Conscious Aging

Posted on in Healthy Living by Carol Orsborn

A Generation of Seekers
Coming into Age


Imagine an old man seated on a mountaintop, his body still, his eyes in an unfocused gaze. We’d be likely to assume that he was having a transcendent experience, grateful to be in his presence. Now imagine that same old man seated on a bench in Golden Gate Park. Most people rushing by, if they notice him at all, would think it a pity he wasn’t doing more to help himself: something productive like an exercise class or an encore career.

In a youth-centric society that privileges the young and reviles aging, the antidote to dread has been peppy variations of “reinvention.” Don’t like the idea of aging? Just don’t do it! Call upon bravado and denial to simply transform growing older into an extension of midlife.

But as this juxtaposition between mountaintop and park bench reveals, there is growing dissonance between how mainstream society views aging, and how what sociologist Wade Clark Roof termed “a generation of seekers” intends to grow old.

In a nutshell, a growing number of aging seekers—enough, in fact, to call it a movement—are turning old stereotypes of aging on their heads. Rather than a dread or denial of aging, there is a growing embrace of growing old as a new life stage of its own, a culmination rather than a failure. In this view, old age carries the potential to be the payoff for all the years of hard work we’ve invested in questioning the norms, exploring alternative ways of relating to the world, and devoting ourselves to spiritual practice. In this radical view of aging, spirituality is not just a salve for the problem of growing old. Rather, aging itself is experienced as a spiritual path, an experience for which we are deeply grateful.

Given the organic losses associated with aging, mystics of many traditions speak to the challenge of facing the ultimate questions with which we are increasingly confronted as we age. However, there are many of us in the boomer generation who have been preparing ourselves for this moment all of our lives. It isn’t surprising that this incipient movement has loosely affiliated under the banner “conscious aging,” nor that many of the thought leaders lighting the path ahead are names that have been familiar to us through multiple life stages.

For instance, Ram Dass, author of Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying, calls aging “a curriculum for becoming more conscious” ( And the late Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, author of From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older, writes: “No longer will you dread the evening of life as a time of unremitting suffering and futility, but as an opportunity for continued growth in consciousness and service to humanity.”

There’s an epicenter for the movement, the Conscious Aging Alliance, consisting of 12 organizations that have banded together to pioneer this new, largely unexplored territory beyond midlife. These include players with deep roots in the consciousness movement, such as the Institute of Noetic Sciences, Fierce with Age, and the Center for Conscious Eldering. There are local, national, and international conferences and retreats; training programs to become coaches for aging boomers; and a boom in books and digests on related subjects. A cadre of experts, including scholars, gerontologists, and religious leaders, share a prophetic vision of aging that beckons us to take into account both the light and the shadow side of growing old, neither romanticizing nor reviling the years beyond midlife.

Consider the unanticipated possibility that many of us are, at last, actually finding what we’ve been seeking all these years—hidden in plain sight in the unlikeliest of places: our own old age. Over the years, many in our generation have invested a lot of time and a great deal of money learning how to let go of our egos, transcend materialism, appreciate the present moment. In fact, virtually every spiritual and religious philosophy centers on the shattering of illusions—be it the Hebrews tearing down of false idols or the Buddhists seeing through the Maya of surface manifestation. Isn’t it ironic—and somehow deeply meaningful—that those losses aging inevitably brings our way, including the passing of those dear to us and the erosion of self-worth associated with the diminishment of our societal roles, turn out to be the ultimate destroyers of illusion? We are simultaneously waking up to the realization that our full spiritual and therefore our human potential is coming about, not in spite of the challenges aging brings, but because of them.

In his seminal article “Conscious Aging: A New Level of Growth in Later Life,” Harry R. Moody, professor at Fielding Graduate University and emeritus director of Academic Affairs for AARP, points out that doing the hard work of breaking denial to embrace both the shadow and light of aging and mortality is not for everyone. As Moody puts it: “Conscious Aging—the holistic line of development—is not an easy path nor is Conscious Aging likely to appeal to a majority of those entering old age. . . . Conscious Aging means going beyond patterns of ego strength acquired during youth and midlife.”

In other words, it’s not that even those of us who have found ourselves on this challenging journey don’t often wish there were an easier way to go. In fact, despite our yearning to join the old man on the mountaintop in transcendent bliss, this psychologically and spiritually healthy vision of aging only occasionally looks like serenity. While we may be quiet and peaceful sometimes, we may be rabble-rousing and making trouble at other times. Sometimes we are faced with external challenges, such as income loss and illness. Other times our challenges are internal: anxiety about the future, for instance, or feelings of personal failure. The truth is, as long as we keep growing through life, there will be anxious moments, regrets, and self-doubt. But there will be transiting, transforming, and overcoming too. Some of us are already catching glimpses of unbridled joy, immense gratitude, and moments of merger with the Divine.

Of course, this is hard work. But when has choosing the life of a seeker ever been the easier way to go? For those of us who are grateful to have lived the lives we have—and who are willing to consider the possibility that old age can be the culmination to our life journeys—this new theory of aging as fulfillment is finding us to be fertile ground.

If you can imagine yourself not only on a mountaintop but on a park bench having a transcendent experience, this is an exciting time, indeed, to be growing old.

Robert L. Weber, PhD, and Carol Orsborn, PhD, are coauthors of The Spirituality of Age: A Seeker’s Guide to Growing Older.

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