This post captures my reactions and take-aways to the book: From Age-ing to Sage-ing by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.
Written almost 25 years ago, you would think that the perceptions of retirement would have progressed further. The book covers the ideas that retirement removes primary source of self-worth and the lack of positive role models to show us how to best transition and live the next life-stage. While the author uses the term “elder” (it was written in 1995), the concepts feel very true still today. This book made me realize that it can take generations to shift social belief systems!
The “elder” life-stage under discussion is the now-longer-than-ever “retirement life-stage”. The author proposes that this is not just a continuation of the previous life-stage (continued focus on competition and achievement, addicted to productivity and activity, continuing to live as the hero/heroine archetype), but a next life-stage that is slower paced, more contemplative, and focused on individual spiritual growth. The book explores the challenge of this point of life – the choice between continuing the activity focused lifestyle (which seems to be easier since it is familiar territory) or becoming more individualized through a more contemplative lifestyle.
Our goal-oriented culture is all about expansion and achievement – movement, building/growing things, make more connections, start new projects. Many post-retirement individuals feel the need to simply extend the middle years frenzy of activity, living the dominant hero/heroine archetype’s courage and perseverance and the youthful ideals of strength, beauty, and personal ambition.
There continues to be a perception that retirement is old age – wrinkled skin, gray hair, chronic disease, non-productive, simply awaiting death. There is a perception that seniors are either imposing their (outdated) knowledge unsolicited or being a useless drain on society. Neither is a positive, aspirational image.
Our culture is uncomfortable with the concepts of contraction, lack of activity (stillness), inward contemplation, deepening our connection with our inner self, focusing on spirituality and generativity, or the nature of being.
While psychologists talk about individuation in this post-retirement life stage, there are not a lot of role models for the archetype of the Inner Elder. Who is highlighted for becoming increasingly in contact with their inner-self; working on understanding the deeper, often elusive, patterns of our life; having a wisdom of the ages based on self-knowledge of life long experiences? Where are the Sages who offer their balanced judgment and wisdom, unattached to the outcomes, tolerant and patient, willing to teach in ways that allow others to learn? Instead we see the role models of individuals launching second careers or going back to school, turning hobbies into money-making ventures, volunteering in charitable organization to save the world. When we retire, we are often encouraged to get another job, pursue new hobbies, keep going, keep doing …. keep being middle-age.
Unfortunately, there is a strong preaching element in the book about leaving a legacy. While there is some discussion about no longer needing to live according to the litany of outer voices and the should/ expectation of society (permission to be my authentic self, delight in my uniqueness), the author also points out the 5 M’s “appropriate” for elders – mentors who teach the young, mediators who resolve conflict, monitors of public bodies, mobilizers of social change, or motivators of society to focus on public good. On one hand, no more expectations; and on the other hand, what is expected!
But I found the elements of how to live a more contemplative lifestyle most intriguing. It goes against the concept of aging as an activity oriented approach of continued intellectual growth, increased (not merely sustained) physical vigor, and continued meaningful work. A contemplative lifestyle:
- Focuses on undertaking the inner work that leads to expanded consciousness through journal writing, life review, mediation, and spiritual exploration.
- Is no longer about having to devote time to meeting other people’s expectations, but rather unleashing energy into self-awareness, spiritual development, and creativity.
- Is pursuing activity not for any desired outcome, but for the sake of the activity, whether it’s yoga, gardening, journal writing, painting, or something else.
Through the deeper consciousness of the contemplative lifestyle you find a sense of “enough-ness”, cultivate calmness, and find satisfaction in being, rather than doing.
The life review process that facilitates some of the contemplative work is similar to Julia Cameron’s memoir work in her latest The Artist’s Way series. Life Review involves also re-contextualizing our failures into successes (valuing the learning from the choice made, recognizing the shift made in life’s journey, an acceptance of unenlightened decisions), releasing grudges and resentments (anger and resentment imprison vitality and creativity), and reconnecting to unlived life and sacrificed dreams. The goal of this process is the understanding of what life has meant up to this point (to help see where you’re heading), reconnecting with the inner artist/inner child, and us forgiving ourselves for our imperfections.
Basically the author encourages a release of the mid-life goals of acquisition (addiction to materialism, mindless consumerism), competitive dominance (climbing the ladder, mastery achievement), and the status of leadership to focus on inner development, an increase in spiritual understanding, and self-awareness for a sense of oneness with a Higher Order.
At the end, the author does encourage one of the following in this next life stage: altruistic activism, responsible citizenship, ecological stewardship, legacy inspiring creativity, OR a search for faith and inner peace. One is encouraged to become the “Wise Woman” (elder archetype) who has achieved a deeper level of consciousness based on forgiveness, compassion, and wisdom.
So what do I plan to do based on this work?
- Slow down. Take the time to find wonder in each day, most notably in the cycles of nature. Take the time for acts of everyday kindness. Make time for creative activities.
- Preserve my legacy though writing this blog – information (wisdom) freely given.
- Continue harvesting the wisdom of the years through (restarting) my memoir work.
- Re-commit to live my (unique) life in accordance with my values, free from expectations of others. Continue healthy lifestyle practices and living my unique journey. Find validation and self-worth from within.
- Work on creating inner strength and the ability to find equilibrium in a world of unceasing change/stress. Model a joyous positive attitude.
While a challenging book to read (no, I would not highly recommend it), it helped me feel more comfortable with my current focus on self-acceptance and to live each day mindfully and with gratitude. (Yes, I still need the external validation!)