Elders and the Earth: Return to the Future

The poet Rilke tells this story about God. In an early time, when people prayed with arms extended, God loved to reside in the warm, dark, mysterious human heart. Then, as time passed, people began to pray with hands folded like church steeples. God saw all the tall civic towers, castles with battlements, and churches with great steeples pointed up like armaments. They frightened God who retreated even further into space. But the earth is round, and one day God noticed that the round earth was dark and fertile and mysterious — so like the welcoming human heart of old. So God entered into the heart of the earth and became one with the earth. One day, Rilke says, perhaps as we too notice the earth, while digging to the depth, we shall again find the mystery, that is also the source. “There is nothing wiser than the circle,” says Rilke.1

From ancient India, we find a pattern for life — four stages, four tasks: in the first half of life, Student and Householder; in the second half, Forest Dweller and Sage. In the pattern of the seasons, Student and Householder follow the rising energy of Spring and Summer; Forest Dweller and Sage follow the falling energy of Autumn and Winter.

In our culture, Student and Householder are all about striving, achieving, making one’s mark, growing, having more and being more. Onward and upward. Progress and growth. World without end. Amen.

But what if, in the third age of our lives, we could give up striving — both in the outer world of power, possessions, and prestige and even in the inner world of so-called “spiritual growth.” Suppose we already have all we need. Suppose the Kingdom of the Spirit is all around us, if we have but eyes to see. Could it be so simple after all?

So the first clues for us are the stage of Forest Dweller and the season of Autumn.  Already the earth beckons. The earth as dark, fertile, deep, and mysterious. Of old, those in India taking this path literally became forest dwelling ascetics, engaging in self-disciplines for the sake of an ongoing state of blissful unity with all things. Today, for us to cross over into the time and condition of Forest Dweller means many things. Here are four:

bullet A New PossibilityExchanging a mode of striving for a mode of coming home, of circling, of turning and returning to what is already present.
bullet New Danger/Opportunity — Being willing to encounter a new danger: entering the downward energy of autumn and winter, willing to know fear, even depression, and to learn from these challenges.
bullet New Companions — Returning to nature and learning from the ancestors how to find our place in the Great Family of all creatures and how to receive help from them.

A New Commission — Standing between the ancestors and the children, letting go and letting be, we are called to become custodians of a past recovered and guardians of a future simplified.

A New Possibility

First, I am suggesting that to enter this third age of life through the door of the Forest Dweller is to exchange the straight line of time — the time of achieving — for the circle of returning — returning to what is and always has been at a deeper level. In other words, to enter the second half of life can be to liberate ourselves from striving and achieving. In the language of the Taoists, it is to act without acting — wei wu wei. Here we have a paradoxical new way of acting. We act, yes, but with less attachment to the fruits of our action. We act, yes, but in ways that align with the deeper currents already at work in our personal and communal life. We act, yes, but without producing needless static. Then, as the classic of Taoist thought, the Tao Te Ching, puts it, everyone will say: “We did it ourselves.”2

When asked how to make a great sculpture, Michelangelo replied that it was easy. Just see the beautiful statue within the marble and remove what does not belong. Such is the way of letting go and letting be. This mode of living does not center on striving or achieving, nor does it even focus on time and steps. It is more like realizing that we exist at two levels: (a) the surface level of our fears and desires, wherein we compare ourselves with others using the prevailing cultural measuring sticks, and (b) a deeper level wherein we already are all we seek to be and we already have all we truly need. Imagine yourself as a ripple on the surface of a lake waking up to the fact that all is water.

Or perhaps look at it this way: Imagine that we are all the sons and daughters of a great king and queen. Then suppose we grow bored and wish to put on a play. So we decide on the roles we will take on in this play. Some become the king and queen within the play. But because we are blessed with enormous resources for our game, we choose a segment of the realm and have a palace constructed for the “king” and “queen” of our play and we provide them with servants and courtiers and all that the roles would have. And so it is with each one of us. One chooses to be a monk and gains a monastery. One becomes a merchant with shops and ships and tradesmen of all sorts. One becomes a thief. Another a prostitute. And on and on. As the roles are chosen, so are the costumes and indeed all accoutrements of such a role in “real life.” And so the play goes on and the longer we play our roles, the more deeply we become what we pretend to be. Finally, imagine a resounding clap or call. Our father and mother — the true king and queen — call us — their royal children — home for dinner. The play ends. Everyone — heroes and villains — takes a bow. And we, the children, wake up to the fact that in our deep nature we are indeed the sons and daughters of royal lineage.

Coming to a dual awareness of our surface identities and our deep, mysterious, unrepeatable worth — that is a new possibility as we cross over into the autumn stage of Forest Dweller. Nothing to strive for, nothing to achieve. Sufficient to let go into our true nature and find a world of gratitude and grace.

New Danger/Opportunity

To leave the ordered work of human civilization and enter the forest is to face danger and know fear. Who am I now — when all the structures that have defined me fall away? Who am I now — when my ordinary ways of making meaning and measuring value are relinquished? Of old, the forest was a place of danger, beyond the civilized world, beyond the fires of our camp. Here resided a place of testing, of confrontation with the wilderness around and within us, or, as we might say today, an encounter with our personal and collective “shadow.”

From this perspective, entering retirement is like going cold turkey after a lifetime of addiction to the cultural patterns of power, possessions, and prestige. Is it any wonder that many experience depression and some seek to go back to work? Of course, there is no blame in this. However, I want to offer a new way to enter this phase, so that whatever we do, we are invited into a new form of consciousness from which to do it.

How do we come to terms with ourselves — now moving toward death, now experiencing another part of the cycle? Can we learn to dwell at a deeper place, still operating on the temporal surface of the lake and yet already beneath the water and living a new life?3  What are the simplifications of Forest Dweller? And how can we enter this stage with earthy, good humor? The danger is withdrawal from the world. The opportunity is to dwell more deeply. Then we can recognize what is important and what is passing. Then we can encourage creativity. Then we can bless the young.4

New Companions

To become a Forest Dweller is to consciously learn from the wider natural world. St. Francis considered the elements and plants and animals his brothers and sisters. Our shaman ancestors realized that we could truly ask the elements and the plants and the animals for their help, their wisdom, their companionship. When we return to our true nature, we find in the natural world a reminder that we are not alone. We can reverse the word “alone” to recognize we are “all-one.” We are not sealed off in a spell of separateness, rather we are interconnected in space and time. To return to the earth is also to return to our place between generations. But this opens the possibility that, as Rick Moody suggests, elders might be both preservers of the past and guardians of the future.5  For who will speak for the grandchildren, if not the grandmothers and grandfathers?

A New Commission

In all of this, we return not via the upward path of striving, but via the downward path of letting go and letting be. We already have all we seek. Heaven and hell are here and now depending on how we relate to life. In the Forest Dweller stage of life, when the energy is moving downward and inward, we return to the present moment, return to simplicity for the sake of living the oneness of all things. We recognize the great witness in living simply so that others may simply live. Yet we do not do this in the spirit of renunciation but rather in the spirit of reclaiming sufficiency and experiencing joy in simple living, in living each day with gratitude and mindfulness, with peace and joy as if we were discovering the ordinary in an extraordinary way.

Sufficiency, or better perhaps intersufficiency, rests on the declaration that we have all we need in ourselves and those who companion us — all we need to live a life of quality right here and right now.6  This loosens the grip of “more” in the sense of accumulation. We shift to living more fully, coming to life more fully. We shift from quantity of consumption to quality of living — living together with the ancestors and children of many species, living together with the living, the dead, and those not yet born. Companioned within a larger family.

We return to the circle. The new challenge is to find a way other than striving and accumulating more. And the way is letting go and letting be. In the process we face the dangers of the forest and we claim the benefit of a wider family of all beings that dwell there. This is what poet Gary Snyder calls “The Great Family.”7  Our motto throughout is “We already have all we seek.”

Thus, we return to simple things. The earth, the water, the fire, the air. The birds of the air. The dolphins and whales and the fish of the sea. The animals of the earth who are our brothers and sisters, as St. Francis knew. Our lives are “simple in means and rich in ends”8  — those ends that can be shared without diminishment — friendship, ideas, delight in family, poetry and art, and the entire earth and sky. A universe before us and within us.

So God entered into the heart of the earth and became one with the earth. One day, Rilke says, perhaps, as we too notice the earth, while digging to the depth, we shall again find the mystery, that is also the source. Coming back to the earth we find a new spirituality suitable for the future. In fact, by coming back to earth, we return to the future. “There is nothing wiser than the circle,” says Rilke.

Earth brings us into life
and nourishes us.
Earth takes us back again.
Birth and death are present in every moment.

— Thich Nhat Hanh



1 See Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. M.D. Herter Norton, Stories of God (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1963), “A Tale of Death and a Strange Postscript Thereto,” pp. 87-96.

2 See Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching, translation by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, 25th anniversary edition (New York: Random House Vintage Books, 1972, 1997).  The notion of wei wu wei — acting by non action — occurs throughout. My allusion to the people saying “We did it ourselves” refers to chapter 17.

3 I am alluding here to a poem by Juan Ramon Jimenez called “Oceans.”  See Light and Shadows: Selected Poems and Prose of Juan Ramon Jimenez, trans. Robert Bly et al., ed. Dennis Maloney (Fredonia, NY: White Pine Press, 1987), p. 32.

4 The poet Robert Bly once remarked that in the mythic way of speaking, the king and queen had three tasks: to keep first things first (or alternately, to keep the little things little and the big things big); to encourage creativity; and to bless the young. I take these three tasks as especially apt to define a way of being for elders.

5 Moody references Marty Knowlton, founder of Elderhostel, who had a dream to create another organization called “Gatekeepers of the Future.” All this stresses learning to take the long view, becoming both custodians of the past and gatekeepers for the future.  See Harry R. (Rick) Moody, “Environment as an Aging Issue.”

6 For more on the move from the spell of separateness to a sense of interbeing and intersufficiency, see my Living Large: Transformative Work at the Intersection of Ethics and Spirituality (Columbia, MD: Traditional Acupuncture Institute, 2004).

7 See Gary Snyder, “Prayer for the Great Family,” in his book of poetry Turtle Island (New York: New Directions, 1969, 1974), pp. 24-25.

8 I take the phrase from the book of Bill Devall, Simple in Means, Rich in Ends: Practicing Deep Ecology (Salt Lake City, Utah: Peregrine Smith Books, 1988).