The Portals to Conscious Elderhood

Understanding life transitions and the importance of rites of passage.

| Spring 2015

  • Sunrise at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico.
    Photo by Flickr/Larry Lamsa

Ten mature adults and two guides, each engaged in silent prayer and accompanied by a gentle drumbeat, stand on the edge of a mesa at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico. The chill of a late-springtime dawn at 7,000 feet is dispelled as the sun rises over sandstone monoliths and pinnacles to the east. Sunlight gradually envelops the mesa, illuminating the new tender green of the scrub oak and cottonwoods as they emerge from a long, cold winter. The call of a golden eagle soaring overhead pierces the silence. It summons the world to life and to revel in this new day. To the west, the walls that enclose this natural amphitheater are appearing from darkness to reveal a stunning palette of layered color ranging from white-gray to beige to vermillion. It is the season of new beginnings for a group of people enacting rites of passage to inform and empower their journeys into conscious elderhood.

These individuals, in or approaching their elder years, are participating in a Choosing Conscious Elderhood retreat. They are following in the footsteps of countless others. At critical turning points in life, people have retreated to wilderness places to enact rites of passage. They then returned to their communities spiritually and emotionally renewed, with new insight about how best to live and contribute as the next stages of their lives unfolded.

Anthropologists tell us that throughout most of known human history, many cultures marked significant life changes with rites of passage that served as initiation into the next stage of life. Extensive preparation at all levels—physical, psychological, and spiritual—was followed by an intense, spiritually charged ceremonial ritual process. This ceremony required the initiate to leave behind normal village life and enter a place of mystery, perceived danger, and spiritual power. The intent of this process was to acknowledge that a major life transition was occurring, both inwardly and outwardly, and to empower the initiate to fully and consciously move into his next life role.

Through these powerful processes, people were assisted in letting go of attitudes, behaviors, and self-concepts from previous life stages that would not serve them or their communities in their new role. Concurrently, they were guided in identifying and strengthening the skills, wisdom, psychological resources, and spiritual connection necessary for claiming their new status and fulfilling their new roles. Upon their return to the community, they and their communities knew that in some essential way who they had been—both personally and in terms of their role in society—had died. A new self with new wisdom and gifts to contribute had been born.

Our secular contemporary world is characterized by a dearth of meaningful, emotionally and spiritually empowering rites of passage to help people realize the potential fullness of each of life’s stages. Deep wisdom about human growth has been lost. As they pass through life, people are expected to move from one ill-defined stage to another alone, with little psychological and spiritual preparation. The two areas where this lack is most detrimental to personal and societal well-being are the ambiguous passage from adolescence into adulthood and the equally amorphous passage from career-focused adulthood into early elderhood.

3/28/2015 5:36:09 PM

Excuse me for being cynical, but this seems largely a symptom of a MUCH bigger societal problem. All assignments of status have now been relegated to wealth. The amount of your wealth now determines how much respect you (fallaciously) receive. If you are an elder with at least six zeroes in your bank account, you get lots of respect. If you are just getting by, you are an irrelevant ghost that might as well just die and give your space to someone more "productive." If we don't change our current course, we are headed to sick, dark place where there is little humanity left.

3/23/2015 7:52:35 AM

At the Superhero and Authentic Freedom academies, we have members between the ages of 18 and 76 and I wholeheartedly agree with the value of Eldering! There is such wisdom to be shared and lessons to be learned from those who have walked ahead of us. The young people gain from those who have seen and experienced what they have and in knowing they are not alone and that they can find empowerment as the Elders have. And the Elders find fruitfulness in sharing their wisdom. Lauri Lumby, MATP Authentic Freedom Ministries Oshkosh, WI

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