Markers in the Stream

I would love to live
Like a river flows,
Carried by the surprise
Of its own unfolding.1

Imagine the long arc of a life, like a stream, flowing to the sea. Then think of markers in the stream. Some are universal or nearly so — a sequence of unfolding, a set of themes present throughout. Others are specific to this or that life. Each event challenges us. How will we respond? What will we learn? Who will we take ourselves to be? What will the Web of Life receive from our deepening?

Here, we shall look at both the longer line of a lifetime and at some key transitions. In particular, I want to explore two initiations: the first into adulthood, the second into elderhood. Here is a verse to introduce the themes:

One is the lifetime in which we now dwell.
Two are the halves of life, upward and down.
Four are the stages, a season for each.
Two rites for entering each half of life.
One is the Source and Goal, drawing our love.

From Half to Whole

Storyteller Michael Meade shares this fragment of a story:

Once upon a time, in a village in Borneo, a Half-boy is born, a boy with only the right half of his body. He becomes a source of irritation, embarrassment and confusion to himself, his family and the entire village. Nonetheless, he grows and eventually reaches the age of adolescence. His halfness and incompleteness become unbearable to him and all around him. One day he leaves the village dragging himself along until he reaches a place where the road crosses a river. At that crossroad, he meets another youth who exists as only the left side, the other half of a person. They move towards each other as if destined to join. Surprisingly, when they reach each other, they begin to fight and roll in the dust. Then they fall into the river. After a time, from the river there arises an entire youth with sides put together. The new youth walks toward a new village. He sees an old man and asks: “Can you tell me where I am? I have been struggling and don’t know where I have arrived at.” The old man says: “You have arrived home. You are back in the village where you were born. Now that you have returned whole, everyone can begin to dance and celebrate. And so it was and so it is.2

Perhaps today, two groups find themselves as Half-people. Springtime youth are entering the Arc of Ascent, seeking passage into the stage of adult Householder. Those facing retirement are entering the Arc of Descent, seeking passage into elderhood (i.e., into the stages of Autumn Forest Dweller and Winter Sage).3

As in the story, these two Half-people — youth and elders — seem destined for one another. How can youth be initiated if there are no elders to instruct them, if there are no elders to welcome them as they find the gifts they bring for the wider tribe? How can the young be seen and appreciated if there are no elders to dance with them and celebrate them? And how can those entering the second half of their lives (or final third)4 find ways to develop and give their gifts if they are set apart and exiled from the next generation? Is it any wonder that the uninitiated old fight with the uninitiated young?

Yet perhaps there is even more to the story. Think of one of the Half persons as “First-Half-of-Life Person” (Youth-Householder). Think of the other Half person as “Second-Half-of-Life Person” (Forest Dweller-Sage). First and second half of life meet and engage in a struggle. They fall into a river and emerge whole. Now there is healing of four stages, and a new image emerges from the water: an integral person not fixed in any age but having access to all ages, access to all four capacities of life: (a) the experience and discovery of the Spring Student, (b) the experience and responsibilities of the Summer Householder, (c) the reintegration into the natural world of Autumn Forest Dweller, and (d) the light and easy dwelling in the ocean resources of Winter Sage. When we have access to this fourfold, then we are whole, then we are home in an integral way.

Four themes always present, ever changing

All that unfolds throughout the lifetime is contained in seed at every moment. What are these seeds that need to be watered and tended throughout? I would say: (1) the soul-centric, (2) the communal-centric, (3) the nature or eco-centric, and (4) the cosmic- or spirit-centric.5

First, development throughout must be soul-centered. By soul I am pointing to the concrete and specific, the very particular perspectives, gifts, and contributions of each unique person. Frederick Buechner teaches us that to find our calling is “to find the intersection between our own deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger.”6 Such is our soul work. Ultimately it is to be more and more our unique selves, our “perfectly imperfect” selves.

Second, development must be communal-centered throughout, seeing ourselves dwelling in a web of relationships ever expanding. We pass from child to adolescent and then to adult householder. As we do, our sense of community expands — family to peer group and then, through relationships of intimacy, into marriage and a new family. Beyond family, the circle expands to organizations and the larger communities in which they dwell. Under special conditions, we glimpse a circle expanding beyond tribe and nation to the whole human family. “I am a human being,” says the playwright Terrence, “and nothing human is alien to me.”

Third, development must be Earth-centered or eco-centric throughout. We are embedded in the natural world and interconnected with people, other animals, plants, and minerals — all of whom co-create and sustain our ecosystems. Seeds of this need to be tended at each stage.

Fourth, development must be cosmic-centered or spirit-centered throughout. We are developing in an unfolding universe and need a cosmology, a way of placing ourselves in the widest context so that we learn how to care for the whole and to align with the deep currents of what is unfolding. In this usage, “soul” points to what is most concrete and unique in us; “spirit” points to what is as vast as the universe and open to the Great Mystery that is within and beyond all that is.

Each of these seeds is watered by daily practice — the work of “coming to life more fully so as to serve life more wisely and more nobly.”7 Each of these seeds is linked with a stage.

  • Youth are drawn into soul work, finding and developing their gifts.

  • Householders care for the human community, ever widening its scope.

  • Forest Dwellers (early elders) expand the circle to include all species: people, other animals, plants and minerals, plus ecosystems such as mountains and meadows, rivers and oceans, forests and plains.

  • Winter Sages (later elders) expand the family still further, returning to the place where Source, Self, and Circle of All Life meet. Paradoxically, Winter Sages are aware of both the vastest of horizons and the most intimate of practices, namely dwelling in “present moment, wonderful moment.”8

As noted, in the midst of this stage sequence, we experience marker events. Some are relatively universal. Think of birth, puberty, first love, first sexual experience, marriage, childbirth, the end of childbearing, the end of full-time work, the rediscovery of nature, and finally a confrontation with death.9 Other markers are less predictable: accidents and sickness, injustices suffered, hurt inflicted, reversals at work, the death or injury of loved ones, and on and on. Through it all, we are called to daily practices of stillness and service — quiet inward deepening for the sake of serving; outward serving for the sake of deepening all our kin.10

On the Arc of Ascent, the daily work of Spring Students and Summer Householders is dominated by a kind of striving: striving to actualize an ideal of who we might be, could be, should be, striving to maximize our potential. The beauty here is that we are striving for excellence, desiring to be open to more and ever more. We are learning to care for units larger than ourselves. Our striving is not for ourselves only. Still, in this striving — even for good things — a trap appears: a kind of perfectionism. Under its spell, we are like the greyhounds in a race, chasing a mechanical rabbit that stays always beyond our reach. So we are ever falling short of who we think we are meant to be. Striving, striving, striving. Then comes a turning, and we enter the Arc of Descent. Down into Autumn release and further down into Winter waters.

What signals this reversal? Perhaps we step down from the work we have done as a career. We retire from the tasks that have shaped us. We release from being so defined by roles and beliefs. We surrender into a greater unknown. Our children are grown; grandchildren arrive. For women, menopause arrives, and they know in a bodily way that the years of potential childbearing have come to an end. Both men and women enter, in different ways, the Arc of Descent through Autumn into Winter. The waterfall energy is moving downward and inward. We can resist, or we can align with the energy. In Autumn, we can return to a new appreciation of our place in the natural world. In the starkness of Winter, we can release still further, returning to the moment, to the here and now — a here and now in which everything is contained. In the Arc of Descent, we let go of striving to change the world, let go of seeking to control others, let go of achieving some ideal or other for ourselves. We let go of thinking life is about us at all! We become a window allowing the whole to be present in and through us from a unique place, a unique history of choices.11

The fourfold is indeed an image of wholeness: four directions, four seasons, four stages of life.12 Perhaps we can hold out a new image of the human by not imagining ourselves at a particular age, but instead by bringing together the capacities of all four ages: Spring Student, Summer Householder, Autumn Forest Dweller, and Winter Sage. Let us consider again this possibility. Then becoming fully human would mean being:

  • Ever young, ever learning, ever returning to “Beginner’s mind.”

  • Ever in householder service to those given to our care, as we expand the circle to the full human family.

  • Ever in Forest Dweller mode, releasing, turning, and returning to the natural world, experiencing interconnection with the Circle of all Life, the Great Family.

  • Ever in the joyous sagely way of “loving what is,”13 ever reflecting more fully the place where the three worlds touch: Self, Source, and the Circle of All Life.

A beautiful image of harmony. Four stages coming together for the sake of all beings.

Growing up: the Initiation of Fire:

From Spring Student to Summer Householder

In the early 1900s, anthropologist Arnold van Gennep distinguished three phases in a rite of passage ceremony, namely (a) severance, (b) threshold, and (c) incorporation.14

Before the beginning of the rite, the elders prepare the initiates, instructing them as to what will happen and its meaning. The elder men prepare the adolescent boys. The elder women prepare the adolescent girls. The stage is set to hear what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman, how to be with the mysteries of sexuality and spirituality as understood by the tribe in the widest and deepest way, how to find one’s gifts and serve the community. Think here of a Native American vision quest, a process that is being revived by much wilderness work.15

The Severance Phase

In this phase, the initiates may be sent into the wilderness to fast and “cry for a vision.”16 Severance marks an ending — and with it, some grieving for what was, some fear of what will be, some gratefulness at shedding an old stage, some excitement at entering a new.

The Threshold Phase

In the midst of the experience, the initiates are in a “between state.” Brought face to face with powers in the natural world far greater than themselves, they undergo trial and hardship. They are instructed to be open to the living and the dead. Open to all manifestations of the Great Family: humans, animals, plants, and minerals. All is spirit-infused, including places such as lakes and mountains, trees, rock formations, open meadows. The initiates confront deep fear. By fasting and other prayerful practices they open to altered states of awareness. They dream dreams and see visions. They undergo a symbolic death and rebirth. In all this, they seek their destiny, their particular way of serving the community, their uniqueness-become-gift. They are being changed in ways they can hardly understand. Fearful and fascinating are the mysteries.

The Phase of Incorporation

Here, the initiates are welcomed back into the community, with a new status and sometimes a new name. Each youth recounts his or her experience, and the elders help interpret and confirm the change. All this is not for the individual alone. It is for the sake of the tribe continuing. Now the young boy is a man; the young girl, a woman. They assume new tasks not for themselves alone. (They serve the tribe.) They assume new tasks not by themselves alone. (They are companioned in their service.) They assume new tasks not by their own powers alone. (They participate in the Great Mystery and draw strength from powers greater than themselves.)

Growing Down: the Second Initiation

From Householder to Forest Dweller/Sage

Carl Jung speaks about a second initiation, calling it “The Night Sea Journey.” I think of it as going over the waterfall and descending like a drop of water moving ever deeper into the great sea. The Arc of Descent has begun. Less a matter of doing, more a matter of not doing, A matter of following the Watercourse Way,17 using its own gravitational arc. Receiving. Releasing. Returning. Remembering. Coming back to what was and is and ever shall be.

What might that second initiation look like if we partly rediscovered it, partly reinvented it, for our times? What would it be to mark the Arc of Descent with its own initiation? Here is a possible template, using the three phases already described.1


In the spirit of Forest Dweller and Sage, preparation calls us to a work in our time. Joanna Macy calls this work “The Great Turning,” taking us from an industrial growth society to a life-sustaining society. Thomas Berry calls this “The Great Work.”20 This work beckons us to step into a new cosmology, a new universe story large enough for science, art, and spirituality.

Suppose we invoke — in space — the Great Family: the spirits of all the creatures of Earth and sky and sea; all the elements — earth, water, fire, and air; and the Great Mystery that breathes through all.

Suppose we invoke — in time — the beings of the three times, our ancestors (human and all the other species), our contemporaries (human and all the other species), and all the children yet-to-be-born (of all species).

Suppose further that we open to a context greater still — one that adds to everything so far invoked the place where the three worlds meet. The place where Source, deep Self, and the Circle of All Life intersect. Suppose we also ask a blessing from the Mysterious Source that sustains us and flows through all things; ask a blessing from our own deep self; ask a blessing from the depth dimension in all things.

The Severance Phase — leaving one way of being and acclimating to another

The initiates into elderhood may enter the wilderness literally or invoke this wilderness context in other ways. Surely, it is in the spirit of Forest Dweller to find the Great Mystery in all of life and in each place. Surely, our awareness of the greater powers is heightened as we fast and pray and cry for a vision for the remainder of our life. Surely, we will enter the great silence, the solitude and solidarity of contemplative openness, the simplicity and humility of our fragile self.

The Threshold Phase — the experience itself

We are falling like the leaves, falling like the drop going over the waterfall on its way to the sea. The way is letting go and letting be. Relinquishing control. Loving what is. Learning to live until our death and to die again and again to our illusions and misdirected fantasies. We are all the characters in the drama, the heroes and villains, the major players and those who appear for only a moment. And we need the help of the universe. As Rumi says:

Pale sunlight,
Pale the wall.

Love moves away.
The light changes.

I need more grace
than I thought.21

Perhaps we review our life, acknowledging what we have done and failed to do. We enter forgiveness work by bringing to mind those we have hurt and those who have hurt us.22 We bring to light in gentle ways the bright and dark shadows23 of our youth and householder, of our Forest Dweller and Sage as these shadows are manifesting right here and now. We are supported in this by all whom we have invoked. What are our gifts at this stage? What is the place where our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger touch? Where is the place where our hearts open to all of life? How will we continue to access the youthful Student-in-us, the adult Householder-in-us, the elder Forest-Dweller-in-us, and the timeless Sage-in-us? We are dying to a way of being that sought to accomplish and to control ourselves and others, sought to bring our answers to the world. Now we learn to shift to asking questions and listening to what each moment brings to teach us. We have died to one way of seeing and being. We are symbolically reborn into another way. We are beginners at this new possibility. And we have all we need and all we seek.

The Phase of Incorporation — gifts for the larger community

Imagine meeting with fellow elders in a council setting to clarify the meaning of what each newly welcomed elder brings. Perhaps such meetings take place periodically — in a retreat setting conducive to stillness and service. Let them provide a context to explore personal deepening and community enrichment, a context combining the particularity of soul work and the vastness of spirit dwelling.24

To close, let us call to mind and heart these words from the poet and playwright, Christopher Fry:25

Thank God our time is now when wrong
Comes up to face us everywhere,
Never to leave us till we take
The longest stride of soul we ever took.
Affairs are now soul size.
The enterprise
Is exploration into God. . . .
It takes
So many thousand years to wake,
But will you wake for pity’s sake!


1 John O’Donohue's poem “Fluent,” from Conamara Blues (New York: HarperCollins, 2001).

2 Michael Meade tells the story in his introduction to the book Crossroads: The Quest for Contemporary Rites of Passage, edited by Louise Carus Mahdi, Nancy Geyer Christopher, and Michael Meade (Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 1996), p. xxi. I have invoked storyteller’s license to tell the story in my own way.

3 For more on this overlaying of the seasons and the stages of life from ancient India, see my book The Spiral of the Seasons: Welcoming the Gifts of Later Life (Chapel Hill, NC: Second Journey Publications, 2009).

4 For certain purposes, it is useful to see life in two halves. And yet where the Arc of Descent is most easily felt is upon retirement, upon entering what the British call The Third Age, roughly the last 20 or so years of life. Here we might think of the Student stage lasting some 20 years, the Householder stage lasting perhaps 40 years, and the stage of Elderhood (Autumn Forest Dweller and Winter Sage) lasting some 20 years.

5 Here I am indebted to Bill Plotkin and his book Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008). Plotkin identifies the soul-centric, eco-centric, and spirit-centric dimensions. I add the communal dimension. Awareness of this communal aspect, as it matures, adds an ethical component. The Rotary Four-Way Test provides a concise guide to ethics: (a) Is it the truth? (b) Is it fair to all concerned? (c) Will it build good will and better friendship? and (d) Will it be beneficial to all concerned? This communal component must be part of the Student-to-Householder transition, so that the individual more and more dwells in awareness of interconnection, awareness of the Web of Life. So dwelling, each person can develop the capacity to seek what is good for the whole and fair to each participant-part.

6 This is the form of the Buechner remark as I first heard it and have come to cherish it. The original version occurs in Frederick Buchner’s Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancis-co,1993), p. 119. There he speaks of vocation as “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger.” I continue to use the variation, with all due respect.

7 This is a formulation/mission statement I drafted for two programs at Tai Sophia Institute in Laurel, MD. One was a non-degree-granting adult-education program called SOPHIA — the School of Philosophy and Healing In Action; the other, a master’s degree program now titled Transformative Leadership and Social Change. For more on this mission statement, see my book Living Large: Trans-formative Work at the Intersection of Ethics and Spirituality (Laurel, MD: Tai Sophia Press, 2004).

8 I take this phrase from Thich Nhat Hanh. See his Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life (New York: Bantam Books, 1991), p. 9.

9 The seven Catholic sacraments mark some of the expected marker events: (i) baptism (welcoming the newborn into the faith community), (ii) confirmation (marking the transition to adulthood), (iii) Eucharist (commemoration of the death and resurrection of the Lord in the form of a communal meal), (iv) sacrament of penance/reconciliation, (v) sacrament of marriage, (vi) sacrament of the priesthood, and (vii) sacrament for the sick (and especially last rites where a way is opened to a good death).

10 For more on the practices rooted in the great spiritual traditions, see Roger Walsh, Essential Spirituality: Exercises from the World’s Religions to Cultivate Kindness, Love, Joy, Peace, Vision, and Generosity (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1999).

11 To do this consciously, to be this microcosm of the whole from a unique perspective is becoming a sage, a wise old man, a wise old woman often disguised as a fool. A wise old man, a wise old woman, in love with the Great Mystery.

12 For my reflections on the fourfold, see my book: The Fourfold Path to Wholeness: A Compass for the Heart: Cultivating Love, Compassion, Joy and Peace for All Our Kin (Chapel Hill, NC: Second Journey Publications, 2010).

13 See Byron Katie with Stephen Mitchell, Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life (New York: Harmony Books, 2002). See also Byron Katie with Stephen Mitchell, A Thousand Names for Joy: Living in Harmony with the Way Things Are (New York: Harmony Books, 2007).

14 See Arnold van Gennep, The Rites of Passage, trans. Monika Vizedom and Gabrielle Caffee (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960). The original French volume was published in 1909.

15 See Bill Plotkin, Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2003) and Bill Plotkin, Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008).

16 The Lakota vision quest is called hanblecheya which translates “crying for a vision” or “lamenting for want of a vision.” See Chapter 43, “A Note on the Vision Quest” by Louise Carus Mahdi in Crossroad: The Quest for Contemporary Rites of Passage, ed. Louise Carus Mahdi, Nancy Geyer Christopher, and Michael Meade (Chicago: Open Court, 1996), p.355. There are also rites especially designed for women. For a sample, see Louise Carus Mahdi, Steven Foster & Meredith Little, eds., Betwixt & Between: Patterns of Masculine and Feminine Initiation (La Salle, IL: Open Court Publishing, 1987).

17 The phrase “Watercourse Way” is from Alan Watts. See Alan Watts with the collaboration of Al Chung-liang Huang, Tao: The Watercourse Way (New York: Pantheon Books, 1975).

18 My guess is that as women have shown with croning rites, such initiations may first be developed by women for women and by men for men. My work has been to seek to illuminate what elderhood might mean more generally.

19 A prior task is to notice the elders already in our midst and to discern their gifts, then to call the circle of elders and animate the bonds of community. If they are not a group, how can they welcome other elders on the path into their company?

20 Joanna Macy calls this participating in The Great Turning. Thomas Berry calls it taking part in The Great Work, and he reminds us that we are called to learn from Earth in all the enterprises of life. See Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown, Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World (Gabriola Island, British Columbia, Canada: New Society Publishers, 1998). See Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (New York: Bell Tower, 1999). Bill Plotkin, in his book Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008), takes Joanna Macy as his example of what he calls Early Elderhood, and Thomas Berry as his example of Late Elderhood.

21 See Coleman Barks with John Moyne, The Essential Rumi (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), p. 53.

22 See Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Ronald S. Mil-ler, From Age-ing to Sage-ing (New York: Warner Books, 1995). Reb Zalman provides a number of exercises pertaining to this transition. See pp. 267–285. For ex-ample, he suggests an exercise entitled “A Testimonial Dinner for the Severe Teachers!” (pp. 279–280).

23 A bright shadow might be something generally positive (e.g., a young football player likes poetry and is shamed for it. Hence he relegates this side of himself into his shadow). A dark shadow might be something generally considered negative, certainly in one’s circle (e.g., rage or certain sexual tendencies), and hence these qualities are put into the shadow. Yet they contain an energy for life that deserves reclamation in some, often healthier form. On shadow work see Robert Bly, A Little Book on the Human Shadow, ed. William Booth (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988) and Robert A. Johnson, Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991).

24 For an alternate way to envision elders in the context of Open Forum work, see Arnold Mindell, The Deep Democracy of Open Forums (Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads Publishing Company, 2002), chapter 11, “The Open Forum as the Elder’s Monastery,” pp. 162–172.

25 This poem is the epilogue from the play by Christopher Fry, A Sleep of Prisoners. The play, written to be per-formed in a church, was first performed in England in 1951. For the full text see Christopher Fry, A Sleep of Prisoners, acting edition (New York: Dramatists Play Service, Inc., 1998).