The Path of Aging

I had no idea, over 30 years ago, what I was getting into when I accepted an invitation by a good friend to attend something called an Enlightenment Intensive. At the time I was getting ready to move with my wife and three-year old daughter to Berkeley, California to attend Pacific School of Religion. Admittedly I was put off a bit by the rather pretentious title of the retreat. However, I decided if my wise friend thought it might be a good experience for me, it was good enough for me. It turned out to be a life changing experience.

The intensive was three days long. We started Friday morning with some education about the process and what to expect. The leaders assured us that while we might face some difficult moments, they would be there to educate, support and encourage us, both as individuals and as a group. We were given some operating rules designed to bring about the best results. We were told to choose one question out of a list of three to work on for the entire retreat. They suggested that as this was our Intensive retreat, we should work on the question, “Who are you?” I know of no one who used another question.

So each day we would do 10 or 12 sessions for 40 minutes each with a different partner we chose at the beginning of each session. One partner would ask the other their chosen question, “Who are you?” and would then listen intently without any response. This continued for five minutes. In response to a chime, the talking partner changed roles with the listening partner for five minutes. That process was repeated for 40 minutes until there was a short break. After the break we would find a new partner and start the process over again.

Now if you have never done anything like this before, you probably cannot imagine what it feels like to try and tell someone who is really listening to you who you are for five minutes straight. Understand it is a monologue. There was no dialogue or comments to fill the spaces. We repeated this process 30 times in three days. Yes, I mean 30 sessions times 40 minutes responding to the same question.

After I got through the obvious things like, “I am a man, I am a husband, I am a father, a windsurfer, a life-time student, a lover of art, a sexual being…” I realized I had barely used up two minutes. At some point, I knew I was looking for things to say that were true but might make me sound a little more interesting. I wanted the listener to be impressed. As a man in his early forties I wanted the listener to know I was a former jock, was still tough—even even heroic—and was the man my father wanted me to be. But all of that started sounding really stupid by the end of the first round and I knew I had at least 29 more to go. By the end of the second or third round I could think of nothing to say about myself that did not sound stupid, irrelevant or silly. It all started to sound meaningless. I knew I had to dig deeper.

Like Alice in Wonderland I found myself going down the rabbit hole as I continued to ponder, “Who am I really.” Somewhere along the way I became aware of two things. First, I was afraid to go too deep. I did not want to let go of all of my accomplishments, all of my achievements, all of my ego needs. I was afraid to let go of those things that had given me a separate identity from the masses. And secondly, I realized that none of those things I was holding onto had anything to do with who I really was. In fact holding on to them, for whatever reason, was keeping me from discovering who I really was and am. It was a fascinating journey that helped shape not only my seminary experience but my life.

I may write more about this experience in another article. For now let me just explain that over the years I have come to realize that during those three days, I was rapidly moving through a spiritual path of kenosis—the process of self-emptying. At the time I did not know what was happening but I felt like I was peeling away phony or meaningless ways I identified myself, one layer at a time. It was both scary and freeing. If someone is willing to work the path or engage the process, they just may come to the realization that I am is not only enough, but it can be exhilarating to discover you are part of the Ultimate I AM.

Over the years I have discovered the kenosis path is central to almost every meaningful spiritual tradition including Christianity. Cynthia Bourgeault posits that this path was introduced to the West by Jesus (Wisdom Jesus, Shambhala Press, 2008). I agree and have published a couple of articles on this subject.

I share this experience for this month’s eBulletin because it focuses on the incredible opportunity we all have to turn the aging process into a spiritual path. Whether we like it or not, as we move toward our elder years, we slowly lose those things we assumed were part of who we are. Our titles, our prowess, our accomplishments, our competitiveness slowly fade. It may not happen in a three-day intensive and we don’t always give it much thought, but it happens. We can hang on, get angry or we can engage the process. It is really up to us.

I was doing a workshop a few years ago and referred to the story of the rich man. In that story the rich man had tried to do all the right things—all the things the Scriptures or the Law had required of him. However, he told Jesus he could not experience the Realm of God that Jesus kept referring to. Therefore Jesus told him he must give away his riches. Sadly the man could not do that. Why? Because he would have lost his identity. He would no longer be the respected rich man.

In this workshop I explained that sometimes, when we hold on to these titles and cling to labels, we separate ourselves from others, including the Ultimate Mystery we call God. One of the men attending the workshop just did not get it. He wanted the story to be about the necessity of giving one’s wealth to the poor. He happened to be retired clergy who had passed the requirements for a Doctor of Ministry degree and insisted that everyone address him as Reverend Doctor. His wife dutifully referred to him as Doctor. I asked him what he would do if Jesus suggested he give up his titles? He looked at me as if I had slapped him and did not speak to me for the rest of the workshop. I felt badly but several people told me later that it had helped make the point for them.

A few weeks after I retired from a wonderful church I served for 20 years as the pastor, I was sitting at a bar in Hood River, Oregon. It was an annual trip I made for over two decades for some of the best windsurfing opportunities in the world. At one point after a long conversation about windsurfing, life and relationships with a group of other sailors, a young man across from me asked, “What did you say you did again?” I looked at him and I tried to speak. I was so emotional I could not answer him. I had to get up, apologize and leave. It was the beginning of another journey and I had no road map.

We are not what we do or what we achieved. We are so much more and unfortunately too many of us miss the opportunity to discover that. Being aware of the aging process can offer us that opportunity as we willingly self-empty, as we give up, as we let go and in the process begin a different kind of adventure. As Lewis Richmond notes in his wonderful book, Aging as a Spiritual Practice, “Aging is beyond our control… Are you going to just slide or are you going to steer?”

There are currently several wonderful books out on the subject that offer a benefit to people of all ages. Richmond, a Zen Buddhist, touches on all the right issues to guide us in this journey with humor and insight along with meditations in every chapter. John C. Robinson, a retired therapist and an excellent writer, offers a trilogy of books that can help us ferret out the blocks that keep us from experiencing a new spiritual awareness. All three of his newest books are listed on the site, Another wonderful surprise is a book written by one of my dear friends, Joan Chittister. Her book The Gift of Years is typical of her writing. It is prophetic, challenging, full of insight, and at times just plain delightful. Finally another new author we are introducing to our site is Carol Orsborn whose book Fierce with Age is receiving rave reviews. You may want to check out her website (

All these books are not only helpful for those of us who admit we are elders or seniors, but they can be wonderful resources for people of any age who are searching for meaningful ways to live their lives in harmony with their friends, their families, their environment, their world and the Infinite Mystery we choose to call God.


Review & Commentary

  • John W. Dean

    I would like to order the following books mentioned in the article.
    Lewis Richmond – “Aging as a Spiritual PracticeO
    Carol Osborne – Fierce With Age
    John Robinson’s book on Aging.

    • John Robinson

      Hi John: You can find the titles and ordering tabs to my books at my website: Thanks for your interest. Best wishes, John

  • john

    Why can’t we simply be and be content with that. ? The spiritual is us in our psyche, body , thinking and feeling.
    Infinity or infinite being is beyond me or us ,we cannot comprehend it so it does really not exist for us, we can only have thoughts or believes about it ,but it cannot be part of us in our reality,so therefore, we cannot be part of it.
    Why ponder beyond that what we are not and cannot be?
    Enjoy being at every state of our life ,each moment of living with all its challenges and successes until death stops us from being and thinking.
    At 80 years of age now I have loved most and hated some days in my life but now love everyday as it comes and goes with its losses mostly, but still lots left to love, which I’ll do without fear of dying because I live without believing in more than what we have, see and understand.
    It is a wonderful way to get older. Enjoy it.
    Yes, I was a radical christian in my twenties and thirties but meditated through it over the years.

    • Paulita Bernuy

      Many persons if offered this opportunity would toss it aside, to their great loss.
      I’m going to read it again and again . The question “who am I?” can lead to so great a a discovery.
      Maybe my friends and I could do this together. Paulita

      • Fred Plumer

        I would not recommend doing this full retreat without trained facilitators.After a couple of days some pretty heavy stuff can come up and one may not be prepared to deal with it without professional guidance. After this article was published I was contacted by an organization that still does these workshops. You can Google the information under “Enlightenment Intensive. I have been part of a group that did the process for one day or about six hours. I think that might give you an opportunity to experience the process without some of the more traumatic issues that a longer period might evoke.

  • Vernon R. Wiehe, Ph.D.

    Thank you for this article. It has helped me rethink who I am. Although I am a retired university professor and the author of numerous books, after reading the article I have come to the realization that in these twilight years of life, who I really am is someone who loves deeply my wife and longtime companion of over 50 years. She suffered a massive stroke 20 years ago and although a talented violinist lost her ability to play the violin. I care for her along with hired help. I see myself as a loving partner. Each of us touching each other deeply day by day….. far more important than the Ph.D. and the books. This is the essence of life.
    To quote the late film critic, Roger Ebert, who wrote of death:” I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of….. life, love, wonder, and laughter. I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do.”

    • Fred Plumer

      Vernon, thank you for sharing. Yes I agree that one of the ways we can shed the ego issues is through our experience of an unconditional love that allows us to care for another without thoughts of loss or duty but rather an opportunity. I believe. this was Jesus’ motivation for suggesting that if we care with love for the poor, the needy the least of these, it might provide a path to an experience heaven or the Realm of God as we do so. You are a lucky man to have discovered this. May you continue to be strong and loving through these sometimes chapters of life.

  • Sally Comfort

    This article came to me at a great time. I am 87 and will soon be 88 so I guess I am already old.

    I am reading The Force of Character and the Lasting Live by James Hillman and enjoying it very much.

    I am always on the look out for a good book so I will try some suggested here.

  • Carolyn

    I’m an 83 year old and have been searching for “myself” for most of my life. I find it a facinating journey, sometimes joyous and sometimes painful. Like you I experienced some life altering retreats with Landmark Education. I highly recommend it. It is a process of peeling away the outside layers of oneself to get to the core or center of our being. It taught me how to live a more God centered life than any church I attended and I used to be quite active in church.

    Right know I have been reading some of Karen Armstrong’s works. According to her the concept of kenosis appeared in the c. 800 to 700 BCE period with the Greeks. Cited in THE GREAT TRANSFORMATION Chapter 3.

    I must say the older I get the more I like myself and I know I will never be done with self discovery.

    • Fred Plumer

      Thanks Carolyn for writing. Like you my search did not end with the mentioned retreat over thirty years ago but it was really just getting started and continues today. And like you the deeper I go the more I like what I find. And you have given me encouragement that this will continue. You have a decade on me but we both know those fly by like months used to. What a great ride we are having. I will check out Karen Armstrong’s book. Thanks

  • John Kuykendall

    I am almost 65 so I respect my seniors who commented above. I just finished lunch with my son and I told him the one thing I would like to teach him and my other son is how to surf the energy. I told him we pick the wave and ride it and have fun catching it and coming down the face, but if you lose balance and fall off the energy will toss you around like a rag doll, feel the power and enjoy that too accept it, feel the energy inside and out and adjust to the situation. He is not ready for more than an email on the subject so I thought to myself on the way home accept him and enjoy where he is and where I am. I listened as he complained about one thing after another, but I watched as we surfed together. The only way to teach is to just do it.

    • Fred Plumer

      John as I mentioned I was an avid windsurfer for nearly thirty years. (I think I have taken a permanent break) But I frequently have used the metaphor of sailing on that little board all by yourself and learning to not only catch the wind (spirit) which is no easy task in the beginning but also learning to be in joy while you are doing it. I think you are on to it and I hope your son gets it someday. Where were you when you were his age?

  • Orion

    What a beautiful article, Fred. I had saved the email in my inbox and decided this morning to take a moment to read it–your reflections served to open a space for my spirit to dwell in not only for today but for some time to come. Thank you.

  • Jerry Stinson

    Really helpful article, Fred. Thanks!

  • sybil mccook

    They all sound wonderful! Please add to your list, Falling Upward by Richard Rohr-It talks about the differences in the 1st part of life and the 2nd and is truly inspiring.

  • Sharlyn Menard

    Thank you for this insightful essay. I would be interested in the story of the process that took you from your emotional reaction when asked about what you do, to how you are able to comfortably share the realities and benefits of aging with appears to be wisdom and peace of mind. Another article perhaps? Those of us dealing with the realities of aging face challenges and often do not get a lot of support in a society spouting the myth of “healthy aging” which is a way of simply avoiding the issue. Thanks for being a voice in a much needed conversation.