Becoming a Spiritual Elder

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A trailblazing writer, scientist, and spiritual mentor to many, Joan Borysenko talks about what it means to her to move into the role of spiritual elder in today’s world. 

Featuring Joan Borysenko

Omega: What does it mean to you to be a spiritual elder today?

Joan: To be a spiritual elder means to hold a place of hope and perspective. It means to be able to remind people that there is something larger and deeper than the various identities we’ve had throughout life. To me spirituality has everything to do with a sense of belonging and connectedness. It’s certainly about having learned to be ourselves and have and express our own voice, but beyond that, there is the connection we have to some core of our being, however we conceptualize that.

And that core is connected within larger circles: our families, our communities, and the cosmos—even though good and bad things happen in all these circles. A wise elder is somebody who is able to be spacious enough to hold the duality of good and bad, dark and light, and yet touch into that deeper place where you recognize all of that as transitory and that beyond it there is a unity that gives you a sense of basic trust in life.

Omega: Who are some of the spiritual elders that you admire?

Joan: There are, of course, elders everywhere we can admire, people who aren’t famous, and we should look to them and look to be that for others. 

Some of my spiritual role models are Brother David Steindl-Rast, Father Thomas Keating, and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who wrote a book called From Age-ing to Sage-ing. 

As far as women, a wise spiritual elder and a friend of mine is the Episcopal priest Cynthia Bourgeault, a big proponent of centering prayer. I also like to look at people that everyone knows, like Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She does her stretching exercises and hangs right in there! Look at what she’s doing at her age. And whatever you think about her politics, Hillary Clinton is a model of aging and trying to make a difference—and of course of hanging in there. I also love Tao Porchon-Lynch. She’s 100 years old and she dresses to the teeth! What I like about her is she's herself. I love it when people are simply themselves. 

Omega: How has your daily spiritual practice changed as you've moved into this stage of life?

Joan: As I've gotten older, I’ve become a little bit like a bee collecting nectar. I use the nectar of the many practices that I've had over the years, but sometimes in smaller doses. For about 50 years I was a pretty solid meditator, but now I practice for a minute or two probably 10 to 15 times throughout the day. I just let go, breathe, and draw back so I can get a meta-awareness of what’s happening in my body. I often do this if I’m feeling pain or upset—I’ll just step back and observe what’s going on. 

One thing that has remained consistent is a gratitude practice that I learned from Brother David Steindl-Rast maybe 35 years ago. Here’s how to do it: every night before you go to bed, bring to mind something that really brought you joy from your day. It’s not the same practice as listing the things you’re grateful for. It’s bringing to mind one thing that you saw or experienced that very day and feeling into it with all your senses. Stay with it for a minute or two and give thanks for it.

I’ve been doing that practice for decades, and now science is showing how it works. My friend Rick Hanson’s newest book is called Resilient, and in it he talks about keeping an eye out for the subtle and beautiful things and savoring them will all your senses. He says if you do this for just 10-20 seconds it builds up the neural circuits of happiness and “installs the good” in our minds. 

The other thing that I practice quite routinely is when I see suffering, I do Tonglen (compassion) meditation right there in the moment, whether it's just three or four breaths, for whatever it is that's happening. If I'm reading a magazine and I come across some political thing that is horrific, I'll do Tonglen. When I give a workshop and somebody tells a difficult story, I'll have the whole group do a minute of Tonglen for that person.

Omega: What's the most surprising thing that you've encountered as you've aged?

Joan: One of my own stereotypes about aging was that you shut down as you get older—you become not so interested in doing the same work anymore. But my work is growing by leaps and bounds. I have so much more insight and excitement than I’ve ever had. I'm 72, and my work keeps surprising me. I’m still curious and surprised by how the universe answers my questions. And I get to work with such an incredible diversity of people and groups. I find that remarkable. 

The other thing that has been really surprising is how much I like myself. I spent much of my life being insecure and judgmental. My inner critic was always having a party biting me to bits. Somewhere along the line that simply stopped. I’ve made many mistakes and I’ve suffered, but I’ve also had so many wonderful things happen. I cherish all of it and myself, too. I would say that’s been the most surprising thing of all is the extraordinary contentment I feel.