Part I: THE AUTUMN OF LIFE
with RABBI ZALMAN SCHACHTER, Ph.D.
JEFFREY MISHLOVE, Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. I'm Jeffrey Mishlove. Our topic today is "Spiritual Eldering." With me is Rabbi Zalman Schachter. Dr. Schachter is a professor emeritus in the psychology of religion and religious mysticism at Temple University. He is also the founder and president of P'nai Or, a religious fellowship in Philadelphia, and a director of the Spiritual Eldering Project in Philadelphia. Welcome, Zalman.
RABBI ZALMAN SCHACHTER, Ph.D.: It's a pleasure being here with you.
MISHLOVE: It's a pleasure to be with you. When we think of spiritual eldering, I guess the paradox is that it seems like such a natural phrase, a natural way of thinking of things. And yet in our Western culture it's not generally the way we think of growing old.
SCHACHTER: Well, first of all, we have the sense of aging and old. One of the connotations of old is like an old rag, and in a youth culture old is the opposite of what you ought to be. So no one wants to own that they're growing older, and the sense that makes them feel like losers. On the other hand the truth is that they're really winners. If we could make it to be as old as we are already, that shows that we have managed to survive, that we have managed to do so many wonderful things in life. The difference between being an elder and an old person is that an elder is somebody who has gained wisdom. There is a way in which they have distilled their life experience in such a way that their very presence becomes a witness to others. And originally this was what we had in the tribal society, too -- that an elder was a person who was a repository of wisdom, of awareness, and younger people would check with them and say, "Am I on the right track? Am I doing right?" And that's what the elder was there for, to test with. I use the word spiritual because very often what I mean by this is not quite the connotation of religious. Religious has a sense of sectarian and always in the service of something else, rather than the service of their own growth. I also have a sense about the word spiritual as a way of saying there's the physical human, and there's the emotional person, the one who has the loves and the attitudes toward life, and there is the wise person, the one that has the intellect. But that isn't yet the fulfillment of the human being until they become spiritual. And spiritual then has the sense of that is the harvest of life, in which we become spiritual beings. So the transformation from just an older person, from a geriatric object, as it were, into someone who is a subject, an elder, and who has done this by using the tools, the contemplative tools, available to him -- that's why I like to call it spiritual. And I like to use the word as a verb -- eldering -- because it's a process; it's something that we begin to grow into, and sometimes you find young children, and people speak of them as having old souls, because the elder begins to shine forth in them. And the realized person, I would want to say, is the elder in you, in me, and this one is waiting to come out to the fore.
MISHLOVE: The term elder is often associated with -- well, for example, I think American Indians, or with certain church groups that have church elders.
SCHACHTER: It begins way back in the Bible with Moses, when they were at a council of seventy elders, and there was this wonderful moment in which Moses shared with them and said, "I will give you the experience of my knowledge of God, of my revelation." And for a while all the seventy elders experienced that revelation, that prophecy. And so you have a sense that they were Moses' Senate -- and that basically was what the word Senate got to mean; it meant the elders of society. In Rome they were the elders too. And I suppose that we would want to have in Washington the people who are in the Senate also to be the elders.
MISHLOVE: Well, if I can switch cultures for a moment, in India they have an interesting tradition which seems like it might fit well into our culture, where there are the phases of life. In, for example, the phase of life that I'm in, in my middle years of life, one pursues a career, one raises a family, one is the head of a household; one's concerns could be, and must appropriately be to a large degree, in the material plane. But as one enters into the elder phase of life in India is the time where you go off into the forest and become a wandering monk and meditate -- a sense of real spiritual discipline and renewal in those years.
SCHACHTER: And even -- you know, I just don't want to sell the West short. If you speak, for instance, in Russia, who were those monks to whom people would come for counsel, for advice? They called them staretsi. Starets means an elder, again. And so yes, we had the same tradition. We had this tradition in Judaism, and later on when there's a description of how the manifestation of the revelation was passed on -- it was given from Moses to Joshua, from Joshua to the judges, and then later on to the prophets, and from the prophets to the elders. And so the word elder was really there, people who had the experience and who brought the experience with them. There's more to be said yet about that element of elders, but let me try it in a different way. Imagine a lifetime projected against a cycle of a year, and you would have the winter season beginning sort of late December, going to March. And if you break that down into months, and then you apply it to about seven years in a person's lifetime, you get January until the first teeth come out and the second teeth come in; the end of February is puberty; the end of March we are 21. And so you have the first season of life. And then you begin the second season, which is the spring season. That's when a person finds a social place, her social place in society. There's the parenting, and finding the right vocation, all these things. And then by the time a person gets to be forty-two, then they enter into the magnum opus. That's what is their real life vocation. There is also at that time an issue that has to do with midlife crisis, and we'll get to that -- I hope so -- later on. But what happens then is that that's the summer, and during the summer grows what a person has plowed and sowed before. Now we come to October-November-December, from about sixty-three to eighty-four, and if you counted in ten years you'd get to be 120, as our tradition has it, yes? And then you see that we have programs in our Western world for the winter, for the spring, and for the summer, but we don't have any programs or models for people, how to do the fall, how to do the harvest of their life. And so instead of thinking about it as renouncing the world and going off into the forest, let me say it in terms of harvesting. You did a life, and what have you garnered in this life? What are the things, the results, that you can take with you, as it were, the achievements? Now, most people when they work and die in the saddle, it's as if they want to prolong the summer and they never have a fall in which they can go and do their harvesting.
MISHLOVE: Our culture doesn't seem to offer much in the way of harvesting.
SCHACHTER: Partly this is due to the fact that we are in America and the frontier, and until about the turn of the last century we were still expanding the frontier, and we saw ourselves as a youth culture. There's one side. The other thing is also we didn't have an extended life span. I feel that the urgent question is for many people, when you have an extended life span, can you do this without having extended consciousness? And it's so clear to me that without extended consciousness the extended life span is a depressive thing.
MISHLOVE: Yes. I think statistics show that many people in our culture will die within two years of retirement, often because they have no goals, they have no sense of what to do with that phase of their life.
SCHACHTER: Right; and so if one could model for them -- this is where we come back to the spiritual elder -- if one could model for people, this is what you'd do. These are the tools that you can use for your harvest in life, and this is how you can bring to fruition who you are and who you have become through a life. I often have the sense that many of us have to come back into life again because we have incomplete -- you know, like a student who has done all the work during the semester but hasn't written the exam, so hasn't harvested, as it were, the grades, the marks, of the work that they have done. So this is then a not very delightful incarnation, if I don't bring my harvest along with me.
MISHLOVE: Well, I guess one of the fundamental questions that comes up for me when you talk about harvesting a life is the basic philosophical question, what is the purpose of life?
SCHACHTER: There are so many answers that can be given. I think what's so wonderful about life is that we are in each other's, for instance, theater. Now I am a character in your theater, and you're a character in my theater, and it turns out that all the people that we are connected with, we are doing with a minimum amount of personnel, a maximum amount of stories. So each story can then be said that it has its own purpose, its own unfolding. But I think on the larger scale we all feel so strongly that our mother the Earth is waking up. And when you begin to see Earth as whole -- like Hoyle said, "When people will see the planet from outer space, an idea will have been born in their consciousness that will be pivotal in consciousness." And this has really been true. So the moment you begin to see yourself not only as an individual, but as a cell of the global brain, then the purpose of life is so much larger. So one of the purposes is for us to appreciate what there is, as if to say that when mother Earth is looking in the mirror she looks through our eyes to see herself, and our appreciation is the gift that we can give back to say that we enjoy it. So harvesting a lifetime is something that we can bring back and say, "For life and for the gift of this life, what have I learned? I will now upload into the global brain. I will save it to the hard drive, as it were, of the planet." And that's why I ask people sometimes the question, "Are you saved?" And I mean that in the same way as a person who's working on a computer -- that having done about an hour's work and not saved even once, and then there's an electrical failure -- oy, how terrible it is at that point! All this work hasn't been saved.
MISHLOVE: You seem to be saying that each human being comes to this earth, and we each accumulate in the course of our lifetime at least one insight which is unique to us.
SCHACHTER: And essential.
MISHLOVE: And essential. And that our purpose, if we're to further the evolution of life on this planet, is to harvest that insight and somehow to pass it on.
SCHACHTER: And now the question is where. So one of the things that -- you know, how did I get into this whole business of spiritual eldering? When a person is practicing any form of self-awareness and introspection, then you watch how your life is shaping and changing, and you begin to see things happening as one grows older. And in what you would call the youth culture, the diminishment that comes with the eyes don't see so well, and the body isn't as it was in younger years, then you would say, "Oh, I'm getting down the hill."
MISHLOVE: So many people, it seems, fall into that trap. They view their old age as just becoming more and more diminished from what they once were.
SCHACHTER: Because they don't see what is possible, what the next possibility is -- when Jean Houston speaks about the possible human. We are now on the verge of a new expansion of brain. This is what's so exciting about it. I used to live in Manitoba. There we never had apple trees except crabapples, because the crabapples were the only kind of apples that could ripen in the short summer that they had.
MISHLOVE: In that weather, yes.
SCHACHTER: And in a shorter life span, that we had before, we could grow perhaps the reptilian brain, the limbic brain, and the cortex. But then there remains about eighty percent, some people say; some people say more --
MISHLOVE: Silent areas of the brain.
SCHACHTER: Of the brain, that haven't been involved yet. My sense is that they ripen at this point, and if we were to utilize the right kind of psychospiritual technology -- that's to say, what do you do inside of yourself, with yourself, in order to format, to open up, areas of the brain that you had no access to before? Most of them -- they're there; it's not that they aren't in existence -- they come to us serendipitously. People will say, "I have a hunch. I have an intuition." But they come like peak experiences that we have no control over.
MISHLOVE: And not always social support to nurture those experiences when they do come.
SCHACHTER: Right, right. And so what happens is that I said to myself, is it not possible to then create a domestication of peak experiences, just as the hunter-gatherers domesticated agriculture and animal husbandry, to the point that now they don't have to go hunting, because the herd is available here, and they don't have to go gathering because they have it in the field and the orchard. I believe that it is possible to tap this new area of the brain that is ripening in older folks, and is also ripening in younger people, because just the same way as in the individual it's happening at the time when one becomes an elder, so it's happening for the planet too. Have you ever seen how kids do the Rubik's Cube?
MISHLOVE: Yes, yes.
SCHACHTER: Have you ever been able to do it?
MISHLOVE: No. I remember my eight-year-old son was much better at it than I was. Yes.
SCHACHTER: Right. What happens is that I feel that they can handle complexity so much better than we could, because our training was not to get to there. Furthermore, I believe that what people call the morphogenetic field -- that part in which the habits of mind are entrained -- that they hadn't yet been entrained to such a level of complexity. When someone can sit with a channel switcher in his hand and move from one universe of discourse to another, and manage to hook into all that complexity, that's wonderful. Kids are learning to do that, and I think elders can learn to do that in such a way that they could harvest life.
MISHLOVE: So what you're saying is that by applying the technologies of transpersonal psychology and humanistic psychology and the human potential movement --
SCHACHTER: And the mysticisms of all, East and West.
MISHLOVE: And the mysticisms of all religions, that there's a vast technology that can be brought to bear for people who are entering into the autumn of their life.
SCHACHTER: Right. Furthermore, there is now a new frontier; that's the brain-mind work, in which we are exploring possibilities of being able to do with biofeedback and with generating patterns and reinforcing patterns of awareness in mind -- yes, it's all burgeoning. This is a whole new frontier that's opening up for us.
MISHLOVE: Well, let me ask you this question though. I get the feeling that there are particular geriatric problems that occur to people in this phase of life -- depression, burnout; sometimes when a person --
MISHLOVE: -- has hopelessness or has had low self-esteem that has been unattended for decades, it can become a chronic problem -- to say nothing of the physical deterioration and incapacities that occur in later life. Do you feel that the spiritual eldering philosophy can be brought to bear here?
SCHACHTER: Absolutely. That's really the point. When people look that they're moving into the fall, into the autumn period of their life, and then they see, as it were, death looming ahead, for many people that's a way of moving into an area of, "I don't want to know about it." They become opaque to the future. They don't have the sense that it pays to move into the future, because over there lies the end, and with it futility. When a person can manage to make peace with their own mortality, instead of seeing the end of life at October, they see that there's a whole season yet to go. There is all the way to December, and with the extended life span, who knows what more life there is available for us? These are the months that could then be prepared for work. But what happens when a person becomes anxious? Then instead of walking toward the future they back into the future. When they back into the future they look backwards, to their past. Very often people see things in the past that don't make them so happy either, so then they turn off and become opaque to the past. Since the present is for them also not such a happy present, it's a diminished present. In the diminished present, with no future and no past to extend to, they create a psychic pattern that is a field. Like Alzheimer's is physical, and no wonder then. So the work of spiritual eldering is to open up the future and to recontextualize the past. By doing so a person can then create the space, and then by looking at what is currently available, and riding the new energy, which is the energy for completion, then one can also expand the present, so that's an expansion of consciousness, and it's also a revitalization.
MISHLOVE: You know, not long ago I interviewed a Tibetan lama. We were talking about the purpose of life, and from the Tibetan perspective they maintain that one of the great transitions of life is of course death, and everybody must die, so that it was considered by them foolish not to spend much of your life preparing for death, to die rightly.
SCHACHTER: That has been such a wonderful thing also in the Western tradition. We used to have a thing we called ars moriendi, the art of dying. And very often there would be wonderful tales in the Hassidic tradition of holy death beds -- people who had these wonderful parting words, you know, and then they were gone. And the notion was as if all their life they had prepared themselves for this moment in order to be able to have that kind of glorious and conscious exit. Like Elizabeth Kubler-Ross tells about one person saying to her in German, "Ich will mein Sterben leben" -- I want to live through my dying; I don't want to miss it. I just want to live through it. And that's true. But I also want to have a sense that this is not a morbid thing -- that to be vital for the transition point, in order to handle that one has to be able to think beyond that. People used to talk about beyond war, and said, "You can't really work for peace unless you can see beyond war." My sense is people can't really learn their dying unless they can see beyond dying. And there's much that we are teaching people about that.
MISHLOVE: Well, one of the senses that I get from what you're saying is it requires a certain courage -- a courage to confront pain, a courage to confront one's idea of failure, and to look at it anew.
SCHACHTER: It's not so much confront pain as confront anxiety. Anxiety is the fear that I have that I will have pain in the future; it's saying ouch before it hurts. And my sense is that we have -- that this comes also -- you see, everything has a good origin. The first part was that we live a whole lifetime with the notion that I must do everything I can in order not to yield to death. And so emergency rooms and medicine, all that, is geared up for that. And so the fear that we have of death is our helper. There is a point when it shifts -- for instance, when "Save life at any cost" becomes, A, expensive beyond our ability to handle it; secondly, it is beyond what the person wants. So you can imagine a person who is already gearing to die, and would like to have an easy exit; and people speak, for instance, of pneumonia as being the friend of the dying person. And then they give them antibiotics, so then the body has to heal itself and then have a more painful way of going. See, at that point saving life at any cost makes no sense. And this is why the living will is such a wonderful thing, when people can say, "Please, no heroic measures for me. I don't want to be experiencing my dying plugged into tubes and stuff of this sort; or being alone in an oxygen tent rather than being surrounded by people I love."
MISHLOVE: But I gather that dealing with death and growing older at this level is really the first step to an opening up of a much larger perspective.
SCHACHTER: Yes, that's right. When a person can say, "All right. I make my peace with this. I'm a mortal person." And then say, "And until I die there is so much life to live." And what is part of the thing that one needs to do? Remember when we used to talk before, Freud would say that people had their two instincts; one was a life instinct, one was a death instinct. And if you look in the literature of psychoanalysis you find very little about the death instinct, a lot about libido. Later on when Jung began to do his work, he started to say, "Wait a second. There is something that happens in midlife that has to do with individuation, and my sense is that I'd like to call these two instincts the beginning, the initiating instinct, and the completing instinct.
MISHLOVE: Completing -- it's not just dying.
SCHACHTER: Right. And I think this is what spiritual eldering is about -- to give the tools to the completing instinct to fulfill and to harvest.
MISHLOVE: Rabbi Zalman Schachter, what a pleasure to talk to you about the fullness and the harvesting of life. Thank you so much for being with me.
SCHACHTER: It's a joy for me too.
MISHLOVE: And for those of you who have been enjoying this program, please tune in again next time for Part 2 of this series on "Spiritual Eldering."
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