Waking up at Midlife: Going Underground

The image above shows the ancient Sumerian goddess Inanna, whose descent into the Underworld to face her dark sister, Erishkigal, represents one of the most common and most powerful metaphors for certain aspects of the Heroine’s Journey. Inanna goes volunatrily into the Underworld to attend the funeral rites of her sister’s husband. At each of the seven gates to Erishkigal’s kingdom, she is stripped of another item of finery and clothing, until finally she stands naked before her dark sister. Erishkigal, in her grief and rage, hangs her on a meat hook. I won’t tell the full story here, but Inanna was careful enough to have planned ahead, and to have helpers who assist in her escape from the Underworld, and at each of the seven gates, some of her finery is restored to her until she returns to the upper world, transformed.

The midlife transition offers us all of these things. The stripping away of everything we hold dear, facing a dark sister (another aspect of ourselves) who is filled with grief and rage, a little time spent hanging on a meat hook, dying to ourselves and to the world … until finally, with the help of friends and allies, we find our way back out again. Inevitably, we come out of a process like that changed. That’s what the process is for. The process is meant to change us, and the kind of deep transformation I’m talking about here can’t be achieved without a lot of pain.

Which is why, so often, we try to sabotage the process. Healthy humans don’t much care for pain, even when we know it’s necessary. But whether you call it the Hero’s Journey or the Heroine’s Journey or something entirely different, the Journey of growth and transformation demands a sacrifice: the sacrifice of our old upper-world self. And in the darkness of the Underworld, the ego is dismantled. We must be taken apart, broken into pieces, stripped of all our outer trappings and finery, so that we can begin the long, hard work of putting the pieces back together again, reforming ourselves into a new pattern.

When we descend to the Underworld, then, we find ourselves literally losing the plot. We find ourselves between stories. All of the stories we have told ourselves about who we are have begun to disintegrate; all the old patterns have begun to break up. Chances are, we are losing all that we once held dear, all that we once thought defined us, all the old dreams. And whether we like it or not, we have to let go of these old illusions, for once the process of disintegration has begun it must be properly worked through. The old stories are clear about this: we must die to ourselves, and to the world, in order to be reborn.

If we want to become all that we are capable of becoming, we cannot avoid the descent to the Underworld. So often we try to, because we know it’s going to hurt. Some of us try to manage our way through a crisis rather than allowing it to work on us. I’ve been guilty of that in my life. The first time I heard a ‘Call to Adventure’ – a call to great change – was at thirty years old. But there was to be no Underworld for me; no signs of weakness. I bit down on the grief and anger I was experiencing at the time, and set about controlling the situation I found myself in. That is what I had always done; that is what I would do now. ‘Out of control’ was not an option. Chaos had never been an option. I couldn’t afford to disintegrate; I was far too busy and far too responsible. I planned and managed my way out of a life and a job which had become abhorrent to me, and thought I was very clever because on the surface it looked as if I had made some big changes in my life … and all that happened was that I made the same mistakes over and over again. I found myself slammed up against the same issues until, three more crises or ‘Calls to Adventure’ later, finally I did it properly. I let the process work on me. I let myself fall; I crashed. Something happened that I couldn’t manage my way out of. I let myself fall into the dark cave, and finally succumbed to a process that had begun over twenty years earlier.

We cannot manage our way out of midlife transitions or any other transitions. If we want the crisis we’re facing to count for something, if we want to live and to grow, we have to give in to the process.

So, we find ourselves in the Underworld … and all we want to know is when we can come back out again. We cannot shortcut our time in the Underworld, but so often we try to, because we are born into a culture which has prepared us poorly for waiting. Instant downloads via the internet save us from having to wait for books to arrive in the post; videos can be streamed online with a few brief clicks of a mouse. We want everything now, including transformation and wisdom. In this culture, if something seems to be broken, off we go at once, looking for a quick fix. We want to medicate our way out of the dark, with our Prozacs and our Valiums. We want to treat our way out of the dark, with our solution-focused therapies, our how-to spiritualities. We go looking for a product, a practice, a technique. We want to know now what it is we might become, and we want to become it now. But we don’t find our way out of the Underworld by running hell-for-leather towards the light; we find it rather by sitting in and embracing the dark. By exploring the ground of our being – our own, and the world’s. We have to be still, and trust; we have to release the old needs, let go of the old urges to become what we are not, what we were not meant to be. This is how we pave the way for rebirth.

There are dangers to be found in the Underworld; of course there are dangers. It wouldn’t be the Underworld if there was no danger. One of the greatest dangers lies in the fact that it is all too easy to get stuck in the Underworld. We may focus in on the depth of our grief, sinking into it, drowning in it. We may talk of little else, we may become self-absorbed, self-pitying, navel-gazing. This is another of the ways in which our society tricks us, for we have become a culture of narcissists, excessively focused on the perfection of our own pain. But this is a time to resist the urge to protracted self-pity, because it is all too easy to lose ourselves in tending our own emotional wounds; it is all too easy never to move on. It is true that we have to do a good deal of inner work before we have anything meaningful to offer to the outer world; it is true too that we must recognise our wounds and incorporate them into the ground of our becoming. But we need also to stop licking them. We are more than the sum of our wounds. We need to move on. We need to focus on coming back to our bodies, our instincts, our deep connection to the land and its nonhuman inhabitants. From that place we can go forward on our pilgrimage, finding our way to the path, working our way to understanding what we might bring to the world.

15 thoughts on “Waking up at Midlife: Going Underground

  1. This is such a powerful post, very much reflecting my own experience of the downward journey and the need to allow the process to unfold. I haven’t heard the Inanna story before and would love to hear the details of the re-ascent which is, as you say, a complex paradox of both letting go and engagement. As you imply, this may not be a one off experience, but a cyclical one of gradual discernment.
    Thank you for this,
    Mary Ellen x

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    1. Thank you, Mary Ellen. Although I am also a psychologist, sometimes the over-complication of mythology by Jungians drives me to distraction! – but this short book by Sylvia Brinton Perera is something of a classic, and I think takes both the Inanna story and the Underworld process to pieces in an interesting way (though again, I’m not a fan of all of her work so I recommend only this book!): http://www.amazon.co.uk/Descent-Goddess-Initiation-Studies-Psychology/dp/0919123058/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1427560775&sr=1-2&keywords=sylvia+perera+brinton And yes, to me the Heroine’s Journey is cyclical, spiral, sometimes maze-like, always fractal. We never do it just once. This is one of the ways in which I think the Heroine’s Journey differs from the more linear plot-driven Hero’s Journey.

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  2. This is exactly what I needed to read right at this moment in time. I am in the middle of this midlife transition, and I know it is a process of transformation, and that I cannot hurry it! But I want to, I want the pain to be over, so I can focus on the healing. I have to let myself be in the Underworld for a while, I know that, but I also know that I have the strength to come through this transformation. I think the most powerful and important thing for me is accepting that I will not come out of this unchanged, that I will come out of this with wounds and scars. But I accept that this is necessary. However painful. It is necessary. I just need to trust.

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    1. You know, half the battle is understanding what’s going on. (As long as that doesn’t make us too quick to imagine we know what the learnings are going to be 🙂 Trickster lives in the Underworld too …) And the sheer joy later, once you understand the magic of the alchemy you’ve just gone through, is worth every ounce of pain. Now (and actually, for much of the time it was happening, except when I was right in the eye of the storm) I wouldn’t exchange a minute of the agony of my ‘proper’ journey to the Underworld for any gift you could think to give me. Because that was the greatest gift of all. Feeling those wings beginning to grow out of scar tissue in the midst of it all … the knowledge that even at this time of life, there are such big learnings and transformations to undergo … And some strange innate understanding, perhaps like the pupa has in the chrysalis, trusting the butterfly to come, and then the moment when the butterfly (remembering the dark) begins to unfold its wings … what could be more miraculous? Anyway. I wish you joy in your Return!

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  3. Thank you for this writing. My reply will be clumsy and perhaps naive but I want to tell you now or I won’t at all. This makes enormous sense to me and is the first explanation of where I have been that I can relate to. I went down, and because of the way we live, I have been struggling to get back up again and meet expectations ever since. I split into so many pieces that I seemed to come out of myself and just observe each piece, the way each part made me whole before, the things I loved, the things I didn’t want to absorb again as I began to come back together. I thought I had been useless because I wasn’t able to keep together anymore. Now I see how necessary it all was. I still can’t quite see myself whole, but I can imagine it.

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    1. I count myself fortunate because knowing that it would be a gift in the end – a tiny light inside me which, somehow, knew this was the transformation that was going to break through so many patterns which had me going round in circles – kept me going through a time when I couldn’t imagine that I would ever feel joy again. And now I find it such a privilege, this process we all are driven to, which gives us another chance for the biggest learnings of our lives. This is why I believe that we must listen more to elders – elders who have learned, not just all older people! – because going through this fire a time or two in your life teaches you what matters, what remains when everything around you (including your sense of Self) has disintegrated. If you can imagine wholeness in the eye of the storm, you’ll find it for sure. Wishing you love and joy from it.

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  4. Thanks for an illuminating post around a time (mid-life) that is full of challenging, often painful, but hopeful transitions. I’m in the midst of that now.

    I’ve been following the green thread that’s been at the core of my life’s passions and much of my work life, and (I think) am secure in that path. But at the same time, I’m wanting now to reinvent who I want to be in the world beyond that, or perhaps, expressing it with more power and direction, freed of constraints around my former work identity.

    These reflections (I’ve appreciated the Singing over the Bones prompts) have been helpful in pulling me towards what’s next, but there’s still been the blank space around what do I truly want to bring forward and what do I want to create in the world, now.

    I was fortunate this weekend to be in a workshop with David Whyte, introduced to me by the same online friend (in a closed FB circle) that introduced me to you and your work. It was a remarkable experience, encouraging us to experience the deep, but dazzling darkness as we experience the harvest of presence.

    Hmm, your post is a wonderful reminder that it’s about moving on, connecting with place, ourselves, our bodies and our spirit, as we are present in the world.

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    1. Lisa, yes, I think presence is precisely what is left when everything is stripped away. I think the understanding of how we might move on after the Underworld experience can only emerge from that presence. Which is why forcing it is such a bad idea. I have in the past been prone to attempted acts of reinvention, often before I was properly ready to be what I thought I was going to be. If that makes sense! I think it is all about patience; about presence, yes; about connecting with the land and the animals and our own sense of what it is to be an animal, and let it emerge in its own good time without too much second-guessing. (And the David Whyte workshop sounds wonderful!)

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  5. Again you have hit the nail on the head. I am gaining so much from these mid life postings ( I have just finished “The Long Delirious Burning Blue”, amazing BTW) Some years ago I too resisted the calling to the underworld and thought myself so brave for holding it all together in a formidable crisis. 12 months later I had not choice but to fall head long in to an abyss that swollowed me whole before I had time to think. And so I stayed there for a while, held on to the pain and misery and resisted the help offered ( medication and therapy).Slowly I stepped back to me, it actually took some years but here I am. All the time my grounding point was I was still breathing so onward I must go. I am here at the door of the mid life change and I an not afeared of the change to come, in some ways I am preparing for that to happen (slowing, sorting, talking, reading and thinking)like nesting in a kind of reverse. Thank you for sharing.

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    1. Thanks, Sara, and glad you enjoyed what my husband calls ‘The Long Delirious Burning Title’ 🙂 I wish you a gentler transition this time around. Sometimes it happens that way!

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  6. Sharon, thank you – these posts about our mid-life are so precious. It seems we know we’re undergoing something amazing, magnificent – but it can be hard to hold to that knowing in the throes of it. It helps to be reminded and reassured – to know that this is meant to happen, and that it deserves celebration.

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  7. I found myself here by googling ‘becoming a wise older woman’ or something similar. First I found your Re-enchanting the Earth course, then this. Such a strange feeling- I felt like your words described what’s going on inside. Thank you.

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