Make the most out of your life by becoming a spiritual elder
I was approaching my 60th 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 regularly speaking at national conferences and giving retreats at leading spirituality centres 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 within 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 I was growing old. Feeling alone and vulnerable, I feared becoming a geriatric case who follows the predictable pattern of forced retirement, painful physical diminishment, a rocking-chair existence in a nursing home and the eventual dark and inevitable end to my years.
I came to realize that I was desperately clinging to an old phase of my life that I had outgrown. New questions began to arise. With an extended life span offered by medical advances and our health-conscious lifestyles, could I convert my extra years into a blessing rather than a curse? Indeed, what does one do with one’s extra years?
At the same time, to my great surprise and wonderment, I understood that I was becoming an elder—this was my initiation as a sage, who offers his experience, balanced judgment and wisdom for the welfare and insight of others. As I followed the intuitive promptings that came from within, I instinctively knew I was ready to harvest my life—an extended 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 begin 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 to 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 myself as an elder, I set about slowly at first, then with increased momentum, to bring my vision down to Earth.
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 ladders 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-difficult old age. But I propose a new model of later-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 based in modern psychology and contemplative techniques from the world’s spiritual traditions to develop wisdom. By applying this wisdom in 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 transform the downward arc of aging into the upward arc of expanded consciousness that crowns an elder’s life with meaning and purpose.
Taken and adapted with kind permission from Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s book, From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older (Warner, 1997). Visit www.spiritualeldering.org and www.sage-ingguild.org.
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi has been a leading figure in the Jewish Renewal movement, which incorporates mysticism, ecological consciousness and feminism into traditional Jewish observance. A spiritual explorer his whole life, he participated in some of the early psychedelic experiments at Harvard University with Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (Ram Dass) and has studied with Catholic monks, protestant theologians, Sufi mystics, Indian gurus and Native American medicine men.