When you’re going through shit, who do you turn to? When things get hard and you need direction, who do you turn to? Do you have someone who will listen and also tell you the hard truths? Do you turn to anyone at all?
In a culture like this one, it seems like our ancient “community” instinct — to seek help or guidance from our elders or mentors — often gets hijacked by the latest book, podcast, or Instagram guru who’s promising something faster, easier, or somehow “permanent”. I’m sure you’ve seen the ads.
And if there’s one thing I’ve learned working in this industry, it’s that those things are not nearly the end of the story. For example, knowing what the “Five Steps to Getting Over Your Ex” are and actually doing the work are two very different things!
But there’s something else we bump into when we move past just “knowing” something, and it’s much, much deeper. It’s in this mysterious, numinous space — the place of felt, integrated, embodied wisdom — that elders and elderhood tend to live their entire lives. It’s only from this embodied space that you can begin to truly integrate and metabolize everything you’ve learned.
In my opinion, accessing this space requires some guidance, the same way you’d hire an experienced guide when climbing a mountain or search for a business mentor who understands everything including failure. I’m proud to say much of my education has been through the guidance of elders and mentors. And like all good students of wisdom, I still seek these people out as often as I can. Every time I do, I come back with priceless gifts.
So, I want to share with you how to identify people in your own life who embody the kind of wisdom you need in the moments you need them most
Have a look at the people in your life who seem to have attained a wisdom you might not have or understand. Who’s already in your network? Secondly, ask yourself: is there someone in your life you could be learning from differently? Start defying the default way you categorize people.
I’ll use my own life as an example. One of the first genuine elders I encountered was one I’d hired as a singing teacher, back when I was training my voice in university. He was a deeply intelligent person, but I’d categorized him as “just” a singing teacher. When I hit rock bottom, he morphed our lessons into talks on Buddhism, Jungian psychology, neurolinguistic programming, and a lot of brutal honesty about where I was at and why.
In my case, he defied what I thought he was, so I want to save you the trouble and ask you now: defy your own judgment of people when seeking an elder or mentor. There could be one in your contact list already.
Consider the Crisis
Elders and mentors have a weird way of showing up in your life exactly when required. Or, they may have been in your life for a while, but their words will only land when they match the crisis. Generally, this means that a good time to seek out an elder is when you’re going through a major transition. Things like…
- Moving cities or changing careers
- Relational breakdowns (recurring conflicts or sexless marriages, for example)
- The 2020-21 Special: returning to the workplace (or abandoning a toxic one)
- Grief, loss, and death
- Spiritual questioning or spiritual crisis
You do have to search, but you often won’t have to look too far; the combination of what you need to hear and what you’re going through will (in a sense) allow you to notice potential mentors/elders. It’s similar to how someone who’s hungry is primed to see food.
Understand that Timing is Everything
In the case of elders, you don’t always need their help. That would defeat their purpose. So, when should you seek elder support? The honest answer is this: when you feel the call and know you’re open to that kind of guidance.
It’s a similar case for mentorship. What may be encountering in your relationship, business, or personal growth is a hurdle that you are required to leap over. If it’s an issue that seems to happen over and over again, then it may be time to seek out the lived experience of a mentor.
Be Comfortable Being Uncomfortable
How do you approach someone like an elder or mentor? First off, assume positive intent. The kind of wisdom you get from someone in this position will most likely kick your ass psychologically, but it will come from a positive place. It’s like a storm that brings rain to a desert.
Secondly, be clear and direct in your ask. In my experience, someone who carries elderhood in their veins will be direct as well, since they have given up the need to “beat around the bush”. And, if they can’t help you they probably know someone who can.
Finally, in Western culture, we have a weird entitlement around learning. We want to be taught “our way”. Assume a real elder or mentor likely won’t give a shit about your comfort zone; they’ll teach you the way you need to be taught. I’m speaking from experience!
The wisdom you get from an elder will almost always feel like a shower in glacier water. It likely won’t soothe you, it may even anger you. But it will also feel like the sanest advice you’ve ever heard.