Recently, I shared with a friend that I have taken up a new spiritual discipline. My tummy awakens me often in the night these days, and I rub it gently while offering a prayer of thanksgiving for this catalyst. It sounds odd, I said, but I find it most comforting. She said, “You should tell everyone about this! People need to hear it!”
I replied, “I have written about the Dark Night of the Soul. I know people want to hear about that. But do they really want to hear about the Dark Night of the Body? That started me thinking.
I will be sixty-six on July 16th. There are still a few people in my life who feel that I am just a spring chicken, but for the most part I tend to be the oldest person in any group now. I love being older. I have earned every wrinkle and celebrate every extra pound, which I gained as I ate well and laughed long.
I have begun to think of myself as an old lady. And I embrace that quite happily.
However there is a downside to being of retirement age. My health is guarded and I am physically more limited than I used to be. But I experience myself at a deeper level of authenticity than ever before. This is not true of the majority of people my age. We baby-boomers live in a heavily youth-oriented culture. Unless we are still slender, still have our hair, still have an un-lined face and still look “young”, we may well be dissatisfied with our appearance.
We live in a work-oriented culture. Unless we are able to do what we did when we were younger, we may feel that life has begun to pass us by. We may feel increasingly useless. And that’s a shame.
So I decided to engage you, after all, in my thoughts concerning the diminishing physical attributes of elderhood, in order to try to express my strongly positive feelings about this stage of life. And in so doing, I would like to share with you the work of two Difference-Makers in the field of spiritual elderhood, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Baba Ram Dass.
Reb Zalman was born in Poland in 1924 and spent most of his childhood in Vienna, Austria. His family fled the Nazis in 1938. They traveled through Belgium, France, North Africa and the Caribbean before arriving at their intended destination, New York City, in 1941.
His classical education was gained at Boston University, where he got a master’s degree in pastoral counseling. He taught at Temple University until 1987 and has been a Hasidic Rabbi most of his adult life. In the seventies, he explored Sufism and was initiated as a Sheikh in the Sufi Order of Hazrat Inayat Khan in 1975. He accepted the World Wisdom Chair at Naropa University in 1995, after retiring from teaching at Temple, and in 2004, he co-founded the Desert Fellowship of the Message with Netanel Miles Yepez, combining the Hasidic and Sufi traditions. In 1995 he published From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older.
Baba Ram Dass was born Richard Alpert in Massachusetts in 1931. His education was at Tufts, Wesleyan and Stanford, and he emerged as a PhD in the field of psychology. He taught at Berkeley and then Harvard, where in the early sixties he teamed with Timothy Leary to do research on LSD and teonanácatl, the “Magic Mushroom” of Mexico, in the Harvard Psilocybin Project. That spelled the end of his career as a college professor, but Alpert never looked back.
In 1967 he traveled to India and met Neem Karoli Baba, also called Maharaj-ji. He returned to America with a new name, Baba Ram Dass, ready to spread the message that the present moment is of infinite significance and that we are all manifestations of the Creator. He encouraged people to open their hearts and “love, serve and remember”. The title of a book he wrote at the time gives us his message: Be Here Now. His life since that time has been an unending love story, as he lectures all over the world and looks for ways to be of service to others.
A stroke in 1997 left him with labored speech, which he calls a gift of grace. In 2000 he published a book titled Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing and Dying. In it, he writes about what he calls “conscious aging”, his equivalent of Reb Zalman’s “spiritual elderhood”. As he says in the book’s Preface,
“The stroke has given me a new perspective to share about aging, a perspective that says, ‘Don’t be a wise elder; be an incarnation of wisdom.’ That changes the whole nature of the game. That’s not just a new role, it’s a new state of being. It’s the real thing. At nearly seventy, surrounded by people who care for and love me, I’m still learning to be here now.”
These two men have lived their message. As the baby boomers of America reach retirement age, which is happening in ever increasing numbers each year, there is a growing need for this message. As Reb Zalman says at the start of his book,
“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. … Putting the puzzle pieces together, we can glimpse the larger patterns that crown our lives with deeper meaning.”
I also love what Reb Zalman says on page 265 of this work,
“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. Shaped with patience and love over decades of refinement, each facet of the jewel reflects light that awakens our soul to intimations of its own splendor. We sense such 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.”
In a way, both men exhibit the baby-boomer tendency to see things in a “doing” mode – even being. “Don’t do old age by harping on your physical diminishment by illness and limitation. Do old age by using your intuition and experience to emphasize how to be in a fuller, more conscious way,” they both seem to say.
In an article on the web site, Reb Zalman says,
“Imagine what would happen if the United States sent an elder corps into trouble spots (war-torn areas), not with weapons but with their own being and bodies. Imagine that this corps of elderly people communicated with the elders who have lost grandchildren in battle and mourned and grieved with them, and say we must stop this. Would this not be better peacekeeping than sending in young people to give up their lives?”
What a creative thought! It may never happen, but it shows how we can turn elder years into times of opportunity to serve in new ways. This article lists four practices which prepare a seeker to be a true elder:
- Practice forgiveness to resolve past grievances.
- Review our lives to see what we’ve contributed to the world.
- Create a story of our life experience and discover how it fits within the larger story of our planet.
- Do inner work that brings patience, clarity, and wisdom.
All of these things can be done regardless of the condition of the physical body. Indeed, if we are less active than we were years ago, we have more time to devote to them. It is equally important to practice forgiveness at any age. Yet if we have been remiss until now, it is high time to start!
Journaling is a natural result of reviewing our incarnations. Creating our own biography is a powerful tool, one which twelve-step programs use. And it leaves behind a wonderful gift to our children – the story of our lives.
When I was born, doing inner work meant prayer. The New Age brought into the mainstream disciplines like yoga, tai chi and meditation from the Eastern part of the globe. Our resources for doing inner work are greatly enhanced by them. However, we do have to avail ourselves of them and use them!
One last danger remains as we who are aging choose to do so consciously: we can attack the inner work with too much zeal in our efforts to feel good about ourselves. Q’uo speaks to that pitfall in a session recorded by L/L Research on October 18, 1998:
“There is a kind of pressure that one can put upon oneself to do more, to be better, to seek harder, to meditate more, to contemplate more, to hew to a practice of life that the intellect can see as the appropriate and desirable way of life that a person wishes sincerely to follow, never quite acknowledging the various promptings suggesting that perhaps it might be good to slow down, to take it easier. For the seeker intent upon the path, the process is experienced as harmonious and positive usually only when one sees oneself as conforming to those spiritual ambitions of more and better and deeper.
“Often the bounty of deepened desire and that feeling of centeredness that spiritual ambition hopes for is contained not by adding activities or doing things differently in some way that is measurable physically but, rather, in moving fully into the present moment and becoming able to take the bounty of that moment as it passes.
“For each moment is itself, whole and perfect. When one is in the moment, one is not in time. When one becomes even a bit aware of the timeless aspect of the moment there is an almost automatic resonance and a feeling of coming home. And this is accomplished not by adding more focus or adding more attention or finding better ways to meditate, but, rather, it is allowed by the seeker who relaxes into the magic of the timeless present moment. If you are within that present moment you are in meditation, aware of who you are, aware of why you are here.
“Lay your concerns down. Relax into this present moment. See the Earth grow small and disappear. See the solar system becoming a thing of stars. Move further and further into the infinity of creation and yet you still are you, and this is still the present moment. And you are safe. Love reflected in love.”
Contemplating old age is scary. One’s fate is a matter of luck. We have all watched people die slowly, losing their selfhood in the fading waters of Alzheimer’s Disease or senile dementia, or spending their carefully hoarded savings on nursing-home or home-care costs. Yet beyond planning as carefully as we can, we can do nothing to avert the inevitable losses of old age. What we can do is focus on moving through this period of our lives with love and integrity, turning challenges into opportunities and knowing that in the “being” part of life, our worth as a soul is untarnished and complete.
I open my arms and embrace your spirit! Let us maintain a light heart and banish the “shouldacouldawouldas” when they arise! That will free us to embrace the mystery of this present moment! Thank you, Reb Zalman and Baba, for this wonderful message.