Part II: RECONSTRUCTING YOUR LIFE
With RABBI ZALMAN SCHACHTER, Ph.D.
JEFFREY MISHLOVE, Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. I'm Jeffrey Mishlove. Today our topic is "Spiritual Eldering." This is Part 2 of a two-part series with Rabbi Zalman Schachter. Rabbi Schachter is a professor emeritus of the psychology of religion and religious mysticism at Temple University. He is the founder of P'nai Or, a religious fellowship based in Philadelphia, and is the director of the Spiritual Eldering Project. Welcome again, Zalman.
RABBI ZALMAN SCHACHTER, Ph.D.: Ah! It's been so much fun up to now. Let's continue.
MISHLOVE: Yes, yes. We've been talking largely about the theoretical premises, the philosophical basis, of your work in spiritual eldering, and now I'd like to devote the coming half hour to look at some of the actual work that's involved. Perhaps we could start once again by talking about the idea of absorbing, digesting, reconstructing even, one's past.
SCHACHTER: When a person gets the opportunity to look at their life history, I imagine them sometimes as having filing cabinets. Some of the filing cabinets are painted with bright colors; oh, those are the happy ones! And there are some that painted with dull colors; those are the anxious-making ones: yes, I've got stuff filed in there, but I don't want to look at them. Why? Because I know every time I'm going to open one of those files it will make me feel bad. What happens is that when a person is beginning to do their life harvest, the harvest isn't only in what Roman Catholics used to call the joyful mysteries; there is also in the sorrowful mysteries some very wonderful harvesting to be done. Very often that happens when I open up a file that I had thought of as my failures, and I start to look at that, and then I see how many of my successes are rooted right in those failures. When I do this I recontextualize that, and I take that file -- by reliving it, by reliving it in real time -- and I see, oh, I learned so much from that moment. And I move it over to the happy file. So part of the harvesting of life is to move over as much as possible from the negative files into the positive files by seeing them in a new context, by seeing what that grief gave me as good grief -- that was at one point what people meant by that, when they said good grief; look how much I gained by that. And I might be able to say that when I look at my own past, I see that my successes were the result, the fallouts, of my failures.
MISHLOVE: Could you give me an example?
SCHACHTER: Well, there are moments, for instance, when you thought, "I'm going to continue being in this post forever." And then they don't renew my contract, and I am no longer with this congregation and I have to move out, and it's as if I am being thrown out of the nest, and now I have to move into a new area. And this is how I moved into academic life, to the University of Manitoba, from the pulpit in the city of New Bedford. So on the one hand, if they didn't renew my contract, that means, you know, I'm a failure. And that gives me anxiety even this day when I think back on it. But having recontextualized it, I begin to see in the root of that place all these wonderful things that came as a result -- namely, the friendships that I made afterwards. And one of the exercises we do in the work of spiritual eldering, we call it "Thou preparest a banquet before me in the presence of my enemies" -- remember that from Psalm 23. So we ask people to bring to a banquet that they experience interior, on the inside, all those people who gave them trouble, and as a result of those people who gave them trouble, all the good things that happened to them in life.
MISHLOVE: To thank all their enemies.
SCHACHTER: That's right -- to bring them to the table and to the banquet, and give them -- make a testimonial dinner for them, and say, "Look how much goodness I got as a result of you." And therefore to be able to forgive, to let go, so that I don't have to bear the burden of grudge. That is one of the hardest things in the work of spiritual eldering. People tell me, "You know, how can I forgive that person?" And then I have to point out to them that the jailer spends as much time in prison as the prisoner. The energy that you will gain if you can let go of the grudge, if you can let go of vindictiveness, and be able to say, "So all right; so I won't have my way. So I won't have the final triumph, as it were, over that person. Enough that what that person did for me to be instrumental for all the good that came to me as a result of that." And to be able to let go. We have a prayer in our tradition that speaks of this nightly forgiving of people who during the day have hurt, harmed, upset me, and to be able to say, "I forgive them, and let no one be punished on my account" -- even to say, "Those who hurt me in this lifetime and any other incarnation, I release them." This kind of releasing is so freeing. You see, one of the things that people say about getting old is being burdened. When a person can jettison resentment burdens and grudge burdens there is so much more energy being given, so that one has the energy to be able to do the homework of eldering.
MISHLOVE: It reminds me of an old tale, I think from the Jewish tradition. Moses observes an angel going about doing God's work, and at first it seems as if this angel is causing nothing but trouble and interfering with people's lives and causing pain. And then Moses complains to God. Then he learns later all of the good consequences that came out of that.
SCHACHTER: Right. It's a Sufi tale in which the khither takes Moses around and there are three moments in which he says, "I'll take you if you won't ask any questions," right? But Moses can't contain himself, and then he points out to him how important it was that he should just create this kind of upset. These are the kind of hurdles that people feel are stumbling blocks, and I believe they're stepping stones. It depends how you see them.
MISHLOVE: You used the word khither, so I want to just backtrack for a second.
SCHACHTER: Oh, that is the vision of that kind of divine messenger, which in the Jewish tradition is prophet Elijah, and in Islam is the Green One. And that's what the word khither stands for.
MISHLOVE: So some people are carrying grudges, not only against their enemies and the people who they've quarreled with in life, but many people enter into their old age feeling angry at God. Isn't that true? Isn't that a real issue?
SCHACHTER: Oh! That's one of the hardest ones. The problem isn't being angry at God. If you're angry at God, give him hell -- you know, the sense of how can I express my love of God if there is a whole mountain of resentment on top? I can't feel anything for God if I haven't had a chance to discharge the resentment. There is a kind of existential resentment that people experience: "What right did you have to create me without my consent?" It sounds like a funny question, but when you work through that one and finally you can be a yea-sayer and say, "Look how much I have gained," then, when I can forgive myself for the rackets in my life, and I can forgive God for placing me into life, then the rest of it is joy. The burden gets so much lighter. If I don't forgive God I have the heaviest burden on my shoulders. There is another element I want to get to that has to do with the work of eldering. A sourpuss can't do -- you know, a bitter person can't do that which gives the greatest joy in eldering. If someone were to say, "Where does libido go" -- you know, that erotic sense that we had in our youth -- "when we get older?" The greatest joy is in mentoring. That's the time -- the harvest period is the time for mentoring. We were talking before about, are you saved? Are you saved? How do I get saved? How do I get to save the awareness, the wisdom, the experience, that I gain in a lifetime? Mostly by mentoring. When I have somebody who is eager to learn what I have to give over, it releases me from grieving over my own mortality. I look at this substance here; it's biological, it's organic, and some day it will have to do what all organic substance does, namely, get recycled. But it also contains in itself a lot of experience and wisdom. If that were to have to die too, that would grieve me a lot more than the physical death. I feel that these are the achievements of my life, and as if my life were a movie on old celluloid, and it's a good movie, but the film keeps ripping every time they're trying to project it again, you know, because it's worn out. And you save it and you put it over now into digital form, and it's now electronic. And now it is -- in a most ephemeral way it can be put into all kinds of media, and it has been saved. My sense is when an elder gives over that which he or she had gotten over the past from tradition, from generations, to the next person who can take it, that's a wonderful feeling. It feels like, "Oh, this feels so good," yeah? This is the eros of the harvest period, and it's wonderful. And also it adds to that sense that has to do with completing. When I go back and see -- during my time at the university, you know, every once in a while the Dean would like to have a report: "What did you do during the year?" So I marked down some time for "ear." The Dean wanted to know, "What's ear?" So I said, "That's what I give to my students -- ear." Students want to come around, and they aren't interested -- they hear me enough in the classroom. What they want from me is that I should give ear and consciousness and pay attention to what they're telling me, and while they're doing their own mind, their own head, in front of me, there's subtle stuff that happens. I don't have to say very much, and mentoring takes place. So when you come, for instance, to a home for the aged, there you see the people pulling at you, "Please, stay with me. Give me a little bit of time. Give me a little bit of care, and listen to me. I have so much to share." The urgency with which they wish to give is great. However, there's a clumsiness in most people. They don't know how to do it in such a way -- it's like an eager lover, not knowing how to create the ambiance so that the loving can take place. So people shy away from them, and I feel this is tragic for them. One of the things that we teach our people in the eldering work is how to so be in the body that they can gain respect. A woman said to me, "Listen, I don't want to learn about death. I want to know if you can teach me, how do I get the respect that I deserve?" So I started to give her some respect, but, you know, not immediately. I gave her honor, and then she said, "Why are you making so much fuss over me?" --"Because you don't know how to take it. Now sit here for a moment while I project my respect at you, and see if you can take it, if you can receive it." And this is what we do at those seminars -- help people to be so in their body that when they enter a room people feel like standing up.
MISHLOVE: Yes. There's a sense of presence.
SCHACHTER: Right. And when an elder -- that's the difference between just somebody who's old, and someone who's an elder. The elder comes in, and there's a sense of, ah! Here is that seasoned, wise presence.
MISHLOVE: Is this something, though, that is available to everyone? Doesn't it take a lifetime of work to achieve that?
SCHACHTER: My sense is one of the reasons why we are sharing this as broadly as we are doing right at this moment is that I believe for many people, if you try and teach them the skills of eldering by the time they're in late December, it's quite hard. This is something that people who are already in the summer months, that is to say in the July and August of their life, in the forties and fifties, need to begin to pay attention to. You know, if I ask myself the question, "How do I want to spend my last years? Do I want to be warehoused?" You know, "Do I want to be treated like an inmate of an institution, someone who is suddenly not capable of having his own center, but who is an object for other people to store, to manipulate, to clean, to handle?" That's a very depressing thing. So we have now this small window of opportunity open to us, to be able to so design for the up-and-coming generation, for the boomers, an environment in which this work of spiritual eldering can be done, so that we can do this in a shared way. See, one of the things that I pioneered is what I call socialized meditation. I often ask people, "What's your spiritual path?" And they tell me, "Oh, I've got this wonderful spiritual path." "Great. How often do you do it?" "Well, you see, um, I need, um, to have my time with, uh, my family, ummm . . . Yeah, I don't have time enough to do it. But if I do it, when I do it, this is a wonderful way." Then I ask, "How much quality time do you spend with your family?" "Well, you see, I'm not centered enough. I wish I were more centered, and I could --" And I say, "All right. Here is a way of doing it. You can do the spiritual work in an interactive way with a person who you care for." My sense is that in these communities that we hope to be able to create, where the mentoring takes place, where the interactive meditation takes place, where the recontextualizing of the past takes place, where being in the body like an elder takes place, where role modeling in the right way takes place, so that besides the youth culture and that myth, another myth begins to arise, in which the elder has a place, in which then the elder also begins to influence it. In Jewish mysticism there is a thing called the Ancient of Days, an archetype, the Ancient of Days. My sense is that this is the time in which the Ancient of Days is needed by our mother, the Earth, in order to help with the ripening and with the process that has to happen so we can coalesce into a whole Earth.
MISHLOVE: I suppose this has to do to some extent with the loss of the extended family -- that many young children don't get to grow up with their grandparents in the house any longer.
SCHACHTER: I once had a friend who died a tragic death. He was a rabbi, and someone shot him in the pulpit. He told me this story, that his daughter once was riding piggyback on his father's shoulders. He came into the room and saw them on the floor playing, and he said, "Poppa, you never did this with me." So his father, who didn't know Freud, said, "My son, don't you know? Parents and children are enemies. She is your enemy, and you're my enemy, so she is my ally, so we can do that." And when you start looking at the way in which values were -- talking about family values these days, and what's values of a family? That which happens between a grandparent and a grandchild, because there you don't have to fight with your zaideh or with your bobbeh about the values. It's wonderful. You absorb them, because you know that they're your friends. And so it was possible to take those things that were the eternal verities and pass them on. With social mobility, and we don't live under the same roof anymore, three, four generations, that has created a real, real lack. Our societal life has become more brittle, and so now when you can't even count on a basic family unit, but on a single-parent family, it's really difficult. And so one way in which to be able to do it is to create intergenerational communal living situations, and they're very, very important in the next part of what eldering is about, because there the mentoring takes place; the elders have a chance to give over to the younger ones. But the younger ones also stimulate the elders. And part of the further expansion of brain power and the consciousness that goes with that depends on constant and more stimulation. And when you see how most of the homes for the elderly do not give that stimulation and that growth, there's no wonder that there's a diminution of consciousness. So we want to be able to expand it by including intergenerational stuff.
MISHLOVE: Can we talk some more about the expansion of brain power?
MISHLOVE: You know, I know many elderly people, and one of the things I observe about them generally is that they read a lot; you know, it's easy to discuss literature with them, because they've read so much in general. But I think you're talking about something different -- not just learning and knowledge.
SCHACHTER: Yes. You see, from the beginning of the 1900s we had gotten to understand reality as being that which is technical and which is rational. So it was only one part of our being. So education didn't deal much with the body; even though they had phys ed in the schools, it wasn't really an education of the sensorium and the ability to see better, clearer, and feel more, and so on and so forth. So the body was ignored. With affect, with feelings, very few people have a sense of sophistication about it. Then there are social skills that are really important -- I feel, for instance, in matters that have to do with peace on this planet. Look how much sophistication we have in technology, to be able to create a stealth bomber -- you know, Star Wars -- and at the same time how little sophistication we have to be able to deal with a recalcitrant enemy. And there what is left for us is only violence. Isn't it a pity, how little we have learned on the level of social interaction, and how little we know about the management of feeling and of affect? Go back to mysticism and to spirituality; that's what they have been dealing with all the time -- how to deal with your anger, how to deal with your resentment, how to generate love, how to generate ecstasy, enthusiasm, and caring. So this is really the very important part. So what we have cultivated is the cortical stuff, and that is very linear, and this is how print operates. When McLuhan started to tell us about how media work, and how this medium of television, for instance, worked, it runs on many, many levels simultaneously. So in our communication there's what our bodies say to each other, and then there is the feeling: "I feel good about you; I like you, you know. It's a pleasure to spend this time so I can allow my heart to open, and to receive the feeling from you." That's a second track. The third track is what we are talking about. But the deeper-yet track is what happens in my sense of the vision of the holy and the true, to which you give assent, to which I give assent, and from which we both draw in order to do what we need to do in the world. So this is what needs to be cultivated, and that's why I feel that what the people at this point don't have, and need to cultivate, are the contemplative tools to look inside of themselves, to expand their mind to global and cosmic awareness, and then to see their role in life, how this fits with it all. And each time a person has one of those "Aha!" -- "Aha!" -- that's what we call insight -- that's what we call enlightenment -- until all these "Ahas!" come together into the super-duper "Aha!", yes, and he can say this person has gotten it. And what we would hope to be able to help our elders to is to do these "Ahas!" And these "Ahas!" turn out to be not so easily given to verbalization.
MISHLOVE: Yes. Well, Abraham Maslow of course talked about these as peak experiences, and indicated that like mystical experiences they're very hard to express, but very important and crucial to the higher development of the human being.
SCHACHTER: It's at that point that, having taken care of the lower-order needs that we have, we come to the higher-order needs, which are to know and to actualize. That's the word that we like to use.
MISHLOVE: Actualize, yes. Well, so many people traditionally do these things within the context of their own spiritual framework, and I know you're a rabbi, but this work is nondenominational work that you're doing -- spiritual eldering. Is it a conflict or a problem to bring together --
SCHACHTER: No. My deep sense is that we're all working with what I call generic spirituality, no-frills stuff. And then there's the brand-name stuff that fits a particular ethnic background, a particular cultural background. Look, I have my grandparents, you know, genetically, right in here. Every time I sit and meditate, there are sparks of awareness that come from them. They are best expressed in my tradition, but if you understand what a tradition is, a tradition is a bank in which I take my lifetime's experience, deposit it there, so that when I come back later on in another incarnation I don't have to start from scratch. I withdraw the deposit that I left there before. So tradition isn't something somebody else imposed on me. And when I begin to see my oneness with all souls and all the mind in the world, then I get to feel that the tradition is what we all share, what we all own. Each one gets it in the most accessible bottle, as it were, the most accessible vessel.
MISHLOVE: Rabbi Zalman Schachter, what a wonderful note to end on with you -- the oneness that we all share that transcends all the divisions that we otherwise create between us.
MISHLOVE: Amen. Thanks so much for being with me.
SCHACHTER: It's a joy.
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