The headline read: “Living Elders Project Reaches Out to Spiritual Greats.” It quickly caught my attention as I opened the Sarasota Herald-Tribune one Thursday morning in January of 2007. The article outlined a series of eight weekly meetings at which “participants will explore the teachings of revered elders from diverse spiritual traditions through DVDs, CDs and in-depth discussion facilitated by psychotherapist, author and interfaith spiritual director, Meredith Jordan.” The further I read in the article, the more drawn I was to make a phone call inquiring about the project. That phone call changed my life.
The response to the article was so unexpectedly great that the intended group size of 25 had to be enlarged to 65; I was fortunate to be included from the over 200 phone calls received by Meredith. I was drawn to the project, not only because of my many years of interest in religious scriptures and esoteric teachings, but also because I realized after the passing of our inimitable family elder, Uncle Elmer, that as the first born of the next generation of my family, I had inherited the position of the next “elder” Andersen! And that was very daunting, made more so as I “traveled” through the eight sessions of “The Living Spiritual Elders Project”.
It is difficult to condense into a few reflections what the experience of that inner journey has meant to me, though with each week’s gathering, it became unmistakably clear that this experience was to be the most meaningful endeavor of my life at its present stage and time.
At each session, attended by men and women, we watched and listened to DVDs that “explored the teachings of living revered elders from diverse spiritual traditions,” such as author and professor Huston Smith; the 14th Dalai Lama; renowned primatologist Jane Goodall; Oren Lyons, Faith Keeper of the Onandaga Clan of the Iroquois Nation; Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chodron; contemporary spiritual teacher and longtime Harvard University professor Ram Dass (Richard Alpert); Labyrinth Movement leader Lauren Artress, an Episcopal priest from Grace Cathedral in San Francisco; and a most endearing conversation between Father Thomas Keating and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. “These are living elders,” said Meredith, “who have retired their egos. And they are spiritual leaders who are giving back to the human family wisdom they have gathered through their long and illustrious lives.”
During my winter sojourn in Sarasota, while attending these 2 ½ hour weekly sessions led by Meredith Jordan, I (and 65 others) embarked on an inward-turned journey to discover our true inner being, to let our outer life of busyness in the world drain away, to learn from today’s living spiritual elders so that we too could assume the role of “elder” in our own sphere of influence. “Becoming an elder is quite different from becoming elderly,” Jordan says. “It is a time when we focus internally on qualities of character, leadership and integrity, growing and sharing those traits. Being an elder means using every opportunity to give others something of what life has led you to understand and embody.”
This was much more than a lecture course or merely watching DVDs. Jordan engaged us in conversation with one another in an exercise of discovery of “Who am I?” We were challenged to ask ourselves, “How are these meetings changing you?” At each session Jordan introduced topics for our contemplation, such as what each of us thought to be his or her gift to the human family and how we could live a life in service to the children and grandchildren of the future.
Seated in small group circles, each one spoke in turn. My answer went something like this: “I am the elder member in my extended family, and I hope to be able to be an example to my family that there is a oneness of all beings and all creation, that we are meant to live our lives in beauty and love, kindness and goodness to all beings and to all creatures, to rise above all the petty bickering and fighting that goes on in today’s world between peoples and countries.”
At another session we were asked to contemplate: “What legacy or understanding will you leave behind at the end of your life for those who follow you?” My thoughts took the following course, crystallizing the concepts I want to impart to my own children and to my grandchildren. “Inside of you is a wonderful, unerring guidance system. Listen to your inner voice. That voice speaks to you of caring for all the people with whom you come into contact. Show your love, caring, goodness and kindness to all people of all nations, of all faiths, and of all colors of skin. What you freely give of yourself will be returned a thousandfold to you. Follow your dreams. Know that you can accomplish whatever you set your heart upon.”
Following the eight weeks of weekly meetings, a much smaller group of eight women continued for another five weeks of weekly meetings with Meredith Jordan in her Sarasota home sanctuary, with a promise that she will offer another “Elders Project” when she returns to Sarasota next January 2008. (She spends the interim months in Maine.)
The five small group sessions were even more intense and personal. We were asked to contemplate and then to share our thoughts with one another. We pondered such questions as: “What keeps me from becoming my best self? What belief systems do I hold onto as a ‘safe haven’ so that I resist change, thus preventing my own growth? What is getting in my way of being everything I am designed to be?” The following week, we were asked to examine whether anything had changed since a week ago.
Meredith challenged us further with the mandate: “Today we are going to change our belief system.” She called this exercise “the Turnaround.” She suggested us to ponder, “What would you like your life to look like if you made a turnaround?” She asked us to create a story that we would like to live by. So I began: “My new life begins now. No longer will I remain closed within myself. I am open and available to whatever comes my way. I have something valuable to give. There is no need to fear expressing what is in my heart.”
Finally Meredith summed up our five small group sessions together with the words: “It is up to each one of us to live our life to its fullest, to be the best that we can possibly be. Take your life as a spiritual mandate to be fully present to help others to be all that they can be. There is a uniqueness in each one of you that will never be repeated in all time, and if you do not use your uniqueness, it will be gone forever. Have the courage to live your life in the best way you can. When you live in that way, everything in your life will seem to be touched by magic.
“Your whole life is an act of ensoulment, of fully embodying the glorious and untamed spirit that was awakened at your birth. Your entire life is an act of sacred incarnation. It is a holy privilege for you to be you.”
These words went straight into my heart with joy! Certainly for me, this was a winter of inspiration, upliftment and awakening. I genuinely, eagerly, look forward to Meredith Jordan’s return in January 2008 to continue my walk into spiritual elderhood.