Features and Occasionals

Purpose after 60

By Kinde Nebeker

Chuck leaned forward and picked a wooden bead from the pine needle basket that Ron held out to him. He eased his tall, 76-year-old frame back into his chair and held the bead up to the light streaming in from the windows of the Alta Lodge meeting room. As those in the circle who had picked a bead before him had done, Chuck explained why he had picked that particular one. He turned it around in his fingers, speaking briefly about where he was in his life right now, which was at somewhat of a standstill. He noted that the bead was decorated with lines and dots. “I chose this bead,” he mused simply, “because I am here to connect the dots.”

The clock ticks. We mature— or are we just falling apart? We may notice new issues—faltering senses, revised enthusiasms. Other changes we may welcome. This year, CATALYST will examine ways to deal with the passage of time. Traditionally accepted signs of decline are not necessarily inevitable. Learning certain skills can head off decrepitude before it starts. New perspectives can make change an adventure. We’ll share people’s personal stories as well as dish practical advice from trainers, philosophers and others with something to share.

We hope you’ll enjoy this series on Aging Gracefully and discover a little something to take away, wherever you are in life.

Chuck leaned forward and picked a wooden bead from the pine needle basket that Ron held out to him. He eased his tall, 76-year-old frame back into his chair and held the bead up to the light streaming in from the windows of the Alta Lodge meeting room. As those in the circle who had picked a bead before him had done, Chuck explained why he had picked that particular one. He turned it around in his fingers, speaking briefly about where he was in his life right now, which was at somewhat of a standstill. He noted that the bead was decorated with lines and dots. “I chose this bead,” he mused simply, “because I am here to connect the dots.”

It was the weekend of September 11, 2015, and I was co-facilitating a “Cons­cious Eldering: Living with Passion and Intention” weekend retreat with Ron Pevny. Ron is the founder and director of the Center for Conscious Eldering out of Durango, Colorado, and the author of the book Conscious Living, Conscious Aging: Embrance and savor your next chapter (2014: Beyond Words Publish­ing). He has offered this particular nature-based retreat around the country for the past 15 years. Ron and I share a background of wilderness rites of passage guiding as taught by the School of Lost Borders. We met in 2014 at the annual Wilderness Guides Council Gathering in Northern California, and decided to work together to bring this weekend retreat to Utah. Ron is my elder in rites of passage work, and it was life-changing for me to sit with a master; to learn, listen, and to be part of creating the weekend’s experience.

The ages of the eight people who attended this Conscious Eldering retreat spanned three decades. From Elizabeth, in her mid-50s, to Renate, in her late 70s, all were curious, active people who sensed there’s something more to getting older than a slow decline toward death.

It turned out to be a weekend that cracked open, reinvigorated and somehow changed each one of us.

Cultivating awareness

Ron’s use of the designation “conscious eldering” holds within it the core ideas that were conveyed over the three days we spent together. As he pointed out on the morning of our first day, “conscious” means simply to be aware. It is possible to continue to grow in awareness as we age, even as we eventually lose the physical and even mental capacities we had in younger years. We can continue to cultivate awareness of our outer world by staying curious and open to change, but more crucial is growing in awareness of our inner world, becoming aware of the questions we hold inside ourselves. For it is by going deeper within that we hone the wisdom that a true elder holds, and it is how we prepare ourselves for the time when we will pass from this world.

“Elder” is a designation of veneration for older people who have achieved a certain wisdom of value to their community. Turning “elder” into a verb (“eldering”) denotes action. It means that as an older person, I not only have sought and earned real wisdom, I am active in my role. I offer it to others. I have a purpose, and I am living it in the world.

Chuck came to this retreat with his partner Jean, who would be retiring from an illustrious career in the coming years and wanted to do the next thing in her life with her characteristic panache and punch… though that next thing was not yet clear. Chuck is a quiet man and I could sense his reserve. Clearly he was not someone who emoted over holding hands and singing Kumbaya. But over the days, as Ron showed himself to be an ordinary man who had cultivated a strong spiritual sensibility, and as we took time to walk on the land, to listen to each others’ stories and share our questions and epiphanies, Chuck began to open. He shared that he had a wealth of work experience, having been a production supervisor for military navigation systems, a pilot, a casino pit boss, a real estate broker, an accountant and a boat captain. He had also built three homes. Chuck intimated now and again that these days he spent too much time at the computer, watching the stock market. At our final group dinner together, out on the lovely deck of the Alta Lodge surrounded by peaks and the first fall turnings of the aspen, Chuck shared with us a newfound passion. He wanted to utilize his master’s degree in counseling psychology by supporting young people in finding a career they loved. Chuck later told me had created a website some time ago but had not done anything with it (www.talkingwithchuck.com). “ I love to build things,” Chuck mused. “I’m going to help kids build their lives.”

Mortality as an ally

The journey of conscious elderhood is a journey towards greater and greater wholeness. Although our culture may not recognize it, our psyches know there is a life stage that is elderhood. Healthy elderhood is marked by greater interiority and self-reflection. It is a time when we be­come wholly comfortable with ourselves and are living at a deeper heart level. We become more relational, more service-oriented, able to be a powerful loving space for others. We are more centered in “being” rather than “doing.” Our connection to Spirit/Mystery/God becomes stronger. All of these characteristics are natural movements. Our mortality is our ally here; as our death becomes more of a reality, the trappings of life that do not serve our soul or spirit fall away. This time of our lives, as Jean so aptly put it, is better served by this admonishment: “Don’t just do something, stand there!”

The journey of Conscious Elderhood is also one of finding true purpose. Our usual understanding of the word “purpose” is one that implies usefulness, utilitarianism, usually something that contributes to society in a quantifiably constructive way. But in this context, purpose is more about an internal alignment that brings together the rich experience of a whole lifetime and focuses it in a way of being, an outward loving demeanor and a full, embodied and deeply rooted inner life. How one’s “purpose” as a conscious elder manifests is more something that is felt by others, rather than something that can be put on a spreadsheet.

But getting to this place is no picnic. As in every stage we pass through in our lives, growth and transition is unnerving and unsettling at best, and painful, dark and very confusing at worst.


Mary is a transition coach, a woman in her early 60s who knew from the time she was in sixth grade what she wanted to do in life — to make work a good place and to help people work well in their careers and their lives. She has worked really hard herself, as a manager of human resources in the corporate world, to consulting in training management and employee coaching to starting her own consulting firm, What’s Working Well® in 2001. But about a year ago, Mary hit a wall. Her body, her energy, her whole being seemed to rebel. She realized she could not continue doing what she had been doing for 30 years. But letting go of work she had loved for so long was a terrifying thought.

Luckily, Mary knew about transition — after all, she coached others through theirs. By the time this Conscious Eldering retreat came around, Mary had been lying low for nearly a year. She knew she had to nourish herself, and had been soaking up everything that caught her heart’s interest. She came looking for energy, for re-focusing and authenticity. It was in the time spent out in nature, and in the wisdom of the group that had gathered in sacred space to explore the same questions, that Mary found new energy, and a deeper sense of her own authenticity. “It’s in the journey,” Mary said, “to be open and be willing to be changed that releases new energy.” And what’s so great about the later years of our lives, she added, is that we don’t have time to waste! A motivating truth, indeed.

When humans transition from one stage to another in our development, our psyches go through three identifiable stages: separation, threshold (a liminal space or neutral zone — essentially no-man’s land), and reincorporation. In the separation stage, our psyches begin to move away from what and who we have been, at times wreaking havoc on ourselves and those around us, especially if we are not conscious of what’s happening. Next, in the threshold stage, we go through a time of feeling completely in the dark, alone, without a rudder, not knowing where to find land. We slowly grope forward, and eventually, in the reincorporation stage, a new energy begins to emerge, and we begin to sense ourselves as different; a new self now on a new path.

This transitional dynamic feels familiar to most of us when it comes to that great change of adolescence to adulthood. We understand that introspecting, freely experimenting, boundary-breaking adolescents need support and guidance to navigate through this change. What our culture does not fully recognize is that this dynamic happens several more times after we become adults. And we need assistance each time — or at the very least, we need to have some idea that these three stages exist and that there are things we need to do in each stage in order to stay on track.

One of the most profound take-aways I had from the weekend was the idea that perhaps many older people begin the psychic shift from middle/late adulthood into elderhood and get lost in the grief of the separation phase, or get stuck in the threshold or liminal time, not knowing that feelings of grief and being utterly lost are part of a natural phase that preceeds a new beginning. And so they end up floating around in no man’s land for the rest of their lives, thinking that it’s just the nature of old age, and never develop into full elderhood. This is a tragic loss of human spiritual resource for any society and, I believe, is a huge loss that we are suffering from in contemporary culture.


The depth of transformation that magically occurs when humans gather with a shared intention and slow down enough (especially when held in the quiet of nature) to tap into the wisdom of their higher knowing never ceases to amaze me. Chuck connected the dots of his life. Jean was able to clarify her intentions for the next part of her journey, and see elderhood as a time in itself, rich with possibility, not merely a continuation of middle age. Mary found new focus, energy & authenticity. In the safe container and circle of intimacy created in the retreat, Elizabeth gained new insight and clarity around primary relationships in her life that will allow her to move forward into the “afternoon of life” with grace and wisdom. Renate wrote these words after lying on the floor listening to the rhythmic beating of a drum: “I feel like a child, as the soft drumbeat increased, growing, youth, strength, then, as the drumbeat diminished, my body became weaker, melting back and disintegrating to the dust of the earth.” Cindy was able to recognize the hidden resentments blocking her ability to re-focus and re-energize herself to do the work she has been called to do — creating caring communities for meaningful aging. The workshop was Rebecca W.’s first step toward moving into her eldering with dignity and awareness, holding compassion for herself and others, now having specific tools to do so. And Rebecca S. was able to befriend parts of herself that she had pushed away, helping her to live now from a more authentic place.

May those whose souls feel a stirring to create a culture that is steered and anchored by conscious elders be guided along the path. We need conscious elders!

Kinde Nebeker guides wilderness rites of passage trips and medicine day walks, and offers presentations on rites of passage, ecopsychology and related topics, as well as mentoring in psycho-spiritual development. www.newmoonritesofpassage.co

This article was originally published on December 30, 2015.