Shifting from Hero to Elder and Role to Soul: An Interview with Connie Zweig, Ph.D.

Posted by Angela Borda on Oct 26, 2021 4:02:16 PM

Connie Zweig, Ph.D., an alumna of Pacifica, well-known for her books on the Shadow, has just published The Inner Work of Age: Shifting from Role to Soul. She will be hosting Pacifica’s symposium on The Inner Work of Age: Shifting from Role to Soul, November 12-14, 2021.

You can find information and registration here.

BOOK COVER final (2)Angela: I’m delighted to be speaking with you today, Connie. You’re a published author with several books to your credit, among then, Meeting the Shadow and Romancing the Shadow, and Meeting the Shadow of Spirituality. From this, I take it that the shadow is central to your work. People often refer to “shadow work” as examining those parts of ourselves that we aren’t comfortable with or wish to hide. What is the shadow to you, and how does it relate to Depth Psychology?

Connie: Carl Jung coined the term “shadow” to refer to our personal unconscious. One of his many gifts was the insight that anything at all can be repressed into the shadow. For Freud, there was only dark or negative material in the unconscious. But for Jung, anything could be banished into the shadow, including our early aptitudes and gifts. So, the shadow is like a darkroom that contains our dormant images, thoughts, and fantasies. Shadow work is the process that brings them back to life. And we know now that the mind and body are functionally identical, so the shadow is not some corner in the mind that we can’t see. The shadow material is in our cells, our muscles, nerves. That shapes our responses to life, and it colors our experiences of our circumstances at every moment.

As an example, if we grow up in a family where anger is forbidden and only happiness results in love and approval, then our anger is going to be stuffed away into the shadow. This defense protects us from punishment or shame or disapproval. But as we become adults, if we can’t become angry, we can’t have authentic relationships. We can’t even feel moral indignation because anger is taboo. Or let’s say that, in childhood, sadness was forbidden. You might learn not to feel or express sorrow and grief. As a result, you form a shadow character that protected you from disapproval or punishment in childhood. But it sabotages you later from feeling the full range of emotions. Or perhaps your parents valued academic performance but not artistic gifts, and you’re naturally a painter or a musician. You can’t develop that gift because there’s no support for it. Frequently, in midlife or in late life, these hidden dreams and talents resurface from the shadow. For people who are fortunate, we can reclaim those gifts.

My first book, Meeting the Shadow, is a collection of voices about the shadow in politics, in art, in relationships. It’s an anthology. The next book, Romancing the Shadow, is about my method of shadow work and how to use it to work with self-destructive behaviors in friendships, relationships, at work. Meeting the Shadow of Spirituality is about meeting the dark side of spiritual teachers or communities and was written during the Catholic priest sexual abuse scandal.

Angela: You have a new book out, The Inner Work of Age: Shifting from Role to Soul, that explores the shadow in mid-life and beyond. What is the central thesis of your book, and how does it further the research in your first three books on Shadow?

Connie: It extends my work on the shadow into this later stage of life, because it turns out that our unconscious beliefs and fears about old age actually affect the way we experience it. This is classical Depth Psychology; our unconscious process beneath awareness is shaping our feelings, choices, and behaviors. There’s evidence now from Yale University that our fears and attitudes about old age affect our cardiac health, cognitive health, memory, emotional health, will to live, even our longevity. That’s what inspired me to write this book. If we can uncover what is in the shadow about age, what we’ve internalized about ageism, then we can influence it. If we can bring it into awareness, then we can make a conscious relationship with it and have a different experience of later life.

Angela: I understand that you retired from clinical practice and were initiated into Elderhood as a Certified Sage-ing Leader. Was that an actual initiation or rite of passage?

Connie: My book is organized around 10 or 12 shadow characters or unconscious inner obstacles that we carry as we enter midlife and beyond. Each of these internal obstacles has a developmental task that we can do to overcome them. As we do this depth psychological work, we move toward becoming an Elder. All of us become seniors with a Medicare birthday. But there’s no rite of passage to become an Elder, except in indigenous cultures. As I was contemplating retiring from clinical work, I discovered Sage-ing International. It’s a community of Elders that offers a one-year training to become a Sage or an Elder. For me, it was an experience of an initiation. I felt an internal shift, the realization of a new archetype, the nobility and authority of an Elder.

I didn’t grow up with positive models of Elders in my life. I was exposed to a lot of ageist messaging in television and movies in the 1950’s and 60’s. There were lot of patronizing comments about older people in my family. For me, the first inner obstacle was my own internalized ageism, a shadow character that I call the “inner ageist.” If you are carrying this unconscious figure, you can’t become an Elder because you’re rejecting yourself. You’re not recognizing the value of this stage of life. For me, that was the first recognition that I had internalized ageism from the culture.

There is a series of other developmental steps that I describe to become an Elder. For me, the Elder is a stage, not an age. It’s a developmental leap, rather than “I’m 70, so I’m an Elder.” Because there are people in their 70s and 80s who are rigid, bitter, stuck, and that’s not an Elder. It requires intention and inner work to make the leap. The practices I offer in the book include doing life review of the unlived life, letting go of the past, doing emotional repair in our relationships, and doing spiritual repair in our relationship to the divine, and doing the inner work of retirement to make this archetypal shift. I also offer many contemplative practices for centering and quieting the mind. It’s important to find one that fits who we are now.

Angela: It seems to me that our society has lost the ways of marking transitions for the last half of our lives. There are christenings, bar mitzvahs, sweet-sixteens, weddings, but very few for life after 65, except perhaps a retirement party or a 50th wedding anniversary. Is this part of what you are addressing in your writing?

Connie: There’s a lot of talk about rites of passage. But what does that really mean? There are three steps, in general, to a rite of passage: letting go, stepping into the unknown, and emerging renewed. In the context of this new, unprecedented longevity, with so many years remaining after our work life ends, it’s not a surprise we don’t have many rites for it. But how do we take the template and apply it now? We’re letting go of outworn rules and masks, personas, self-images. We’re letting go of the ego’s agenda to be productive, beautiful, and independent. There’s a lot of letting go that’s scary for people. It triggers the questions “Who am I?” If I’m not the provider or the CEO, the therapist, or the teacher, who am I? If I step into the unknown and let go of the trapeze behind me, is there a net? Who or what will catch me before I grab the next trapeze? It’s not an easy shift. That’s why community, rituals, teachers, books can all help.

For example, my husband and I just downsized, gave away many possessions, and moved to an apartment on the water. I kept saying to myself, “I’m not only downsizing my house, I’m downsizing my ego. I don’t need all that stuff anymore.” I found a freedom in it. Now, there’s a new beginning. We have a very different environment. We let go of the identification with the big house, the stuff, and the history that went with that stuff. We’re more in the present moment, freer to enjoy life in this new place. So developmentally, we can emerge on the other side of the threshold with a new beginning. To some people that might mean the end of paid work and more volunteering, grandparenting, or creativity. For people who are more introverted, it might mean more spiritual practice, meditation, and harvesting the lessons from the long life that we’ve lived. Or writing a memoir or making a video of our life story. There are many ways to interpret new beginnings.

There’s a deeper level to this too, which I call the shift from “Role to Soul.” This internal shift in identity from what we do to who we are, beneath the doing and the masks, is the precious gift of this time. I’ve been practicing meditation for 50 years now, and after the tidal wave from my book passes next year, I’m going to be prioritizing my meditation practice. The perennial traditions all teach us that contemplative practice is the purpose of this stage of life, and this internal archetypal shift in awareness is its fruit.

Angela: The last year and half has been a very difficult one for every segment of our society. Our Elders have been especially vulnerable. Before the pandemic, I’d already heard many Elders say that isolation was one of their greatest challenges, depending on their living and family situations. Now we’ve gone through a period where isolation was required for the preservation of our lives.

Connie: Isolation in the older population had been an epidemic issue for a very long time, but Covid made it more visible because the nursing homes were in the media, and older people are more vulnerable to the virus. So, the age segregation and isolation became more obvious. In baby boomers, there is high rate of substance abuse, depression, and suicide. Also, a high rate of poverty. But these institutional issues are not what the book is about. It’s a depth psychological approach to the inner world of age. And it links our inner work to our outer work on social and political issues. For instance, I write about how the “inner ageist” is connected to the anti-ageism movement in our world.

Angela: Pacifica is grateful to have you host the online symposium, The Inner Work of Age: Shifting from Role to Soul, November 12, 13, 14, 2021. Can you tell us a little about what we can look forward to at the three-day event?

Connie: The symposium was built around the themes of the book. The first day explores a depth psychological and mythological approach. I’ll open with how to explore the shift from role to soul. Thomas Moore will speak about the Fulfilled Elder. Chris Downing is going to talk about Mythological and Archetypal Images of Old Age. Dennis Slattery will present Aging as a Hero’s Journey. Clyde Ford will present Elder with An African Face: Wisdom and Aging in African Traditions. And I’ll present a visualization exercise to meet the Inner Elder.

Day 2 is about the inner work. I’m going to teach how to review the unlived life, adding the dimension of the shadow to the traditional life review. Lionel Corbett will explore Reimagining the God-image in Later Life. John Beebe will present Further Psychological Type Development Later in Life. Cydny Urbina Rothe will speak about Composting a Life: Soul-Making as We Age and Ready for Death.

Day 3 is a different format-- a panel on aging as a spiritual practice.

Buddhist teacher Anna Douglas will offer What the Buddha Taught. Next, we’ll have a panel about aging as a spiritual practice from five different spiritual traditions.

Angela: Is there anything else you would like to highlight that people can look forward to in your symposium?

Connie: We’re all aging. And if we’re fortunate, we’ll all grow old. The “inner ageist” forms when we’re young and shapes our experience through the lifespan. But if explore these shadow issues, we can change how we experience all stages of life. So, the book and symposium are not age-restricted at all. Every generation is going to have different circumstances in late life. But they all can take the opportunity to reimagine age for themselves. So, everyone is invited to the symposium. It’s also important for therapists to find the practices that will deepen and enhance their work with clients 50+. I have an 89-year-old friend who told me, “I don’t want to be with those old people, I’m not like them.” So, he’s in denial of his own age and projecting onto others his shadow issues about age, perpetuating ageism at 89!

Let’s do the inner work of age together.

Angela: Thank you, Connie.

Connie-Zweig Connie Zweig, Ph.D., is a retired therapist, co-author of Meeting the Shadow and Romancing the Shadow, author of Meeting the Shadow of Spirituality and a novel, A Moth to the Flame: The Life of Sufi Poet Rumi. Her new book, The Inner Work of Age: Shifting from Role to Soul extends shadow-work into late life and teaches aging as a spiritual practice. Connie is a Pacifica alum. She has been doing contemplative practices for 50 years. She is a wife and grandmother and was initiated as an Elder by Sage-ing International in 2017. After investing in all these roles, she is practicing the shift from role to soul.

Angela_1Angela Borda is a writer for Pacifica Graduate Institute, as well as the editor of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal. Her work has been published in Food & Home, Peregrine, Hurricanes & Swan Songs, Delirium Corridor, Still Arts Quarterly, Danse Macabre, and is forthcoming in The Tertiary Lodger and Running Wild Anthology of Stories, Vol. 5.

Topics: Pacifica Events, The Retreat at Pacifica