Let death be what takes us, not lack of imagination.
— Dr. BJ Miller
A few weeks ago, former astronaut/engineer Eugene Cernan died. He was the last of the 12 humans (thus far) to set foot on the moon. He grew up in Maywood and Bellwood and graduated from Proviso Township High School (now Proviso East) and Purdue University. The Cernan Earth and Space Center at Triton is named for him.
A year ago, former astronaut/physicist Edgar Mitchell died. He was the sixth human to walk on the moon. On his way back to earth, as he looked out the spacecraft window and saw that glorious blue marble we call Earth floating against the stark black background, Mitchell had an “a-ha” moment, also known as a noetic experience. He realized, to the depth of his soul, the interconnectedness of all things.
Upon his return to earth, Edgar Mitchell founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), a vehicle to help bridge science and spirituality. Today, IONS continues to conduct evidence-based research into non-traditional scientific investigations. About five years ago, IONS created, developed, tested and rolled out the Conscious Aging Workshops program. About two years ago, I became a trained facilitator for these workshops.
How can we reframe our views about aging and dying? How can we, as Dr. BJ Miller queries, “allow life to play itself all the way out, so that rather than just getting out of the way, aging and dying can become a process of crescendo through to the end?”
In other words, how can we live well?
The IONS Conscious Aging Workshops program addresses these kinds of questions. It is a series of eight 2-hour sessions, each dealing with a specific topic, including self-compassion, life review, forgiveness, death makes life possible, and creating a new vision of aging. Sessions are organized around small-group and large-group discussions, presentations, journaling, readings and sitting quietly.
A few months ago, a program coordinator at the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) contacted IONS regarding the Conscious Aging Workshops. Because the aging prison population is burgeoning and because the federal prison bureaucracy is way behind this curve, there is interest in bringing these IONS workshops to BOP facilities.
In 2016, The U.S. Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General (OIG) authored a review titled, “The Impact of an Aging Inmate Population on the Federal Bureau of Prisons.” Among the OIG findings: inmates 50 and older are the fastest growing and most expensive segment of the BOP inmate population; the BOP does not provide programming opportunities designed specifically to meet the needs of aging inmates; and the physical infrastructure of BOP institutions limits the availability of appropriate housing for aging inmates.
After focused and enthusiastic negotiations, starting this week I am facilitating a first-of-its-kind pilot Conscious Aging Workshops program for aging prisoners at a federal prison facility in Massachusetts. I am humbled and excited by this opportunity.
Last year, IONS asked me to think about why Conscious Aging Workshops across the country and around the globe are attended mostly by women. The participants in my pilot prison program are all male. So starting later this month, I will facilitate an all-male Conscious Aging Workshops program here in Oak Park. It will run parallel to the incarcerated program in Massachusetts. I hope to generate experience and data about similarities and differences between the two groups. I also hope to learn more about increasing male participation in the workshops in general.
If you are male, age 50 or above, and have any interest in participating in this one-time Oak Park program, please contact me (email@example.com).
Marc Blesoff is a former Oak Park village trustee, co-founder of the Windmills softball organization, co-creator of Sunday Night Dinner, a retired criminal defense attorney, and a novice beekeeper. He currently facilitates Conscious Aging Workshops and Wise Aging Workshops in the Chicago area.