Life transitions demand that we change more than our roles or outer activities. They demand that we change from the inside out. With retirement, this shift happens 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 may be shattered, and a primary source of meaning and purpose is gone. It takes time to hear inner guidance for the next stage.
Last year, I noticed a feeling of restlessness, a stirring that I had felt several times before at the end of a cycle and the beginning of another — when I had stopped teaching meditation full-time but had no vision for a new career, when I had stopped writing journalism but didn’t know my next step, when I had left book publishing and decided to go to graduate school to become a therapist. Each time, I had entered liminal space because of a call to reinvent myself. Each time, a path appeared, with allies and guides and, eventually, a fulfilling destination.
Now, I was aware that I was approaching a threshold around work again, although no one else in my friendship circle was experiencing that urge. I listened to the inner voices: “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 I should do less.” “I don’t want to travel.” Then I book more trips. “I want to slow down.” Then my calendar fills up.
From Role to Soul
As I reflected on these internal contradictions, I became aware that, previously, I felt that I was left holding the relationship when a client stopped communicating without closure. Now, I could let it go. Previously, I looked forward to traveling from the Santa Monica mountains into my office in town. Now, I didn’t want to do the drive. Previously, I enjoyed traveling into others’ inner worlds. Now, I wanted more time to explore my own.
It wasn’t that I cared any less about my clients; in fact, I loved them deeply. Rather, it was that my attention was moving away from the work, and my heart was opening in other ways. What was it moving toward? I was hearing a call for a new orientation to time — less structure, more flow. A new orientation to responsibility — less obligation, more choice. A new orientation to service — from one-on-one therapy to teaching large groups. A new orientation to purpose — from role to soul.
First, I stopped accepting new clients. When they emailed, I took a breath, wished them well and referred them out.
A few months later, the opportunity came to give up my city office. I went for it — and the word “semi-retirement” came to mind.
With Freedom Comes Loss
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. As my husband continues to work, it will change our partnership and the way we care for one another. And I might feel less purposeful, a bit disoriented with the uncertainty. And, of course, I would lose the precious 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. It has been a sacred container to radiate my level of development to others, who willingly received it.
Of course, I cherish my clients. Aside from my husband and grandkids, who would I love with such fierceness? Who would receive my consistently positive gaze and devotion? That would be a terrible loss —and a potential gain, if I turned my loving gaze back to my family, friends and myself.
Finally, it will be a loss to give up the “brand” of shadow expert — and a gain to explore this new territory of mastering late life in my personal world and in my writing. With that last sentence I realized that, with retirement from clinical practice, I am not just writing a book, I am reinventing myself. Or, more accurately, life is reinventing me.
Honoring This Passage with Ritual
As I made the decision to cross the threshold from full-time paid work into retirement, I also made the decision to honor this passage. One night I gathered a circle of friends and colleagues around me to ritualize my retirement from clinical practice. I had never created a rite of passage before, but I had been seeing one in my mind’s eye.
I lit candles and lowered the lights. Then I lifted each of four white cards, one at a time, that had my careers written on them: meditation teacher, journalist, book editor, therapist. And I lifted the five books that I’ve written, which have been my gifts to the world.
I spoke for a bit about who might have been influenced by my work — the known influences, such as my meditation students and therapy clients, and the unknown influences, such as readers of the books I wrote or the 100 books I edited, whom I would never meet. And I acknowledged myself for the contributions of my gifts, allowing myself to feel the value of those years spent working.
I held up these symbols of my work, roles, and responsibilities and offered them to the world: “I bless and release you to find your way now.” And, letting go in my heart, I set them down.
I stood for a moment, then crossed a silver threshold on the floor, empty-handed, into empty space.
When I wake up now, I breathe deeply and look around in wonder. I can do or not do. I can meditate or exercise, check email or practice ukulele. Who am I, if I am not Dr. Connie, therapist helping others, bestselling author? Who am I, if I am not the Doer? It’s an age-old spiritual question and a perfect practice for me now.
I’m retiring the past. I’m retiring the future. I’m practicing presence. I’m reinventing age.
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