Many of our ideas about aging with consciousness have their origins in the life and thought of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, called “Reb Zalman” by the many thousands whose lives have been deeply affected by his ideas and presence. Reb Zalman’s writings, especially From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older, and his workshops on “Spiritual Eldering” have provided a stimulating conceptual overview of how we might think about spiritual growth in later life — how we might think, in particular, about our potential for spiritual connection and our capacity to manifest wisdom, and their importance at all levels of social life. But as useful as his ideas have been, Reb Zalman’s way of being and its ongoing evolution is perhaps his greatest lesson for us.
In my own spiritual journey, I have met many people who are so in touch with the sacred that a holy light radiates from them. Reb Zalman is one of these. He makes no claim to have answers to life’s churning conveyor belt of perplexing questions. Instead, he contemplates the deeper questions and affords them the largest possible space in which to reveal their lessons. This contemplative space within his consciousness allows Reb Zalman to balance a keen, creative, and active mind with an extraordinarily open heart and deep knowledge of the history of human wisdom. He is continuously learning from deeply contemplated life experience.
Living proof that if we encourage people to be wise they can be, he has honed his “wisdom process” over decades of listening deeply to people who come seeking wisdom from him. “I am not wise until someone asks me to be,” he has said. Wisdom is not something to have, it is something to be in a given moment. Of course, the more often people practice being wise, the more likely they are to be able to find that place within themselves from which wisdom comes. And Reb Zalman has had lots of practice.
I attend a discussion group with Reb Zalman that has been meeting weekly for more than a decade. We explore such issues as the frontiers of spiritual experience and spiritual development, and examine whether spirituality can influence the world, and if so how, in discussions that range far and wide. Reb Zalman knows how to listen with compassion, to be open to both the joy and the pain underlying whatever is said. He also knows that singing and humor are vital glue that helps groups stick together. He is a repository of wisdom stories from many spiritual traditions and a master of using them to help us see an important side of the issue under discussion. His stories remind us that spiritually grounded wisdom has been a part of human life for a very long time. They press us to think through the implications of our spiritual insights for action on many levels — family, community, nation, and planet.
Reb Zalman’s own life is structured around the demands of his own religious devotion, and he is always a Rabbi. But he is a Rabbi who understands his role as one that is consciously re-created in the moment rather than dictated from an unchanging script. Although a devout Jew, he honors all religious traditions, holding that all were initially inspired by the same Light.
Reb Zalman is an exemplar of someone who lives from the Light, someone who is never far from direct contact with the
Light of being. Even when he feels lost, he trusts that he will return to the
Light. It is an irresistible magnet for him. His life is an uncommonly well-documented struggle to remain true to the
Light, while still leading an ordinary human life. Like all of us, he has to deal with the ups and downs that come with living in an aging body, being part of a family, living in a community, and so on. For Reb Zalman, keeping in touch with the sacred
Light is a source of optimism with which to resist the powers of darkness that often seem to be overtaking our world.
In honoring our elders, we not only honor who they are for us, we honor the potential for spiritual connection and wisdom within ourselves. Our elders point the way, but we each have to find our own inner path. Thanks to Reb Zalman for continuing to point the way for so many of us.
— Robert C. Atchley