. The joy of passing on wisdom to younger people not only seeds the future, but crowns an elder's life with worth and nobility.
- On Sale
- Dec 14, 2008
- Page Count
- 304 pages