When I completed my Master’s Degree at the California Institute of Integral Studies in 1978, rather than eagerly heading out to begin a career as a transpersonally-oriented counselor trained in the growth approaches of both East and West, I was being called to something else that was not at all clear but that in my most centered moments felt authentically mine. Not knowing what this call was about, and full of self doubt and confusion, I entered a very dark night of the soul. Amid the darkness, an inner knowing told me that I needed to go to California’s sacred Mt. Shasta with a few kindred spirits to spend time alone enacting an improvised vision quest. I recruited a few graduate school friends to join me for several days, which proved to be a harbinger of a life’s work I could never have imagined at the time.
It was in the final hours of two days spent in solitude on the slopes of that mountain that I was blessed with an ineffable experience that pointed me in the direction of my calling. Central to that moment of grace was the realization that my service to life was to weave together my lifelong understanding of the power of the natural world to open hearts and minds, with my spiritual understandings and my training in various growth disciplines. That experience of clarity dispelled the darkness, as I knew with every fiber of my being that I had a purpose, a gift to give, and a calling around which to center my life.
The form I would use to give my gift was not immediately obvious, however. I embarked on a process that took almost two years of exploring outdoor-oriented growth programs in hope of finding one I could work with. I learned more about what did not feel like my unique path than what did. And then serendipity led me to the doorstep of Steven Foster and Meredith Little, honored worldwide as the pioneers in bringing wilderness rites of passage to contemporary, non-Native people. The moment I met them, I absolutely knew that I had found the form through which I was to give my gifts— the wilderness rite of passage that was so meaningful for me at Mt. Shasta while at the time I didn’t realize that experience was my initiation into my life’s work. I apprenticed with Steven and Meredith and then went on to create, in Boulder, Colorado, one of the first vision questing organizations with the mission of supporting non-Native people in moving through, and being empowered by, their life transitions.
As I guided or co-guided numerous wilderness rites of passage, with participants ranging from their teens to their eighties, I was privileged to witness deep and abiding growth. Amid magnificent desert and mountain landscapes, I saw peoples’ confusion and pain give way to vision, hope and sense of purpose. The natural world helped them get in touch with what is most natural and authentic within themselves. Its rhythms and cycles—endings, fallow times, and new beginnings—reminded them of their own inner dynamics, giving them confidence, hope and strength. I heard stories of remarkable communication with guidance, whether in the form of spirit guides, synchronicities with nature’s beings, or moments of profound intuition and clarity. I came fully alive when guiding others through their rites of passage, and felt something larger and much more ancient than my ego-self working through me. What a privilege it was to have such a calling.
Guiding rites of passage does not generate much income, however. One of the central dynamics of my work life has been the painful tension between being true to a calling that is so essential to my well being and, I believe, to the world, and fulfilling my responsibilities to support myself and my family. There have been a great many times when it seemed I would have to give up my calling to generate more income than my heart’s work was providing.
For more than a decade I took work as a corporate trainer in the area of organizational creativity, and as an educator traveling the country on behalf of a university to help start innovative adult education programs. During these times my heart ached for the work that brought me most alive, and I found occasional opportunities to do this work. Yet, at the same time I often felt deep gratitude for these opportunities to provide for my family and to develop other skills and facets of myself.
In the late 1990s I developed a fascination with hearing the life stories of older adults and began to do oral history work with my parents, relatives, people in our local hospice program and my faith community, and other elders in my mountain city Durango, Colorado. Around this time, as aging (that of myself and others) was showing up more and more on my radar screen, I was asked by two wise elders, Wes Burwell and Ann Roberts (of New York City) to join them in creating a rite of passage program to support people in growing into true elderhood rather than merely growing old. They were the elders, I was the 52 year old guy with lots of experience with rites of passage.
Together we designed a week-long wilderness vision quest that we called “Choosing Conscious Elderhood, and called the inner work we were teaching about and supporting “Conscious Eldering.” We worked hard to attract participants to these rites of passage, and often were disappointed by the lack of response. The Conscious Aging movement was just beginning. As the primary spokesperson for our work, I began to do a lot of writing.
Being a natural networker, I found kindred organizations that published my articles and supported my work, as I worked to support them. I often offered workshops and gave presentations for free, or nearly so, as a way of fulfilling my calling and gaining visibility for conscious eldering. And, more so than at any other time, I was often conflicted between giving my energy to this work and generating income. I spent much of my time looking for jobs which I knew I could have done well, but which I never was offered. My stress was great. I often had moments when I felt I didn’t get the jobs because in the bigger picture of my life, I was meant for other work—the work of my calling.
And then I had one of the pivotal experiences of my life. It took the form of a health crisis that resulted in two huge outcomes for me. One is the fact that, after several years of wondering if I had enough years under my belt and personal experience with aging to be credible in teaching conscious eldering, I felt that this crisis was my personal initiation onto the journey toward elderhood. I had experienced the fear, vulnerability, sense of not-yet-fulfilled legacy, realization of unhealed parts of my self, and awareness of mortality that are such prominent aspects of the aging process. I was now truly on this journey myself and was committed to having my life be a reflection of what I teach and a model for others of what is possible in their elder chapters.
The other outcome was that I saw I had to make a choice. Do I continue to devote half of myself to trying to grow my heart’s work and half to striving harder and harder to generate income? With the support of my ever-supportive wife Barbara and some powerful dreams and synchronicities, I chose to give my all to the work that gives me life. Shortly thereafter I created the Center for Conscious Eldering, to which I have given my very best for 11 years. Through a combination of deep devotion, perseverance, valuable networking, increasing cultural readiness, lots of writing (including my book Conscious Living, Conscious Aging), and unexpected opportunities such as the request from The Shift Network to host three of their Transforming Aging Summits, my opportunities to share conscious eldering have grown.
I have several talented colleagues who join me in presenting workshops and retreats in beautiful retreat centers where we tap the power of nature and the energies of rites of passage to guide and strengthen participants in their growth toward elderhood. And I am currently co-authoring with Katia Petersen, former Executive Director of Education for the Institute of Noetic Sciences, a unique resource to help people integrate concept and practice. Our book will be called The Art of Conscious Eldering: A 52-Week Personal Growth Book for Aging with Passion and Purpose.
Most importantly, I see the paradigm for aging in contemporary culture beginning to shift, as more and more teachers, books, organizations, and workshops and retreats, are lending their voices to the call for people to do the important inner work that can lead to the wholeness, fulfillment and service of true elderhood. In a world teetering on a knife edge between collapse and transformation, the wisdom and gifts of elders are urgently needed by people today and by the generations that will follow us.
I feel so very privileged to be called to play a role in helping restore honor and respect to the role of elder. And now that I am in my 70s, I will continue to do so, in a way that provides the necessary balance I need between outward service and my inner work toward the spiritual, emotional and physical wholeness I know is possible. I am very much still a work in progress. My most important gift to the world is my commitment to doing the growth work that allows my light to shine ever brighter.
Ron Pevny; The Center for Conscious Eldering, 2420 Delwood AvenueDurango, Colorado 81301 (970)247-7943 firstname.lastname@example.org
Support for realizing your potential in the elder third of life
The Art of Pilgrimage, by Ron Pevny https://www.centerforconsciouseldering.com/2015/05/04/art-pilgrimage-meeting-ancient-wisdom-copper-canyon/
My book, published in 2014 by Beyond Words/Atria Books, is Conscious Living, Conscious Aging: embrace and savor your next chapter.