A Curriculum for Conscious Aging by Marilyn Mandala Schlitz, PhD, Cassandra Vieten, PhD, and Kathleen Erickson-Freeman

For decades, the Institute of Noetic Sciences has conducted research, created educational programs, and engaged the consciousness community in conversations on transformations in consciousness. In 1997, a multidisciplinary team of researchers initiated a series of studies on the process of worldview transformation. The goal has been to under stand the process by which people experience fundamental shifts in perception that alter how they view and interact with themselves and the world around them. In particular, our team investigated factors that facilitate the kind of worldview transformations that result in people’s increased sense of purpose, meaning, and prosocial behavior. Through this research, we identified a naturalistic model of worldview transformation. We published our findings at length in the book Living Deeply.

Recently, our research and education team has begun to apply our work on worldview transformations to the aging process, to the challenges and opportunities that seniors face. We have collected audio and video interviews with representatives of the world’s religious traditions, religious scholars and spiritual teachers, cultural leaders from sites as diverse as the outback of Australia to the rainforest of Ecuador, and scientists and health practitioners. In short interviews and small focused discussion groups, we invited people to talk with us about their views on aging, dying, death, and what lies beyond. Based on a thematic analysis, we are using our research to shape an educational program of blended learning on conscious aging and worldview transformation.

Aging invites changes in worldview as we progress through developmental stages that connect to body, mind, society, and spirit. As we age, worldviews can become more rigid, constricted, suspicious, or fearful in response to the challenges of retirement, friends and loved ones becoming ill or dying, cognitive and physical decline, and society’s undervaluing of elders. However, aging can also lead to an expanded sense of self and the world. Conscious inquiry can inform our experiences of aging, our models of what happens when we die, and our understanding of the way our beliefs impact how we live. Aging offers us opportunities to broaden and deepen our understanding of what gives life meaning and purpose.

How can we change a worldview to be life enhancing during aging? The first step is to bring attention to what our worldview is. Worldviews most often function under the surface of conscious awareness. Through inquiry and self-examination, we can become aware of worldviews that either limit or enhance our daily experience of life.

For those of us who are aging, awareness of worldview alone is often not enough to make the shifts in perspective that enhance everyday life. We must then engage in intentional practices to support a transformation in worldview. In our series of studies, we found that meditation was far and away the most highly recommended practice for pyschospiritual growth and well-being. Rather than recommending specific practices, which can take many more forms in addition to meditation, we think it is more useful to share the essential transformative ingredients we’ve found among them. These ingredients will make almost any activity a pathway to positive transformation.

Attention. Perhaps the most essential ingredient is bringing our attention to greater self-awareness. Here there is the emphasis on self-reflection and an appreciation of the noetic, or inner, aspects of human experience. In conscious aging, we take the opportunity to pause and turn inward. It is a time when people ask themselves the deepest questions.

Conscious aging involves a greater understanding of the changes in our identity. Rudy Tanzi, a Harvard physician and expert on Alzheimer’s, shared with us his view on the importance of cultivating self-awareness:

Identity is self-awareness. You’re aware of the fact that you’re observing. You become aware of the watcher. You’re taking in sensory information, but rather than just doing that as an automaton, you’re aware of the fact that you’re someone taking in sensory information. You look in the mirror and you say, Oh, that’s me . . . It’s a whole other level of consciousness, where you are aware of being aware; you become the watcher of yourself. And this is where great things can happen, because this is where you can really tap into all of the jewels and prizes there are in the whole web of consciousness in the universe.1

Tools that help to shift attention and enhance awareness include meditation, contemplative prayer, journal writing, walks in nature, gardening with mindfulness, and somatic and subtle-energy body practices. In each case, we clear space to be with our own consciousness in life-affirming ways. And whenever critical self-talk threatens our well-being, taking the time to bring the inner critic into more conscious awareness allows us to reframe its internal messages in a more positive and self-compassionate light.

Intention. Cultivating intention is another transformative ingredient that supports conscious aging. Creating an intention requires us to ask ourselves what matters most. What values do we want to adhere to? Based on such reflections, we can create an intention for aging consciously, so that when challenges and opportunities arise, we will have an inner compass with which to navigate and make more conscious life choices.

Exploring our personal narrative through writing is one way to help clarify our values and to better understand the meaning and purpose of our life, as well as revealing its underlying spiritual dimensions. Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard observed, “Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward.” Some people find it illuminating to engage in a life review that focuses on major moments or episodes of transformation that brought them meaning and led them to who they are now.2 Clinical psychologist Rick Hanson notes that when we reflect on our life, we can see it as an opportunity to experience the fullness of who we are. In his words, “If you know the movie is going to come to an end, it really motivates you to make it as good a movie as possible and to enjoy it as much as you can.”3

Repetition. Another aspect of a transformative practice is that it can require the repetition of new behaviors, of building of new habits that lead to new ways of being. Just as efforts to build up a new muscle group require repeated exercise, so does the process of conscious aging. Learning to live with awareness and intention, for example, or with compassion and forgiveness means repeatedly doing so. Findings in neuroscience offer hope that new behaviors are possible, as we lay down new neural pathways that help us see the world and ourselves differently.

Guidance. Finding sources of inspiration and guidance can help us transform our worldview and live into conscious aging. We can find guidance as we seek to understand the nature of change both by looking outside ourselves and by turning inward.A skilled teacher, a study group, or a social network can all serve to support our exploration of the questions and issues that arise. As Mingtong Gu, a qi gong master, said to us in an interview, “Life is about change, and so embracing change in all its expressions gives us the opportunity to learn about how impermanence underlies all life.”4

Integrating Practice into Everyday Life. Some people think of transformative or spiritual practices in terms of certain places or times of the season. In conscious aging, however, life itself becomes the primary practice—whether or not a formal practice remains a part of the process. According to Henry R. Moody, current Director of Academic Affairs for AARP, such integration requires an openness to such possibilities and the willingness to find a community of mutual encouragement that supports emerging insights and practices.5 Social support, whether in virtual or proximal social settings, helps us to live into new patterns and behaviors as we cultivate greater self-understanding.

Moving from I to We.
While aging is a personal process, conscious aging is about a shift in perception that sees more than the personal quest for beneficial outcomes. Conscious aging moves our perspective beyond I to we.6 In other words, those who are aging consciously report that they become involved in actively working for the transformation of community they desire. This altruism and compassion are born from the recognition of our shared destiny, not from a sense of duty or obligation.

Depth psychologist and wilderness guide Bill Plotkin describes the development task of elders in terms of five main components, which reflect an understanding of this “we” that has opened even to the life of the planet itself. Elders embrace and engender wholeness through these tasks: (1) to defend and nurture the innocence and wonder of children, (2) to mentor and initiate adolescents, (3) to mentor adults in their soul work, (4) to guide the evolution of the culture, and (5) to maintain the balance between human culture and the greater Earth community.7

At the same time, people can become so immersed in a sense of oneness and shared responsibility that they lose sight of the complementary movement from we to me. The results of this imbalance can range widely, from a cult mentality to compassion fatigue (when people help others but forget to care for themselves). Just as important as serving our family and community is discovering how best to channel our unique combination of talents, skills, resources, and experiences in a way that serves our well-being.

Living Deeply. When the dance between self-actualization and self-transcendence, formal and informal practice, and receiving and giving comes more naturally, people report an experience of living deeply. They move from equanimity and self-compassion in the face of life’s challenges to a daily sense of wonder and awe, and even the most mundane aspects of life become sacred in their own way. Living deeply makes personal transformation contagious. As people share their experiences and transformed presence of being with others, a collective transformation that is more than the sum of its parts can emerge. Individual transformations combine to create collective transformation, which in turn stimulates more individuals to transform in an ever-widening expansion of our human potential.

As we grow older, we can bring greater awareness to the transformative process. Conscious aging offers us the opportunity to look at all our relationships and to heal, forgive, and extend compassion to others and our self. Living deeply is about growing in wisdom.

Death and Beyond. Contemplating death is a vital aspect of conscious aging. Although it’s an area surrounded in fear, it is an inevitable part of transformation. Holding a healthy cosmology of death can help us to better hold our mortality. Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson considers death a part of evolution:

I think every organism knows how to die—whether it’s a deer that just relaxes in the mouth of a lion or a rock climber who relaxes and opens to his death once he surrendered to it. I think about the ways in which the death of creatures—plants, animals, microbes, and certainly humans—is actually important from an evolutionary standpoint because it clears the way for the young to come forward, and it enables a species itself to adapt and improve itself over time.8

An important part of transforming our worldview for the better involves our perspective on what
happens after we die. There is a wide range of views on this question. In considering them, we can find comfort and possibilities for our own understanding. Philosopher and physician Deepak Chopra entwines his relationship to death with his worldview about life:

You actualize through the brain and the body . . . you are the user of your brain and your body. Of course, every time you have a mental event, there’s a neural representation of that. You can see where it’s happening as a spark of electrochemical activity. But your memories are not in your brain. They are actualized in your brain. And neither are your desires, imagination, intentions . . . anything that makes us human—insight, intuition, memory, inspiration. These are qualities of our soul, and the soul is not in space-time. Now, in order for this to be meaningful, it can’t be a theory. It has to be a realization, an experience, and that’s what all spiritual discipline is about. Some people accidentally bump into their transcendent self through spiritual discipline . . . If you do practice, you start to experience that there is an inner being here, and it is not in the body. The body is in the inner being. Just like memory is in that inner being. When people ask, Where do I go after I die, the answer is, There’s no place to go; you’re there now.9

IONS’ “Conscious Aging” Curriculum

Given the implications of our research and its potential translation into education and communications, we have begun to participate more actively in the national conversation about conscious aging. We are using our model of worldview transformation, informed by the latest findings in consciousness studies and the opinions of experts, to help people engage in their own inquiry and to build communities of learning and exploration. In January, the Institute of Noetic Sciences is launching a series of teleseminars with experts in the area of conscious aging that will give participants an opportunity to create a community of mutual support. As we engage with others in the conversation about conscious aging, we aim to increase awareness about the benefits of aging, reduce the fear that surrounds aging and dying, facilitate communication, and foster a new way of holding the natural progress of life in all its rich complexity.

When we apply the worldview transformation model to the issues of aging, we find we can develop some core competencies if we hold the intention to grow. This skill set involves the capacity to cultivate an understanding that information about the world around us is perceived and delivered through the filters of our personal and cultural worldviews. It’s an understanding that beliefs about aging, dying, and what lies beyond death are embedded within individual and collective frames of reference and that other people hold different worldviews. It is also an understanding that our worldviews, our models of reality, are largely unconscious and that raising our awareness of them will help us to better navigate through the aging process.

To help people develop the self-awareness and the self-management skills for conscious aging, as well as social awareness and interpersonal skills for positive relationships, IONS’ blended-learning curriculum centers on the pivotal role that perspective and worldview play in our perception, understanding, and behavior. Over the course of the lessons, the conscious aging curriculum (1) introduces the concept of worldview, (2) helps participants understand how their point of view on aging influences what they perceive and therefore how they act and react, (3) provides experiences (such as optical illusions, paradoxical situations, and contact with differing perspectives) to increase cognitive flexibility and empower participants to examine their own assumptions, (4) uses different types of narrative to explore how people make meaning and communicate their experiences about aging, and (5) brings increasing awareness to thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations, particularly when we are presented with conflicting perspectives about aging, dying, and what may lie beyond.

The curriculum utilizes direct learning, personal exploration, and collective experiences to encourage new ways of understanding self and others. Some of the questions the curriculum poses include the following:

*Where do beliefs about aging and dying come from?
*How can our beliefs limit our experience?
*How is it helpful to consider multiple perspectives?
*What does it mean to participate in a community focused on conscious aging?
*How does an evolving awareness about aging contribute to living with greater self-compassion
and moving from inner guidance?
*What intentions do you want to manifest in your elder years?
*What truly has heart and meaning for you? What matters most?

Aging with Awareness

Early models of human development focused on child development, and psychological maturity was considered largely complete by adulthood. Modern theories recognize that we continue to develop throughout the lifespan. The question then becomes, How can we use the challenges and opportunities of aging to cultivate wisdom and to live deeply? In the end, it is not so much about aging itself as it is fostering continual growth and development during this fertile time. As noted by Ronald Valle and Mary Mohs in their writing about aging with awareness:

Life, death, and grief are everywhere, whether it is the birth of a new idea, heartbreak at the death of a child, or a leaf falling from a tree. In this way, we begin to accept and celebrate the constant flow of life’s transitions rather than fearing the next turn in the road. Thus, to the extent that we can let go into the mystery of life, we find true peace and love in the aging process.10

Dr. Schlitz is the CEO and President of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, as well as a researcher, author, speaker, and change consultant.

Cassandra Vieten, PhD

Dr. Vieten is Director of Research at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and presenter.

Kathleen Erickson-Freeman

Erickson-Freeman is IONS’s Elder Education and Planned Giving Manager. She currently works with Visionary Circle members, the Worldview Literacy Project, The World Café, Cross Cultural Journeys, and other elder education programs related to conscious aging.

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