©- 1993 by Steven McFadden
“So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.” – Psalms 90:12
Even among the avant-garde who are exploring the spiritual dimensions of aging, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi has been a trailblazer and a catalyst. Eventually many others will follow, he suggests, and the kinds of ideas he has been advocating — which are now seen as provocative — will become part of an established way.
“I’m just helping to get the conversation started,” he says with intimations of both hope and certainty. “It’s just a matter of time.”
A survivor of the Holocaust, Zalman has maintained a foundational confidence in Spirit and progress. “I do believe there is more good in the world than evil,” he says, “but not by much. The task of each person is to help tip the scale. Every life matters immensely, and every well-lived and completed life helps with tikkun olam (healing the world).
Zaida (grandfather) Zalman was 65 years old when he started the Spiritual Eldering Project in 1989 to meet the needs of the current generation of elders. He was well trained for this pioneering task, not just by virtue of his studies, but also via the course of his life.
Born in Poland two days after a lunar eclipse, on August 19, 1924, his family soon moved to Vienna where he spent his childhood. When World War II broke out he was imprisoned for a time by the Vichy-French government. He fled Europe in 1941 to the United States, where he entered the Lubavitch Yeshiva in New York, and was ordained as a Rabbi in 1947. Later he earned a Master of Arts in Psychology of Religion from Boston University, and a Doctor of Letters from Hebrew Union College (1969).
In his long and varied career, Zaida Zalman has been a congregational Rabbi, a Hebrew school principal, a Hillel Foundation director, a resource consultant, and a spiritual guide. For 20 years he worked as professor of religion and Chair of the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at the University of Manitoba. Later he served as Professor of Jewish Mysticism and the Psychology of Religion at Temple University, where he is now Professor Emeritus. An iconoclast and somewhat of a rebel, he is the founder of P’Nai Or Fellowship, an international Jewish renewal movement.
Every institutionalized religion could benefit from periodic review and renewal, he says; otherwise they become rigid, calcified, unable to respond to the demands of the present. The same need for review and revitalization, he argues, is also true for individuals — especially as one becomes older.
The Purpose of a Long Life
“What is the purpose of a long life, or an extended life span?” Zaida Zalman has wrestled with this question for a long time. Before founding the Spiritual Eldering Project he invited several distinguished elders, including Betty Friedan, author of The Fountain of Age to join him on retreat so they could concentrate on this and related questions. As a consequence, he has a ready answer. “Creator must have had a purpose in mind. After all, the human animal has two legs: a physical leg and a spiritual leg. We have been walking around on one leg, the physical leg, for a long time, so now we are looking to walk on the spiritual leg.
“A very important attribute of growing older is the wisdom a person gathers. Sharing that wisdom can help elders enjoy their remaining years, and much of that sharing can be done on an intergenerational level. What I’m trying to do with my work is bring back the vitamin of grandparents. By creating intergenerational possibilities, both people gain. The old ones gain vitality from the contact; the young ones gain wisdom and perspective on life.
“We must all pass through a gate of transformation to move from aging to sage-ing. This enables us to use our life experience to enrich our elders years, face mortality, repair relationships, develop a regenerative spirit and transmit wisdom to future generations.
“People need a time to harvest their life,” he says. “If you have plowed, sown the seed, and worked a lifetime, you’d be well advised to bring in the harvest. In some way every elder is looking for completion, being pulled toward it, but we rarely talk about it in spiritual terms.
“Most models of elders today are either of people who are in decrepitude, or people who died in the saddle — people who worked until their dying day without harvesting the experience of a lifetime, without taking the enjoyment of solitude — an opportunity to talk with the self — without harvesting the work and experience of their lifetime. You do not need to die in the saddle. You can harvest your life, spend some time on completion. Then, if you’ve done that work, you’ll be in a position to upload the wisdom of your life to the global brain.
“What blocks the path to the future is often an internal thing. People are often freaked out about death, because they can see, if they choose to look, that the Angel of Death always lies ahead at the end of the tunnel. So many people avert their eyes. They don’t wish to confront the reality, the inevitability of death. Who can you talk to about these things? We need to let the conversation about death out of the closet.
“The internal program we are born with says ‘save life and avoid death at all costs.’ Nine times out of ten this program is absolutely correct. The harvest of life cannot come to people unless they set time aside for it. Most people are afraid to look to the future because they see the Angel of Death lurking there. So, instead, they back into the future. When this happens there really is no past, no future. Only a shriveled present. We need to get out of the box, to reclaim the past and the present, and confront the unlived life — by this I mean the great pains, the failures, the disappointments, the betrayals. Most of the time we don’t want to hear the inner voices that say ‘when are you going to…?’ But it’s important to hear those voices. And it’s important to answer those questions.
“When that instinct is frustrated, you become depressed. It’s kind of an involutionary melancholy — the pain of the unlived life. Examining your failures can lead you to real successes. Look at the old files of your life, the failures, and re-examine them. This can give you energy for the present. I believe that part of the reason that we are given the time of eldering is to open the file drawers and go into the past to correct, to heal, and to harvest.
“A lot of the spiritual work people do is just putting whipped cream on top of a bowl of garbage. You’ve got to clean up the garbage first before you add the whipped cream.
“When you begin to think about how you want to harvest your life, you can at first be paralyzed by the choices. Which is the least troublesome path to take? But as an elder the horizon of choices opens up even wider. When are you going to do something for yourself?”
How to Become a Sage
Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi is a man of abundant talent: linguist, storyteller, computer wizard, singer, and penetrating social analyst. As Director of the Spiritual Eldering Project, he has been a pioneer in developing dynamic models to explore the processes of aging and wisdom cultivation. He has studied his own Jewish heritage thoroughly, and also explored spiritual teachings with Sufi-Masters, Buddhist teachers, Native American elders, Catholic monks, Tibet’s Dalai Lama, and humanistic and transpersonal psychologists.
The Rabbi travels nationally and internationally, to work with elders, and with people who work with elders. He has earned wide respect as an advocate for new ways of understanding what it means to grow old, and for synthesizing a body of teachings that is both ancient and modern. As a consequence of his broad experience and studies, in his public classes and seminars, he ranges far and wide, quoting from scholars and mystics the world over.
“What happens when you grow old and no longer wish to compete with younger people? Who do you look toward for models? Someone who is old, or someone who is an elder? And what is the difference? How do you become a sage? It’s not necessarily the result of book learning.
“Elders right now are often seen as a drain. They are a problem. They are going to use up scarce resources, like Social Security and Medicare. But there are other possibilities. When Social Security was first designed they thought people had a life span of 67 or 69 years. But now the reality is an expanded life span. We need also to expand our consciousness and awareness too, or it will lead to depression.
“When the mind is kept open, then the older you get the more settled and clarified you become. With the extended life span it is also possible to extend awareness. But we have to work on it. We don’t have a great number of models. The term we have for ourselves is ‘Homo Sapiens,’ the wise people? But how does Homo Sapiens behave? We have no models and no code for this. The model does not exist. We need to create models, a new template — to reformat the disk of life.”
“No one else can ‘elder’ you. It’s an intransitive verb. You must do it yourself. So what are the tools for becoming a sage? Contemplative practices: recollection, reflection, meditation, and envisioning — see your life as a landscape, a panorama. Have conversations with your own soul. Get to a witness place, and witness your own life. And as you witness, learn to forgive, yourself and others, otherwise you are robbed of energy. You are handcuffed to the person you have not forgiven and you drag them everywhere with you.
“We have to blaze a trail for eldering. There is a small window of opportunity right now. Are elders just ready for the junk heap? Or do they have something to contribute?”
Some Tools of Eldering
From time to time through his life Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi has found himself sitting in the bathtub gazing into a hand-held mirror to see who he is and who he is becoming. In theological circles such a practice might well be called ‘discursive meditation,’ but he says he is just talking things over with himself.
“You have to meet yourself at some point. That’s really important. I’ve learned that. It’s different from the kind of meditation where you still the mind, which is also important. It’s taking the time to have a deliberate inner dialogue, to ruminate, to ‘chew the cud’ of your life.
“The soul teaches us throughout life, but the lessons are fleeting, ephemeral. That’s why it’s important to take time and look at the panorama of your life, to see the extension and the scope of it — the development of your life’s course. What have you distilled from life? What will become of your experience. When you record them in a journal, you have a way to reconnect.”
“You can become a mentor, and pass on your knowledge to a younger person. I don’t mean passing on information, but something else. Mentoring is sharing wisdom, healthy interchange. When this happens it rouses vitality in an older person, and brings a great joy. When you decide that you want to do this, you will attract people. When the flower is ready, the bee appears. You can also make a tape recording, tell your life story and what you have learned. Make copies and give them to your relatives. Pass on your heritage.
“Or, anther way to do it is to write an ethical will: a written, or recorded testament of your values and the learnings of your life. Mine your memories. Describe what you have learned from life, the epitome of your experience and wisdom. Write it first for yourself, but you can also give it to your children. Don’t just reap the harvest of a long life, but also share the harvest. At holidays, thanksgiving, Christmas, whatever, reconstruct the past to make it accessible to the present. People need the affect, the emotion, the impressions. If you are not an elder, then ask the elders to tell their stories.”
A Lifetime is Not Infinite
“People want to deny their mortality, they don’t want to come to terms with their mortality. There is a great delusion that ‘I will live forever.’ Most people deny their mortality. They don’t want to look down to the end of the road. In this, though, there are consequences for a person’s life and for the society.
“Life has to be harvested in some way, to be completed. People who deny their mortality get caught by it nevertheless, but they live unaware of it the last part of their lives. The Hindus called it Avidya, not wanting to know, closing down of consciousness.
“If someone in the October, November, or December of their life span closes down their consciousness, that means that towards the end of their life they have been sleeping through it. So all the opportunities that are there, to harvest your lifetime, to reconstellate one’s past or be able to see it now with a different perspective, to upload the wisdom the of a lifetime, to reconcile with the people whom one needs to be reconciled with, to clean up karmic pollution — all these things do not get done when a person denies their mortality.
“People pretend a great deal that mortality isn’t there. It’s all hidden away; its all made pretty. The mortician will do cosmetics on people and they don’t look like they looked when they died. They make it all like it’s not the way that it’s happening, so the impact isn’t there. The impact of knowing that one is coming to the end of the course of one’s life, that’s what gives a sense of the preciousness of time. I think that when people get older and they are aware of their mortality, then time is very precious. Many wish to continue to deny death, or to play in their later years. They do not want to develop wisdom. Sometimes it’s just not possible to wake someone up.
“Coming to terms with your mortality means to make peace that physical death will happen. I don’t want at this point to hold out for people the carrot of the afterlife as a way of having a life-jacket against the anxiety that comes from having to come to terms with mortality. I don’t want to talk about afterlife and all the things that I believe that psychic research and near-death experiences and all these other things are beginning to verify. I want to leave that for after people have come to grips with the terror about dying. Otherwise they won’t encounter what they need to encounter. That’s the reason why I want to hold off on putting it in. When I use the word death, I mean just physical death.
“People who don’t want to look ahead as they grow older back into the future, rather than walking into it face forward. Only by making peace with the inevitability of mortality can we make peace with ourselves.”
What is Wisdom?
Zaida Zalman is a compelling speaker: focused, coherent, aware of the shifting mood of the audience, and also observant of the passage of time. Warm and expansive, he supports the spoken word with gentle gestures of arm and hand, often coaxing differences of opinion and debate.
A vigorous singer, he can be prompted to launch his rumbling but melodious voice at the turn of a phrase that puts him in mind of a favorite tune.
Since it’s rarely a topic of social conversation, most people are brought up short when they are asked about wisdom. This is treacherous territory, and without care a respondent runs the risk of revealing puzzlement or ignorance rather than insight. It needs to be approached carefully. Zaida Zalman has been hanging out with the question for a lifetime, but still he eases into the subject with an anecdote.
“I heard this story from an old-timer in California. It was so good that I keep repeating it. I wish I could remember his name and give him credit for it.
So the story is: a person comes to the wise man and says, ‘how do you get wisdom.’ He says, ‘wisdom comes from good judgment.’ And how do you have good judgment? So the wise one says, ‘from experience.’ And where do you get experience? ‘From bad judgment.’
“So, I like that progression: from bad judgment to experience to good judgment to wisdom. So what you see is, wisdom is a generalization of everything one has learned from life, it’s a distillate of that. If you say, ‘hey, Zalman, make with some wisdom, you know.’ Then I’m supposed to do applied wisdom, wisdom in order to get me XYZ, whatever the thing is that I want to get; then that which may pretend to be wisdom becomes very manipulative, street wise. It’s clever, but not wise.
“There is a whole tradition of wisdom that sees wisdom as a woman. That comes from the Greek Sophia. The Hebrew word for wisdom is also a feminine word. These words have a sense of, like Pallas Athena jumping out of Zeus’ head. Wisdom comes with God, prior to the world. So, if I were to say, ‘wisdom is that which jumps out of the head of the Ancient of Days,’ that would be a way of expressing it.
“I think a lot now about feminism. I have a feeling that in the next 50 years there is going to be a switch, where more and more of the people who have life experience, who have learned something, are going to be true spiritual elders, and that’s going to have its impact on people. Women after menopause will be in positions of being counselors, and that will bring social equality to wisdom.
“At this point, we don’t see it yet. If somebody were to go to Washington and say, “in the cabinet, could we have a wisdom seeker? Could we have some wise elder just be there and speak of wisdom whenever something comes up that needs that kind of consideration? That’s what the Senate was supposed to be able to do in the first place, to be able to take life’s wisdom and apply it to government, to advise and consent.
The Real World
Stories are stock-in-trade for Zaida Zalman. He has hundreds at the ready. As with many spiritual teachers throughout the ages, he has come to realize that insight is often conveyed — and retained — far more effectively through a parable. His deep olive-colored eyes twinkle when he sees an opportunity to launch into one, and he has the capacity to tell them at majestic length and with effusive detail, or to compress them to an essential outline to fit a small window of opportunity — when the attention span of listeners appears to be strained.
“There was a man by the name of Rabbi Ramour Yenischlayzal and his son Rabitizikel,” he begins.
“Rabitizikel is a teenager, and the father is the venerable head of a Hassidic group. Suddenly there appears before them a person who says, ‘Rabbi, I need some help, I’m about to get married and I need some money badly.’ The Rabbi looks at him and says, ‘don’t you know you’re dead, you’ve died already.’ The man says, ‘what are you talking about? They are waiting for me. I need the money, please help me.’ The Rabbi lifts up the man’s coat and shows him that underneath his coat he has shrouds, the shrouds with which he was buried. Suddenly, it dawns on the man what has really happened and he disappears.
“The Rabbi’s son is upset by this and says, ‘Poppa, what was that?’ And the father says to him, ‘there are some souls that live in the world of confusion. This one couldn’t reconcile himself yet with being dead so he’s inventing a whole life story so that he can continue to deny that he is dead. By showing him these things I brought him up short, and he had to pay attention. He disappeared because he no longer had to be in the world of confusion where he appears as if he were living on this plane.’
“The son thinks for a moment, and then asks, ‘Poppa, for him he was pretty real for himself. How do we know that we aren’t in the world of confusion? We appear pretty real to ourselves?’ And the father says, ‘my dear child, the world in which you ask the question is the real world.’
” That story that is similar to the old Chinese story from the sage Lao Tzu about the emperor who dreams that he is a butterfly, and then asks himself, ‘am I a butterfly dreaming that I am an emperor, or am I an emperor dreaming that I am a butterfly?’
“The question is not resolved for the emperor, which one is who. But for the Rabbi and his son the question becomes resolved by saying, the place where you question, where you are asking ‘is this for real?’ that’s the real world. Because in the world of your illusions you don’t ask the question. You don’t question your illusions.”
The Pearl Beyond Price
Zaida Zalman’s is fond of hats, and wears them indoors and out — berets, fur caps, yarmulkes, whatever. His head is usually covered, whether cooking, taking his daily two-mile walk, or praying. When he considers a question, his eyes roll heavenward for an instant only.
If he had just one opportunity, a single thing he could say to a group of young people, what story would he tell? “That’s a good one,” he says. “I’d like to think about that one a little while,” he adds, but then he pauses not at all.
“The story that comes to mind now, first, is about the Pearl Beyond Price.” His eyes brighten. He fixes his gaze upon the listeners and begins.
“There was a king and a queen and they had a son who was very bright and good, and they wanted him to be king when his time came to be king, but he needed to do something really heroic first.
“There was a pearl beyond any price and he had to go find that pearl. The pearl was in Egypt. It was guarded by a dragon, a very fierce dragon. The king called his son and told him that he must do this, and don’t you want to some day assume the role of being a person of majesty? The son said ‘yes, I want to do it.’ The whole dream, the whole notion excited him a great deal — yes, he wants to do the heroic thing.
“The father says, ‘go and get the pearl but you’ve got to be very careful. You are going to come to that place and you’ll start eating their food and wearing their clothes and before long you will forget what your mission is and that is not going to be so good.’ The son says, ‘no, I won’t forget, I won’t forget.’
“So he went down to Egypt and went around with his royal robes and pretty soon people snatched them all away from him, and he got involved and in order not to attract attention and get into trouble, he started to wear what everybody else was wearing, and eat what everybody else was eating, and pretty soon he forgot that he was on a mission from his father, the king, to bring the pearl beyond any price.
“Some time went by, and there was a friend of the king who had compassion for the son. So he said, ‘I’m going to go down. I’ll bring some food from the palace and I’ll bring him a change of clothes, which on the outside are going to look like the clothes that everybody else is wearing, but on the inside are going to be the real royal robes.’ He comes and at first the son doesn’t want to hear of it, but then after a while he begins to share with him.
“They walk together, and the friend gives him some of the food and the son begins to remember. After a while, he just breaks down and feels ‘I’ve lost it, I’ve muffed it.’ And the friend says, ‘no you haven’t, there still is time — this is why I came to help.’ Together the two of them went, and they outwitted the dragon and took the pearl beyond any price. When he came home the father rejoiced over him and that was how he made him finally king.
“Now, I would tell kids, ‘imagine for a moment that this is your story: how would you interpret that story for yourself?’ And then I’d just leave it at that.
“That story is like a worm that keeps on agitating and agitating until the person will finally get what’s its all about — that we come from another place, from a place beyond. We are here. We have to do a job. Then we forget that we have to do a job. Then comes a good friend who still remembers what it’s all about, and tells you and feeds you the decent food. After a while you get back on the job ask the big question ‘where’s the pearl and how do I deal with the dragon?’ And then it happens.
“This story is a very rich story because it talks about the descent of the soul and its purpose in life, and I think that’s a good story to tell. There may be some others, too, but that is the one that comes first.
“I would tell elders the same story, only I would talk to them more about the pearl. How did the pearl get formed? From the irritation that the oyster had — all the pains that you went through in life and all the troubles you’ve had. When you say, ‘nobody knows the troubles I’ve seen,’ those troubles made that pearl happen. What a pity it would be if you only had the troubles and you didn’t find the pearl.”
What Have You Learned?
The father of nine children, and a grandfather 21 times over, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi is prolific in other ways as well. He is the author of Fragments of a Future Scroll; The First Step; and Sparks of Light. He has also written books on Jewish renewal, and most recently a book entitled The Spiritual Elder: How to Enjoy the Harvest of a Lifetime. In this book, as in his public talks, he is firm on the opportunities and responsibilities of older citizens. He says elders must learn to use their life experience to enrich their later years, to face their mortality, and to serve as models for younger people.
“Every so often we need to change the pickle juice of the mind. If you hang onto disappointments and resentments, and stew in them, then every thought and feeling you have is going to have some of that flavor. It’s nobody else’s responsibility to do anything about that, though you can certainly ask for help. But, ultimately, you’ve got to change your own pickle juice.
“One thing I’ve learned is that learning is inevitable. If you are open to life you always keep on learning, and good learning is like white-water rafting. Most people think that events happen to them beyond their control, like they’re drifting down the river and they’ll bump against a rock, and they will be flooded and be overturned, and all the calamities that happen. That is also learning but that is not participating in the process of learning.
“If you participate in the process of learning, you get a chance to look a little bit ahead to read the water. Then you paddle very strongly in the direction where it is going to be better for you to be. So if you feel a hunger for a particular kind of learning, you can really satisfy that hunger. Usually, we don’t know why we have that hunger until later on when we get there we see that this hunger was a perfect preparation.
“I’d like to go back to a story in The Bible. Moses comes to Pharaoh and Pharaoh says to him, ‘I’m not going to let you guys go.’ But then they get to dickering back and forth about what they can take along if he goes into the desert and Moses says, we have to take everything. Pharaoh says, why? Moses says, because we do not know how we are to serve the Lord our God until we get there.
“That has been a very important part of my learning: to recognize that the goals I set for myself are the carrots I hold out for myself, but they are not necessarily what I am going to achieve. Often the things that I set out to myself as goals that I want to have are bound to fail. From the fallout of my failures I am going to have my successes. So if life serves you lemons, made lemonade of that. That is the notion of being able to say of the difficulties of a lifetime, ‘I can learn from them, to extract from them the things that are the successes, but I don’t know what the successes are, only in retrospect.’ That is what is so amazing about that, because, how do I know what I have to prepare myself for when I haven’t seen the future yet?
“Nobody can see around the corner of time. We understand trends, but trends are not around the corner of time. If I see someone tacking with a sailboat, they seem to be going in a direction that never looks like the direction where they really want to go, but you have to go that way because that is how the wind and the current is, you can’t move otherwise. I have a feeling that we know the trend to which we are going, but we don’t know beyond the trend. Because every once in a while something comes up and we have to steer in one direction, then the other direction. We always see a different goal in front of us than the real goal which is in the other direction to which we are being moved. So, the sense that there is a destiny which I don’t know yet but with which I can cooperate is something that I have found out.”
Coming to Peace
“If you ask me how I’ve come to this point, come to peace in my life, and I claim I that know, then I am a liar. I really don’t know… I can’t…if what I said before makes real sense, then I couldn’t have steered in this direction by myself. I find this out afterwards.
“So the peace that comes from saying that my destiny in the hand of G*d, that’s one form of saying it. Another way of saying it is like it is as it is put in the Desiderata: ‘No doubt the universe is unfolding as it should…’ In either case, it talks about the same process of a certain kind of rightness. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t tragedy. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t pain. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t real upset and breakdown, and shattering, and all that kind of stuff. Yet, at the same time there is a serenity that comes from saying something, like the prayer that they talk about in the 12-step programs, ‘G*d give me the wisdom to know the difference between what I can change and what I can’t change, and accept what I cannot change.’
“I cook soups very well, but if you ask me, ‘what are the ingredients,’ I give up. Because I see what’s in the refrigerator, and I start putting it together. And somehow a little of this and a little of that and it comes all together. I don’t feel that it is planned that way. Now I know that when I have to talk to some people, I have to talk to them about planning, about preparing, about nose-to-the-grindstone, shoulder-to-the-wheel, all this kind of attitude. But in reflection, it doesn’t look to me like that is really the way that it goes.”
What the Rabbi Sees Ahead
For many people age has the effect of freeing them from heavy demands and petty ambitions. This can liberate time and energy for considering the long view, and for taking steps to ensure that the future has the potential to be better for the generations coming behind them.
“I start looking ahead,” Zaida Zalman says, “and suddenly I find I am looking through the rearview mirror. When you ask, ‘what would the future look like,’ I then go into a nostalgic past, a romanticized past, and then go into a tribal thing, and think for a moment, it would look like that. But it’s not going to look like that.
“We are on the verge of breakthroughs that are so immense that we can hardly imagine them. But it pays to imagine them, and it pays to spend time to figure that one out. There is going to be a communication super-highway. We’re going to all go with fiber optics.
“The speed with which calculations are being made and things are being sent, and communications are happening is increasing. Money has become less and less something that has to do with paper or with coins and there’s more and more blips, electronic blips. So the whole thing, when the planet is trying to organize itself again so that it’s one world, one planet. We can’t go back to a pre-planetary understanding, because once the creatures of Earth have been seen from outer space, there’s such a shift that has happened that it can’t be reversed. So, with that we have to be thinking globally.
“If you start thinking globally then you start saying, of course complexities are going to increase, and what’s going to happen when complexities increase? There’s bound to be breakdown of the current structures. And, unless there is a breakdown of the current structures — which is like the good-judgment, bad-judgment, good-judgment experience, you know, that chain — we can’t put in new structures that will be able to handle all the complexity.
“The rate of change is accelerating at a more than geometric scale. What do you call that? Logarithmic? It’s going to change according to a logarithmic scale, so that the amount of change that’s going to occur between now, let’s say, and the year 2025, I can’t even imagine what that’s going to be like. But, I can also say that from where I am in my understanding of life right now, I know that an essential ingredient of that is going to be elder power, or elder mind — not elder power, that’s not the right word — elder mind is going to be very important.
“We are learning the heavy ecological lessons that result from thinking in short segments of time. The quarterly report has to be replaced by ‘Seventh Generation’ thinking (from the Iroquois Great Law of Peace: “In our every deliberation and action, we will consider the welfare of the seventh generation of children to come.”)
For that to happen, we have to deploy people with longer life span, with greater consciousness, and also to enter into the world, not to leave it behind — not to become anachronisms and say, ‘well, you know, I went to graduate school in the 1950s and so I’m arrested there [in my development].’ But rather to able to say, ‘No. I’m right now on the edge of my learning, and I have a notion of the direction, the trend, of where it’s going to go, and so what do I have to put into place so that the world will be ready to be more in balance?’ That’s the kind of preparation that you can do in order to make an elder mind.”
Elders Have to Hold the Field
“At this point we are in a very primitive place where peace is concerned, peace and justice. We are, in destruction, very sophisticated. So we can now have a Star Wars, and you can just imagine the billions of money and the kind of minds that go in to doing that. It’s amazing. At the same time, when you start figuring that we don’t know how to deal with a David Koresh without violence, that shows how primitive we are, how psychologically primitive, sociologically primitive, we are.
“It will take elders to sit with the younger generation, the people who are just opening up, and to talk with each other. I see that the complexity of things is going to increase. I see that the current matrix cannot hold the complexity, the current matrix will have to shatter, and when it shatters there will be a great panic.
“In order not to have the panic, elders will have to hold the field. At that point, it is going to be really important to have those kinds of intergenerational conversations that will bring the same amount of sophistication that we have now in war, and in terrorism, and in violence, into peace and goodness, healthy social interaction. So, that’s what I see as a task.”
– End –
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, author of The Spiritual Elder: How to Enjoy the Harvest of a Lifetime, holds the World Wisdom Chair at the Naropa Institute, an accredited, nonsectarian private institution of higher education that offers contemplative education combining Eastern and Western educational traditions, in Boulder, Colorado.
For more information: The Sage-ing Guild