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Friday, August 03 2007 19:00
Allyn Bradford, while meditating during a 12-day "vision quest" for deeper spiritual insight, proceeded to talk to a tree. "The tree was quite surprised," he reports, "that I was saying anything to it. No one had ever spoken to it before."

If this sounds batty, know that the speaker was seeking, in a group of half a dozen men and women, a better understanding of himself as an older person. In a forested section of Colorado, helped by three guides, they fasted, meditated, ritually danced, and otherwise celebrated their progress toward elderhood.

Allyn Bradford says of the event: "I found it to be a life transforming experience."

What did the tree say in answer to his questions?  "You are alive, the tree said to me," a response that gave Bradford the inspiration he was hoping for. This 77-year-old retired Presbyterian minister felt affirmed by his encounter with nature, a step on his way toward a new way of living as an older person.

This spiritual adventurer admits mixed feelings at the beginning. "I went with some trepidation," he confesses. In traveling from Boston to Colorado, he did not know what to expect and wondered how he would fare.

The tests of inner endurance came soon: for four days the participants ate nothing and drank only water. They also used a "sweat lodge," an enclosure with heated stones, to purify their bodies. During some of this time, the atmosphere was filled with the sound of drumming and rattling, noises designed to alter their mood.

A basic activity was meditating but they also engaged in a fire dance. All of this stirred interior changes in Allyn Bradford. "It was very much a mystical experience," he says, "a very profound religious experience. I felt almost on a high."

Another ritual they performed showed symbolically how members of the group were leaving the way they had lived up to then. They took objects associated with their past lives and threw them into the fire. "They were parts of our lives that are over and we want to leave behind," explains Bradford.

With that same purpose in mind, they wrote a letter to tell a friend that "I am no longer what I was." They had become dead to their former way of being with all of its mixed values.

Not surprisingly, some of the mood-altering led to frightening interior encounters. The nighttime was the most scary for Bradford. "I felt terrified," he says of sleeping in the forest. "I thought I was going to die. It was like pushing my envelope to the ultimate point."

But surviving the fright brought him into a new inner space where he found about his own strength. If he could look death in the eye, then it would change his experience of life. Moving against the current of American culture, he was now able to face dying and the challenges of old age.

The whole Colorado experience has achieved its purpose: this one man, at least, has a new idea of himself as a person approaching his 80s. In fact, he had come to see himself as commissioned with a new mission: sharing with others his vision of spiritual elderhood. He wants others, especially the Baby Boomers as they approach later life, to appreciate their potentialities for new vitality.

Thus he now sees himself as committed to inner discipline, continual learning, a spiritual orientation toward life, a working through the key events of his life, and service to others. He wants to bring out the wisdom in other older people.

"I'm giving myself a year to figure out how to make the best use of what I have learned," Allyn Bradford says. He already has a vision for America's future: "Older people could become a critical mass in our culture." Those who have become spiritual elders could become a strong force for change by sharing their wisdom and other spiritual values, he believes.

The inspiration for the "Spiritual Eldering" movement goes back to Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a Philadelphia-based rabbi who conceived a different way of approaching later life.  In his 1990 book "From Age-ing to Sag-ing" he lays out his vision of what growing older can be. From this pioneering work have come group experiences  such as the one Allyn Bradford experienced.  

Richard Griffin