A Deeper Work:
Spirituality and Service in the 3rd Age

Suppose we look at life in thirds, seeing the First Age as youth and preparation (what in India was called the Student stage) and the Second Age as achievement in the world (what in India was called the Householder stage). The Third Age, then, is what in India was called the Forest Dweller and Sage stages, a phase of life that coincides with retirement in modern life. As the numbers of those entering the Third Age swell, many ask: “Who am I now? What is my calling in this last chapter of my life?”


A marigold wreath floats among the ripples of the holy Ganges River. Photo by Warren Appel ~ © 2004 The Shanti Shop.


I suggest that our “work” — our Third Age — has to do with both spirituality and service. That work weaves together a set of themes which my friend and colleague, Bolton Anthony, thinks of as four desires of the heart: (a) rediscovering self, (b) simplifying life, (c) reconnecting with nature and (d) reconstituting community.

Thus, the context is profoundly communal and world-regarding. In fact, we are called to the dual work of deepening and serving in the context of a Great Turning in world history.1  Thomas Berry says we are invited to participate in “the Great Work [of] relating the human venture to the larger destinies of the universe.”2 Very exciting. Highly appropriate.

Past generations saw the Elders as having a special role. We know something of that role instinctively when — instead of using the term “Elders” — we speak of Grandmothers and Grandfathers. Unlike parents whose “tough love” must include guidance and discipline, grandparents come closest to giving unconditional love. They see us in our unique core beauty, even when we do not. They see us in a much longer view, knowing the wisdom of “This too shall pass,” while we tend to stay stuck in the limited drama of the moment. They see us as deeper than our actions, and hence in their presence we often become our better selves.

The role of the Elders is strikingly similar to the mythic role assigned to the King or Queen, namely, to keep first things first, to encourage creativity, and to bless the young.3 And the welcome news is that we as elders-in-training can learn to inhabit more consistently this level of living, and we can learn to act from this level more skillfully.

A Deeper Work: Spirituality in the Third Age

Let me introduce an analogy as a way to understand the different levels of consciousness to which we have access.4

Imagine that a part of you detaches from your body and floats out over city, over countryside, over a primal forest until you see, in the midst of the trees, a lake glimmering in the morning sun, a lake whose surface has been stirred by a light wind. Imagine you touch down and become a ripple on the surface of the lake. Soon you are thinking ripple thoughts, feeling ripple emotions, engaging in ripple conversations with yourself and with others. Your ripple conversations, in large part, focus on you — on what you want now, on what you fear, here and now. Your ripple conversations, in large part, focus on how you compare with others. You are identifying with the small-minded person-in-you and living according to culturally conditioned scripts.

Imagine that without stopping your patterns of fear and desire, another part of you sinks below the surface to a midpoint in the lake. Magically, you are safe and can look up at your ripple self with soft eyes and compassionate heart. What is this part of us which watches without judgment, which observes from a compassionate heart? I have called it the large-minded person-in-us. Other traditions call it the Observing or Witness Self.5 The awakening of this large mind and compassionate heart is the first step in any spiritual path.

Now, imagine that another part of you detaches and moves to the very depth of the lake. Gradually, we hear and sense a deeper dimension — as if the lake is connected to the great ocean, and the longer rhythms of the tides provide a sense of timeless time. As we grow acclimated to this new way of being, we realize that all of the water is one — ripples and depth — and that we are that. At the deepest level of understanding, all is loving kindness and joy and gratitude and immense compassion. Here we are experiencing what mystics call unitive consciousness.

Of course, we must return — return to the observing self at the mid-point; yet when we do, we do so with a deeper sense of Oneness. And we must also return to the surface, but when we do so, we bring more of the Mysterious Source to our mindful living and more of the observing, compassionate heart into the everyday. So we return to the community, to the partnerships of our lives.

The Sufis say: “There is a polish for everything and the polish for the heart is the remembrance of God.”6 We might say the polish of the heart is remembrance of the Whole, of the One, of the Great Mystery manifesting in the earth in its unfolding. As we polish the heart, we not only come to live more in the present, we come to listen more deeply — to all that surrounds us and to the Ever-present Origin7 that wells up everywhere, if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear.

A Deeper Work: Service in the Third Age

With practice we can cultivate this new awareness with its wisdom, compassion, loving kindness and quiet humor. With practice, this new depth of living will bring a different quality to all we do in the field of service. The opportunity is to do whatever we do with a new simplicity and lightness of being, a new awareness of nature and the bonds that bind all beings together.

As we gain practice in the way of the Forest Dweller (with glimpses of the Sage), we will participate more readily in the Great Work. Our sense of time and space expands, as we find ourselves invited to move

  • from separateness to a sense of what deeply unites us,

  • from “seen only” to a simplicity open to seen and more subtle values,

  • from “short-term only” to intergenerational time, and

  • from “superiority over” to true collaboration or “partnership with.”8

I believe we can think of these shifts as based in what the gentle Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh calls interbeing. He writes:

If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; without trees, we cannot make paper… So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are. “Interbeing” is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix “inter-” with the verb “to be,” we have a new verb, inter-be.9

We might say: We are in the Great Mystery and the Great Mystery is in us. We are in the planetary web of all life and the web of all life is in us. We are in our ancestors and they are in us. We are in our children and they are in us.

As I see it, there are two steps to inhabiting this Universe of Interbeing.

The first involves expanding the circle: We expand the circle of care from ourselves to all humankind and then to all of us together — human and other than human. We move from a human-centered world to a creation-centered universe.

The second step involves changing our mode of response: We move from seeing the nested communities not as a collection of objects but as a communion of subjects — a communion in which we also have place.10 We are ready to listen and learn, to know and be known, to love and be loved. We let go of monologue and enter into dialogue.

Who better to do this than the grandmothers and grandfathers?

  • Mindfully and joyfully,

  • Simplifying and coming home to what is real,

  • Reconnecting with the natural world, and

  • Rediscovering the companionship of communities that link the living and the dead and join the ancestors and the children.

Those of us in the Third Age have some distance on the world of achievement (the Second Age). Those of us in the Third Age are ready to keep first things first, to encourage creativity and to bless the young (i.e., those in the First Age). We are ready to live more simply and more fully. And, if this is so, then perhaps the invitation of the Third Age is already laid out when Shakespeare has King Lear tell his daughter Cordelia:

…so we’ll live,

And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too, —
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out; —
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
as if we were God’s spies.

King Lear V, iii, 8-19


1 We might also see the history of humankind in three ages: the pre-modern (up to 1500 CE), the modern (1500 CE to present) and the trans-modern or Emerging Ecological Age (starting in the late 20th century and moving into the new millennium). See Appendices XVI and XVII in my book, Living Large: Transformative Work at the Intersection of Ethics and Spirituality.

2 Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (New York, Bell Tower, 1999), p. 1. See also Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown, Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World (Gabriola Island, BC Canada: New Society Publishers, 1998) and David C. Korten, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2006).

3 I learned these three functions from poet Robert Bly in one of his public presentations.

4 For more on this, see Chapter Three of Living Large.

5 I am thinking here of the Sufi tradition. For more, see Arthur Deikman, The Observing Self (Boston: Beacon Press, 1982).

6 A saying of the Prophet Muhammad, quoted in Kabir Edmund Helminski, Living Presence: A Sufi Way to Mindfulness and the Essential Self (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Perigee Books, 1992), p. 67.

7 The phrase is from Jean Gebser. See his The Ever-Present Origin, trans. by Noel Barstad with Algis Mickunas (Athens, Ohio: University of Ohio Press, 1985).

8 For more on this, see Chapter Fifteen of Living Large.

9 Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is Every Step (New York: Bantam, 1991), p.95.

10 The contrast between seeing the world as a collection of objects and seeing the world as a communion of subjects comes from Thomas Berry. See, for example, Thomas Berry, The Great Work, p. 82.