I teach a series of classes called Conscious Aging; the curriculum was developed over four years of field testing by the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS). There are five interconnected goals for participants:
- To explore unexamined, self-limiting beliefs about aging and make more conscious choices about our worldviews on aging
- To develop self-compassion to cope with aging
- To discover and reflect on what has given heart and meaning to our lives
- To enhance our connection with others and reduce isolation
- To reduce fear of death and increase acceptance of dying
Over the past year, I have facilitated conversations in groups of elders that have been enlightening, humorous, and inspiring. As I was thinking about the coming season of Thanksgiving I wanted to share some highlights that have made me feel grateful as an IONS facilitator.
In one class, we had been discussing surrender, the process of letting go that relates to accepting reality, rather than avoiding or denying it. As people age, they are faced with a reality of many losses, including the loss of a career they may have loved, the loss of a neighborhood they may have lived in for many years, and the loss of independence as bodily ailments of aging wear out joints and cause pain. To complement the topic, I created an activity in which I laid out on a table a selection of stones with words written on one side and placed them face down in a circle. Participants were asked to come up and choose one they liked, without turning it over to see the word on it. After they returned to their seats, each was asked to reveal the word written on the stone they had selected, and what it meant to them as it related to surrender.
One woman said “I chose this stone because I liked its color green; it has the word ‘dream’ on it. This is a reminder that I still have the power to choose what is possible for me now in this stage of life. I have wanted to travel more and I have considered the reasons why my family is lukewarm to my plans, or downright opposed! They want me to stay close to home, where they can keep an eye on my comings and goings, but I want to live in a bigger world. I want to see Paris, and Rome before I die. I want to go on one of those senior trips where there’s a tour guide, and I don’t have to travel by myself, but can be part of a group of people like me – curious and still adventurous. Being in this class has made me determined to remain independent as long as I can and if I want to travel, I think I should surrender to that desire because I am not getting any younger!” At those words, the group burst into spontaneous applause, and I noticed that they were all grinning, beaming at her, as they shared their excitement about her pronounced intentions. Her clarity and enthusiasm was contagious!
Another woman had chosen a stone with the word “courage” on it and she told us that it represented her desire to pass on what she knows. She told us about a sermon she had heard a few years ago that had impacted her self-awareness and was still with her today as she looked at the stone. In the sermon, she had heard the question, “What are you pretending not to know?” and she recalled feeling a small “bomb” go off in her solar plexus that made her literally lose her breath for a moment. She told us that she’s always known she was meant to share her wisdom about life, but for years she had avoided speaking with authority about what she wanted to pass on to the younger generation in her family. She felt unworthy and shy. The stone she had chosen was “not by accident” she insisted. It was a reminder, a “tap on the shoulder” to get on with it, and to share her life stories with her grandkids before it was too late.
The group affirmed her decision to fully accept the role of the family elder that she had long envisioned. Many said they could relate to her desire to share her wisdom, and I reminded the group that this is a process of aging called generativity, a term first coined by the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson in 1950 to denote “a concern for establishing and guiding the next generation.” It’s a life-affirming process in which elders literally give themselves away in order to contribute to a greater sense of community, to joyfully mentor and coach the next generation, and to do so with the tolerance, understanding, and patience they had acquired from living a long life.
Each class has had moments like these; wonderfully heartfelt, authentic conversations that help elders reflect on past choices, let go of what no longer serves them, and embrace change, not as something to dread or to resent, but as something to welcome and engineer on their own terms. Each unique group of seniors has left me feeling grateful for the chance to connect with them. They are intelligent spiritual sojourners, kindred souls full of passion and humor, as well as wise elders with the gravitas that comes with advanced age.
I will be thinking of them this year at the Thanksgiving table and I will give thanks for what they have so generously taught me about successful aging. And I will take to heart the admonition of one writer about older adults that “Just cause there is snow on the roof, doesn’t mean there’s not a fire inside.” (Bonnie Hunt)