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An Unexpected Sea Change in Our Middle Adult Years
If you are reading this book, chances are that you are in your forties, fifties, or sixties and finding yourself slowed down, stopped, or thwarted in a disturbing way. For some of us, this experience is abrupt; for others, it is a gradual erosion of energy or interest. Something has happened. We have run into a barrier. We have lost our way.
The precise nature of our distress might not be clear at first. It might feel like a vague sense of dissatisfaction or an irrepressible uprising of seemingly irrational or impractical urges. Or it might be crystal clear: a stark reality imposed by a disturbing medical condition or the loss of a steady paycheck or partner. One way or another, we sense that something significant has changed. Without our consent or consideration, we have been ushered out of the first half of our adult lives into the midlife passage, the turbulent stretch that separates the life we have lived from the possibilities going forward. We are at the threshold of an unexpected journey for which none of us is prepared.
A Rebirth Within Life
Understanding midlife as a metamorphosis enables us to see the full measure of the possibility opening up during this period of our lives. The midlife passage invites the death of who we have known ourselves to be and promises the birth of our authentic, soul-infused self, long suppressed under years of outward obligations. The more we view midlife as a spiritual rebirth rather than something to get over or simply endure, the less likely we are to settle for trying to repackage what we have lived during the first half of our adult lives – and the more likely we are to discover the full range of the blessings that awaits us if we surrender to the challenging process of unraveling and being transformed.
Becoming Mature Adults
The ego is destined to dissolve in the face of an inner urgency to grow up – not just grow old – and become mature adults. I am not talking about the ability to move out of our parents’ homes, become financially self-sufficient, and create families of our own. These are first-half-of-life indicators of adulthood as defined by the social contract. The maturity developed in the second half of our adult lives means something entirely different.
A Deep Inner Well of Compassion
One thing we will discover through the process of sitting with our own unraveling is a deep well of compassion. Compassion literally means “feeling with.” We cannot experience compassion unless we are first willing to feel what we feel. When we allow ourselves to feel what we feel – no matter what other voices might be telling us about whether the feelings are okay or not, and no matter what distractions (such as addictive behaviors) might tempt us to avoid our feelings – we are brought to a place of rawness, tenderness, and vulnerability. If we can acknowledge this vulnerability, we become intimately acquainted with ourselves in ways that are both connected to our soul and grounded in our humanness.
Catalyzing Elements: Hopelessness and Helplessness
During this period of the journey, we are meant to feel helpless as we repeatedly struggle and fail to compose, control, and get ahold of ourselves. A friend likened his experience to that of a bug in a bathtub. “I can’t get a grip. Neither struggle nor strategy affects the outcome.” This state of struggle and repeated failure creates the perfect alchemy for the transformation that is under way. The outcome will be a flexible identity, as we will see later on in our midlife journeys, characterized by a dynamism and fluidity that an ego-fixed identity precludes. Hopelessness and helplessness are the two catalyzing elements that foster our necessary dissolution from the fixed and predictable to the flexible and dynamic. These catalysts must be powerful enough to set in motion a process that will not allow the ego to restore itself in the form it has taken during the first half of our lives.
Using Past Trauma to Connect More Deeply Today
In my private practice, I am often asked when is the right time to let go of a trauma story. Clients believe they should stop telling their stories and want them to be finished. But if the story continues to have an emotional charge, I wonder whether, instead of us stopping the telling of these stories, perhaps we should get better at telling our stories. How might we feel the wound more deeply (but not in a way that reinforces a victim identity)? I believe a story that persists is inviting us into a conversation about something important for our personal evolution. Those trauma stories – and their deep places of emotional wounding – that remain with us for a long time offer opportunities for soul contact.
To use our traumas to make contact with our deeper selves, we must enter the instinctual part of our beings, our bodies, because we left our bodies when we couldn’t handle what life presented. Returning to our bodies is returning home. The more we are willing to be present in the vulnerable flesh and blood of our physical beings, the more open we become to receive life in all of its dimension and depth. Paradoxically, the more vulnerable we become, the stronger we are. It’s counter-intuitive, I know, especially if we have felt traumatized, but this kind of resolution is necessary because of the nature of trauma and the way it takes up residence in our bodies.
An Inclusive Identity Center is Formed
Coming full circle, through the hemisphere of our denied aspects, means that we are made whole. We are no longer subdivided into two worlds. Inhabiting this unified field means that we are less likely to identify ourselves as broken, inadequate, and not enough (or too much). From this point on, we increasingly experience inclusive identity centers that embrace all aspects of ourselves – allowing us to respond in a fitting way to any experience.
“In the human spirit, as in the universe, nothing is higher or lower; everything has equal rights to a common center which manifests its hidden existence precisely through this harmonic relationship between every part and itself.” What the writer Goethe is saying here is that all of the parts of us – our “part selves” – are of equal value; no one is higher than the others or deserves greater privilege. I see this as each part self sitting together at the same banquet table: the inner controller, child, optimist, caretaker, sullen one, protector, etc. sitting at a round table where every part self is equal and served equal portions at the same time. We no longer care for some part selves and reject others.
The Spark that Lights the Soul’s Flame
The spark that lights our soul’s flame is a fragment of “source” energy that is banked deep within our soul. “Source” here refers to spirit, the life force, the divine, the sacred, the mystery, or god. Just as a spark is a small fiery particle thrown off from a fire, the spark that sets alight our awakening consciousness is a fragment thrown off from the fire of the divine, which enlivens the sacred in the realm of the physical. In other words, the spark is a symbol for the animating and vitalizing fragment of divine illumination and inspiration that burns at the core of each of our personal souls. This spark ignites our soul flame, which, in turn, sets alight the lamp of our newly unified consciousness. The soul’s light will ultimately grow so bright that it illumines the entire distance between our human center and our divine essence.
We fan our divine fire and emit light every time we shift our center of gravity toward the soul. In practical terms, this happens every time we bring a larger scale of meaning to our everyday existence, every time we experience the inner friction of taking a moral stand within a quaking body, every time we inquire deeply into who we really are. We burn brighter when we disturb fixed patterns of thought and interrupt habitual, learned behaviors and open instead to inner guidance, wisdom, and intuition. We glow when we are vulnerable and undefended. And we throw off sparks when we inspire those around us with our inner strength, authenticity, kindness, and compassion.
Catching Thought Thieves
Let’s start by discussing the pitfall, which is a reflex that can snuff out nascent expressions of soul before they have a chance to manifest. This reflex is that, when we detect a flicker of soul movement deep within us, most of us have a tendency to move quickly toward turning it into something to manifest or obtain in the outer world. Instead of engaging with the energy of the impulse itself, circulating it inside of us and allowing it space and time to grow, we instead focus on an image of what we would like to get or achieve based on that impulse, and we circulate thoughts of action or completion: How would I do that? Can I do that? Where would I do that? Am I supposed to do that? Can I get that? How much would it cost? Would it be worth it? What would my friends say? What would I have to give up? How much fun would it be? What will the experience be like? When this happens, how will it affect the rest of my life? Can I make money at it?
These thoughts are thieves. When we ask these questions, we abandon the energy of the initial impulse and go into our minds and into the future, away from the here and now. We imagine better work situations, new lovers, other places to live, fresh ideas, more lucrative ways to earn a living, more or different sexual experiences, and new pursuits and ways of being. Some of us have been trained to call this “visioning.” The visioning process can be useful during other life stages but is generally detrimental during most of our midlife transition and perhaps beyond.
The Symptom is a Solution
When we experience an illness or somatic symptom, it is natural to want to alleviate our suffering; however, from a soul-centering vantage point, an intention to heal ourselves can sometimes get in the way of really seeing and understanding what is going on. We need to befriend our symptoms first rather than setting out to cure or ease them. Often when we do less initially, we accomplish more in the long term (this does not mean that if we are bleeding to death we don’t act quickly but rather that we slow down our survival reflex with symptoms that don’t, in fact, threaten our existence).
When we experience pain, our reflex is to contract. But a symptom is usually already a contraction. If we administer a cure that subdues the symptom, our soul will have to resort to expressing itself through other, usually more tenacious or “louder,” symptoms. A symptom is not inviting us to take corrective action but rather to listen to the voice of our soul as it is speaking through that symptom.
A very effective, soul-centering perspective is to view the symptom as a solution to a problem, not as a problem itself. This ensouled vantage point will create an immediate spiritual chiropractic adjustment, aligning us to look for the deeper narrative.
The Pulse of Love
Entering the soul’s realm will also bring us into contact with perhaps the greatest blessing of the midlife journey: the unifying love that is in the divine spark or center of each of our souls and that unites us with all of life. The more we pass through the sacred gate and touch the energy of life unfolding, the more our hearts open.
I am not talking here about the physical organ of the heart but about the non-physical center in our beings, the magnetic sensing organ of the soul, which lies in the innermost chambers of who we are. We might call this, our “heart of hearts.” This is the energetic blueprint of which our physical hearts are one manifestation.
Love is the soul’s activating energy and the ultimate synthetic force, integrating us into the weave of life. Love exposes, intensifies, and amplifies our aliveness. When the kind of love I am talking about grabs hold of us – or we grab hold of it – it becomes the basis for all of our choices. This love catalyzes us to evolve into new forms that are committed to the whole of life.
From my vantage point, the midlife journey is as much about fully inhabiting our vulnerable humanness as it is about awakening and embodying divinity in human form. On the personal, physical level, we cannot help feeling vulnerable, open as we are to pain, sorrow, and death. But at the level of the divine, immortal essence that animates us – our soul-fullness – we are endlessly durable.
If we try to deny our vulnerability, we lose touch with our tender heart. If we forfeit awareness of our divine essence, we are deprived of the knowledge that we share our nature with all of life. At midlife we are being stretched, prodded, pummeled, coaxed, guided, and loved into an awareness of the full spectrum of ourselves and our place in the larger network of life. This awareness is, perhaps, the ultimate hidden blessing of the midlife journey.
To bring us to this ripening awareness, the events of midlife have been urging us to enliven all of the levels of our beings: to know ourselves on both the visible, divisible planes of existence – the physical, emotional, and mental – and on the formless, invisible plane where we are connected to all of life. The soul’s emergence from the chrysalis of ego during midlife enables us to express the divine within our unique, personal, finite, physical existence. And, as we’ve learned, the soul is the energetic force that integrates and synthesizes all planes of existence into one by means of its essential quality, love.