On the Midlife Path: Seeking Wisdom, Finding Faith.
I just got back from a weeklong workshop called “You Are NOT Your Title: Finding Joy in a Career Swerve.”
Sounds like a business coaching seminar, right? And for some of the people there, that’s basically what it was. But for me it turned out to be a spiritual retreat.
I’m not saying I saw God – though I might have gotten a glimpse! – but I’m pretty sure I discovered something like faith.
I celebrated my sixty-fifth birthday at the Modern Elder Academy (MEA) in Baja. The Social Security Administration says I’m just about done with my productive years, but (a) that’s not going to pay anywhere near enough for us to live on, and (b) my core reason for going down there was the feeling that I’ve got unfinished business to accomplish before the ref blows the final whistle.
"The fourth quarter is when the game is won," said a co-leader of the workshop, Aaron Taylor --and he has an actual Super Bowl ring from the Packers 1997 championship, so he knows about winning. The College Football Hall of Famer now covers that sport on CBS during the season and spends the rest of his time helping people. (His new website is called mentalhealthbestpractices.com.)
A.T. is all about putting in the deep work of personal introspection and growth, day in and day out. He knows the science of mental health, but he also talks about his Higher Power and putting outcomes into God’s hands.
He kind of lost me there for a minute: What if I don’t believe in God?
Another newfound friend at the retreat, a yoga teacher, said to trust in the Universe and abundance will result.
Lost again. “I don’t believe in a benevolent Universe,” I told her.
Now, a key aspect of the MEA program is mindset management: What are your limiting self-talk beliefs and how can you replace them with empowering ones?
During one of our after-dinner talks, Aaron called me out on something: “Dude, this is the fourth time in a half-hour I’ve heard you say, ‘Yeah, but…’”
He was 100 percent right. I realized that I need to stop blocking conversations about possibilities, and go from the reflexive “Yeah, but” to the hopeful “Yes, and…”
So I decided to put my skepticism about faith to the test. Again.
I did this inquiry 20 years ago at the outset of my midlife journey when I started studying Buddhism. Part of its appeal for me was, and remains, that it’s not faith-based. You just do the practice and see if it helps. I went on a weeklong silent retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in the Berkshires with the teachers Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach. The IMS occupies a former monastery, complete with stained glass windows, and the setting forced me to try to reconcile Buddhism with the Catholic faith of my upbringing, which had long since lapsed (with a vengeance).
During that time, I had the privilege of a brief correspondence with Tara Brach, who offered these words of wisdom in response to a question about the relationship between meditation and prayer: “When we feel small and separate, it feels like we are calling on an ‘other,’ a benevolent presence that we yearn to belong to, to feel held and loved by, to help us awaken. … As we let go, surrendering into that presence, we realize that this is the fullness of who we are. The loving awareness (the divine) that we are calling on when we feel separate is our own awakened nature. Prayer is a bridge between longing and belonging, between separation and Oneness. … I would say that god-consciousness and Buddha nature (pure, wakeful loving awareness) are the same.”
I re-read that letter in Baja, and realized I’d been gifted an ultimate truth two decades ago in response to questions that I was asking anew.
It took a retreat given by a 300-pound, six-foot-four football star, an encouraging prompt from a yoga teacher, and finally a session with a Mexican shaman named Saul Kuperstein for me to find my way back to a sense of faith. In a ceremonial session on a headland cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Saul said that everything in the universe is made of the same stuff, it’s just animated by different energies, which can be tweaked. He told me that I’m god, because everything is god.
After all the workshop exercises, heavy conversations, and soul-searching of the retreat, that statement landed with me. Hard. The faith I needed to find is faith in myself. Not as the hero of my own story, but as a unique expression of the universal life force.
A certain sense of responsibility comes with an insight like that. So as part of my midlife mindset reset in Baja, I committed to sharing whatever wisdom I may have gained in 65 years, and will keep learning, with those who are open to hearing it. Coupled with that renewed sense of vocation after a 40-year career in journalism that has run its course, all this god talk brought me back to Thomas Merton, the Catholic mystic whose words had resonated with me in that previous period of seeking: “If you write for men, you may make some money and may give someone a little joy and you may make a noise in the world for a little while. If you write only for yourself, you can read what you have written and after 10 minutes you will be so disgusted that you will wish that you were dead. … If you write for God, you will reach many men and bring them joy.”
I’m not even sure what that would mean for me here at the outset of the fourth quarter. But as Aaron said at the midlife wisdom retreat, “The first parts of the story are already written. We write the rest.”
Dave Herndon is a communications professional based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Find out more about his career path at Herndon-at-large.com, and contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Modern Elder.”