Can Elders Save the World

The work of elders may never have been so important as it is today, when the continuation of life on Earth is at stake and wisdom is in short supply

I didn't know what was happening to me when I reached my 60s. I wanted to be the same workaholic I had always been, but I couldn't anymore. I couldn't keep up. I was depressed in situations where I had no reason to be. I felt like I had a guilty secret that I couldn't share with others. I kept  pretending that I still could do what I used to do.


My inner work involves a mystical form of Judaism called Kabbalah. As part of that work, I do a nightly examination of conscience. I ask myself: What was this day all about? What did I do? How did I feel? How did I relate to people?


It became clear to me as I did this work that the spiritual practices I had been doing up to that time couldn't help me with the new season of life into which I had entered.




It was then that I began to look at life from the point of view of seasons. It seemed to me that the biblical seven years are important time periods, and that each seven-year span could be represented by one month in a hypothetical year. If the Feast of Nativity, December 25, is birth, by the end of January you'd be seven years old. By the end of February, you'd be 14, and by the end of March you would be 21. Then comes the spring of life. By the time you are 42, you are at the end of June, and you're figuring out what you are going to do when you grow up. And you have summer—July, August, and September—to do your life's work.


There is a script for each of these phases. From one to seven, you're a toddler and you start kinder?garten. From 14 to 21, you become an adult. You have a script for all of life until you reach retirement age; then there are no more scripts. You're no longer a “productive-consuming” adult, so you fall off the perimeters of visibility and must be warehoused until you kick off. From 60 on, when you are in the October and November of your lifetime, there aren't any good models.


It is very difficult to live without a script, so from 65 on, many of us just continue playing the same games we played before.


The Spiritual Eldering theory is this: In the first months, January, February, and March, we are in the world of sensation. In the spring months, we move into the world of feeling. We are in the world of reason in the summer months. But in the fall, we go to a place of intuition, of spirit, and we need models on how to do this.


In aboriginal and native societies, elders have a place; they sit in council together.


There's a wonderful dance that is done at the Jewish wedding of the youngest child. The mother puts on a crown and dances with joy that the last child is out of the house and the burden is over. But then what does she do? Then she becomes the shtetl who carries under her apron a pot of food for somebody. So the script is there.


In our society we have been given an extended lifespan, but we don't have the extended consciousness to go with it.


We have the largest elderly population ever, and we have a planet that is sick and is trying to heal itself. Do you see why elders are so needed today?


But you don't become an elder unconsciously. Nobody is going to do it for you—not mommy, not a teacher, not rabbis, not priests. You've got to do this work yourself.

As baby boomers enter the elder years, I'm seeing people learning to do the work of spiritual eldering.



Why is it that people are often depressed about getting older? One reason is that most people, when they get older, have a long history of plowing and of sowing seeds, but not much history of harvesting.


How do you harvest a lifetime? You need internal tools that add to awareness.

Every day, for example, I walk toward the future. What do I see as I look ahead? The angel of death.


Oy! I don't want to look.



So I back into the future. But what happens if I back into the future? I see the past.


Oy! I remember what I did wrong, and I remember the disappointments



So I cut myself off from the past. As to the present, I don't want to think about the diminishments, so I have little awareness of the present either.


When you don't look at the future or at the past, and you don't pay much attention to the present, you're in a box of crunched, narrow consciousness. This is the psychic field of Alzheimer's. No future, no past, very little of the present. Intentional non-

consciousness. Invincible ignorance.


October: the Ancient of Days

When I stretch my awareness of time, I get in touch with an aspect of God that is called the Ancient of Days, which is witness to everything that has ever happened and ever will happen. That's my companion for eldering. This kind of meditative work is what needs to be learned in October.


When I go inside myself and start checking the past, I come to things that I don't want to look at—the file in which I keep my failures, the things I don't like, the things that are not yet reconciled. Anxiety keeps me away from there.


But in that file may be treasures. Imagine I had some stocks from before the Depression that I thought were worthless and I put them in a file of failures. And then one day I see in The New York Times

a name that sounds familiar. I go to the filing cabinet and pull out the stock certificate, and by now it has become very valuable.


So it is with failures. What I felt at the time was a failure may be what moved me in a new direction; the fallout of my failures may be where my successes are.


Letting go of vindictiveness and forgiving are other parts of the harvest work of October. To give you an illustration, the prisoner does his time in prison, but the warden does time in prison, too.


Every time you hold somebody in the prison of your anger, you tie up vital energy in the grudge.


Remember the phrase from the Psalms that goes “Thou prepareth a table before me in the presence of mine enemies?” This is often interpreted as vindictive: I'm going to have a good dinner, and you're not.


Instead, in this October work, I hold (imaginary) testimonial dinners for the people who did me wrong: Because you did this nasty thing to me, you turned me away from a routine life to an extraordinary life. You didn't know you did it for my good, but you did it anyway. Today I honor you for having been a difficult teacher, and I let you go free.

The more energy we can recover from the past, the more life comes back to us and the more energy we have for the present. That's why we say, “Teach us to number our days that we may get at the heart of wisdom.”


If you don't recover the past, you won't get to the wisdom. Wisdom comes from having learned from experience.


How do we expand awareness of the present? There is a kind of conversation that I call spiritual intimacy that many of us crave more than any other form of intimacy. It sometimes happens when you sit on an airplane next to a stranger and have a conversation that doesn't require you to tiptoe around the landmines of everyday relationships. It feels so good to be heard and be understood.


You can consciously initiate a conversation of this kind with a trusted confidant. Take turns asking each other questions such as these: What are my questions? How do I perceive my problems? What troubles me?


One Hasidic master said, “When someone comes to me with his problems, I listen to his Higher Self give me the solution. Then I offer the solution that he has brought to me.”

Finally, in opening up to our higher capacities, we need to bring in the body's contribution to extended awareness, keeping in mind the old Hermetic axiom, “As above, so below.” This means, among other things, that the brain/mind and body are mirror images of each other, reflecting and intensifying the capacities of each.


November and service

Imagine for a moment you've done the October work and become an elder.

To understand what it means to be an elder, recall that God told Moses, “Speak to the elders.” The  elders of the church serve as mentors and guides. The Russians call their spiritual director Staretz, which means an elder. The Sufis call their teacher a Shaikh, which means an elder. There is work for the elders to do at this time to give over to the next generation and to help heal the planet.


So you could do what Jimmy Carter did. As an elder citizen of the planet, you could do conflict resolution or build affordable housing for Habitat for Humanity.


I'm thinking of an elder corps. Instead of sending young soldiers into the world's trouble spots, we would send in elders. They would meet with  those who had lost grandchildren on both sides of the conflict and grieve with them. I think that with such conversations, the aggravated political climate would yield to wisdom and compassion.


What if we are caught in the crossfire? It's better than dying from emphysema. And if we are unarmed, I doubt if we would get shot.


Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “I've been to the mountain.” I have a contribution to make that is made deeper and richer by my witness at the painful spots on the planet. This is my work now.


Within the context of eons, our personal lives and actions are both meaningless and intensely meaningful. On the one hand, we're specks of dust on a little planet in an obscure corner of the Milky Way. On the other hand, we're inhabitants of a planet that is trying to save its life. Earth needs a cadre of conscious elders who are aware of their task for healing the planet.


December and the exit from life

The December work is preparing for the passage from life in such a way that a child can come to the bedside of a dying grandparent and say, “Oh, wow, so that's how it goes.”

A good completion would take away much of the fear associated with death, which, in our culture, is often translated to “Eat and drink and take drugs, for tomorrow we shall die.”


The work of December is also to leave a moral legacy. This means deputizing the next generation: This is what is unfinished; would you continue that for me?


Can you imagine if people who are not afraid of dying would tell the truth to their children and grandchildren and work with them consciously when a will is written?


When I would ask my Dad (God rest his soul) what he wanted to have done with his remains, he would give me a sort of nasty rebuke like, “You can't wait until I die.”

Then one day I said to him while taking a walk, “Dad, the following are the arrangements I've made for my remains.”


He listened and wanted to correct me a little bit, but then he got to talk about what he wanted for himself. And it was a relief for him to be able to talk about that because he couldn't talk to his own father about death.


Do you see what intergenerational healing has to be done so that people are not so afraid of dying?


I would like to see an elders' ashram where people wouldn't try and cheer us up with old television reruns, but would let us do the serious work that we want to do. It's so much easier to do this work with other people; the atmosphere gets filled with that electric, shared wave of people doing their inner work.


A good death would be one that says, “I'm not hungry for more life, and I don't think I've over-stayed my time here.”


It used to be that life began and ended at home. Then we took it to the hospital, and now birth and death have become pathologies.


Instead of being in intensive care, with tubes in you, strapped to the bed, can you imagine being surrounded by loving people as you prepare to die? Can you imagine having a chance to once again glimpse what life is about and to give thanks for the privilege of having had the chance to live?


You begin to appreciate what those last rites are all about, where somebody says, “Taste it once again, a taste of salt. Feel again a soft and gentle touch with oil.” All of these things are a way of saying, “Go out in a nice way.”


If the right December work is done, the work of grieving for those left behind is easier. Taking the sting from death would help us to live in greater harmony with the process in which life recycles itself for further growth and consciousness.


Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi is the author of From Age-ing to Sage-ing (1995, Warner Books) and the founder of the Spiritual Eldering Institute,


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