I sat in my doctor’s office pretending to be there for a physical, but I was truly there to increase my Lexapro dosage. For the past several years I had been noticing an increased level of anxiety deep within my gut. Almost as if the internal beingness of my soul was in conflict with the external doingness of my reality and I was caught in the middle, a third party to my life. My doctor asked me why was I working very long hours in my pursuit of more at the expense of happiness in my life and the lives of all those I loved? I told him he was right and that I needed to go on a leave of absence. I am sure that in the moment he saw a glimpse of something I did not, so he took the lead and wrote me a note. Now mind you, I was the sort of person who didn’t even take vacation in fear of the others realizing they could live without me, let alone take five months away from work.
But alas, in my typical way of doing whatever I do with all I got, I took the leave. Not only did I take the leave, but I cut 14 inches off my hair, stopped wearing makeup, dispersed of all work responsibility, and shed every external definition of my self. No beauty, no role, no title… no meaning to my existence in a society which values what I do over who I am.
I was scared and lost and I ran away, off to Nepal, Bhutan, Botswana to immerse myself in worlds foreign to my ideologies of life and my everyday grind of coffee, long hours, wine, sleep, and repeat. Little did I know at the time that this would be a two plus year pilgrimage to the depths of our physical Earth and the pits of my internal soul. At my core I began to question “who am I?” if I am not these external labels which show others how important I am and all I have done - my degrees, awards, and more?
I remember at the beginning of my leave I sat in circle at a workshop where we were going around the room asking everyone the question “What do you pretend?”. As the question went around and around, the answers became more deep and more raw for each participant. Eventually the round came back to me and I found myself responding with:
“I pretend that getting up every morning and getting ready for work, the kids off to school, followed by ten plus hours sitting at a desk or in meetings, inside four walls not even aware of the weather outside let alone life, arguing for some reason or another and thinking that whatever the subject is, it is the end of the world if I don’t get my way, then coming home late, usually too late for dinner with the family, and plopping on the couch in front of the TV with a big glass of wine to decompress so I can sleep – I pretend this is a meaningful life.”
Parker Palmer writes in his book Let Your Life Speak of how “everyone has a life that is different from the ‘I’ of daily consciousness, a life that that is trying to live through the ‘I’ who sits inside this vessel.” It would appear that there was a great big gulf between my ego wants and my true self which can only be seen, or more so heard, with a slowing down to listen to that which is not in front of me. He goes on to guide us to “sense that running beneath the surface of experience I call my life” where I can find something deeper and more true waiting to become. This isn’t easy and listening to your life is difficult in a world where we aren’t taught to slow down and listen to ourselves but rather to listen to the others, with power, around us.
It appears that my life, my survival, was now dependent on my slowing down and turning inward to listen to what else might be. On my Midlife Passage pilgrimage I have suffered many layers of ego death trying desperately to get to this inner calling. Nothing in my modern world has prepared me for this journey and I don’t know if anything ever could. Life appears to initiate me again and again and I am beginning to learn that the lesson and the meaning of living - it would appear – is all in preparation for my death. For I have come to realize that it is only in my knowing how to die, be it a death of an ideology or deeply held belief I hold onto or the death of my fullest being, that I can truly understand how to live.
Our job of the midlife passage is to become an initiated adult. To do this however requires us to find the time and space to listen to that call deep within, to find the tools to discover our orders, and then to decipher them and bring them to our people, to our community.
A big part of my journey has been the communities I have found and people I have connected with for meaningful conversation and to be held in trust as I access a deep vulnerability within me. One of those places is The Ojai Foundation in Ojai, California. The Ojai Foundation fosters practices that awaken connection with self, others, and the natural world and they are graciously supporting me in my PhD research on just this topic. My research question is “How can ceremony, rituals, and rites of passages facilitate transformational learning in support of the midlife passage?" If you feel this calling and are interested in connecting with a group of people who are hearing the same call as you, we are holding a weeklong program in ceremony for the midlife passage. You can learn more details here or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.