The Power of Possibility — My Experience at the Modern Elder Academy

This past week, I had the privilege of participating in the Modern Elder Academy in Baja, Mexico. Honestly, I didn’t really know what to expect, but I was certainly curious. Having read Chip Conley’s book, Wisdom @ Work, on the making of a “modern elder,” I knew that I was in for an interesting journey — and I was not disappointed.

Like most meaningful journeys, it’s hard to fully communicate the depth of the experience. I decided to wait a few days after returning home to capture my thoughts to give them time to settle, and to see what stood out for me.

Our group of 15 participants was quite diverse. Ages ranged from 30–70 years old. The thirty year old is a talented gay, black artist, and the seventy year old is a lovely Jewish woman who was recently-widowed. There was lots of diversity in between, including an organic farmer, physician, tech exec, and interior decorator. We spent a lot of time together with several talented facilitators, leading us through a well-designed collection of experiences. Despite our differences, it was clear that we had much in common and much to learn from one another.

The overall theme was metamorphosis. There was a recurring reference to the “liminal state,” meaning threshold, where you are moving between two roles, like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. We were reminded that while in it’s cocoon, a caterpillar literally turns into soup, with only a few “imaginal discs” intact. The caterpillar essentially reinvents itself by recycling all the original material while keeping a core of what is was before.

The experiences over the week were designed to help each person shed the things that were no longer useful to them and to build upon those that are. By doing this as a group, in a concentrated time, we got to witness each person’s liminal state. It was both fascinating and instructive to watch all of the transitions, some of which were clearly very hard. I wish we had taken a before and after photo of the group because the internal changes were matched by dramatic physical transformations as each person unfolded into the person they wanted to be. Magnificent crashing waves provided an endless audio backdrop to all of the activities. At times it felt as though we were in a womb, listening to the heartbeat of the earth.

The first part of the week focused both intellectually and emotionally on defining what we wanted to change over the coming weeks, months, and years. To represent this physically, using driftwood, we created art on the beach, most of which slowly drifted away over the course of the week as it was washed by the waves.

The second part of the week focused on unlocking parts of ourselves that were stuck inside. Inspired by the words of famous poets, we each wrote prose, tapping into things that inspired awe. After that exercise, I started each day with a walk on the beach and wrote a short poem which I shared with the group at our morning sessions. It reminded me how much I used to enjoy creative writing, and committed to continuing when I got home. Others found other activities equally evocative.

We had a chance to share the things we are thinking/feeling, and spent a lot of time listening to others as we responded to a wide variety of prompts. It helped me fully understand that “knowledge speaks and wisdom listens.” Instead of needing to know the answers, I could see that it is often more important to listen patiently and to ask questions. As someone who usually moves fast, answers quickly, and gets things done, it took some time for me to relax into a very different role and pace.

We also carefully considered what “business” we are in. Using the five “whys” exercise, we drilled down to explore what we really want to contribute to the world. It was fascinating to see people light up when they realized what they really wanted to contribute. Essentially, it felt as though we were all slowly moving into our hearts from our heads.

All of this talking and listening was broken up with opportunities to participate in morning yoga, guided meditations, swimming, surfing, as well as delicious meals with organic locally grown produce. I used my free time to walk on the beach, taking time to watch newly hatched sea turtles find their way to the ocean.

We also baked bread each morning. In small groups, we took the dough that was made the day before and crafted it into something unique. Using herbs from the garden, or goodies we found in the kitchen, each group came up with their own theme, presented with flair. By the end of the week, we had certainly experienced “collective effervescence,” where the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts.

This only captures a sliver of my week in Baja, but hopefully provides a taste of the experience. It was one I would highly recommend to anyone who is interested in exploring the roles they play in the world, and how they want to change as they enter a new stage of life. The Modern Elder Academy provided a wonderful chrysalis for experiencing that liminal state, full of power and possibility.

Thanks so much to Chip and the entire team at MEA who created this unique and meaningful opportunity.