As a therapist of 25 years, an author of five books, a wife and grandmother, and a meditation practitioner of 50 years, I live with deep gratitude. Each week, I receive emails from around the world thanking me for my books about shadow-work. And I know that I have touched thousands of lives.
Each week, I share intense intimacy with my clients and guide them where others fear to tread — into the Shadow, the dark cavern of their minds that contains their unconscious thoughts and feelings, forbidden dreams and fantasies. We explore this foreign land and discover the roots of their denial, resistance, self-sabotage, addiction, inner Critic. And I feel privileged to witness them alter deeply-ingrained patterns and overcome persistent obstacles.
But for the past year, as I entered my 69th year of life experience, I noticed a restlessness, a stirring that I had felt several times before at the end of a cycle and the beginning of another. I began to be aware that I was approaching a threshold around work, although no one else in my friendship circle was using the R word. And, according to everything I read, most Baby Boomers either could not afford to or did not want to retire.
But after many years of learning how attune to myself and listen to my inner voices, I heard: “I wonder what else I could do with my time left? I wonder what I need to stop doing?” “I think I should do more. I think should do less.” “I don’t want to travel.” Then I book more trips. “I want to slow down.” Then my calendar fills up.
As I reflected on these internal contradictions, I became aware that many of my internal parts were in conflict, their voices a choir of dissension. I felt disoriented as I imagined life without work, as a late-life identity crisis appeared on the horizon. And I thought of Shakespeare: to retire or not to retire?
Then, the most essential question arose: Who am I — if I’m not a writer, Dr. Connie, a therapist, the shadow expert? What would it mean to let go of my roles, my brand? What stops me from stopping?
I knew I carried an internal pressure To Do, and I wanted relief from that pressure. But when I had slowed down in the past, or even anticipated slowing down, I had felt my self-worth slipping, my contribution lacking. In our manic, consumer, achievement-oriented culture, I, too, had identified with my doing, my accomplishments, my full calendar. They pushed me through my days, and I felt well-being at dusk if I had been productive, if my gifts had been well used.
Not totally true. I also felt well-being when I sat in meditation at dusk, cross-legged, eyes closed, still. This has been my practice for 50 years, so there was one exception to the Doing=Well-being formula that was embedded in my life experience.
But what if I am no longer the Doer? I can’t meditate all day (though, I must admit, I had loved long meditation retreats in the past.)
What else stops me? My father had retired in his 50’s and spent his days playing bridge and going to lunch. My mother and grandparents provided no role model of wise elder as activist in service or spiritual mentor. Ok, so my internal images of old age were ageist: useless, irrelevant, dependent, and unhappy. That’ll stop me from stopping!
But as I worked with my inner ageist, hidden in my shadow, I knew, at the same time, that I was a child of the 1960’s and 70’s — and we reinvented everything, from music to work to relationships to parenting to healthcare to spirituality. So, my retirement would not be my father’s retirement. I could reinvent that too!
As I imagined letting go of both the responsibility and the intimacy of the role of therapist, I heard another inner voice saying, “You need an initiation.” Like most people in late life, I didn’t know what this meant or where to turn. Perhaps it was about letting go of the Doer or reinventing the Doer in some way.
Over many years, I had learned to follow that intuitive voice, so I began to seek its meaning for me. When I picked up Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi’s From Age-ing to Sage-ing, I found myself beginning to understand my restless yearning and to contemplate this stage of life in a new way.
These kinds of life transitions demand that we change more than our roles or outer activities. When we step across a threshold to become an adult, change careers, marry or have children, divorce, or suffer a serious illness, we also change archetypes — we step into a new life pattern. For most people, this is not a conscious process because our society doesn’t offer adult rites of passage to become Elders.
But with retirement this shift in archetypes occurs when the obvious roles and responsibilities fall away, the structure of our days dissolves, and the people who formed our teams and work families go on without us. At a deeper level, the ego’s lifelong identity of Doer is shattered, and a primary source of meaning and purpose is lost.
Those of us who are more extroverted and hear the call to serve others will find many opportunities now for encore careers, service projects, intergenerational mentoring, and our long-dormant creative fantasies. More than 12 million of us are encore entrepreneurs, putting our experience to work for the greater good. And others, perhaps more introverted, will be more drawn to inner work, spiritual practice, creativity, grandparenting.
Reb Zalman’s book gave me a framework that oriented me to the developmental tasks of this time. I knew that I didn’t need to add more psychological work or meditation to my regime. Rather, I needed to apply my life’s lessons to my stage of life, to my inner ageism, to my retirement, to my past illness, to my emotional unfinished business with friends and family, to a life review, to completing my legacy, and to facing death. I heeded the call and began the year-long training with Sage-ing International to become a Sage or Elder.
As I read widely in these arenas, I found the stats alarming: There are 77 million of us Boomers, and 10,000 reach retirement age every day! More than half of us financially support adult children and plan to work past 65. The suicide rate for American men 75+ is soaring. Very old women of color are the poorest of the poor. (I am acutely aware of my privilege here — the opportunity even to explore letting go of my income.)
For many, the workplace was like a battlefield. And the departure from work is like returning from war after decades of power struggle, adversarial relationships, and heroic sacrifice. Even if we do financial retirement planning, no one is guiding us to do emotional or spiritual retirement planning — to explore who we are beyond work.
I also observed that no one was writing or teaching about the shadow issues that were so obvious to me, the unconscious material that erupts around losing our roles, losing our loved ones, losing control of our bodies, losing our faith. And the denial, resistance, and distraction that arises with these changes.
No one was asking the tough inner questions: What is the role that no longer serves you? How is your identity tied to that role? Who are you if you are not that role? What has been sacrificed to maintain that role? What has been lost to the role that can be reclaimed now?
What is your fantasy of the future? Do you want to work until you can’t? Are you drawn to serve others? Are you drawn to a spiritual or contemplative practice? What stops you from engaging in service or meditation?
With those questions posed, I knew that my legacy was not complete. I needed to write The Reinvention of Age to continue to guide readers to orient more deeply to their inner worlds in this challenging and promising stage of life. To guide Baby Boomers, like myself, past their denial and fears to reinvent age for themselves. And, in that way, I reinvented my retirement. My mission is to redefine “age” and to help other Baby Boomers reinvent it for themselves..
The original title of my book was Meeting the Shadow of Age because I envisioned it as the fourth book in my series on the Shadow. But my new literary agent said, No, we can’t sell or promote it as a “shadow book.” So, deep breath, letting go of Dr. Connie and “shadow expert” at the same time.
She also said that I needed to get onto social media — big ugh! This one took a while. I had always been uncomfortable with self-promotion, so had done little of it. With the advent of social media, it looked to me as if narcissism had free reign. (Sorry for the judgment.) On the other hand, I liked the idea of taking up the challenge to learn something that others seemed to find valuable and to develop an aptitude that remained so undeveloped in me.
I hired a 17-year-old high-school girl in my neighborhood to teach me social media. I loved the experience of being mentored by a young person and, before long, I was overcoming a phobia of Clicking and having fun on Facebook and Twitter — to my husband’s surprise.
So, for me, retiring from clinical practice is not what I imagined. I suspected that, with the gain of freedom, there also would be loss. I would feel less needed and important for a while. I would feel less secure and more uncertain for a time. I would feel less independent with the loss of income from therapy. As my husband continues to work, it will change our partnership.
And I would lose the vehicle, the clinical relationship, in which to transmit all that I’ve learned from my own inner work, intellectual development, and spiritual growth to others. And it means retiring a practice of love, a spiritual practice that has connected me to the depths of the human soul and to the journey of the human species. It has been a privilege.
But I’m not suggesting that this turning is easy after a lifetime of doing, building, creating, achieving. Our ability to retire the Doer, the Dominator, the Competitor, the Provider, that is, to stop identifying with them as who we are, is greatly enhanced when we meditate and experience pure awareness. A quiet mind helps us to watch the fears of uncertainty as they arise and to release the compulsive need to do more that no longer serves us.
It’s my intention to continue to contribute without the internal pressure of the Doer driving me from within. Instead, I will find a new rhythm and reinvent this stage of life for myself.
When I wake up now, I breathe into the open space and look around in wonder. I am no longer a role. I’m retiring the past. I’m retiring the future. I’m practicing Presence. I’m crossing the threshold from role to soul.
Check out https://www.sage-ing.org/
Center for Conscious Eldering – support for realizing your potential in the elder third of life support for realizing your potential in the elder third of life www.newsite.centerforconsciouseldering.com
Originally published at medium.com