Embracing Aging as Pilgrimage

On: February 5, 2017

by Pamela Leland, PhD, Executive Director

At its core, aging is a solitary process. This doesn’t mean we are alone in the process or lack the love and support of others as we navigate growing older. 

It does means that we each have to figure out for ourselves how we will enter into and move through this process, this journey of aging.  What are our hopes and goals? How will we find and create meaning during this stage in our life? What do we want and/or need in order to find satisfaction, contentment and joy as we age?

Viewing aging as pilgrimage provides a metaphor – and a framework – to answer these questions. Many may only connect pilgrimage with a religious purpose.  Indeed, the concept and experience of pilgrimage is deeply rooted in all the major religions. Even those who do not practice a specific religion could probably list the world’s most popular religious pilgrimage sites … Jerusalem, Mecca, Lourdes, the River Ganges. For those with religious beliefs, a pilgrimage invites the Pilgrim to enter more deeply into a relationship with his or her God – whatever name of the Devine is used.

Yet over the years, the concept and practice of pilgrimage has been expanded to include other journeys of meaning. A pilgrimage today could include a return to the homeland of ancestors or a tour of historical or cultural sites.  It can include an interior journey of personal growth and development.  While not all pilgrimages are religious, all pilgrimages are spiritual. A pilgrimage invites the Pilgrim into an intentional process of action, reflection and interior transformation.  

Approaching aging as pilgrimage invites us to fully enter into the process and the journey of aging. It invites us to open ourselves to the possibilities, inspirations, lessons and unexpected gifts that aging brings.

So all of this sounds nice … but what does this mean in day-to-day terms?  What does “aging as pilgrimage” look like?

All pilgrimages have certain characteristics. Richard Scriven, who writes the blog, Liminal Entwinings, lists five. The first is Movement. There is a recognition of moving from point A to point B. Growing older is moving through years … from 50 to 60 to 70 and beyond.  How will we move through these years of life? How will we get to the next destination … whether marking this journey daily, monthly … or by decades?

All pilgrimages involve Place. For older adults, what does Place mean in their lives? How do we create Place that is appropriate and responsive to our needs? How does it mean to create sacred Places?

All pilgrimages involve Meaning. This may be the most challenging for us.  Where and how do we find and create value when our lives have moved beyond identities that were connected to raising children, being part of a couple, or working for some cause or company? What meaning can we derive from day-to-day activities? How can we create patterns of activity that give our lives meaning?

All pilgrimages involve Transformation. If we are willing to fully enter into some journey, if we are open to what might emerge or unfold, if we embrace the unexpected … we will be transformed.  How will we allow new experiences – even those that appear to create limitations – to change us?

All pilgrimages involve Embodiment.  For those making a pilgrimage that involves walking, the physical nature of pilgrimage is clear. But this also clearly applies to aging.  Bodies change.  We may work to maintain our health or work to become even healthier or stronger.  We may also live with chronic disease or physical limitations. Regardless of the circumstances, we have much to learn from how our bodies adapt to the aging process.  Our bodies can teach us – if we listen.

In addition to certain qualities, all pilgrimages have certain stages or periods.  The first stage begins with the Decision to go, to say yes to the invitation that is in front of you. If truly committed to the invitation, the pilgrimage begins at this point.  The process of transformation has begun.

The second stage is Preparation.  What do I need to do now to be ready for the journey ahead?  What do I need to take with me – both tangible and intangible?

The next stage is the Journey itself. What are the activities (“the rituals”) that define this journey? How does time unfold? What captures my attention?

The final stages include the Arrival and the Return.  This may seem more clear when the pilgrimage involves walking from Point A to Point B.  Aging, however, also involves a destination.  The process of aging is our move toward the end of our lives.  What can we do now – and along the way – to ensure that when we reach that destination, we will have the comfort of a life well-lived? Is this not the end-of-life that we all want?

Embracing aging as pilgrimage isn’t easy or quick.  Any “journey of meaning” requires our intention and, our attention. We also need a community of others who will be our companions on the path. And yet, viewing aging as pilgrimage provides a framework that can open our hearts and our minds and allow us to create delight, joy and meaning in whatever time remains.