Ch. 13 The Elders

Throughout human history, elders have occupied a special position in society. They have painstakingly accumulated reservoirs of personal experience, knowledge, and wisdom – or compassionate insight and a sense of the enduring qualities and relationships around them. They freely offer this wisdom to living generations of their people in an effort to help them connect harmoniously with their past, present, and future. 

Wisdom of the Elders – Sacred Native Stories of Nature, David Suzuki and Peter Knudson

An elder is a person who is still growing, still a learner, still with potential and whose life continues to have within it promise for, and connection to, the future

Age-ing to Sage-ing, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi & Ronald S. Miller

A man needs other men – especially older men – to bless him, to honour him, to encourage him, to point out his mistakes, and to raise his status.

Wingspan,Douglas Gillette

The often-used quote of Victor Hugo “There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time had come” resonated with the men who attended the first Elder’s Circle Gathering held on March 18-19, 2011 at Camp Bornhoffen in the Numinbah Valley. They bravely set forth on a journey of introducing the concept of eldership to Mens Wellbeing.

Don Bowak (NSW), Wes Carter (WA) and Doug Stark (Vic), amongst others, had played an important role in the emergence of an elder’s tradition in the Australian men’s movement. In the years 2005-2006 these other states staged their first elder induction ceremonies. While there had been some discussion over the years within Mens Wellbeing Queensland no induction ceremonies had been performed.

Having recently returned from being initiated into Elderhood at the Third National Elder’s Gathering in Tasmania, run just prior to the 2010 TasMen Gathering, Chris Johnson (a former MHWA(Q)) President) was inspired to explore and initiate the concept of eldership with Mens Wellbeing. In December of that year, he was also initiated at the Elders Way program in Bali, run by Wes Carter from Western Australia.

Thus, in March 2010, Chris wrote a discussion paper Elders – the National Scene and where to for Mens Wellbeing? This resulted in excitement and anticipation amongst the men of Mens Wellbeing as this was an entirely new concept within the Association. As the months passed and word of this intent spread, a number of young men, including Andy Roy and Stephen Halsall, contacted Chris to ask if they could be involved, to be of service and provide support in some way. At this stage Andy and Stephen were involved in the Journey to Manhood Rites of Passage camps for teenage boys and appreciated the value of the presence and role of elders in their processes.

It has been noted that the words of Richard Rohr (co-author of The Wildman’s Journey) had a relevance to the desire to explore Eldership:

When we (as grandfathers/elders) can let go of our fear of failure and fear of pain, we are free to trust life just as it comes … we are free to relinquish the centre stage and to stand on the sidelines while we remain in solidarity with those who need our support.

Grandfather energy is an energy that is quiet and secure. It has been tested and not found wanting. It does not need to prove itself any longer, and so it can approve the efforts of others who are not yet sure of themselves.

After some months of juicy discussion and interplay amongst Mens Wellbeing members, an elder gathering came together in March 2011, with 50 men, all over the age of 50 years, plus a contingent of younger men in eager support.

Years later, in 2020, Chris wrote:

At our first Elders Gathering in 2011, I don’t know if any of us knew where we were heading with the concept of elderhood in Mens Wellbeing, but we bravely set out on the journey.

Through the medium of circle work, beautifully facilitated by NZ brother, Alan Blackburn, a dialogue took place to examine the intention of the gathering:

… to explore how Eldership looks and feels to us men, the role of Elders in our community and encouraging men to step into this role.

What eventually emerged from the dialogue was that the essence of Eldership is service – service to our men’s community and service to the wider community.

On the final day, in the closing hours, the process of how to select Elders became an imperative and saw contentious discussion. With passion, many ideas were tossed around until eventually, with much delight and relief, the concept of a voting system was agreed. Each man would take five pebbles from the outside garden, return to the circle and, in turn, place a pebble at the feet of a man they considered worthy of their vote for Eldership. The younger men ably facilitated and ritually held space for this process. Thus, twelve men were duly identified and recognised. The induction ceremony that followed was conducted by Chris Johnson, supported by Andy Roy and Stephen Halsall. The inductees symbolically walked through a portal receiving a shawl and spiral pendant from Chris in recognition of their newly acknowledged status.

Hunter Reed recalls that the weekend was steeped in the mystery of men’s work with a host of magical moments.

In conversations since, aspects of this Eldership terrain began to emerge. The statement below from the men of the Elders Circle seeks to define and clarify this terrain and their intentions:

We, the men of the inaugural Elder’s Circle, commit to serve the community of men of Mens Wellbeing in a way that opens hearts, brings presence through clarity and deepens the Spirit of all those we encounter. We intend to serve men in a way that benefits their partners, their children and the wider community.

Thus, in the twelve months after the inaugural Eldership Gathering, the new Elders experienced a steep learning curve – finding and reclaiming what Eldership meant to each of them individually and as a group. It was a period of conscious evolvement of the concept of being an Elder.

The second Elders Circle was held at again in Numinbah Valley on a cold and wet weekend in March 2012. This gathering had a different feel – only in part due to the inclement weather. While 2011 was an initial organising and formation point, this was consolidation, more heart space …. moving in a more unhurried manner …. acknowledging that Eldership was still a “work in progress”. The result was a rich and rewarding weekend during which five new Elders were elected and welcomed into the community.

At ensuing Elders Circle meetings, it was agreed that the Elders would be of Service to the Mens Wellbeing community, express Gratitude for what they have and strive to live lives of Ease and Grace. Hence the four tenets of Service and Gratitude, Ease and Grace would be held to reflect the values and conduct of the Eldes Circle. They became the Four Pillars of Eldership for Mens Wellbeing Elders. Being rather than doing, guiding rather than directing, listening rather than telling, delving into themselves to find the makings of their Elder inside became the aspirational conduct of the Elders.

Michael Mee has espoused that the Elders are not a homogeneous group. They each enjoy and express Elderhood in unique ways, both within the Mens Wellbeing community and the wider society.

Mentor of September 2011 noted reflections of some of the original inducted Elders:

Ross Thompson: Eldership can often be just sitting in calm awareness in the middle of activity and chaos, perceiving and feeling the heart of the matter, witnessing how this affects me and sharing these insights.

Alan Blackburn: The elder gives freely and unconditionally to the community they serve. Their role is to mediate, mentor the young and give love and understanding when required.

John Callanan: There is no definition of a MW Elder, only perceptions of what that is.

Tony Groom: I feel like a conduit, passing on the wisdom, advice, experience and stories that have been given to me so generously over the years. It feels like a very calm stage of life when the striving and getting is finished and I can be still and give as much as I can.

It is an often-expressed notion that Eldership is an ongoing “work in progress” with recurring themes of What is an Elder? What do we do? How do we do it?

As the years progressed the Elders have become more visible within the Mens Wellbeing community through:

  • A significant presence at the annual Manshine and Manhood gatherings
  • A good sprinkling of presence as Tribal Group Leaders at these gatherings
  • A significant presence of Elders on the Mens Wellbeing Executive Committee
  • An undertaking of at least one Elder on each of the Manshine and Manhood Organising Committees
  • Hosting of the annual Bedrock gathering for experienced men
  • Stewardship of the annual Golden Stick award (originated by Alex Robey) by Elders Hunter Reed and Paul Mischefski
  • Participation in the regular Journey to Manhood camps conducted by Powerhouse Programs, an affiliated organisation

Elders Circle

The Elders endeavour to meet once or twice a year (apart from Bedrock) as a group for a period of connection and mutual support embodying their Elderhood within the Mens Wellbeing community and the wider society, and visioning how they might show up as Elders to support the activities of Mens Wellbeing during the coming year. Many Elders look forward to this opportunity of reconnection and re-bonding with their co-Elders.

The Elder Coordinator is an informal position which takes on a role of liaison between the Elders Circle and the Executive Committee as well as maintaining connection within the Circle.

Honorary Elder – Warren Farrell

In 2013, Mens Wellbeing was host agency for the Australian Men’s Health Forum’s National Men’s Health Gathering at the Brisbane Convention Centre. Noted American author Dr Warren Farrell (author of The Myth of Male Power and The Boy Crisis) was the keynote speaker.

Chris Johnson, Warren Farrell & Paul Mischefski

Following the conference, Dr Farrell was hosted on a visit to The Rock Bush Retreat by the Elders Circle and was initiated as an honorary Elder of Mens Wellbeing.

On a previous Brisbane visit in 1994, Warren Farrell unofficially launched the Men’s Help Line while conducting a radio book launch interview (see Chapter 7).

National Eldership Gathering

In October of 2014 the Mens Wellbeing Elders Circle rejoiced in hosting the bi-annual National Eldership Gathering (NEG) in the misty mountains at Camp Bornhoffen in the Numinbah Valley. The mountains and forest made a spectacular backdrop for an intimate gathering of 35 men, aged 50 and over, from various parts of Australia and New Zealand.

With more than a year of planning by a committee comprising Rob Clarke, Gary Cox, Dean Olafsen, Paul Mischefski, Hunter Reed and Peter Rohan, the NEG program presented a three-part discussion forum on what it means to embrace Eldership – The Self, The Community, Doing It.

The gathering took on a deeper perspective on spirituality, with open space discussion groups exploring issues such as unexplained synergies that occur with focus of purpose, understandings around working with ancestors and discussing the process around death, passing over and dealing with the grief and loss of loved ones.

Invited guest speakers added new dimensions to the gathering with William Diplock sharing vast experience and processes in men’s spirituality and Rev Ian Mavor telling of his experiences in health work and directing a hospice. A keynote discussion forum over three days explored the journey of Eldership through three distinct stages and gave men a lot of clarity in their own journey.

Saturday night’s formal dinner was graced by featured guest speaker, Ron Clarke OAM, a renowned Olympian and former Gold Coast mayor whose anecdotes added greatly to the evening’s amusement.

On Monday, the call for men ready to step forward and be inducted as Elders was answered by eight men who were ceremonially presented with their spiral pendants by Elder Chris Johnson.

Along came Bedrock

With beautiful Spring weather at The Rock – warm days and cool nights – some 40 men bunked and camped on the weekend of September 18-20 2015 for the inaugural Bedrock Men’s Gathering.

It was at a meeting in January 2015 that the Elders Circle resolved to hold the first Bedrock in later 2015 and experienced men of all ages would be invited to attend.

As beautifully put by Elder Terry Bishop:

Bedrock was conceived from the beginning to be more open, more spontaneous, more creative and with a bit more of an edge than the other Open Ground gatherings. So, it is a bit riskier, with fewer safety nets, more chances to mess it up, and a more compelling invitation to contribute from the deepest part of you.

Bedrock is a smaller, more intimate and unique gathering sponsored by the Mens Wellbeing Elders Circle. The weekend is very much influenced by the Elders’ Four Pillars of Ease and Grace, Service and Gratitude. In action, this has led to Bedrock being less structured than the larger gatherings. Men who have completed either Common Ground or attended one of Mens Wellbeing’s other Open Ground gatherings are welcome to attend with a maximum of 50 participants.

Men at the first Bedrock in 2015

In fact, the Rock has become something of a spiritual home for the Elders through the staging of the Bedrock event. Over three nights and days, Elders and other men come together for an exploration of the nature of Elderhood, for sharing and discussion of elder matters with a lack of fanfare lending itself to a meaningful and intentful gathering. In essence the Elder’s group is about Elders supporting Elders in a similar way to Mens Wellbeing being about men supporting men.

Bedrock has also become the event where men who are feeling called to Eldership can have that conversation and if the energy is there, step into Eldership within the community and their own lives. This can prove to be a powerful next step for men who have come to that place in their journey. This has become a process imbued with its own sense of sacredness, reverence and ritual for all who are present – whether participant or witness.

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