Recognition Rites for Elders

Editor's note: Tom Pinkson, PhD, is a psychologist, ceremonial retreat and vision-fast leader, sacred storyteller, and shaman. For 32 years Tom worked with terminally ill children at the Center for Attitudinal Healing in California, successfully integrating the wisdom teachings of the Huichol and other medicine teachers into the world of the practicing psychologist. The founder of Wakan, a nonprofit organization committed to restoring the sacred in daily life, he lives in northern California.

During the second half of life you are called to serve something bigger than yourself; have to have an eye on being all you can be for yourself, those you love around you and the planet. You have to try to be in the moment and give to the people around you as much love and knowledge as you have to share. — James Hollis

Everyone wants to succeed as a human being. We all want our lives to be meaningful. Our own aging provides us with the best opportunity for both success and meaning. Elderhood is a time of new beginnings, new possibilities. and new forms of contribution. Average life expectancy in the United States is nearly 78 years, and every seven seconds a new person joins the growing wave of people living the second half of their lives. This gathering tide of elders brings with it a growing need to transform the way we see and live out this final stage of the life cycle.

Aging has a bad rap in this country. The challenge is to reawaken, reclaim, re-envision. and revitalize our understanding of its true potential. We must consciously embrace the natural process of aging and relate to its wisdom in a way that brings forth our own wisdom. Itís not about anti-aging; itís about conscious aging. People who bring consciousness to their aging process understand that the future is not something to dread. The future is where we create a rich experience that will bring dignity, fulfillment, and completion to your time on this planet.

In our individual lifespans, our 60s are the youth of elderhood; our 70s, its midlife; and our 80s and beyond (the time sociologists refer to as “the third age”), the time of full elderhood. In this “second maturity” we are called to deeper involvement with our inner world and the development of our greater self. Our focus needs to be on what gives meaning to our lives. The time is about being; we no longer measure success by things or doing.

Psychologist David Powell points out,

Deepening requires surrender, letting go of control, abandoning competition, power, possessions and prestige. It means going to a larger, spiritual sphere that embraces others and their story. In the first half of life you focus mostly on “My Story” and “Our Story”: your traditions, family, group, community, country, and your religion. In the second half of life you begin to focus on “The Story,” wherein you realize you play a small but vital role in something greater than yourself, a cosmic story found in a sense of interdependence with others, our world, the Earth, our Creator.

Quest — a journey of exploration into deeper meaning, deeper connection, deeper understanding — is central to later life. What do you care for most passionately? Where is your excitement? Your curiosity? What gives you a sense of fulfillment in life? What is your purpose in being here? How do you want others to remember what you stood for? The growth process that reflecting on such questions initiates forces us to examine what doesnít work — and stop doing it — and what does work — and do more of that.

Recognition Rites for a New Vision Of Aging

This constellation of ideas is what prompted me to design and implement a program called Recognition Rites for a New Vision Of Aging.

The program works in two steps — the first step being an individual guided session which uses 14 reflective questions to help individuals identify, gather, and harvest the wisdom of their lives. The questions address finding your bearings; appraising your relationship to yourself; examining the beliefs, values, and goals that guide your life; identifying your coping strategies; tracing crucial turning points; and exploring your relationship with the significant others who have journeyed with you.

The session also addresses unresolved relationships in a healing context. We learn how to use the mind to open and heal the heart, restoring inner peace and loving relationships and, by that restoration, increasing self-esteem and promoting mental and physical well-being.

The process helps participants realize their “gifts of being” — personal assets they can share with others in addressing needs in the community. This facilitates a meaningful vision of their future as a contributor to social and cultural well-being benefiting younger generations.

The second step1 of the program is a ceremonial event that honors and celebrates the participantís life. Participants develop their own unique rite of passage which will carry them across the threshold into conscious aging. This ceremonial act of power is offered to the guests they have invited from various areas of their life.

These invitees are asked to come prepared to share how knowing the participant has impacted their own lives, and this they do in the first part of the celebration. This way the honorees get to hear what otherwise might only be shared at a future memorial service, when they are no longer there to hear it.

In the second part of the celebration, the honorees present their new identity and share their gifts. Using poetry, song, music, ritual, theater, etc., they give a concrete form to the awareness developed by their individual sessions. All honorees have committed themselves to aging consciously, gracefully, powerfully, and meaningfully; and the public rite — each honoree beyond his or her comfort zone through an “act of power” — dramatically embodies their intention. As a community event it enriches and enlivens all attendees with new possibilities for their own conscious aging.

Every Recognition Rite is tailored to the uniqueness of the participantís gender, values, and belief system and utilizes their favorite music, symbols, art, colors, and key life themes.

An individual example will be helpful. Martha was 85 years old at the time she was a participant in the program. She lived in an assisted living home in Northern California where I visited her regularly. She and her husband of 50-plus years had had a loving marriage and had together run a business. He had died several years earlier. Martha had had several strokes and walked with a walker, diminishing the vital and active life she had had. But her resilience — based on her belief that there was more to her than her physical body — was undiminished. She believed her essence was spirit, that she was love, and that her present task was to be a channel of love to others. While lying in bed and unable to move, she sent out love to others — family, friends, caretakers, whoever came to mind.

Martha believed that when she died, she would join her husband and other relatives and friends who had passed on before her. She didnít fear death. She befriended it. She reviewed her life to discover unhealed places or relationships and worked hard to forgive herself and others and to complete unfinished business. She felt good about how she had lived her life and the legacy she would leave behind.

She also continued to explore her creative interests and exercise her mind through painting and her love of music. She maintained social involvement through a support group, activities of the retirement home, and outings with friends. She nurtured her spirituality through meditation, reading, and listening to CDs of spiritual wisdom teachers. She also drew on the wisdom lessons from her own life, making a daily effort to apply them in meeting her considerable challenges.

I spent much time with Martha and am sad that she died before she was able to enact the Rite of Passage she was developing. But even without that capstone, I know she enriched her life in the midst of physical loss and limitations. She aged consciously and skillfully, using behavioral and cognitive practices that helped her maintain a positive attitude and outlook. She grew spiritually, deepening her faith and belief that she was a vital part of life and that she had something of value to contribute to others. She lived a full life until the moment of her peaceful death, excited about being part of something that transcends this life.

My work with Martha and others convinces me that aging fruitfully can be an adventurous exploration of what is possible right up to the very last breath. In every moment that we are present and aware, opportunity exists to make a conscious decision about how we want to experience that moment, where we want to put our attention, and how open we will be to loveís presence. Maybe that is the very reason we came into this life — to remember that we are love and that love is for giving.



1 A 6-minute video about Recognition Rite of Elders may be accessed at