FORTHCOMING BOOK: Crossing the threshold into late life can feel like a high-wire act without a net. But, if you are retiring or rewiring, ill or caregiving, feeling purposeful or disoriented, yearning to serve or do spiritual practice, you can learn to cross over from denial to awareness, from distraction to presence, from role to soul.
I am extending my work into late life for Baby Boomers 50+ who want to move past denial, fear, and resistance to discover their dreams and opportunities for this stage of life. My mission: to redefine “age” and to help others reimagine and reinvent it for themselves, just as we reinvented politics, work, relationships, and spirituality. The Reinvention of Age: Mastering Late Life from the Inside Out will be released in 2019.
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I am blogging excerpts on Medium at https://medium.com/@conniezweig
Here are two gifts: a video of 2018 presentation on Meeting Spiritual Shadow: Darkness on the Path https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NpufAf2DFww&t=5s
A new interview about the Shadow and meditation on SpiritMatters podcast:
12-part online course: Meeting and Romancing Your Shadow — my complete body of work — continues on Spiritualityandpractice.com
NEW BLOG: Excerpts from The Reinvention of Age
Check out my Interview about Ram Dass’s new book with co-author Mirabai Bush: Walking Each Other Home
An Interview with Chant leader Krishna Das, Wizard Behind the Kirtan
Follow me there for all of the interviews with Spiritual Elders for my new book.
A Conversation with Spiritual Elder Anna Douglas, Buddhist Meditation teacher, co-founder of Spirit Rock Meditation Center
This is part of my series of interviews with Spiritual Elders for my forthcoming book, The Reinvention of Age.
After three decades of teaching mindfulness at Spirit Rock in Northern California and in Tucson, Az., Anna, at 78, has turned her attention to Buddhist teachings about age and death. In our conversation, I asked her why.
“I used to live in New York and observe older people sitting on benches in the park. It would annoy me. I would ask myself, “What’s wrong with them? Why don’t they do something. I had judgment. . . .Now I’m one of them.” (In my language, Anna had discovered her inner ageist.) She continued.
“The changes in my own body, brain, and energy level are more noticeable now, and I don’t want to do much. I don’t want to multi-task. I’m more easily satisfied with what’s here, now.
“Also, many Baby Boomers over 60 are coming to Spirit Rock for retreats, motivated by their suffering about ageing and seeking a practice and a framework to deal with it. So, there’s great consciousness raising when we’re in the room together.”
I asked her to explain how the Buddha’s teachings might help with the physical, mental, and emotional changes of late life. “We’re finding the dharma now to be less remote and more profoundly useful. As an example, let’s take the three marks or characteristics of existence: First, suffering is built into life. We want it to be different, we want a younger body. But our task is to accept that our physical aging is natural, not a failure.
“Next, impermanence: Everything is temporary. All physical and mental things are in flux, emerging and dissolving. Human life embodies this flux in the aging process of decaying and dying. But, again, we want it to be permanent, which creates a lot of suffering. So, our task is to see that it’s all impermanent and work toward accepting that truth.
“Third, we are empty, without an essential self. But we constantly seek a permanent sense of self in our longings, our work, our creations, our children. With aging, our roles and self-images disappear. Our contributions may lessen. The solid sense of self can be seen through more easily as transparent, empty.
“With aging, our suffering, impermanence, and emptiness become more real, more obvious. The root of it is in our identification with the body. But if we experience unconditioned mind or pure awareness in meditation, then we’re not so lost. Then we can find an opening to awakening. As the Buddha put it, ‘Though the body is sick, let not the mind be sick.’ That means, train the mind in well-being and just notice the passing forms in the world.”
I wondered aloud how mindfulness practice changes as we age. “Mindfulness is an invitation to do one thing– breathe, be present, notice. In late life, it becomes easier because we’re not so busy with our desires. Our longings have quieted down a bit. And our physical and mental activity slows naturally.”
Anna spoke about how her experience of teaching mindfulness has changed over the decades. “It’s taken a long time to find my voice as a woman in a patriarchal tradition. Now I have a sense of love and genuineness when I teach because my life experience and spiritual practice made me ripe. Aging settles us, makes us more authentic, which is what older people need — to become who we always were.”
“Has your sense of time changed?” I asked.
“This time is a rich period of practice. The future is not visible; it doesn’t exist. So, the work is not about the future. I’m feeling the gift of life, the blessing of experience,” she told me.
“And the biggest surprise for you?”
“When I look back and review my life now, I can see all of the plans and agendas that I tried to force into happening. But my ego’s agendas went nowhere. When I lived in Santa Monica and worked as a therapist, I just happened to see a flier for a talk by Joseph Goldstein. I walked into a small shed with ten people and heard the Four Noble Truths for the first time. I recognized it immediately as my path — and headed off to Barre, Massachusetts to the center there. When I returned to California and opened Spirit Rock together with the other teachers, it was a great adventure — and much better than anything I could have planned. I see now that things had to happen that way.”
I asked if she wanted to add anything about the dharma of aging.
“Stay in your seat to develop stability of mind, to keep from getting swept away by thoughts. And reflect on ownership — my and mine. So you practice letting go of thoughts, feelings, people, and things. Aging requires letting go, and meditation can help us to cultivate that practice.”
Anna is helping to shepherd new young teachers into Spirit Rock Meditation Center, so that the legacy continues. They offer Buddhist meditation courses to families, teens, women, men, and Baby Boomers.
To find her calendar of upcoming programs, click here: https://www.spiritrock.org/anna-douglas
BLOG: A Spiritual Life Review
with Father Thomas Keating:
When I interviewed Father Thomas Keating at age 95, from St. Benedict’s monastery in Snowmass, Colorado, he looked back on his life in the context of his changing relationship with the divine and “a growing consciousness of relationship with the mystery.” At age 5, Thomas had a life-threatening illness and heard the doctor say that he might die. So, he made a bargain with God: “Let me live to 21, and I’ll become a priest.”
As he recovered, he would sneak out of the house in the early mornings, before his parents awoke, to go to Mass. He loved these secret visits and joyfully watched the monks “talking to God.” Gradually, he disconnected from worldly concerns and knew that he, too, wanted to be a monk. To keep his promise to God.
His parents were dismayed, hoping he would become a lawyer and create financial security for a family. This created a rift in the family for many years, as Thomas felt unsupported in his vocation.
At Yale, he read Tolstoy’s controversial views of the Catholic Church and became disillusioned, realizing that it was not teaching the real Gospels. He delved into the mystics, St Teresa, St. John of the Cross, the desert fathers, and found Christian contemplative practices, which were not taught in seminaries and seemed to be lost since the Reformation. This discovery would open a way for him.
In his first spontaneous spiritual experience, Thomas felt “surrounded and penetrated by a powerful love.” He saw that the hay, the trees, the heat were emerging out of this reality. And it was all that mattered. The perception of that was all that mattered. Everything else lost meaning to him.
Thomas learned Transcendental Meditation and discovered a taste of silence. “Silence is God’s first language. Just keep quiet and find this out.”
Slowly, he became more austere and chose to become a Trappist, giving up contact with his family and the outside world. He felt their anguish, he told me, but needed to follow his calling.
In the monastery Thomas found that many people failed to mature because they had missed developmental steps and couldn’t integrate the spiritual energies that arose. “We can have a mystical experience at any stage of development. But if we have no guidance and no practice to heal our early emotional wounds, that energy is not digested. If you have high graces and mystical unions, but other lines of development are incomplete, then the shadow will appear even as you move forward spiritually.”
Thomas told me, “God calls us to interiority through the purification of unconscious traumatic wounds.” In my language, this means that our emotional suffering can lead us to therapy and self-reflection, as well as to spiritual practice.
For Thomas, this understanding meant that he needed to reconcile with his father. Eventually his father came to accept his son’s life choice and offered financial support for the monastery. “I saw new parts of him then. And I saw my failure to forgive him, even feel concern for him. I had wanted him to change to my script. Through this reconciliation with my father, I realized why forgiveness is at the center of Christianity.”
When I asked him about the purpose of long life, he said, “It gives us the opportunity to see ourselves with deeper honesty and transparency, to see through the false self. It’s different from St Benedict’s time in the 6th century, when the elders were 40. With 90 years, we can do purification and uncover unitive states. We can use old age for contemplative prayer, to surrender the ego, and abandon ourselves to God’s will.”
Spirit works in us when we let go of the obstacles to It, he continued. “It’s not about earning God’s love. It’s about looking inwardly for divine presence and allowing God’s love to flow into us. It’s always present, just hidden under debris. It’s not an image or a concept. It’s being free of thought, becoming everything. It’s the reverse of a hero’s success story.”
In this context, the things we give up or the things we might do are unimportant. Our personal history is unimportant. “The experience of God absorbs your faculties. Awareness without content is home. And the construction of a separate self is the radical problem of humanity.”
In 1984, drawing on ancient Christian practices with two other Trappist monks, he founded Contemplative Outreach and began to teach Centering Prayer, in which one chooses a word or symbol “to turn our will toward God and rest in the presence of that which is.”
Thomas urges us to move beyond method to a relationship with the divine. “It begins in prayer and meditation, it weaves itself into activity, and eventually we see it in everything. Then we feel awake in aliveness, as if we’re embraced and held by God.”
He also “transcended the bounds of the Church” by entering into world religious dialogue. “I wanted to use Catholic doctrine to speak universally. I saw Nature as the Book of Revelation – infinitesimal and immense. The spiritual journey does not require going anywhere because God is already with us and in us.”
Years later, no longer Abbot, he was free to meditate, write, and teach, becoming a spiritual Elder and modeling an inclusive, non-dogmatic, mystical Christian way. “The gift of living long enough is to pass through the phases of human development to higher levels of unitive consciousness. This gift has been given to us,” he told me. “It just is. We can bring ourselves into relationship with this reality. The only condition is consent – say Yes.”
Father Thomas lived his vow: to move into intimate relationship with the reality of divine. He passed away while I was writing this piece. My tears fell in loss and gratitude.
Many teachers and practitioners now carry on his work of teaching Centering Prayer. A beautiful documentary of Father Thomas’ life, “A Rising Tide of Silence,” is available on Amazon.
Dancing With the Shadow:
A Conversation With Connie Zweig
Interview originally published in Psychology Today
For the past 30 years, Dr. Connie Zweig has been a pioneer in fields of shadow work and meditation practice. The founder of the Center for Shadow Work and Spiritual Counseling of the AIWP, she received her doctorate in depth psychology, trained at the Los Angeles Jung Institute, and has been in private practice in Los Angeles for over two decades, helping thousands of people detect unconscious sources of secret feelings and behaviors, and transform them into positive, constructive patterns. Dr. Zweig is the author of A Moth to the Flame, and co-author of two seminal books in the field, Meeting the Shadow and Romancing the Shadow. We spoke recently about the secret wisdom to be found in the shadow, and how to bring mindfulness to our forbidden zones, as well as compassion, on the path to of authenticity.
Mark Matousek: How should we think about authenticity when the “self” is made up of so many inconsistent parts?
Connie Zweig: We have all had the experience of a shadow character or part of ourselves erupting in spontaneous anger, lying, greed, or feelings of jealousy. We recognize the eruption in a critical comment we don’t mean to make, or in a repetitive fight with our partner, or some unacceptable behavior we can’t understand. Those parts are in all of us, and they are formed in our childhood through what psychology calls “defenses.” Sometimes those parts are repressed and sometimes they are projected onto others, but these forbidden feelings are unacceptable to our self-image and typically denied by the ego. “That’s immoral—I’d never do that,” or “That’s impolite.”
Most people are aware that there is some part of them correcting other parts, but they may not be aware of a higher self or what we could call an intuitive self. It’s the part that allows us to come back into equilibrium, and learn how to observe the shadow parts. To observe and do shadow work, we need the experience of being centered in a higher self. That is why our spiritual practice is so pivotal.
Without space inside our minds to observe forbidden feelings and behaviors, they take over. When they do, we feel controlled and overshadowed by them. For example, the moment you feel road rage and flip the finger at another driver, you lose your center and capacity to witness. In your anger, you’re unconsciously identified with that shadow figure. My work is about teaching people how to break that resultant unconscious identification of “I’m bad,” or “I’m an angry person,” and come back to the center. They learn to have a relationship with that part, and dialogue with that part, in order to recognize that it is not the essence of who they are as spiritual beings. And in this way, they connect to their authentic selves.
MM: Are you saying that without the ability to witness our thoughts the identification with our shadow is too strong for us not to be caught in destructive behavior?