Dear Friends Committed to Living and Aging Consciously;
We send you this newsletter as the northern hemisphere of our planet home yet again comes to life after a long, dark Winter. May gentle rains and warm breezes, internal and external, bring you renewal this Springtime.
The purpose of this newsletter, and of the Center for Conscious Eldering, is to support you in growing into the conscious elderhood that is your birthright, but which requires your willingness to accept it as both gift and responsibility. We include a heart-opening article by Charles Ortloff that recounts his experiences of finding in the desert the guidance he had long been searching for; a reflection from Anne Wennhold on her passage into the later stages of Elderhood; and an article by conscious eldering guide and ecologist Larry Gray on the critical role of conscious elders in helping the modern world recognize and reclaim our intrinsic relationship to the natural world, upon which our survival depends.
We present poetry to touch your heart and stir your intuition. You will find information about the in-person Choosing Conscious Elderhood we very much look forward to presenting at Ghost Ranch in late September. We also present information about three books we highly recommend as resources for your conscious eldering, as well as two organizations we are proud to have as partners in the work of supporting the development of true Elders.
There's a lot in this newsletter. Take time to savor it, ideally in several sessions.
When You've Lost Your Way:
The Wisdom of Returning to the Desert
by Charles Ortloff
My two experiences in the wilderness with Ron Pevny and Anne Wennhold have been nothing less than life changing. The first was in 2016 and the second in 2019, one month before I retired.
Nine months after my second experience, I received a diagnosis of stage 4 prostate cancer. My doctor told me, “There is no cure. We will try to keep you alive so that you die of something else.” This was totally unexpected. My two times out in the wilderness prepared me for this unexpected journey. Let me explain.
My first time in the wilderness for a Conscious Eldering retreat was not what I anticipated. I was three years away from retirement. I was looking for some direction of “what next?” From the very first night, gazing into the starry night sky of the Milky Way, I felt my heart opening up to something, but I didn’t know what. I was excited for this journey to begin.
Each morning, Ron led us in drumming. On the second day, and each day after, a strong sense came to me that I would get nothing out of this experience unless I approached it from the spirituality of this place -- native American. This was a big hurdle for me. One that I accepted after only two or three days of nudgings. On my day alone in the desert, after giving tobacco to four directions of the compass, I sat quietly and waited. I felt surprisingly comfortable with this very foreign experience. Almost immediately, I sensed a pow-wow going on. There was dancing and chanting and smoking of a pipe. I wanted to ask my question, “What’s next?” But the celebration just went on and on. It was a sacred moment. I don’t know how long it lasted. And then, unexpectedly, I had my answer. The leader looked at me and said, “You will be called Snow Goose.” And that was it. Not long after this the pow wow ended, but the answer stayed with me.
In the weeks that followed that first retreat, I pondered my new name. Snow geese travel great distances. The metaphor seemed clear. I was called to travel, leave my comfortable spirituality and assumptions about other religions. Several quotes came to mind that informed me of my new name. From Matthew Fox’s quote, “one river, many wells,” I was reminded of the one truth deep within the many great spiritualities of the world. From the quote, “From the top of every great tree in the forest, the view is the same,” I was reminded that all spiritualities in their most mature forms are the same. They are love. So for the next three years, I gave myself over to the study and practice of many of the great spiritualities. I experienced a great peace and connection to myself and my world.
With one month remaining before I retired, I eagerly went back out into the wilderness on a Next Step retreat. I had no idea what I would do in retirement. I was certain, I would get a clear message in the desert. But nothing came, not in my long walks, nor looking at the night sky, nor in any small group time. After my day alone, with once again, nothing to show from my inner work, I walked back to the main lodge a little discouraged. As I walked, an image gently passed through my mind, hardly noticeable. Had a deer or even a squirrel come into view, I would have immediately forgotten the image. But I was all alone with an image of a small, clear votive candle. The light in the candle was flickering. And that was it.
Was this my new calling? Was this my new name? It did not appeal to my heroic side that responded so well to the tribal circle of elders chanting. But that was all I had. I must have shown a little disappointment with my time alone when I returned to our small group and shared my story. One dear friend mentioned, “Well, Charlie, don’t forget that song you learned as a child, ‘This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.’” And of course, she was right. It was so simple and profound, I had missed it. But I still did not embrace it. I went home a bit confused and disappointed.
At home my confusion continued. I retired in a month with no idea what I was to do next. For eight months, I floundered. Then, I got the diagnosis of stage four prostate cancer. Everything changed. For two or three months, every morning I awoke with this elephant on my chest. I couldn’t breathe. I did not want this diagnosis. And I prayed, “When will this be over?”
After a while, remembering my times out in the desert, I got my bearings back. I had asked God to use me in retirement. Be careful what you ask for. I saw myself as that clear, small votive candle. My body would sooner or later be taken away. All the outer forms of my life would be removed, one at a time. But the light of God would continue to shine. That would be my one constant. The image of that small, clear votive candle, once so insignificant to me, has now become the answer to my question, “What next?”.
As I let go of the outer forms of my life, all the places I had been hiding behind, I now started to let other people in. I wrote a letter to my children telling them how much I loved them. I had never spoken with such forthright passion. What a gift to have that opportunity before one dies. I wrote our Christmas letter to friends and family telling them that “I am not fighting cancer. But to paraphrase, John O'Donoghue, I welcomed cancer as a guest who has gifts to offer.” My family and I have experienced these gifts from cancer many times over.
In whatever time I have left, I’m that little, clear votive candle. I try to let God’s love shine through me. I’m writing a book for my grandkids, sharing my life with them, the real me. My subtitle for the book is: “The Making of a Modern Mystic.” I co-host a weekly podcast where I share some of my spirituality. I continue my work as a spiritual director. And I am learning to play the cello. All from this new perspective of my life as the clear, small votive candle. Life is so good.
In 2019, Charles retired after 42 years as a Lutheran pastor. He continues to do work as a mentor and spiritual friend. He enjoys writing and is currently working on a book for his family entitled, “Grandpa Speaks, At Last -- The Making of a Modern Mystic.” He has two other books in the works, one for those diagnosed with cancer and one outlining his own spiritual cartography, that of a contemplative. Though diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, he has never felt so alive.
the photo above is of dear models of what conscious eldering can be one's 80s
--Robert and Elizabeth Cogburn
Aging from the 70s to the 80s
by Anne Wennhold
When I retired at 70 years of age, I was invited to work with a group of elders in recovery from alcohol. For years I had been teaching people of varied ages, but never those who were considered seniors: it was a new ball park for me. I asked a social worker what to expect from the elder population. Her succinct description made me laugh. “There are three stages of aging,” she said. “The Go-Goes, the Slow-Goes and the No-Goes.”
I am now in my 80s, a vantage point for understanding what she meant. The 70s were actually the Go-Go years of my lifetime. It was a decade, not only of integrating all the challenging aspects of my life but of sharing the results with others. Beginning with a Choosing Conscious Elderhood retreat and its suggestions for aging successfully, I became a teacher, a leader and a facilitator for others on a path of self-discovery and aging.
In addition to co-guiding Choosing Conscious Elderhood Retreats at Ghost Ranch, I ran weekly discussion groups on aging for our local county day centers: gave lectures, presentations and workshops teaching the skills of aging to church groups and at libraries. I also held one-day retreats for small groups in several eastern states.
Other interests came to the fore during those 10 years: my love of art and the growing understanding of Native American and Shamanic spirituality and ritual. I held workshops at a variety of venues for those vested with a similar desire to learn more about these belief systems and practices. I held drum making, mandala drawing and dream decoding classes when requested.
Reading was a mainstay of that time. I wanted to learn as much as I could about what other paths might lead to a sense of my place in the world and a satisfaction that I was fulfilling what my mission and purpose seemed to be. Nature was both central to the work and a partner to my life: trees especially. They shared thoughts about roots, trunks, branches and leaves in support of daily life. My body was strong. It carried me forward with few complaints.
I cannot speak as definitively about my 80s as I can the 70s because I’m still in the middle of them but I can say this. Shortly after my 80th birthday there came what I now call a ‘sea change.’ It was like a soft breeze stealing in from the north, the place of transitions. My body felt it before my mind became aware of it and before my emotional self finally acknowledged that the Slow-Go years had arrived. My body was no longer silently strong. It began to demand attention. Sorties to the doctors for check ups and tune-ups came first, dietary changes and attendance to exercise began to consume more time on a daily basis. Extensive travel for presentations and workshops was no longer the pleasure it had once been: easy access to nearby bathrooms became an obsession.
Nobody wants to hear this and as an 80 something year old I do not want it to preoccupy me either. I’ve already seen too many elders who bind themselves up in their ills. My body however, is lagging while I myself, the ‘me’ inside, is still vital, still excited about growing and learning and being a part of the work world. Only now I must learn to compromise with the physical self.
I’ve always loved the work I’ve done with groups. It has and continues to light my own path as I hope it does for others. However the COVD virus of the past year put a swift stop to all that: the local and the weekly meetings, all gone in a wink of time. On the other hand as often happens, while COVID took away with one hand, it gifted me with the other. Zoom opened the opportunity to continue meetings online and introduced new ideas: topics like Memoir Writing, Dream Decoding, Shamanic Journeying and Lectio Divina, a meditation practice with literary readings are now programs I offer on Zoom. I’m also toying with the idea of including Mandala drawing sessions there.
What’s not to like about holding meetings in my own home in the comfort of dress down clothing with hot coffee at my elbow and a bathroom steps away? Perhaps this is one answer to the question of compromise throughout the remaining years of the 80s: a way to reduce the amount of travel while maintaining important group connections.
Nature remains a constant support. The trees about my house are an entertainment of light and shadow, of leaves that are green, then gold, and finally a riot of color before the bare black of winter. They continue to dialog with me about life’s cycles and events.
My interests have changed. I seldom look to books and lectures from touted authors or gurus for information about their aging or spiritual experiences mainly because they seem to be one-way conversations. Their ideas can however, work as a basis for connections in depth, a way for ordinary people like myself to converse and share thoughts about what’s happening in our own lives: experiences with Spirit, thoughts of death, dreams and how ventures into personal growth at this stage of life are working. The exchange of information is more important now than the acquiring of it.
And there is a most subtle change to my inner dialog. My life purpose, which is to be of service to others, is being challenged because I am less mobile now. I guess it is part of the refining of spirit as one ages. The question is, ‘What will that service look like when the role of teacher/facilitator is no longer as viable as it once was?’ So far there are a few possible answers. I’ve already mentioned Zoom as one of them, at least for the time being: another is the practice of listening. The gift of listening to others and really hearing them is one of the finest gifts one can give to others. And after that, whispers an inner voice, ‘Listen to Spirit. You have more time to do that now and you have friends who will share and talk about what is growing there.“
In the long run, having answers really doesn’t matter all that much because with the newly heightened vision brought about by the Slow-Go 80s, I see more clearly how, as one moves along the continuum of years, the answers come when the person remains open and ready to receive them. They did so in the Go-Go 70s, they are doing that now in the Slow-Go 80s, and I trust they will continue to do that for whatever might lie ahead in the No-Go years. In the meantime I remain a Work In Process.
Anne Wennhold has for many years co-guided conscious eldering retreats with Ron Pevny. She also runs support groups for older adults and Shamanic Drumming groups in New Jersey, and facilitates online Memoir Writing, Drumming and other new courses.
Towards an Ecopsychology
of Conscious Eldering
by Larry Gray
“The way we see the world shapes the way we treat it. If a mountain is a deity, not a pile of ore; if a river is one of the veins of the land, not potential irrigation water; if a forest is a sacred grove, not timber; if other species are biological kin, not resources; or if the planet is our mother, not an opportunity -- then we will treat each other with greater respect. This is the challenge, to look at the world from a different perspective.”
- Wade Davis, National Geographic Explorer-in Residence
Many aspects of Western civilization, including psychology and human development, arose in indoor built environments, mostly urban. In such a Nature-separated world, dominated in modern times by an excess of information, data, social media and more recently “fake news” and “alternative facts”, there appears to be a shallowing of social discourse. As a result, an important characteristic of human beings has dropped out of human communication and also from leadership and governance circles. That characteristic is wisdom – particularly, ecological wisdom. This short essay provides a perspective on how conscious eldering is a pathway of aging that is rooted in our relationship with Nature – a process that integrates psychology with ecology.
The natural world, we know, has been fragmented by human activities. But there are still some relatively untouched ecosystems on Earth that remain as models of healthy functioning and wholeness (I live in one of them – the Yukon). We human beings, too, have been fragmented - internally. The journey of conscious eldering recognizes that the destiny of both Nature and humanity are intertwined. So, there are two tasks. One is to put the natural world back together. I contribute to this in a small way through my work as an Environmental Studies teacher. The second concurrent task is to out ourselves back together. Our life experiences need to be integrated with the intention of putting the fragments of our traumatized selves back into what was our birthright before we all were subject to our family, social and cultural conditioning: wholeness. So, we become, once again, a whole human being. And as we collectively do this – one person at a time – we can slowly bring Nature into wholeness as well.
The journey towards wholeness may require reframing some of one’s life experiences – the good and uplifting ones, the bad and deflating ones – in new ways that are empowering, not debilitating. All of this may require letting go: letting go of all we have clung to on our journey; letting go of the accumulation of false selves and identities; letting go of emotional clutter that obfuscates our capacity to see our lives clearly.
The conscious eldering path invites exploration of one’s spiritual beliefs allowing for the possibility of deepening spiritual connection to however one conceives of a Creator, Source, God. This involves an acceptance of mortality and one’s place in the cosmos. Related to this is consciously creating and articulating one’s legacy, part of the growing consciousness of an elder.
With an ecopsychological approach, the inner work outlined above revolves around and is supported by one’s relationship with the natural world (the “more-than-human” world), the living presences of birds, trees, air, water, animals, insects – that exist outside of our strictly human-centered environments. Two global-scale phenomena - the climate crisis and COVID-19 - are showing humanity how much we collectively have believed we are separate from Nature. Even more than that false conception is how we have believed we are dominant over the natural world. A First Nations elder once said, “If you spit on the Earth, you spit on yourself”. We are now collectively paying the price for our cultural arrogance. While we heat up the planet, we have and continue to spew pollutants and contaminants into our air, water and soils and are now living in a precariously compromised environment. As the biosphere degrades, so does our own psyche.
How can the ecopsychological process of conscious eldering contribute to the Great Turning – a turning away from the industrial growth society and all of its collateral damage inflicted on the biosphere and towards a “Life-Sustaining Civilization”? How can conscious eldering contribute to a cultural renaissance on Earth? The answer lies in incorporating the natural world into all aspects of the eldering process and thereby reclaiming, on behalf of the wider culture our inherent and intrinsic relationship to Nature - the web of life. By activating the latent potential of millions of elders to be firstly conscious of self and then conscious of other – the other beings that share the planet with us humans. In indigenous cultures, elders are the ones who most fully realize and embody this understanding, although this deeply felt connection to Earth is natural to everyone, but gets socialized and educated out of us through cultural conditioning. In this era of climate crisis and pandemic emergency, never before has there been a better time for the re-emergence of ecological wisdom into global society – including both the wisdom of indigenous people and the wisdom of conscious elders of all nations and cultures.
This new (yet, ancient) consciousness is captured by the Wade Davis quote at the beginning of this article. Conscious elders can lead us back into the real world of unmediated contact with the living Earth – the touch, tastes, sounds, smells and beauty of Nature - the original Source of our very lives. By putting us back in touch with Earthly reality, such elders are on the leading edge of the Great Turning and can lead us forward into a sustainable future for all Earth’s inhabitants.
Larry Gray is a professor of Environmental Studies at Yukon University, a faculty member of the Center for Conscious Eldering and a Research Associate of the Institute for Aging & Lifelong Health at the University of Victoria, Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
by Bob Calhoun
Life is short.
We each have yet little time;
yet time is what we have,
to this very moment,
with an invitation
to come inside
and receive the gift.
May we show up
and accept time’s bidding,
tending to one another
as we enter,
encouraging each other
to ride the crest of the wave
before it breaks,
embrace the warmth of sunlight
as it bathes us,
the setting sun
to dip without notice,
night’s first star
to shine without welcome.
By Olivia Rose
The Journey for what is worthy
Is never too late
Or in any case too early
To be whomever you want to be.
There is no time limit
Start wherever you want
You can change or stay the same
There are no rules to this thing
We can make the best of it
I hope you see things that startle you
I hope you feel things you never felt before
I hope you meet people
who have a different point of view
I hope you live a life you are proud of
And if you are not
I hope you have the courage to start over again.
by Sue Ludwig
I am in search of my life
Not the one I was dealt
but the one I want to have.
Not the one
repeatedly stomped into the ground
where I least expect it,
But the one where
I wake up each day
expected to be on a path
maybe nothing I expected
but everything I wished for.
I have been tending to the hard work.
I have unearthed and tilled
and reseeded the dead areas.
I am beginning to see sprouts.
Little glowing green life
pushing against gravity,
weight of earth
to find light.
They are in search of their life.
They know more than I
how to shed the confines
of the seed,
thank it for its lesson,
by Mary Oliver
the dark buds of dreams
In the center
of every petal
is a letter, and you imagine
if you could only remember
and string them all together
they would spell the answer.
It is a long night,
and not an easy one—
you have so many branches,
and there are diversions—
birds that come and go,
the black fox that lies down
to sleep beneath you,
the moon staring
with her bone-white eye.
Finally you have spent
all the energy you can
and you drag from the ground
the muddy skirt of your roots
and leap awake
with two or three syllables
like water in your mouth
and a sense
of loss—a memory
not yet of a word,
certainly not yet the answer—
only how it feels
when deep in the tree
all the locks click open,
and the fire surges through the wood,
and the blossoms blossom.
By Mark Nepo
All the buried seeds
crack open in the dark
the instant they surrender
to a process they can’t see.
This innate surrender
allows everything edible and fragrant
to break ground into a life of light
that we call Spring.
As a seed buried in the earth
cannot imagine itself as an orchid or hyacinth,
neither can a heart packed with hurt
imagine itself loved or at peace.
The courage of the seed
is that once cracking,
It cracks all the way.
The Privilege to Refuse our Flowering
By David Whyte
..I look out
growing so wild
and faithfully beneath
why we are the one
part of creation
to refuse our flowering...
Upcoming Conscious Eldering Programs
With humanity beginning to see the light at the end of the COVID tunnel, we of the Center for Conscious Eldering hope and pray that we have the opportunity this Autumn to share conscious eldering with a group of committed persons at magnificent Ghost Ranch, where we have presented 17 Choosing Conscious Elderhood retreats over the past 12 years. The stories that will be shared of challenge, growth, loss, vision, joy-in-the-moment, and new beginnings during these pivotal times will add another powerful dimension to the conscious eldering work we will engage with together.
Please consider joining us this Fall if you seeking an empowering vision for your elder chapters, tools for helping make that vision reality, and the warmth of a non-virtual, flesh and blood community of kindred spirits. The Choosing Conscious Elderhood retreat will be a powerful opportunity to have your idealism acknowledged, your hope rekindled and your dreams for a vital, passionate elderhood supported? Our inspiring and empowering retreats tap the loving support of strong community, the wisdom of skilled guides, and the heart-and-mind-opening energy of the natural world to open you to the rich possibiities of your later-life chapters--for growth, purpose, spiritual deepening, and giving your elder gifts to support a healthy society and planet.
Choosing Conscious Elderhood
Ghost Ranch, New Mexico
September 26 - October 2
with Ron Pevny, Larry Gray and Barbara Roth
Cultivating Purpose and Intentionality In Life's Later Chapters
For those of you eager to experience this new retreat led by Ron Pevny and Katia Petersen, we will not be able to present it this Fall, but very much look forward to sharing it with you next Spring
For Organizations, Faith Communities, etc:
We are available to present our weekend workshops or custom designed programs for groups who would like to sponsor one in their area. Contact us to explore possibilities.
for details on our programs and registration information, please visit
Anne Wennhold will be offering two ten-week programs via Zoom this Fall:
Memoir Writing, Mondays, 2- 4 pm EST
An exciting 10 weeks of practical steps for reviewing meaningful life events and putting them on paper: includes suggested writing tools and organizational possibilities. Limited to 11 participants
Beginners Introduction to Shamanic Practice and Drumming, Wednesdays, 2-4pm EST.
Ten week teachings of the 3 levels of the Shamanic world: meet your Power Animal, learn shamanic drumming, receive guidance from the natural environment and experience daily ritual. Limited to 11 participants
Anne Wennhold is a retreat guide for the Center for Conscious Eldering and a member of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies and The Society for Shamanic Practitioners.
For further information email or call Anne:
Realizing he is nearing the end of his life, Jungian psychologist James Hollis has recently written these eleven essays which summarize a lifetime of observing, engaging, and exploring why we are here, in service to what, and what life asks of us. This inspired writing examines how we understand ourselves (and often we have to reframe that understanding), the nature and gift of comedy, the imagination, desire, as well as our encounters with narcissism, and aging. The book's final chapter provides one of the most comprehensive and compelling expositions of the tenets of conscious aging I have seen.
I also recommend Hollis' 2020 book about personal and collective transition, "Living Between Worlds".
Ron Pevny and description from the book
"A beautifully written and important book about aging and elderhood. Pevny reminds us that consciously moving into our greater years is a major rite of passage, and he offers skilled guidance through the many questions and challenges, endings and new beginnings, that arise."
Meredith Little, Co-founder of the School of Lost Borders
Second Journeys: The Dance of Spirit in Later Life
is a wonderful anthology edited a few years ago by the late conscious aging pioneer Bolton Anthony. It contains essays, poetry and book recommendations from 45 leaders in the conscious aging movement, including Center for Conscious Eldering's Ron Pevny. Conscious Aging is a multifaceted understanding of the rich opportunities made possible by choosing to Dance with Spirit as we age, and this book provides engaging glimpses of these opportunities.
One of our partner organizations, the Elders Action Network (formerly called the Conscious Elders Network) is an educational non-profit organization fostering a budding movement of vital elders dedicated to growing in consciousness while actively addressing the demanding challenges facing our country and planet. They work inter-generationally for social and economic justice,environmental stewardship, and sound governance. They offer their multiple talents and resources in service to the goal of preserving and protecting life for all generations to come. Anyone committed to living and serving as a conscious elder in invited to join them in this critically important endeavor. Upcoming EAN offerings include:
* Monthly Elder Activists for Social Justice Community Conversation
* The Empowered Elder--EAN's foundational program
* EAN also produces an excellent quarterly journal, Turning Point.
*The new Sunrise Movement - an intergenerational collaborative effort between EAN and Sage-ing International
To learn about EAN and its initiatives and programs, visit www.eldersaction.org
Another of our partner organizations is Sage-ing International, the pioneering organization in promoting the principles of conscious aging, or "Sage-ing". Their work is grounded in the work of Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, who introduced conscious aging to the world with his workshops at Omega Institute with Ram Dass and others and via his seminal book, From Age-ing to Sage-ing.
Sage-ing International is excited to announce their International Online Summit which will be presented October 29-31, 2021. The Summit's theme will be "Evolving Elders: Shifting from"I" to "We". It will feature several excellent keynote speakers as well as a variety of engaging online workshops.
To learn about Sage-ing International and their greatly expanded offerings of online workshops and seminars, Elder Wisdom Circles, and their training program for Certified Sage-ing Leaders, visit www.sage-ing.org.
Ron Pevny, Founder and Director
To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else -- means to fight the hardest battle any human being can fight, and never stop fighting.