Tag Archives: elders

Elders, Revisited

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It has been over two years since my first post about elders. And now, handily, Brendan Myers has posted a lovely article on the same topic over at the Wild Hunt blog. Not only that, but he’s also taken up the issue of what to do when you have no elders around to learn from. All of which leads me to revisit the issue with something from my personal experience that may contribute to the conversation.

When I was 17, living in a student dorm in Berkeley, I had a very important dream. In it,

I walk into an amphitheater filled with women in long robes. I take a seat across the aisle from the leader, who then walks up to the dais and addresses the crowd. She says that today they have a very special guest speaker, and calls me up to speak! I panic, feeling sick to my stomach. I tell her there must be some mistake—I have nothing to say. I don’t even know their language!

Then the lecture is over. There is a long table set up by the door, filled with books on every esoteric and practical subject I want to learn more about, and I work my way through the crowd to get closer. But there are too many people milling about, and try as I might I can never reach the table.

I woke from this dream feeling tremendously saddened, almost cursed. Here I was in Berkeley, a place teeming with new schools of thought and ancient wisdom traditions, hoping to find a teacher and mentor. I wanted to live a spiritual life, wanted to figure out who I was and what I could be in the world. And in the midst of my yearning my dream was telling me that I would not find a teacher, or even find through books what I wanted to learn. That morning, I understood that it was through my own life experience that I would gain wisdom, if it was mine to gain.

This was a harsh lesson to get at such a tender age, but it was true. Feeling alone and without guidance forced me to fall back on my intuition, which has been my most reliable guide even when I was studying with very capable teachers. And when things ended or fell apart, the dream reminded me that the teacher wasn’t the most important thing, it was how I learned from the experience that mattered.

I recount this story not to say that elders are something we do or don’t need, but to hopefully reframe the issue somewhat. Deep spiritual loneliness is a major part of being a seeker, whether we live five miles from the nearest paved road or five minutes from the wisest mystic in the land. It is not something we should avoid or despair about, it is simply an existential truth: we are all alone, and while sometimes we will be filled with Spirit, at other times we will be completely empty.

It is at those empty times that we have the opportunity to deepen our own connection to the Life Force. We need to bring energy up from the earth and down from the heavens even if we don’t feel it; we need to trust in our own power, even when we have none. If we skitter around looking for something outside ourselves in those moments, we miss the most important lessons that are being offered to us.

That being said, we are social creatures. We desire and need connection with others who share our values and interests, which brings us back to the issue of what to do when you live very far away from the nearest teacher, or circle, or group.

I am a big fan of the “whatever works” school of problem-solving. I have seen lots of people find different solutions to the quandary of living hours away from everyone else (and spent years in that position myself). None of their work-arounds were convenient or ideal by any means, but they did them until they found something better to do.

We do what we need to do, for as long as we can keep doing it. This applies to elders just as much as it applies to anyone else. And while it is no doubt useful to address the pros and cons of the choices we make in order to connect, I hope that in doing so we do not lose sight of the gold that our current situation offers us in every moment.

How to Diss an Elder, the Dead, and Everyone Else

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As it happens, this trifecta of disrespect is not all that difficult to accomplish. This is after all the feast of Samhain, when opportunities to ritualize bad manners abound. At Samhain the veil of etiquette is thin, as we all know, and the living and the dead co-mingle like ants around a sugar skull.

Let’s say, for instance, that you are part of an organization that each year puts on a big public ritual to celebrate Samhain. At first glance it seems like an improbable time to be disrespectful, since the whole intention is for respectful celebrants to celebrate the dead together, respectfully. Yet the lead-up to such an event is in fact the perfect time to set the trifecta in motion.

Of course you will want to ask for volunteers to take on various roles in the ritual. If a certain elder in the community then heeds your summons and requests her favorite role, performed faithfully and well for many years, you should first tell her that her requested role has already been spoken for, then offer her a smaller role instead.

This in itself is a perfectly respectful thing to do—or it would be, if what you told her was the truth. But it isn’t, because no one else has stepped up to ask for that role. In fact, as the weeks fly by and the ritual draws near, you hastily contact at least three other people, all friends of the elder, and ask each of them if they would like her requested role.

These people will have already heard from their friend that she was denied her habitual role because it had been spoken for. They will realize she has been lied to, and realize too that the invitation they received was a tainted one. For one reason or another they will all decline your offer.

So far we have disrespect of an elder, and a few other people, but what about the dead? Here’s where you can get really creative. In this ritual to honor the dead, it might seem that the most weighty part would be the calling in and naming of the dead. The Ancestors, the Mighty Dead of your lineage, and the Beloved Dead of the community might all get a spot of attention, a few minutes apiece, to be remembered fully.

Instead, why not lump all three groups together, and budget two minutes maximum for calling in the lot of them? This is, after all, a ritual which is famous for being long. Shortening it is good, especially if it can be done at the expense of the very spirits it claims to honor.

You are nearly there! All that remains is to disrespect everyone else, and as it happens the perfect opportunity for this will be reached shortly after the ritual, when people compare notes and start to speak up about what happened.

The tone you want to take here is moral indignation. How dare these people accuse you of dishonesty and deceit, when you are a small, hard-working group of dedicated celebrants volunteering countless hours on this ritual, all for the good of the community! For anyone to accuse you of intentional deceit is not only morally wrong, it is downright disrespectful.

And there you have it. Play the victim card and the trifecta is complete. Accuse others of what you yourself have done, don’t admit to any transgressions, and the next year you will be an even smaller, harder-working band of celebrants. Well done!