Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, professor emeritus at Temple University, is an internationally recognized teacher of the heart who draws from many disciplines and cultures. He is the founder of Spiritual Eldering Institute, which teach elders how to expand their lives and consciousnesses to meet their extended life span. You can contact him at the institute: 7318 Germantown Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19119.
If somebody says to me: "I’m not happy about the way I’m growing old," I talk to them about shifting from aging to saging.
The first step is to face our mortality. When I look ahead, I see the end. I’m going to die. Most people have an aversion to looking in the direction of dying. The future inexorably comes, and if I’m not facing it, I’m backing into it.
Many people see the past and all its problems and they don’t want to look at the past either. The present isn’t so hot, what with the diminishments, the cataract operations, the prostate thing, and so on.
So there sets in a compressed awareness, and with it comes depression: you have no past, you have no future, and the present is very bleak.
Then people realize "Hey, I can’t afford that because I’m not living longer, I’m dying longer!"
Once they’ve looked directly at their mortality they can ask a realistic question: How long have I got? And most of the time it’s not so bad. If I’ve lived up to today, the likelihood is that I’m going to live some more, and maybe a lot longer. Once people realize that they can begin to plan.
They may consider going back to work, but for many elderly people that would be neglecting what they most need to do, which is to harvest their lives. Anything that takes one away from that task leads to depression; anything that’ll further that task brings elation: "Ah, that’s what I need to do right now!"
Part of the harvesting process involves letting go of old grudges, doing one’s energy budget and figuring out how much energy is tied up in not forgiving.
This is all part of what I call "life repair," which also includes paying attention to intergenerational relationships and finding the pearls in anxious memories.
There are contemplative tools available from all the mystical traditions that help tremendously with this process. These tools have one thing in common: you work with your spirit, with your inner awareness, with your intuition. There’s a certain guidance that people feel comes to them from beyond their own personal selves.
Using these contemplative tools and Martin Buber’s teachings I’ve designed something I call socialized meditation. In a process similar to co-counseling, we encourage what we call spiritual intimacy. For instance, I have to do forgiveness work, and you and I are working together. The state of mind in which I do that work is not everyday banter. Instead it’s a very deep I-Thou relating. These are the tools that enable us to begin the process of saging instead of just aging.
One of the things I ask people who are getting older is, "Are you saved?" Most of them haven’t done any mentoring or journal writing, so when the plug gets pulled, all that memory in (biological) RAM is gone. So we need to upload it!
You know, crazy as it may seem, if you’ve been reincarnated a couple of times and you haven’t graduated, it may be because you have incompletes in your eldering!
Spiritual eldering carries with it special opportunities; it means acting as guide, mentor, and agent of healing and reconciliation on behalf of the planet, nation, tribe, clan, and family. We become wisdom keepers.