Midway in life’s journey, I found myself in a dark wood, having lost the way.
-The Comedy of Dante Alighieri
This perhaps an off-beat subject for GP, but one that affects everybody at some stage in life. It is also a slightly personal ramble through my own navigation through midlife. For me it started with a feeling of uneasy discontent…led to some of the biggest events in my life and ended with me heading in a direction far removed from the ambitions of my early life. Midlife for me was a traumatic change in perspective, a major upheaval in my personal life but ultimately a richly rewarding period during which I started to become comfortable with myself.
Italian psychologist Roberto Assagioli noted that there are two periods of particularly intense upheaval during life… ‘first, the tumultuous awakening of new tendencies at the time of adolescence, and second, the awakening of religious aspirations and new spiritual interests, particularly at middle age.’ Many others have also written about the particular learning opportunities presented by the so-called ‘midlife crisis’, which in my case, as I came to recognise much later, proved to be a crisis created by a loud call for some meaning in life.
I entered this threshold, in my late 40s after what had been an immensely successful and rewarding career, first as a journalist and later as a senior manager in a British media company. After more than 25 years of training, hard work and good timing, I found myself at the head of a publishing company employing around 1,500 staff with the prestige and financial rewards to match. By this time I had been married for nearly 25 years, had two teenage sons and a lifestyle that outwardly gave all the indications of security and success. But that security was proving to be very shallow as I approached my 50th birthday. I found myself increasingly restless with a deep anxiety and a feeling of utter discontent. Something seemed to be missing from my life but my usual way of dealing with difficulties, through a combination of intellectual effort and action, offered no answers or solutions. Distractions, which included working longer hours at the office and expensive holidays, also did nothing to eliminate the underlying unease.
In hindsight, I can see that I was taken by surprise during this transition. I thought it was being caused by unhappiness with my environment and frustration at being stuck in a career which no longer provided any satisfaction. I yearned for a complete change of direction in my professional and personal life and dreamed of adventures that would be unrestricted by responsibility and the fear of insecurity. In short I dreamed of becoming a teenager again, without any of the stifling self-imposed burdens acquired during a lifetime of acquisition and achievement. Carl Jung personally went through this crisis and wrote much about the shock felt by many of his clients.
‘Wholly unprepared, we embark upon the second half of life…we take the step into the afternoon of life; worst still, we take this step with the false assumptions that our truths and ideals will serve us as before. But we cannot live the afternoons of life according to the programme of life’s morning – for what was great in the morning will be little in the evening, and what in the morning was true will in the evening have become a lie.’
Assagioli also wrote about four critical stages which he related to disturbances arising during the process of spiritual growth. First an upheaval of normal living, often happening with no apparent cause and resulting in despondency, lack of meaning and purpose in life along with serious questioning. What he describes sounds very much like the ‘midlife crisis’ of popular language today. Second, a breakthrough – the ‘spiritual awakening’ – brings an emotional high. Third, the end of the initial high causes doubt, confusion and discouragement. Assagioli compares this effect to Plato’s account of the pain felt by prisoners in the cave when they first see the light. And fourth, acceptance of the transitory nature of the initial experience allows the start of a long process of restructuring the personality.
In my case, the disruption to ‘normal’ life first moved me into an isolated place where I became very withdrawn, deeply contemplative and started to read vast amounts of material from spiritual traditions like Buddhism and Vedanta. For the first time in my life I started to attend workshops in ‘New Age’ therapies, started a daily meditation practice, and spent time in retreats. This was strange behaviour from the man who had until then never shown any interest in religion or mysticism of any type. I am sure my family was bewildered by this and worried by my withdrawal into what must have seemed like a depressive state. Within three years, my wife had decided she could no longer live with me and we separated, ending a marriage that had lasted 26 years. At around the same time I decided to give up my job as Managing Director of a media company and to start working part time instead. I moved out of the family home and found my sanctuary in a small rented flat in south London. It would have been tempting to ward off my unhappiness by throwing myself into another career, start making more money and become busy in a familiar life of outward achievement. But this would have been the equivalent of digging myself deeper into the hole I was in. Is it an accident that the more we have conquered in the outer world, the more the disquiet of our inner world?
According to Jungian analyst Murray Stein, the goal of the midlife passage is to become more fully who we really are, to become more authentic. Stein states that the midlife transition and crisis involves ‘making (the) crucial shift from persona-orientation to Self-orientation’ and he outlines three stages of this rite of passage: separation, liminality and reintegration.
‘At midlife there is a crossing over from one psychological identity to another. The self goes through a transformation…Midlife is a crisis of the spirit. In this crisis, old selves are lost and new ones come into being.’
In Jungian terms, this urge to break from old routines is really an outward expression of the ‘separation from the youthful persona’. This is the shift from a persona-orientation to a Self-orientation, and according to Stein, is ‘critical for growth as a whole, because it is the change by which a person sheds layers of family and cultural influences and attains to some degree of uniqueness in his [her] life. As we begin to see ourselves more clearly, and the urge to find and express a new sense of self becomes pressing, we feel the need to free ourselves of the attachments of the past, and to begin building a new identity. The man at midlife who takes up motor bike riding, or the woman at midlife who embarks on a solitary camel trek across the desert, are both expressing this innate urge to find one’s Self. In Jungian terms, the goal of this phase of the midlife passage is to free the Self or soul, and this can only be done if one is prepared to let go of one’s identity, to take risks, to step out and courageously explore new horizons.
My own unconscious attempts at this freeing of the Self led me to wandering among the New Age seekers for a few years, immersing myself in one seductive practice after another. A study of Buddhism came nearest to my instinctive feelings about the nature of life and introduced me to a meditation practice based on silent witnessing of the mind.
‘Self-realization’ refers to the expression of Self through the personality (with ‘I’ acting as administrative agent). Much of the time we are caught up in a survival trance, identified with our passing emotions, our beliefs and assumptions, our concepts and ideas about the way things are, and our bodily sensations and appearance. When we identify with one or another part of the personality, we cannot be clearly aware of the rest of our reality, nor of the guidance of Self.
The strongest part of my personality was the one I call ‘The Fat Controller’, an insecure, know-it-all who needed to be at the centre of events, controlling and directing events around him. He trusted no-one to get it right and so often ended up taking on tasks he was unsuited for and in the process he denied those around him the right to learn from their own mistakes. There were several other sub-personalities of course, but I discovered they are all formed out of fear and insecurity, hence the need to control the environment. By becoming aware of them and witnessing how they play out in my life, I gradually began to use them, rather be used by them. The old sense of personal identity has changed and in its place has grown a more natural, wilder, expansive sense of self. I am able to more readily witness the unconscious drama of these sub-personalities in my everyday life and gradually a feeling of raw aliveness emerges at times. This is what, I think, Robert Bly refers to as the search for the Wild Man within.
Bly in his book on Men and Masculinity relates the ancient myth of Iron John and argues for a reconnection with the wild man in modern life. There is a clear distinction between the savage man and the Wild Man. ‘The savage mode does great damage to the soul, earth and humankind…The Wild Man, who has examined his wound, resembles a Zen priest, a shaman or a woodsman more than a savage.’
‘When a contemporary man looks down into his psyche, he may, if conditions are right, find under the water of his soul, lying in an area no one has visited for a long time, an ancient hairy man…When a man begins to develop the receptive side of himself and gets over his initial skittishness, he usually finds the experience to be wonderful. He gets to write poetry and go out and sit by the ocean, he doesn’t have to be on top all the time in sex anymore, he becomes empathetic – it’s a new, humming, surprising world.’
© Sikh Warrior 2019
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file