The Hidden Work of Eldering

We are not human beings on a spiritual journey.
We are spiritual beings on a human journey.(1)

In the dark days of World War II, in the concentration camps, Victor Frankl rediscovered what lies at the heart of spiritual practice. He named it the distinction between liberty and freedom. In the camps, he had no liberty to come and go as he wished. His life was bounded by forces over which he had no control. Yet he discovered he still had what he called freedom — perhaps “the last of the human freedoms” — the ability to choose how he would respond to the events before him and around him.(2)

Victor Frankl’s distinction is essentially between WHAT is happening and HOW I am relating to what is happening.(3) I would put it this way in a wisdom chant:

There are at least TWO ways to relate to anything —
a large-minded way and a small-minded way.
Choose Large Mind!

  • At least two ways — more likely five or ten ways — to relate to anything.
  • Some are larger — in the sense of producing less unnecessary suffering and more creative possibilities for all.
  • Others are smaller — in the sense of increasing unnecessary suffering and decreasing creative possibilities for all.
  • Realizing this, why would we not choose Large Mind?

Spiritual practice, by this account, means (1) being aware that we have a choice in how we relate to anything; (2) recognizing that some ways are larger, freer, and healthier for everyone, and some are smaller, more constrictive, and less healthy for everyone; and (3) choosing larger mind.(4) To come to this realization over and over — moment by moment — we must follow the advice at the railroad crossings: Stop, look, and listen!

First, when we stop, we can notice the situation and how we are labeling and interpreting it. This is the language aspect. Second, we can notice how we are relating emotionally to the situation (moving toward or away from it; liking or disliking it; valuing or disvaluing it) and then usually projecting our emotions on others! This is the emotional aspect.

Next, we can shift our response in two ways:

  1. by shifting our language (shifting inner and outer conversations) — letting go of one way of speaking and adopting another way of speaking.
  2. by shifting the emotional charge (like, dislike; good, bad, etc.) — letting go of projecting certain emotions, and, in effect, neutralizing the emotional charge.

All of this is occurring constantly. One way to characterize the dynamic is through what I call the Four Beginnings:

We are partial; we seek to be whole.

We are asleep; we seek to be awake.

We are enslaved; we seek to be free.

We are reactive; we seek to be response-able,
i.e., able to choose our responses.

Every day we are moving back and forth across the threshold where these two worlds touch — the smaller-minded world of meaning and value and the larger-minded world of meaning and value. As the poet Rumi says: “People are going back and forth across the doorsill where the two worlds meet. The door is round and open. Don’t go back to sleep.”(5)

Spiritual Practice and the Lifetime

Suppose we think of life as a circle — with an Arc of Ascent, i.e., Spring to Summer, and an Arc of Descent, i.e., Autumn to Winter.

In the first half of life, we strive to become somebody — to take our place in the world, to achieve maturity, to develop the capacities to love and to work. Love asks that we learn how to engage in relationships of intimacy. Work asks that we learn to persist in tasks so as to see them through. These are skills that bring us from Spring Student to Summer Householder.

In the first half of life, we focus on the three R’s: Reading, ’Riting, and ’Rithmetic. All are part of our striving toward mastery in the world. Or we might think of another three R’s: Rules, Roles, and Religions. In the first half of life we are inducted into following Rules, assuming Roles, and imbibing the “Religions” of the culture. By “religions” I mean more than those traditions that claim the name; I include under this heading the “religions” of materialism, capitalism, and nationalism, together with other assorted cultural certainties.(6)

In the second half of life, we release into the depth, becoming in a certain sense nobody and everyone — an empty mirror for all that is. In the downward arc, we are invited to release from attachments to what we have constructed and to rest in the Great Mystery — in the silence, in the stillness, in the simplicity, in union with the Source and all things. In essence, we release from those stories and sentiments that no longer serve. We let go, return to our true nature, and experience it as vast, mysterious, loving, compassionate, joyful, and peaceful.

In the second half, we also focus on the three R’s of later life: Receiving, Releasing, and Remembering. Receiving life as sufficient, and responding in gratitude and joy. Releasing from being defined by roles and rules and ideologies. Remembering who we are in our widest and deepest natures. At our core we already have all we need to live a life of quality.

Our deep Self reflects more and more our Source and reflects more and more how deeply intertwined we are with one another in the great Circle of Life — people, other animals, plants, and minerals. Here is a way of marking the difference between the two halves:

First Half Tasks

Second Half Tasks

To compete

To contribute by resting in the Mystery

To compare

To let go of comparing and rest in the Mystery

To control

To let go of controlling and rest in the Mystery

To have certainty

To let go of certainty and be open to each Moment

To fix things

To allow things to be as they are, amplifying movement

To be right or justified

To give up being right and be open to other ways

To be rewarded

To act for the well-being of all, regardless of benefit

To be praised

To focus on people and situations in and for themselves

To avoid blame

To be free of both praise and blame

The paradox is that we must construct a healthy ego before we can release from that ego. Some young people once told the great student of mythology, Joseph Campbell, that they were lucky. With their guru, they could go from youth to sage without having to pass through the messiness of finding their way in the world — to which Campbell responded: “Yes, and the only thing you lose is your life.”

Overture to the Hidden Work of Elders: Grandparents

I have written elsewhere that a first sketch of elder is grandparents at their best.(7) I envisioned grandparents as having three tasks:

  • To keep the big things big and the little things little
      Grandparents at their best see us in a much longer view, knowing the wisdom of “This too shall pass.”; the young and many adults often stay stuck in the limited drama of the moment. First love and first loss of love. First betrayal or experience of injustice. The world has ended. How can we go on? Yet the grandparent sees further.
  • To encourage creativity
      Grandparents at their best can be allies of the young by encouraging them to be daring, take risks, follow their dreams. The young and many adults often are locked into worrying about what their peers will say or whether this or that is “practical” in the so-called “real world.”
  • To bless the young
      Grandparents at their best see us in our unique core beauty. They see us as deeper than our actions; and, hence in their presence, we often become our better selves. Sometimes this is as close as we come to being loved unconditionally, loved no matter what. Those who are young or even adults often do not see one another’s core beauty. In our limited first half of life, we often freeze one another in stories from the past.

Now, let us think of the grandparenting years and also of the tasks of autumn and winter that take place in the post-retirement years — years which the British call “The Third Age.” In this context, the arc of life is divided into unequal thirds — say, 20 years as students, 40 years as householder, and another 20 years in retirement. I wish to focus on these last 20 years. In the language of ancient India, I want to revisit the stages of Forest Dweller and Sage. The responsibilities of rearing children have, for the most part, ended. The tasks of full-time employment are over. Surely, we grieve the passing of this stage of life. Surely, we feel in our bones the signs of growing older. Still, the autumn and winter are rich in inner possibilities, not the least of which are keeping the little things little and the big things big, encouraging creativity, and blessing the young.

Autumn Releasing: a New Vision of Forest Dweller

I saw you standing with the wind
and the rain in your face
And you were thinking 'bout
the wisdom of the leaves and their grace
When the leaves come falling down
In September when the leaves come falling down.(8)

What is the wisdom of the leaves and their grace? In part, it is the wisdom that Mary Oliver points to at the end of her poem, “In Blackwater Woods”:

To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.(9)

This is a wisdom that bring with it grace and graciousness. For the leaf is part of more than itself, it is part of the tree in its cycles and the forest and all of nature. Somehow, nothing is lost. And much is gained when we release from smaller identities and rest in the Great Mystery.

In the retirement years, we are already on the way to releasing and returning to the wider natural community. The first-half-of-life tasks of child rearing and of the ladder of career have fallen away, and we have a chance to confront again the perennial question: “Who am I now?” An embodied subject in a world of other subjects. Awake to awe and wonder. Aware of being influenced by others and influencing others. Relational through and through. Capable of learning from all things.

Becoming a Forest Dweller begins as I open my senses and come to dwell more fully in the here and in the now. I practice being present to the humans I meet this day. I practice being present to all the earth creatures that comprise my extended family (people, other animals, plants, and minerals). All are involved in making of the earth a habitat fit for life. May we pay attention to the ground we walk on, the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the sun that lights our way and warms us, the moon that adorns the night whose voice we hear in the tides. So one doorway to Forest Dweller is to open our senses and pay attention with loving eyes, grateful eyes, compassionate eyes, welcoming eyes. And to bring this gentleness to all the other senses as well.

Opening our senses re-roots us in place and re-educates us to the holy particularity of each being. “Love,” as James Edwin Loder suggests so beautifully, “is the non-possessive delight in the particularity of the other.”(10) Such delight makes joy and wonder primary in the autumn of our life. As Forest Dweller, we learn to bow to all beings exactly as they are — in their surface disturbances and in their core wholeness. To bow to others in such fashion means we release in order to acknowledge more fully; we acknowledge in order to release more fully.

Winter Remembering: a New Vision of Sage

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.(11)

Saints and sages come in an almost infinite variety — some sober and well-grounded, some ecstatic and wild. All with various blends of earth and sky.

We come to embody the sage-in-us more fully when we truly realize that we already have everything we seek. Releasing from hindrances lets the gravity of falling leaves bring us home. Remembering the whole is remembering where the three circles overlap: The Source, the Circle of all Life, and our deep Self. And here we need to overcome a persistent distortion: Our notions of saint and sage are usually too tied up with the quest for perfection — a project appropriate to the first half. So, in rethinking sage, we must turn to the perfection of imperfection.

In the Hasidic tradition, we find the story of the compassionate Rabbi Zusya, who shortly before his death, said: “In the coming world, they will not ask me: Why were you not Moses? They will ask me: Why were you not Zusya?”(12)

This is a question for all of us. In the coming life and even in this life, you and I will not be asked: “Why were you not Moses or Jesus or Mohammad? Why were you not Buddha or Lao Tzu or Confucius or any of the great-souled exemplars of a fully-lived life?” We shall be asked why we are not ourselves. This turns everything on its head! No place to go, nothing to do. Simply to be oneself as deeply and authentically and generously as we can. To be oneself with all the gifts and wounds that have come to us. With all the gifts we have given and the wounds we have inflicted. With the hurts done to us acknowledged and forgiven. With the hurts done by us acknowledged and with forgiveness sought. How difficult to believe we are loved exactly as we are, forgiven exactly as we are. And all we are asked is to share the love, to share the forgiveness with all our kin.

When I empty, when I become no-thing, then all fills me. Looking up at the autumn leaves, a friend asks: “What is the color of your mind?” I say it is the blue of sky and the white of clouds and the rich colors of the leaves.

Here are three paradoxes of the sage:

  • The sage is both empty and full, exemplifying sunyata-tathata. Sunyata is emptiness, a kind of openness to all that is. The sage is transparent, allowing the light to shine through. Tathata is the suchness of things — their particularity. Suppose, after a near-death experience, you awaken to see the face of your beloved, as if for the first time. Given a glass of orange juice, you taste the juice of oranges as if for the first time.
  • The sage’s life shows that “Nowhere” is also “Now Here.” Shows that we are in time and out of time at each moment.
  • The sage is of the earth, earthy, and of the sky, airborne with longing for more and ever more.

How do such sages look? They come and go — “not stinking of holiness,” as the Zen masters say. No wonder then that the sage-in-us is like a lover, like a poet, like a fool.(13) In the end, there is no way to tell sages by physical appearance. They seem irreverent, yet their compassion is deep. They come and go in the affairs of life, making no effort to follow in the footsteps of earlier sages. Mysterious and transparent, they do not draw attention to themselves. Nor do they evade what comes. They enter the marketplace. They return home. They are virtually unnoticed. “Muddied and dust-covered how broadly they grin. Without recourse to mystic powers, in their presence, withered trees come to bloom.”(14)

In the last phase of life, we release from imitation, release from a pernicious perfectionism, and rest in the grace of what is. Accepting how simple it is, how can we not smile?

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1 This is a well-known variant of a quote attributed to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

2 See Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959), p. 104.

3 How I am relating involves a meaning component (how I label or language things) and a value component (how I project my likes and dislikes onto things). Noticing what is occurring and how I am labeling or speaking of that is one thing. Noticing any emotional charge {= any liking or disliking {= is a second. For more on this, see my Living Large: Transformative Work at the Intersection of Ethics and Spirituality (Laurel, MD: Tai Sophia Press, 2004).

4 In a lesson from language, I see the “how” as pointing to adverbs {= the quality that accompanies our actions, especially that we do all we do lovingly, compassionately, joyfully, and peacefully. For more, see my The Fourfold Path to Wholeness: A Compass for the Heart (Chapel Hill, NC: Second Journey Publications, 2010).

5 See Coleman Barks (with John Moyne, A. J. Arberry, and Reynold Nicholson), The Essential Rumi (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), p. 36.

6 I think of a set of supposed superiorities which are supported and reinforced by the institutions of the culture, such as patriarchy and sexism, racism and ageism, even speciesism {= the notion that humans are superior to all other life forms and can do with them what they will.

7 For more, see my The Spiral of the Seasons: Welcoming the Gifts of Later Life (Chapel Hill, NC: Second Journey Publications, 2009).

8 Van Morrison,”When the Leaves Come Falling Down,” track 5 on the CD Back on Top© 1998, Exile Publishing Ltd.

9 See Mary Oliver, “In Blackwater Woods,” in New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), pp. 177–178.

10 See James Edwin Loder, The Logic of the Spirit: Human Development in a Theological Perspective (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1998).

11 “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen, from his album The Future, Columbia Records, 1992.

12 See Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: Early Masters (New York: Schocken Books, 1947/1970), p. 251.

13 I am echoing Shakespeare’s “The lunatic, the lover and the poet are of imagination all compact.” See A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act Five, Scene 1.

14 Here I am paraphrasing the tenth Oxherding Picture from the Zen series picturing the journey to enlightenment and service. I am also shifting from speaking of the sage in the singular to speaking of sages in the plural. See Philip Kapleau, The Three Pillars of Zen (Boston: Beacon Press, 2nd printing with revisions, 1967), p. 311.