A Practice in Conscious Aging: Lifelong Learning

A Practice in Conscious Aging: Lifelong Learning

A Practice of Lifelong Learning:  With enduring curiosity and innovative creativity, we have a personal mission to continue to grow spiritually, cognitively, and emotionally.

“We spend precious hours fearing the inevitable. It would be wise to use that time adoring our families, cherishing our friends, and living our lives.”    Maya Angelou

The key to living a vibrant life as we move into our third chapter is to find meaning.  There are myriad ways to do so.  Some people famously never retire and simply continue to do what they’ve always done in their careers.  Lawyers, professors, and even some doctors are renowned for continuing the work that they trained so hard to do, especially if they are still enjoying that work, which is key.  Others keep doing familiar work because they cannot let go of that professional identity.  They fail to imagine new possibilities for themselves.

Many people step into their retirement years with great gusto and a vision to do things that they’ve always wanted to do but never had time to explore or develop. Sociologist Sara Lawrence Lightfoot traveled the country for two years interviewing people who had chosen to step into something new in retirement.  She documented and revealed the ways in which these years in fact “may be the most transformative and generative time in our lives in which wisdom, experience, and new learning can inspire individual growth and cultural transformation.”  These stories are indeed inspiring and well worth reading, especially for people who are trying to determine what is next for them.

I spent twenty-four years of my life as a Professor of Music Education. I loved the teaching and engagement with bright young minds.  I loved the joy I felt in helping to train many outstanding music educators who went on to influence their students.  It felt like important legacy work and held great meaning and delight for me.

As a woman who came of age during the women’s movement of the 60s and 70s, I stepped into the rigors of the culture of higher education with my eyes wide open. I was determined to successfully play the higher education game that was dominated by men who had made all the rules.  I co-authored three music series for teachers to use with children and two college textbooks.  I published articles, I spoke at conferences, and I traveled the world presenting in many places as guests of various universities and even countries.  In other words, I jumped through all the hoops required by academia and succeeded in becoming a tenured full professor at two different universities.  I’d grabbed the brass ring and made it to the top.

In my mid-50s, things began to shift for me.  I was teaching at a university in a cultural setting I found challenging. Although I was doing well in my teaching, I became clinically depressed.  I taught during the week and cried all weekend for about five months. I still enjoyed my teaching and won a wonderful award for that, but I was struggling emotionally and spiritually.  One day my husband started bringing empty boxes home from work.  I asked him what they were for.  He said, “We’re moving.  You are not happy.”  That is when the inner work started.  I had the possibility of teaching at one of two prestigious schools of music, but my mother was declining with dementia and my father had died.  Those schools were too distant from where I felt I needed to be, which was to return home.  I read the book, New Passages, by Gail Sheehy who interviewed women from teens through nineties.  Among other things, she found that the most interesting women in their nineties had completely changed what they did in their fifties and sixties.  I thought, “I can do that!”  I read the book, Callings, by Gregg Levoy and listened deeply for my call as to what was next for me.

I sensed that the path I was to take would be a spiritual path.  We returned to Seattle, and I applied to study at the School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University, a renowned Jesuit university.  The program I went through was ecumenical as well as interfaith. In four years, I attained an MA in Transforming Spirituality.  It completely changed my life.  During a required internship, I was introduced to the work of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in Sage-ing.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the founder of Sage-ing International, had articulated a radical vision for what these later years might be for each of us.  He addressed the challenges of living in a youth-oriented culture such as the U.S. and called us to do the inner work of aging, a set of important spiritual tasks, to reveal the wisdom in each of us that can be mobilized to help heal the world – hence the use of the term, Sage.  His thinking was a beacon for me.

Although I had deepened spiritually in my MA program, none of that work directly addressed the inner work of aging.  After graduation, I went on to become a Certified Sage-ing Leader (CSL), taught Sage-ing workshops, led and attended retreats. I’ve also served in the leadership of Sage-ing International.  Most importantly for me, I joined a community of people who are aging in meaning filled ways.  These relationships and the concepts of Sage-ing have enriched my life beyond measure.  I am deeply grateful that my willingness to risk led to this path and these insights.  I feel more alive than I ever have and more connected to others who truly are aging with wisdom.  And, by moving home I gained the privilege of accompanying my mother through the end of her life.

Both Lightfoot and Schachter-Shalomi call us to risk to transform so that we may in turn help to transform our world.  In the process of going on such a journey we will certainly grow intellectually, heal emotionally, and deepen spiritually.  They are powerful invitations to reinvent ourselves, to age with wisdom, and to become agents for change as we model what it means to live active, engaged, and meaningful lives.

Gregg Levoy (1997) Callings: Finding and Following An Authentic Life, Harmony Books.

Sara Lawrence Lightfoot (2009) The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the 25 years after 50. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

Zalman Schachter Shalomi and Ronald S. Miller (2014, 2nd Ed.) From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Revolutionary Approach to Growing Older.  Warner Books.

Gail Sheehy (1995)      New Passages: Mapping Your Life Across Time, Random House.

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