2 + LESSON: Being More with Less
Many of us were raised in cultures that place physical vitality and virility on a pedestal. We equate beauty, potential, and power with youth, specifically, able-bodied, fertile youth. Newspapers publish aspirational pieces about older folks who have, miraculously, managed to prolong some aspect of their vitality or youthful beauty. “What’s their secret?” we ask.
In the modern, American paradigm, the ability to physically, mentally, and emotionally dominate our inner and outer reality is the epitome of spiritual power. Magic is not defined as a hidden relationship, but rather as a force we exert on reality. Iron Will is not our capacity to influence, rather we imagine it as our ability to be unaffected even by our own desires. Strength is an arm-wrestling match. I can move you, but you can’t move me. In this paradigm, we are only as valuable as we are strong, and we are only as strong as we are stronger than those around and within us.
What then, for the Elder whose physical body doesn’t give us hope for eternal youth, who, perhaps, even reminds us of our limits, our mortality; they are without value—worthless. This twisted sentiment extends to anyone, regardless of age, who finds themselves in a body deemed less attractive, less vital, or less able. It’s not just ageism; I’m talking about racism, sexism, ableism, classism, and many other -isms. Folks with experience being regarded as less than may have tasted some of the mysteries of Elderhood well before having the good fortune to grow old.
[ 3.01.03 Introduction to Betweenhood ] “…the phases we’re discussing in this course aren’t neatly bound to a particular age.”
Of course, I wish you a long life of miraculous health. As someone of dubious health, I wouldn’t wish my pains or limitations on anyone, nor would I wish for the pains and limitations that others experience, that you may have experienced. I have found wisdom in my pain, but I’ve also found it in other things. There are many paths to wisdom.
But, most of us, at some point or period in our lives, will enter an intimate relationship with pain, will experience a loss of vitality, a decline in our physical ability. And, if and when that happens, I hope you remember the teachings in this phase: the magic and mystery that we discovered by envisioning a profound and valuable kind of Elderhood that does not look like able-bodied youth, does not act like able-bodied youth, and does not rely on physical strength to influence and inspire.
The Hallowed Elderhood that I want to share with you; it’s about the ability to do more with less.
What does our Elderself have less of?
We may have less physical and mental strength. If our health is profoundly waning, maybe fewer hours in the day. Certainly, fewer years within which to envision projects or purpose. But also, less resistance, less fear, and fewer expectations. Fewer fucks to give about what other people think. Sorry, but I’ve got hemorrhoids scarier than you.
How does having less of these things help the Elder to do more?
[ 4.02.05 Wounds & Wisdom Part II: The Gift of Sensitivity ] “The wound, un-suffered, would not lead to adaptation. And the suffering, if it did not provoke adaptation, would not lead to wisdom. [ … ] but here’s the thing, the amount of suffering required for us to adapt… that’s up to us. Knowing that change is the key, (and now you know) we could just… change sooner. [ … ] …we can start to realize that it is our sensitivity, not our wound, that is the true key to Wisdom.”
As spiritworkers, as students of Hallowed Elderhood, we can choose to be sensitive to the things we have less of, our relative weakness, our inability, and the futility of always using strength and volume and force and war to try to make change. We can let awareness of this futility inspire us to adapt and find wiser, more cunning ways to influence our world.
What if we became so sensitive that we didn’t even wait until things were futile? We could gain wisdom just from imagining a future where we’re less able to win a shouting match. We can flip the script before it’s necessary, just to see if we can find potency in a whisper, just to see if we might actually be able to do more with less.
When my Elder Witchmother, Rita, would lower her voice, that’s when we knew she meant business. You’d automatically lean forward a little, pulled in by her dangerous softness. Once, at a big public ritual, Rita needed to get through the crowd to the altar, but there was a fellow: loud, large, and in her way. She squinted her eyes and lifted a single, crooked finger. She didn’t touch him or anyone, didn’t say anything, just walked forward; her finger as the bow of a ship, parting and silencing the seas.
If she had shoved him instead, his awareness would’ve been on himself: his balance, his ego. Rita moved in a way that created a connection, that allowed him to feel her will without feeling like he had to fight it.
Here’s an Aikido-inspired game you can play next time you’re pushing a shopping cart. (As always, contact me for modifications.) Center yourself, not in your heart as we often do, but in your center of gravity. For most people, when standing, the center of gravity is a point between your navel and your tailbone. Place your hands on the bar to push the shopping cart but take all of the tension out of your shoulders and let that tension drop like a weight into your center of gravity. You might feel your stomach pooch a little, that’s perfect. Then, move forward as if your center of gravity were a heavy bowling ball rolling slowly down a smooth lane. Let your hands connect with the shopping cart. As you move forward, it moves forward. See if you can identify less with the idea that you need to push the cart. See if you can put less energy into pushing it. Do less. See how little you can do to the cart, while still moving forward, connected. On your first attempt, you may only experience a few seconds of connection, your commitment wavering. As soon as you think you’ve got it, your brain will try to free up resources by switching to auto-pilot, and for most of us the auto-pilot will say: push the cart!
If you want to make it more challenging, replace the shopping cart with a person. Have them stand palm to palm with you and instruct them to walk backward as you push them. Then, see if you can push them without pushing, as we did with the cart. Drop your weight into your center, connect to their center, relax your arms, and simply move forward.
To make it even more challenging, see if you can move in this way while maintaining full awareness of your surroundings. More centeredness with a less singular focus on centeredness. Remember, it’s a martial arts exercise. If we’re in a fight we need to be connected to our opponent’s movements, sticky even. And, we need to be in our body, thinking rationally, and aware of what’s happening around us. This is hard enough to do in practice, and that much harder in an actual fight, since, for most of us, conflict and fear is the ultimate trance ingredient.
Conflict can happen in the hidden realms, too. There may be times when we’re in the Outer Otherworld when we need to move through a crowd without shoving anyone, when we might need to dance with or dance away from something stronger than us.
So many folks read a book on astral defensive magic and feel invincible in the Otherworld. But, thinking a shield only shields us in the realm of thought. If we’re interested in more multi-dimensional work, we need to be able to invoke multi-dimensional defenses. Practicing with the physical body gives us that, for our body is a nexus, an intersection of many realms.
How do we learn a dance? At first, we’re just trying to get our feet in the right places at the right time. It’s mostly the realm of thought, memorization. Then, we work on the posture and positions. The realm of muscle, of materia, of movement. We start to refine the details, the gestures, the pointed toes, the arch of the back, our awareness able to hold increasing complexity. But, as the movements get familiar, we’re able to create the same complexity with less focus, freeing up conscious resources, so we can start paying more attention to the emotion, letting our feelings show through our movement. We want the audience to be moved, touched. We’re incorporating the realm of feeling, of presence. We learn the history of the dance and start to feel connected to that history, to all of the other feet that have repeated these steps, some grand ancestral trance repetition. The hidden realms join our movement. The dance becomes multi-dimensional. We practice doing it slowly to feel all of the moving parts coordinating and interacting. We practice doing it quickly to get out of our heads. We knead it all like dough until it starts to come together and get strong, which, in the case of bread means it can stretch without breaking. Our dance has the capacity for change, it’s a spirit with a soul. It’s alive!
In our spiritwork practice thus far, we’ve been learning steps, too: gather, invoke, shift, enter, manifest, feel for consent. But, eventually, consider how we might move towards workings that feel more dance-like. What if my spiritwork preparation felt like a well-rehearsed movement, a sacred gesture, containing position, rhythm, motivation, emotion, history, will, and the desire to influence all rolled into one.
And when we can dance our spiritwork, we have the freedom to dance lightly, marking the steps, or to dance all-out, to become a vessel for something greater than our movement. We have the freedom to draw out our spiritwork, to spend hours dancing around the fire, savoring every aspect of the complexity. We h ave the freedom to compress our work—to make a single glance as fiery as a tango.
Imagine the Elder spiritworker stepping into the circle for a group working. In that single gesture of stepping over the boundary, they gather, invoke, shift, and feel for consent. [ Ren, across one long inhale, pulls in her arms, pauses, feels for the YES. She smiles and speaks aloud, “Yes.” ] Doing more with less.
Part of what allows the Elder to move so smoothly, so quickly, is that they aren’t caught in the desire for intensity. Sure, I could put a whole Tango into a glance, but do I need to for this working?
[ 0.3.1 What is Trance? ] “I’m hoping we can question the notion that stronger is better. That stronger will be more meaningful. That we have to be shattered in order to shift.”
Ya know, you reach an age where you’re just not interested in getting your butt kicked by a trance hangover unless it’s really necessary. You’ve got no problem if a conversation is light, a bit disjointed, if it doesn’t live up to your Betweenself’s expectations. You don’t need change to prove itself worthy of your welcome.
In the language of Human+Spiritwork, we personify our resistance to change as the Fiend.
[ 4.05.05 Fear of Change & the Spirit: The Fiend ] “Its only objective is to prevent relationship with the Soul. It is not a test. It’s not a game or a riddle. This force is out for blood.”
I know, adults are so serious. For Elderhood, let’s picture the Fiend like a worried, loyal old dog, barking at the mailman again. Yeah, he’s out for blood alright. I give my Fiend The Look™ or maybe point a crooked finger at him like my dear Rita. My Fiend gives a little whine, turns in a circle, and lies back down on the mat. I open the door and get the mail.
Maybe, if we’ve been doing spiritwork for years, by the time we’re Elders we’ll genuinely have less resistance. But, if not, then at least we can cultivate the ability to take our resistance less seriously, which doesn’t mean ignoring it and letting it rule us unconsciously, it means looking it right in the eye and realizing it’s not a monster, it’s not our master, it’s just a lot of barking that’s not likely to bite if we treat it with kindness and understanding and throw it an occasional bone.
Thinking back to what I said a minute ago about our ego trying to convince us that we’ve mastered defensive magic in a weekend, or after reading a single book, this is actually a form of change-resistance. Convincing ourselves we’ve mastered something means we don’t have to keep learning, and if we don’t keep learning we don’t risk the consequence of learning: change. Which brings us to a final reason why physical practices of doing more with less are so valuable: they’re humbling.
It’s easy to imagine that we’re good at centering, but practicing it with our body and a shopping cart can give us a more realistic sense of our skill. Equally, for those of y’all that constantly imagine that you’re terrible at everything, when you practice something with your body, progress is harder to deny. That’s not to say that if we find ourselves lacking coordination that we should avoid going anywhere we might need it. I’m saying that in order to consciously choose to take a risk, we need to understand the risk. And we can’t understand the risk, if we aren’t honest with ourselves about our abilities.
Yet, for all the humility and honesty it brings, Hallowed Elderhood encourages us to go ahead and risk. To go ahead and do more, with less. In Babyhood we learned to walk by embracing the process of falling and getting back up. In Elderhood it’s more grave: can I embrace the learning process, knowing that someday I will fall and won’t get back up?
Why practice calligraphy if someday our hand won’t be steady enough to hold the brush? Why learn to dance if someday our knees will have arthritis? Why head for the top of the mountain if, even if we make it, and we may not, we’ll just have to head back down the other side and lose that view we worked so hard to attain? The Fiend is barking, “Better to just stay home! Do nothing!”
Awareness of death is one thing we don’t have less of in Elderhood. Fear of death may be more! But, just as we can be sensitive to our relative weakness, to our inabilities, we can be sensitive to our fear of death. We can choose to be fully aware of it, to embrace it, to let it move through us, kindling our ability to adapt, to grow in wisdom. The nearness of death becomes an opportunity to reconcile with it, to honor that we never know when it will come, that we don’t know how it will be when it comes, that expectations can’t help us with it, that resistance doesn’t protect us from it, that all we have is the present moment, so why not be more present with it more often?
Well, the reason most of us can’t wrap our heads around being “more present” is that in a tragically Elderless paradigm where able-bodied youth is everything, many of us believe that “more present” means “more productive.” Live like there’s no tomorrow sounds like an impossible request to get everything that matters done today. Right now. Agh!
Our Elderself is sitting near the fire in our hearts, crooked fingers folded on their lap, listening to our confusion, being present with us. Without saying a word, showing us a kind of more-presence that’s soft, simple, restful. Being more by doing less.