From the editor...

With the Winter 2011 issue of Itineraries, we began a yearlong exploration of The Spirituality of Later Life.  Noted gerontologist Robert C. Atchley provides an overview of the topics of the next four issues, followed by his own reflections on contemplation, mysticism, and the spirituality of aging. Then guest editor Ellen B. Ryan introduces the content and the contributors to this Winter 2011 issue, whose special focus is Writing As a Spiritual Practice.

— Bolton Anthony, Founder




Contemplation, Mysticism, and
the Spirituality of Later Life

Editor's note: Robert C. Atchley is a distinguished professor of gerontology emeritus at Miami University, OH, where he also served as the director of the Scripps Gerontology Center. Atchley was previously a professor and chair of the Department of Gerontology at the Naropa University, in Boulder, CO, and is the author of Social Forces and Aging (published by Wadsworth) and of Continuity and Adaptation in Aging and Spirituality and Aging, both published by Johns Hopkins.

The experience of spirituality
and the various ways it can be invited and nurtured in later life will be the constant thread weaving together the four issues of Itineraries during 2011. Later life is life after 50, when the responsibilities of adulthood have often become routine. With our less cluttered lives, there are increased opportunities for inner reflection and the development of awareness skills that allow us to tap into more of our inner life and to integrate this new awareness into our approach to life.

Spirituality is one of many words that are used to refer to a field of experience in which we feel intensely alive, able to see clearly what is called for, and connected to something much bigger than our personal concerns. Other terms that point to this field include religious experience, mysticism, transcendence, and humanism. But none of these terms fully captures the essence of the field, because what is being referred to is not a thing, it is a field. As Rumi wrote in his famous poem:

Out beyond ideas. . .
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.

Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn’t make any sense.

  • Writing as a Spiritual Practice, the Winter issue, emphasizes the act of writing — in various forms — as a way of getting in touch with spiritual experience and a way of opening ourselves to our sense of joy, sorrow, meaning, and integrity.
  • The Inner Work of Eldering, the Spring issue, deals with various practices that clear the inner field of obstacles to spiritual growth, allowing spiritually grounded wisdom to blossom in later life. Healing past conflicts, learning to forgive, and coming to accept one’s life as it has been lived are examples of practices that can clear the ground.
  • Serving from Spirit, the Summer issue, is about how growing spiritual awareness affects our ability to tap into the compassion needed to truly serve our communities and our planet.
  • Rites of Passage, the Fall issue, concerns the importance of clear transitions from one life phase to another. Traditionally. rites of passage were pro forma events that conveyed the cultural meaning of life changes, such as puberty, marriage, or death. But in today’s world, people have begun to see developing their own rites of passage as a way to consciously close the past chapter of life and focus on intentions for the upcoming life stage. In later life, spirituality can play an increasingly important part in intentions for one’s future.


There is ample evidence that in later life many people turn their attention inward, but not in self-preoccupied reminiscence. Instead, they engage in a new type of action called abiding. Take the topic of retirement as an example. There are certainly some aspects of retirement, such as financial management, that require calculative thinking. But there are other aspects of retirement, such as sense of purpose, that invite us to patiently wait in the large space of contemplative consciousness. Amid the swirl of thoughts about purpose in retirement, if we just abide, we may eventually be drawn to a sense of purpose. Such contemplative realizations do not result from the manipulation and push-pull of ordinary problem solving but rather from a much deeper spiritual sense of direction that we cannot force to emerge but must simply be open to.

Contemplation happens in the vastness of inner space. If we pay close attention, we may see that our ordinary thoughts and actions are playing out on a worldly stage that is merely the figure. The ground is the infinity of inner space. We can experience this vastness directly, and when we do we experience a certain amount of detachment from our personal concerns. We can have compassion for ourselves as beings, and we can have compassion for others as beings like us.

Contemplative consciousness is always with us, but most people are unaware of this aspect of their being. It is like a computer program running in the background. We have to know how to access the program in order to enjoy its benefits. Likewise, abiding in contemplative consciousness requires that we intentionally practice focusing on that aspect of consciousness and learn to look at ourselves and our world from that vantage. Interestingly, many elders are drawn to this type of consciousness naturally and gradually find themselves at home there. Many of them cannot identify a specific point in time when they realized that they were seeing with new eyes, eyes of contemplation.


Mysticism is a direct experience of the ground of all being. (Many words are used to describe the mysterious unity with which we seek connection — the Sacred, God, the Void, Brahman, the Absolute, and many others. I use "ground of being" because it is difficult to personify.) Direct experience precedes language; we have the experience first and then we attach language to it. I can look into the Grand Canyon and invariably have several direct experiences in my being. I can then attach various descriptors to these experiences, such as “awe,” “stillness,” or “wonder.” But these words are not the experience, they are simply words that can lead me back to it.

When I was a six I was singing a song called "This Little Light of Mine" and I experienced being filled with radiance. I interpreted this as light in me. But it was a light that did not burn — it simply was. All of my verbiage about this experience came after, but my experience of being filled with radiance was a mystical experience. I have had this experience many, many times since then.

Whether one has mystical experiences depends to some extent on how open one is to them. Some people are fearful of the idea of having mystical experiences. Others seek them out, but find that mystical experiences come on their own terms. One sage described spiritual practice in this way: “Leading the spiritual life is ‘keeping the room clean.’ No matter what else happens you have the experience of having a clean room. But you may also have a beloved visitor.”


Appetite whetted...

by Robert Atchley's ideas?



Order your copy of

Aging and Spirituality

A spiritual life, one focused on personal growth and deep human experience, is a major focus and motivator for people over the age of 40. Yet there is a marked lack of rigorous academic study of spirituality's importance in the lives of aging people. Noted gerontologist Robert C. Atchley remedies this problem by developing complex concepts and language about spirituality.

Spirituality and Aging incorporates material from two decades of interviews, observations, study, and reflection to illustrate ways of thinking about and discussing spirituality—what it is, why it is important, and how it influences the experience of aging. This book provides a nuanced view of spirituality and the richness it brings to the lives of older people.

Separating spirituality from religion—something few books on this topic do—Spirituality and Aging offers a plan for incorporating spirituality into gerontological scholarship, research, education, and practice.

Published by
Johns Hopkins University Press

One thing I am fairly sure of: for mystical experiences to occur there must be an awareness of contemplative inner space. This is a main purpose of all forms of meditation and other contemplative practices. Aging is related to mystical experience through the general tendency to turn inward, which provides an opportunity to become more aware of inner space. Of course, many elders who have what I would call mystical experience do not use this language. They can describe the experience but have no label for the category.

Spirituality and Aging

Contemplative awareness and mystical experience are master processes that can serve as a spiritual gyroscope for the spiritual journey. With these processes well practiced, we are in a good position to take advantage of the freedoms of aging — retirement, the empty nest, lack of social demands that we conform to specific roles. In many ways, aging in today’s post-industrial society is like improvisational theater. We have the freedom to decide which I we will bring to our actions — the personal I with its desires, fears, and agendas, or the transpersonal I with its openness and clarity. This freedom is both exciting and scary. It is exciting because it is life on the frontiers of consciousness. It is scary because we have to pay attention and fully engage the dance of life and we’re not sure we can do it. After 45 years of interviewing aging people in all walks of life, I am sure of at least one thing. The overwhelming majority of us can do it.

Spiritual journeying is continuing to pay attention to spiritual aspects of life and to nurturing our capacities for spiritual experiences, including a vivid present, higher levels of consciousness, and our interconnectedness with everything we encounter. Most people prefer to journey in the company of others, and many are part of small groups that support one another on the journey. This support takes many forms, such as reading and discussion, engaging in spiritual practices together, compassionate listening, and discussing how spirituality affects life decisions and life experience.




Individual reprints of each of the four issues in the 2011 series on the Spirituality of Later Life are available from Amazon for $10 each. To access ordering information, click on the cover images below

Click for information on Second Journeys: The Dance of Spirit in Later Life Order Serving from Spirit from Order Rites of Passage into Elderhood from Order The Inner Work of Eldering from Order Writing as a Spiritual Practice from

Second Journeys: The Dance of Spirit in Later Life, published in 2013, is also available from Amazon for $20. Its essays along with the many poems scattered throughout this anthology — the contributions of 44 writers and poets — explore this “dance of spirit in later life.” New essays companion earlier essays from Second Journey’s 2011 exploration of The Spirituality of Later Life. All four sections contain a tribute to an elder whose life has been emblematic, each concludes with an Invitation to Practice. Interspersed throughout, authors who have been our virtual partners in the work of birthing a new vision of aging for our time offer reflections on the books from which they have drawn sustenance. Dip into this rich collection at any point and you will find yourself drawn to linger and reflect. For further about the anthology, click on the center cover.