As millions of Baby Boomers choose not to merely grow old but to grow whole, to intentionally step across a threshold and become an Elder, we discover that aging can be a spiritual path. Its foundation is described in every spiritual tradition as ego transcendence, a shift in identity from a separate sense of self to a universal sense of inter-connectedness.
This internal leap has been referred to in the Conscious Aging Movement as
“gero-transcendence,” coined by Lars Tornstam. He described an inner shift in older people from a materialistic, rational view of the world to a more transcendent view, including an increased feeling of affinity with past generations, a diminished interest in superficial interactions and material things, and a greater need for contemplative time.
I don’t intend to say that our ego or separate self-sense is inherently bad. In
fact, our egos serve us to develop our talents, build careers, create families,
and follow the hero’s journey of life. But, in late life, we seek a changing of
the guards from Hero to Elder. When we want to transfer our center of gravity from small self-interest to larger communal and planetary well-being, the ego can no longer reign supreme. That means, we need to allow it to recede and cultivate a deeper inner guidance.
Part of that task includes breaking our identification with “young” or “ageless,” which makes the word “Elder” unappealing and unworthy as a goal. It also includes allowing mortality awareness to penetrate enough that it humbles our ego. It also includes the grieving and gratitude that follow a life review. And it includes taking on a higher purpose for the sake of others, for the sake of our souls, and for the sake of the world. Just as we left a fleeting childhood behind, now we move beyond the fevered ambitions of adulthood to embrace an Elder’s life.
In other words, the Elder is not another role to be put on like a change of wardrobe. Elder is not merely how we do what we do differently or even more wisely. Joseph Campbell’s renowned telling of the hero’s journey ends with the hero, reborn, returning to the ordinary world with a boon. I like to think of this boon as the deeper, wider consciousness of the Elder.
So, when the Hero crosses the threshold to become the Elder, he or she lives with and teaches with this new awareness. In myths and tales, we see the Elder, Teacher, Mentor aiding or training the hero, like the fairy godmother with Cinderella or Merlin with King Arthur. This figure is inspired by divine wisdom, a connection to Spirit, and his/her advice brings power with conscience.
Our own life stories are full of guidance, warnings, and reconciliations, if we know how to read them. Mentors and elders have appeared to aid us in crisis, train us in worldly skills, pass on their knowledge to us, and connect us to another, more magical reality. For me, an Indian yogi appeared at a fragile transition, and I received an initiation into contemplative practice at a young age, forever altering my values and vision of my future. For others, an Elder offered skill, empowerment, creativity, emotional support.
After our dramatic heroic journeys as Boomers, we can now re-enter the story as those wise men and women who mentored us on the path – and give our own boons to the next generation. To do this, we need take the empty seat that awaits us. We need to welcome a new generation of seekers and change agents, pass the lightsaber and transmit values to them. For the wisdom and gifts of older adults are nourishment for a world starved of meaning.
Some of us will hear the call to become Activist Elders, joining the youth
in the streets who are fighting for the end of income inequality, hunger,
homelessness, gun violence, money in politics, and sexual assault. Others will be Earth Elders, fierce guardians of our habitat. Some of us will hear the inner call to become Spiritual Elders, teaching contemplative practices to those who are lost in digital distraction. Some of us will hear the call of the Muse to become Creative Elders, allowing visual or performing art to move through them.
As Buddhist teacher Roshi Joan Halifax put it, “The wisdom that we need to solve our problems lies encoded in the depths of our unconscious minds, but it must be evoked by Elders who reveal our potentials. Without realized models to evoke our archetypal depths, we are literally lost in the world. We have no map; we have no guide; we have no song. Throughout history, elders have served as beloved pathfinders, beckoning us to enter the province of old age in anticipation of growing strength and usefulness to society.”
Today we are the Elders who we have long been seeking. Our search for others to serve as mentors, gurus, and guides is over. We are the ones to pass the torch.
“Elder” is a verb more than a noun, a dynamic process that reveals the ever-present, invisible urge toward more awareness or self-actualization in the human soul. “Eldering” is the same as “evolving,” an inner yearning which, once recognized and directed, is purposeful and joyful.
My friend Jason described his shift this way: “I look back on the busyness and see it so differently now. I went from being somebody to being nobody. It all seemed so dramatically important at the time — rushing around to earn money, approval, respect. Now, I’m just being, meditating, mentoring young men, and writing that book that was gestating for decades. But the only respect that matters now is self-respect.”
My friend Sally described her rite of passage to become a Certified Sage after completing Sage-ing International’s training. “I used to build million-dollar businesses. I would see the goal and make it happen. Now, I see the goal and live in each moment with intention, connection, self-care, and loving awareness –and the goal unfolds. Elders create success by being who we want to be, rather than by railroading it through our egos.”
Whether we call the new direction a greater authenticity, a growing wisdom, or a new-found freedom, it reprioritizes our values, energies, and actions. Now, we can reinvent “Elder” and reimagine the nobility and sacred power of age.