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Expert to Elder

Some years ago I was at a Wilderness Therapy conference where a young man from Canada was a key speaker. He was a Wilderness Therapy Guide, working with Indigenous youth, young people who had been disenfranchised by society. He would take them out into nature and teach them about the practice of a new way, based in a traditional way. The first slide in his presentation stated that in today’s world, we needed to move from Expert to Elder, from the power over model of one who knows to that of one who listens.

Many years back an American woman, Jean Grossholtz a university professor at Mount Holyoak University, a powerful political activist for women’s rights and for the peace movement, told me that for the rest of our lives we would have to spend every day, every minute detoxifying from the poison of a power-over way of being, from patriarchy. This toxic system runs through the veins of all of us and we need to consciously step out of it if we are to bring about real change. It seems to me that the European appropriation of Elder, an indigenous way, can so easily lead to yet another hierarchy, another power-over way. We imply that the Elder, is wiser, knows more and has all the answers. This then becomes yet another chain to tie us into the system in which we are bound into the patriarchal chains that control us all.

In an indigenous culture, you would not name yourself Elder, it is a name that is given to you by your community just as you would not name yourself Shaman. For me the concept of Elder is not about age, it is about an energy that flows through, a knowing that has nothing to do with learning as we know it. It is the energy of the Tao, of pure wisdom, of Wu- emptiness which connects one to the universe and the whole of nature.

In my work I have worked with young people who in a moment of profound wisdom become the elder. A 15 year old boy in a residential children’s home who decided that he would facilitate a Council for the staff and the young people. He created sacred space and began with an opening round. He then led the circle into a guided visualisation. In that moment, he manifested elder, the Tao flowed through him, wisdom and insight became manifest. A while back I was facilitating a circle where my Granddaughter who was visiting had sat in silence in a large circle for three days, she was17 years of age and suddenly responded powerfully to an older woman who had spoken movingly of her loss. My Granddaughter in that moment became the elder carrying wisdom and compassion beyond her years. This can happen at any age when people are truly heart centred, allowing the pure essence of Tao to flow through them.

In traditional societies, the Elders lived on the edge of the village where they could be visited by the tribe. They would offer Council, a deep listening practice; they had the wisdom to know that to listen, was the medicine needed by the people. True Elders did not tell people what to do or how to do it but deeply trusted that each person had their own wisdom, their own knowledge. This is a wonderful example of a non-power over way of being.

I have been lucky enough to work with people who carried the gift of this way; Starhawk, a Jewish American witch who teaches so clearly, a non-power over way of working, Meredith Little co-founder of the School of Lost Borders, a true Elder who teaches by modelling deep listening and compassionate non-judgement. Jonathan Horowitz, Shamanic teacher, who is so very heart centred. These people among others, do not pretend to have ‘the answers’, they do not claim the success of others, but they bear witness to the achievement of each person that they work with. They are heart centred, trusting in the innate wisdom that each person will find their own unique way. They are able to listen without the need to impose knowledge, ideas or opinions, they are not Guru’s, Teacher’s or Experts, they do not take or steal power, do not direct or lead but have the skill of heart centred listening, of empowering by virtue of allowing each person to find their own unique way. They do not bring about change or healing but rather facilitate the conditions in which such things might become manifest. J R Worsley of the Five Element school of Taoist healing taught that we are the facilitators of the healing process but it is the client who brings about change, it is the client/patient who opens to the Tao.

For me this brings so much hope because it creates the possibility of a better world, a way to escape the chains of patriarchy that bind all of us.

The facilitator offers sacred space in which, through the practice of deep listening, radical change is possible. This ancient way of sitting in Council and honouring each other is what we strive for in the Medicine of Council. It is an art form that fosters the potential for creativity and for healing. We celebrate and honour each person as a teacher. It is a practice leading us into the place of Elder, the one who listens, the one who shares truths carried in the heart. It is a pathway to a non-power over way of being, a non-hierarchical world where each individual, each tree, each plant, each rock, each river and each animal is of equal value. We make this prayer ‘For all our relations, for all of our elders.’

© Simone Silver Path

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