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:
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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).