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Aging Is a Curriculum: How to Shift From Role to Soul

Jungian-oriented therapist Connie Zweig explains the inner work of aging.

Key points

  • Aging is a curriculum for the soul.
  • Getting to know one's shadow helps with conscious aging.
  • Negative images of retirement can affect physical health.
  • Our stories can obstruct self-awareness and keep us stuck in the past.

Connie Zweig, Ph.D., is a retired Jungian-oriented psychotherapist who specializes in shadow work as well as creative and spiritual issues. In her latest book, The Inner Work of Age: From Role to Soul, she offers a radical reimagining of age for all generations, how to attune to your soul's longing, and emerge renewed as a Wise Elder.

As the former executive editor of J. P. Tarcher, Inc., Zweig has written for numerous publications, including Esquire and The Christian Science Monitor, and is the co-author of the bestselling anthology Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature among others. Zweig is also the founder of The Institute for Shadow-work and Spiritual Psychology in the Los Angeles area, as well as a longtime spiritual practitioner.

In this conversation, we spoke about the epidemic of internalized ageism, how shadow knowledge helps evolve, and what it means to shift from role to soul in our later years.

Mark Matousek: In your new book, you write, “Age is our curriculum.” Can you say more about that?

Connie Zweig: Aging is grist for the mill, the curriculum through which we can actually continue our development. As our bodies and minds age, we experience losses or diminishment unique to each of us. With that, comes the opportunity to use these changes for our inner work through spiritual practices that fit our lives now. The curriculum includes staying creative and digging deep into our own life experience.

MM: You talk about the importance of accepting life as it is. Why is this so difficult, and why is this mandatory for integration and transformation?

CZ: Breaking through denial is the first step in shadow work — in a larger framework, the first step in recognizing reality. The shadow is like a dark room in which all of our unconscious fears, fantasies, and images lie dormant. Shadow work is the process of bringing those images into the light.

If I believe I'm going to live forever as I did as a youth, then I'm in denial. If I believe I can do anything now that I could do before, then I'm in denial. I call this character in us the 'inner ageist.' It's the part of us that defends against wanting to know the whole truth of aging.

Denial is epidemic because our culture is so youth-oriented. There is no cultural acknowledgment of the limitations that might come with age or of the shortened time horizon. One of the big shifts since the pandemic is that many people gained what I call 'mortality awareness.' The pandemic kind of woke people up.

MM: There's a memoir called Travels With Epicurus by Daniel Martin Klein in which he talks about the “forever youngsters.” These are older people desperately trying to stay relevant and desirable.

CZ: We are taught in the West that it's only positive to be young, strong, and independent. Therefore, the opposites of those qualities become unconscious beliefs that it is bad to need other people, to have limitations, and to stop rushing about in busy-ness. Those beliefs can create incredible disturbances and unhappiness for us later in life.

MM: What can we do specifically to counter the feeling of becoming less important, even invisible, as we age?

CZ: Millions of baby boomers are starting new entrepreneurial ventures, volunteering, and mentoring to contribute in some way. This is fine, but late-life in other cultures around the world calls for self-reflection and spiritual practice. If we keep ourselves busy because we're afraid of becoming irrelevant, and that fear is unconscious, then we miss the opportunity to slow down and self-reflect. We miss the opportunity to change pace, let go of outworn roles and uncover a new identity.

MM: When I spoke to James Hillman years ago, he talked about the adventure of slowness. How sometimes getting in and out of the bathtub is just as heroic as climbing a mountain.

CZ: Hillman wrote extensively about 'the eternal youth.' If we remain identified with that, then we can't make the internal shift psychologically into becoming an elder.

MM: You write that 'emotional repair' is an important part of the inner work of aging?

CZ: There are developmental tasks to shift from hero to elder. What I call 'role to soul' means leaving behind the identity of our work roles to identify with soul. These developmental tasks include emotional repair. Most of the people I interviewed while writing this book felt identified with a wound or emotional story, which isn't going to allow them life completion in a peaceful way.

Many people want to give forgiveness or to be forgiven. That requires inner work and also interpersonal work. A lot of people in our generation have been in therapy and done a lot of this work, but they haven't done it in the context of impending death, and that changes things. If you allow that idea to penetrate you, it changes the emotional repair work.

MM: Many don't realize that they're living in a self-perpetuating fiction, a narrative of their own making. How does waking up from our story change the aging process?

CZ: There's a level of spiritual development in which the narrative self becomes noise in the mind. But when we meditate, we can experience deep silence. If you are a Buddhist, you could call it emptiness. Give it whatever name you want—the higher self, or pure awareness if you wish—it's the experience of vast inner silence.

Our stories block our experience of pure awareness. When stories arise in meditation, you begin to have a different relationship to them. As an elder, you have this opportunity to move your unconscious identification from the story level to a more essential spiritual identity, which you can't do if you're unconsciously identified with the narrative.

MM: Let's talk about the shadow in aging. How does our relationship to shadow shift our attitude toward aging and youth?

CZ: Research from Yale University shows that if you have an unconscious image of a senile person watching television all day, that has physical, emotional, and cognitive consequences on your health as you age. If you have unconscious or repressed negative images of retirement in the shadow—outside of your awareness—you have a shorter lifespan. That was startling to me.

What I’ve tried to do is uncover patterns, images, feelings, and thoughts that are prevalent in our culture about aging. When you can form a shadow character that was previously unconscious, then you can have a conscious relationship with it, and choose not to let it control you.

The length of time between retirement and frail old age can be, for some people, as long as the time from childhood to adulthood. What do we do with all that time? Traditional reinvention is about doing more, continuing the empire building. But reinventing our identity must include being able to let go of the ego’s agenda. The empire of the self. This has to do with letting go of outcomes, with a sense of flow, and with a sense of interconnectedness and purpose that's larger than ourselves.

This spiritual work is the deeper purpose of our lives and is also our preparation for death. We all want to die without regret, so why not explore who we really are beyond our outworn roles and personas? If we reinvent more doing, the risk is that we step into another role.

Shifting from role to soul is ongoing and takes attention. As we let go of the ego’s agenda and make this shift of identity, we will be creative in a different way. For example, this book came to me very differently than earlier books. I allowed myself to trust that life would carry this book out into the world. There was a rhythm to the creative practice that had less push to it, that was less effortful.

MM: How do you recommend developing a more creative outlook on life?

CZ: For some people, the connection to the natural world is really important in late life. For others, creative networking through service or activism is a way to feel less alone. There are all kinds of opportunities to serve because there's so many communities in need.

We can reframe our effectiveness in these extra years by doing these things alongside our inner work so that we're not doing them unconsciously, or with the superiority and self-righteousness we had in our youth.

MM: Finally, how does spiritual practice help with accepting mortality?

CZ: In my lineage, the practice is, 'I am not this body, I am not this mind.' I have also added, 'I am not this story.' In other words, my 'Connie-ness' will pass. There's a beautiful book by Thích Nhất Hạnh called The Blooming of a Lotus that offers accessible mindfulness practices about impermanence. I highly recommend it.

If you aren't inclined toward spirituality, I would suggest cultivating a simple mortality awareness. Ask yourself, What would allow you to die in peace? What would allow you to die without regret? And then, see if there's something you can do to actually allow that to happen. You may be surprised by what you discover.

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