An "Elder Seeker" Seeks – And Finds – Community

The following is based upon my writing for our writing group – 8/4/2014; Common Topic: Community.

In October of last year I found myself at a local Enneagram 2-day workshop featuring Helen Palmer and Cynthia Bourgeault. As I looked around I recognized several people from other venues of my recent past, but I wondered, “Here are gathered 200 people coming from all walks of life. Most of us have embarked upon our respective spiritual journeys. We feel some camaraderie here in this 2-day workshop, some level of ‘community,’ if only for this weekend. But when we leave here, what are the communities to which we return and where we find like-minded spiritual seekers?

This question would not leave me during the workshop, and when there was a question and answer period near the end I asked Helen and Cynthia, “Where do people like us, having left church behind, now find community?” Cynthia’s answer startled me: “Gary, maybe you’ll just have to go your path alone for a while, without community.” Since then I have pondered her answer, intuitively knowing it held a message for me in some way.

But part of me still seemed to be seeking community.   I began exploring the nature of my seeking by reflecting on my history – asking myself, “Where through my life have I experienced ‘community’?”

I recalled my early years – in my 30’s and 40’s – and saw that community was key to me – mostly in the form of bible-study groups – church-based and laity-based – Sunday morning bible-class, several mid-week men’s bible-study breakfast groups, even a Monday morning bible-study group at work that I helped to lead. These were like-minded evangelical Christian groups.

Another significant group was a local Marriage-Encounter love circle – a group of six or seven couples that met every other Sunday evening. My wife Jane and I participated in this love circle for the last 15 years of our married life together. The format was writing and sharing “love-letters” on a particular topic related to our marriage, values, and challenges in life. I experienced these years as ones of deep sharing with Jane and with the group – but I was always a bit dishonest in my sharing, refusing to face the feelings I had that I needed to end this marriage, believing (for some right and some wrong reasons) that my Soul needed another partner to reach the true fulfillment it longed for in couplehood.

In my fifties I began co-creating and participating in what is called “Group Spiritual Direction.” The first one began when I explained what I longed for spiritually to a Catholic nun who said she was a spiritual director (a new and unfamiliar phrase for me, a Lutheran). I said that what I was looking for was “A Twelve-Step Program for those with a non-named malady.” The key in my request of her was a group with values of anonymity, deep and safe honesty, and open sharing. She did not know of such a group but was willing to help me form one.  So she and I formed a small group of four that lasted for five years. Out of this experience came several other groups that I helped to form and that followed more closely a group-spiritual-direction format. So in my fifties, as I was leaving the church and, sadly, my marriage, I became very engaged in these groups. I drank in the group experiences.

In my sixties my group activity, now as a divorced man, continued to dominate my life. First were several Pathwork-based groups – my five-year long Transformation Program group and other teaching groups at Sevenoaks in Virginia (2000 – 2008) as well as a local Cincinnati Pathwork group that I helped form and that met weekly on Friday evenings for three or four years (2002-2005).

During this time I was also part of a Ken Wilber group that met in my Tourmaline office for three years. It was a peer-led vibrant discussion group covering a wide range of topics, mostly dealing with consciousness in some way – following Don Beck’s Spiral Dynamics and other similar materials. At times I found the conversation a bit heady, but certainly enjoyed the people who showed up for these engaging conversations. I also was part of a men’s group led by a psychotherapist for several years, but struggled to get traction with this group. Here I would say I was missing the spiritual dimensions that my Soul longed for.

In 2003 I partnered up with Pat and eventually this “dyad” became my/our primary “group.” More about this later, but over the ensuing years Pat and I participated in several groups together. Perhaps most notable was a journaling group under Faye Schwelitz in which we participated for three or four years. This group met monthly in between semi-annual one-week workshops with Faye. The process was very rich and deep for all involved, but in the end did not answer my need for connection – in fact connection was devalued in the group while the focus was on personal processing through an Ira Progoff-type of journaling process.

There have been other groups, but these are much smaller, actually consisting of only two (like Pat and me), three, or four people. For example, over a ten-year period (1998-2009) three of us like-minded contemplatives, a woman and two of us men – all above 55 I would say – met monthly to discuss and explore “life.” There was no objective beyond sharing life, and no particular format. We would usually just meet at a centrally located Panera Bread and talk, and talk. Again I enjoyed the intimacy, but I also enjoyed the “lack of overarching purpose” beyond simply honest sharing. Structure of any kind seemed superfluous and, when tried once or twice, even a hindrance to what we valued most.

Another triad that has worked for me is a Pathwork-based threesome – two women and me. Each of us has been involved in Pathwork for 14 (me) to 25 or more years (each of them). The two women bring the credentials of licensed counselor, Pathwork Helper, and/or teacher of spiritual material. As a threesome we have been together for three years or so. The format is again totally unstructured. We simply gather twice each year to spend three days with each other – talking, sharing, cooking, hiking, eating out, or walking on the beach. We each describe the time as magical and oh-so-rich.

On the dyad side of twosomes, the significant dyads in my “group-life” include weekly (when possible) coffee-times with my brother Paul. This is very rich time, in part because of the tension between our respective spiritual outlooks – Paul being very faithful to his conservative Lutheran roots while I engage with him about my more radical and seemingly “heretical” views. This relationship is a profound blessing to me, and I thank my brother for hanging in with me even though on some level our worlds are seemingly miles apart. On another level they are not – we have the same roots in solid Lutheranism and, of course, a common family of origin.

And there are other significant dyads in my life, including bi-weekly Skype calls with my Pathwork buddy Jenny, and also, though less frequent, meetings with perhaps four or five very significant friends. And then there is my family – the precious one-to-one conversations with my two daughters and son, and also various family gatherings where I more than likely will find myself talking one-to-one with a number of family members during the gathering.

But of course the most significant dyad is my relationship with Pat! For years now we have begun each morning with our morning meditation (currently Adyashanti’s 30-minute guided meditation titled The Naked Simplicity of Being), followed by our prayers (a Metta prayer and Christ-prayer we configured) followed by 30-minute to 2-hour coffee times. This daily practice is a major commitment in our couplehood. For two years we have been supported in our couplehood by annual 2 ½  – day intensives in Toronto complemented by biweekly Skype calls, all with the very gifted counselors Sage and Anthony in their “reverent relating” offering.

In this not-so-quick reflection I saw that, if nothing else, I have had lots of rich “community” in my life!  But let me pause here, it’s been a lot to hold. … While these many groups have served me well over the years – and have been very well suited to and supportive of the respective times in my life – which, if any, of these the community experiences serve as models for the community that my Soul longs for today as a 71-year-old “elder seeker”? Let me continue this inquiry.

On Easter Sunday (April 20) this year Pat and I began exploring community at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, first with church attendance on Easter, and then in subsequent weeks adding participation in their Adult Formation Group. This “stepping our foot in the water” of an actual church – the first time in over 15 years – gave us an opportunity to stand back and to evaluate our need for “community” from various perspectives. With my heart stirred both from reflecting on past group experiences and by trying to consciously discern what to do at St. Thomas, I was led to getting several books on small groups.

I began with a few books on group spiritual direction – such as The Lived Experience of Group Spiritual Direction or Where Two or Three Are Gathered – Spiritual Direction for Small Groups. For the most part I merely scanned these, but in the process became aware that this model of “Group Spiritual Direction” could possibly work for us at St. Thomas – not, however, as the format for the more casual Sunday-morning Adult Formation Group but rather for a new weekly or biweekly committed group. Perhaps Pat and I could help initiate such a program. BUT WAIT, is even this Group Spiritual Direction, a mode that served me so well in my fifties, really what we are looking for as 70-year-old “elder seekers” seeking community?

Next I was drawn (synchronistically – so often the way Spirit seems to work) to the author Diarmuid O’Murchu and two of his books Adult Faith and also its sequel, The Meaning and Practice of Faith. These works referenced the oft-cited standard work on spiritual evolution by James Fowler: Stages of Faith – The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning and also Richard Rohr’s 2011 book Falling Upward – A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. While I merely skimmed the others, I devoured Richard Rohr’s book; it brought more focus to what Pat and I, as “elder seekers,” are looking for in “community.”

In Falling Upward, Rohr references and draws on Carl Jung, Ken Wilber, Spiral Dynamics, and the Enneagram. With these familiar “friends” from my recent past – Jung, Wilber, Spiral Dynamics, and the Enneagram –  I could easily understand and was stirred by Rohr’s descriptions of the two halves of life. I also caught his use of the word “Elder” as a title for second-half-of-life seekers (a category that seems to include Pat and me – we are not just “older” seekers but “seasoned” seekers, perhaps qualifying us for what Rohr calls “eldership”). As an aside, but also contributing to my resonance with Rohr, with Rohr’s material I could see once again that the Pathwork I have been drawn to and so engaged with these past 14 years is, in fact, a “tool kit” for the gradual transition through the first stage of life and then, again, a tool kit for gradual transformation into and through the second half of life.

Again let me pause…  As I take all of this in I now need to slow down and ask, “How do I fit all of this exciting information about “elder seekers” and “the second half of life” into Pat’s and my search for community?

In reviewing what I have been exploring here I saw, as an “Aha” moment even, that I am already in many communities, just not yet aware that many of my current dyads and triads are, in fact, communities that support and inspire my journey just the way my Soul longs for. So my needed action for the richer community life I say I am seeking in my elder years seems to be twofold: first to more fully come to awareness that I am already in communities I need and second to clarify how these communities are fitting and could more closely fit what I say I am looking for at this “elder” stage in my life.

This twofold action will of course be an ever-evolving work-in-progress (such is the nature of personal and spiritual growth), but here is what I can say for now.

1) I am seeking “community” at this elder stage of my life as a set of “Intentional Elder Consciousness Groups.

2) These “Intentional Elder Consciousness Groups” seem to be mostly dyads, triads, and quadrads – that is, they are small. Further, the triads often include Pat, one other and me.

3) I already have a “set” of “Intentional Elder Consciousness Groups – actually a fair number of them: with Pat, with each of my children and other family members, with my brother, with my significant Pathwork and other spiritually-oriented friends – in fact I see that some kind of “conscious eldering” is or could be going on in nearly every encounter I have in life – each and every encounter can become an “Intentional Elder Consciousness Group,”

4) They are each intentional in the sense that I enter each of them intentionally and respectfully, honoring the value they bring to my life.

5) They are consciousness groups in that my biggest offering when with another – and the other’s biggest offering to me – is simply elder consciousness or presence.

6) They are mutual in nature – sharing openly – listening deeply – speaking thoughtfully from a deep place – sometimes “eldering” and sometimes “being eldered.”

7) They are spiritual groups in that Spirit is always present, uniting us and flowing from within each of us involved out to the overall group (the familiar “where two or three are gathered in Spirit, there is Spirit in the midst” applies) – and I intend to stay aware of this spiritual nature of the process.

Where are larger groups in my life? I am not sure, except to say that when I am in any larger group – my various Pathwork gatherings, perhaps the St. Thomas Adult Formation Class, larger gatherings of family, friends, and strangers, the writing group, and other groups I may join – that I shall intend to bring my elder consciousness to awareness and give and receive presence on that “spiritual” level wherever possible.

Before concluding, I notice that in a very real way I have such an “eldering” relationship with the Pathwork Guide (source of the Pathwork Lectures) – feeling myself deeply in resonance with and enlivened by the teachings of the Pathwork Lectures whenever I am engaged in them. The Guide (and my helper Moira) are my mirrors – as is everyone else in my various communities – such is the nature of shadow work.

Finally, in this process of seeking community as an elder, I ask, “How will I know when Intentional Elder Consciousness is happening?” I am reminded of the passage from Luke’s Gospel  – Jesus had just finished speaking to the two disciples on the way to Emmaus after his resurrection. After he suddenly left them they exclaimed to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us, while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” And I sense that this is how I shall know when Elder Consciousness is happeningmy heart will be on fire, alive with the energy of Spirit stirring within my soul. I am also aware that I experience such heart stirring in my relationship with the Pathwork Guide, and I see this visceral experience with the Pathwork Guide as a possibility in many of my other communities. And hence I ask, “Who would not want to experience such community wherever possible?”

I am so grateful for the awareness this reflection has brought to the richness and possibilities for elder consciousness in the communities already in my life, and perhaps in more to come. I am also aware that I have been blessed with retirement for the past 17 years and thus given the long time needed to explore and experience the multifaceted richness of my ever-evolving life in community. I am humbled by Grace. I bow in Gratefulness.

Shared in love, Gary