School of Movement Medicine - Mindfulness in Motion

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Issue: February 2009
Becoming an Elder

By Julia Gilkes
As we have no rites of passage to step into another stage of our lives in the UK, I decided to create my own. I left full time work at the age of 60 years and wanted to find the hidden sacred arch that I must walk through to mark my journey to becoming a Hag, a Crone, an Elder.

Discarding the new labels that my society decked me with on retirement I wrote them carefully out and then put them in the fire to transform them into new dreams and visions on my journey towards Stillness. Watching the flames devour the old, I heard the gentle laughter of old women as other words were thrust out of the fire calling for courage, clarity, steadfastness and humility.


A tremble fluttered along my spine as I accepted that this would be my journey, my unique journey, my journey of self discovery to prepare myself to live the final years of my life to the full, with respect and audacity in breaking the boundaries set by society for the old, the pensioner, the invisible.


My mentor, a much respected shaman set me three tasks:

1. I must walk along a path of bright burning fire barefoot, to embrace clarity and commitment


2. I must meditate to identify what might hold me back from my quest, write it on a scrap of paper and give it to water to take away to the sea


3. I must dig my grave and sleep in it until dawn to face the fear of death


And then I would be ready for my Vision Quest in far away Death Valley


The night was cool and full of stars as I stood shivering with anticipation with others around the hot embers of the ceremonial fire. With deep dignity the Fire Master slowly raked the scarlet, flashing, spitting fire into a clear pathway about a metre wide and 6 metres long. It glowed invitingly with a secretive smile offering me this ancient challenge. Removing my boots I felt the damp earth between my toes and gazed upwards for my ally, my sister moon. It was if I was standing alone as I lifted my head high and purposefully stepped onto the burning path. My heartbeat bounced with my joy as it erupted from my throat in wonder. I crossed the fire with no problem. Then I placed my invisible cloak of humility and quiet around my shoulders as I sat in the circle gazing into the heat and made my vow of acceptance to take on the next task


I gathered my sheepskin and low canvas stool, some water and dried fruit and searched in the rocks and heather for the solitude I needed for 5 hours meditation by the glistening river Dart. Paper and pens lay by my side ready. It was a cold but sunny afternoon and the bracken filled my nostrils with its sharp perfume. Curious creatures rustled in the undergrowth passing by on their daily travels as I watched a dark bird riding the air currents across the valley. Closing my eyes I let my mind go free to help me identify what I must let go to follow my path. Old griefs that clung like limpets were prized off my scarred heart: debilitating fear and insecurity nudged my confidence: old voices whispered that I was not good enough drifted by. With clarity I wrote out those old fears and barriers on my paper and crafted a little origami boat. Screwing the words into a ball, I placed it on the boat and lovingly placed the valiant vessel into the rushing water. Smiling I watched it tumble around in the rocks as the current tried to catch it. I was so afraid that it would be crushed and submerged by a passing wave, when suddenly it found its balance and sailed gaily out into the river and was soon lost in sight on its journey to the sea. I had completed the second task.


The rain beat down lashing my face turning the newly dug earth into cloying mud. Three hours of sweating labour in the dark storm tested my courage again and again to take this task to its completion. Others nearby fell on the ground weeping or exhausted and sought my loving arms for reassurance. My mind noticed my unexpected visitors; the silent ghosts of those who had dug their graves before being shot and falling in finishing the barbaric torture they had suffered. I paid homage to them and their ordeals. My courage held steadfast as the soft touch of fear of maggots and worms slithering over my body receded and my mind turned to curiosity. At last the moment came to wriggle into my bivvy bag in the grave and listen to the shaman's helpers place mud and rocks over the tarpaulin resting on crisscross branches above my body. Utter darkness. No sound of rain above. No voices. Utter silence. I felt the fear creeping up my arms to touch the hair on my neck. Flashing lights appeared in my eyes as I searched the blackness for a chink of reassuring light. I began silently calling on my ancestors to stand with me to reduce my terror of death. I visualised those I knew and loved and gratefully thanked the many that I did not know who crowded around my grave with soft sombre looks. I was not alone. Then I heard some creature snuffling near my head and I had to choke back the shout to let me out, let me out. I called and called on my allies to love and hold me until my heartbeat slowed again. Hours later I heard the shaman walk by playing his drum whistling softly in the dawn light and I knew that I had passed the test. I lay in the black wet mud and counted 21 gratitudes for my courage, my trust and intuition and those who had prepared and supported me. A crimson velvet shawl lay around my shoulders as I felt the power of the emerging crone.


Three tasks offered. Three tasks completed. I was ready now to prepare for the Sacred Path to my solitary Vision Quest in the desert and canyons of Death Valley, where I would find the archway to step into the pathway of the Elder.

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The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of the School of Movement Medicine. Roland Wilkinson, Nappers Crossing, Staverton, Devon TQ9 6PD, UK Tel & Fax +44 (0)1803 762255 http://www.