A journey of transformation and grace (by Nathalie Cordell)
Midlife, long associated with the word crisis, is commonly linked to a phase of turmoil, fraught with dissatisfaction, confusion and uncertainty. Indeed, a ‘midlife’ crisis often symbolises a transition from energetic youth to the subdued later stages of life. Many accomplished women who have climbed the peak of their professional journey, at this stage ponder, ‘Is this it? Is this all that life has to offer’? They feel at a crossroads, wondering what is next, questioning their purpose and seeking a meaningful next chapter.
In this blog, I propose to reframe the ‘midlife crisis’ as an awakening – an extraordinary phase of life that can serve as a catalyst for reflection, growth, and self-transformation. Drawing inspiration from the work of Roberto Assagioli, a psychiatrist and founder of the psychological movement known as Psychosynthesis, and other enlightening teachers, we can learn to navigate this transformative journey with grace and purpose.
The Midlife Awakening: An Invitation to Transformation
It represents a shift in focus from external achievement to inward exploration, from material growth to spiritual evolution.
When a sunflower seed is first planted, it must focus all its energy on survival. It concentrates its efforts on establishing a strong stem and a robust root system to support its upward growth to the sun. This is akin to the first half of a human life, when most of us focus our attention on external achievements that society defines as ‘success’ – establishing a career, building a family, buying a house, accumulating material wealth.
These foundational tasks, much like the roots and stem of the sunflower, anchor us in the world and offer a base from which we can further grow. However, at some point, like the sunflower, our vertical growth reaches its limits, and external accomplishments no longer seem to fulfill us or satiate our soul as they once did. It prompts a restlessness, a yearning for a deeper sense of purpose, leading to what I prefer to call the ‘midlife awakening’.
These feelings are not a crisis to be feared; it’s a call to stop the ‘outer’ journey and go inwards. It represents a shift in focus from external achievements to inward exploration, from material growth to spiritual evolution. It’s an invitation to embark on a journey filled with immense potential for self-discovery and self-realisation. And, even though it may not be evident on the surface, internally, an inner bud is engaged in a bustling process of formation.
Turning the Tides: From Crisis to Opportunity
By accepting the need for change and viewing it as an opportunity rather than a threat, we can foster personal growth, rekindle our sense of purpose, and embark on a journey of meaningful self-reflection.
The so-called ‘midlife crisis’ implies that we are lost or broken, or that something has veered drastically off course. The word 'crisis' alone can sound alarming, invoking images of danger, upheaval, and chaos. When we consult the dictionary, ‘crisis’ is defined as ‘a time of severe difficulty or danger’ or ‘a
moment were an important decision must be made.’ Intriguingly, the Chinese character for 'crisis' embodies two concepts: 'danger' and 'turning point’,. Therefore, a crisis can be seen as a pivotal junction where either progression or regression is possible. The real danger emerges when we misinterpret the unease associated with the ‘midlife awakening’ as something that needs fixing, or when we resist the call to journey inward.
For example, one might ‘act out’ in the classic way by trying to regain their youth by purchasing a ‘flashy’ car or even replacing a longtime partner with a younger one. For some, it may manifest as becoming overly immersed in work, or developing an obsession with maintaining their youth through extreme dieting, exercise or surgery. Alternatively, some people may resort to ‘numbing’ agents like alcohol, pills, or overeating to suppress their discomfort, which can lead to a whole host of health issues.
However, it's worth remembering that the course we take is a matter of individual choice. If we resist change and hold onto the past or illusions of youth, we may perceive midlife as a stage to be endured or dreaded. By doing so, we frame ourselves as victims to life's natural rhythms rather than active participants.
It's time to redefine our understanding of midlife. By accepting the need for change and viewing it as an opportunity rather than a threat, we can foster personal growth, rekindle our sense of purpose, and embark on a journey of meaningful self-reflection. In this light, the infamous 'midlife crisis' can evolve into a 'midlife awakening’, leading to deeper insights and a greater sense of meaning and purpose.
Spiritual Awakening and Self-realisation
In his book Psychosynthesis and a collection of basic writings, Assagioli talks about the ‘disturbance’ often observed in midlife, as a ‘symptom’ of spiritual awakening. He uses the word ‘spiritual’ in a wider sense, devoid of religious connotations, to describe what Maslow would call ‘peak experiences’, such as a profound connection with the universe, a deeper understanding of our existence, and a feeling of belonging which transcends the mundane.
For me, it is an experience of connection to ‘something more’ or ‘beyond oneself’ or the physical world. You might experience it in a sunset or while looking at the starry sky or gazing in the eyes of a newborn baby. It might come upon you by surprise when looking at a piece of art or poetry, or listening to a certain piece of music. Or you may experience it while watching a bee drinking nectar from a flower. You may have another word for it: sublime, divine, grace – but you will know what I mean when you experience it.
This is the spiritual awakening that Assagioli talks about that we associate with midlife. A moment of tranquillity and peace—a realization of unity, a revelation of being part of something larger than ourselves. It marks the beginning of an individual's journey towards self-realisation, or in terms of Maslow’s Hierarchy self-actualization, a path often revealed during the midlife awakening.
The Work and Psychology of Midlife Transformation
Assagioli describes how the spiritual awakening begins with ‘a sense of dissatisfaction, of lack’, not ‘of anything material and definite' but of something vague and elusive that [one] is unable to describe’. Maureen Murdock, a pre-eminent psychotherapist, and author of multiple books on women's psychology refers to it as the phase where one awakens to a sense of ‘spiritual aridity’.
She talks about women reporting a sense of betrayal, asking themselves: ‘What is all this for Why do I feel so empty? I’ve achieved every goal that I’ve set for myself, and there is still something missing. I feel somehow that I’ve sold out, that I’ve betrayed myself, that I’ve let go of some part of myself that I can’t even name’.
This is where we might experience ‘a sense of the unreality and emptiness of ordinary life’ where what ‘formerly absorbed so much of [our] attention and interest, seems to retreat, psychologically, into the background; [losing its] importance and value’. And we may experience a dramatic shift in our perspective, priorities, and values.
This period of ‘dryness’, where everything inside us seems to dissolve and lose its meaning, is what has been described as the ‘dark night of the soul’,. Like the caterpillar that must hide inside the chrysalis and dissolve to become a butterfly, this phase is an essential and inevitable part of transformation.
The key to this period of questioning is not to make it ‘better’. For example, loved ones with good intentions may rush in with advice such as ‘you just need to get another job’, or ‘maybe you should just take up a hobby and keep yourself busy’, or ‘you’ll be ok once you’ve taken a holiday’. Though well meaning, this sort of advice only exacerbates the problem, by making the person feel like there is something wrong with the way they feel. And by not seeing this for what it is – a deep questioning of someone’s life and purpose – they unwittingly add shame to the already long list of ailments.
So, if you are going through this – know this: you are not mad, and you are not alone!! What you need is a chrysalis – a safe space where you can let go of your previous ‘caterpillar’ identity (whatever that means for you!) and explore what it is that wants to emerge for/through you. And you will know this by looking inside at what really matters to you.
Conclusion and Practices and Tools for Embracing Midlife Awakening
So, what does it really mean to ‘journey inwards’? Well, it literally means focussing your attention on what goes on inside you, rather than outside – not in some sort of navel-gazing exercise, but with a sense of curiosity and for the purpose of self-reflecting and supporting your inner growth.
Not all coaching is about improving your performance or achieving external goals – coaching can help you figure out who you want to be and how to become that person.
As we move from the abstract to the practical, it's worth discussing some practical steps to help navigate this transformative journey:
The first step towards understanding our inner self is through the practice of mindfulness. Starting with building your 'pause and observe’ muscle allows us to stay present, understand our thoughts, emotions and reactions. You can start by dedicating a few minutes each day to quiet reflection or meditation. Alternatively, you can start a yoga practice or take walks in nature. The important thing is to focus and observe your thoughts, feelings and sensations and nurture that sense of inner connection. Like everything, starting is often the hardest party and keeping it going the second hardest! So start small - 3 minutes a day on Headspace is where I started and it was enough to keep my head above water and not crumble or go mad!! The stillness of the mind can often offer the most profound insights.
Keep a Journal
Expressing our thoughts and feelings in a journal can serve as a powerful tool for self-discovery. It allows us to articulate our experiences and emotions, giving us clarity about what we truly seek. Write freely without judgment, and over time, you may notice patterns or recurring themes that offer insight into your inner world.
During this transformative phase, self-care is not merely a luxury but a necessity. Prioritize your physical health through a balanced diet and regular exercise, but also remember to nourish your emotional and mental well-being. This could be through hobbies, connecting with loved ones, or seeking professional help, if needed.
Create a Support Network
This can take the form of a group or community or even a trusted friend, or more formal support such as coaching, or even therapy. Not all coaching is about improving your performance or achieving external goals. For example, at Cordell Coaching I help you figure out who you want to be and how to become that person.
Psychosynthesis practitioners, such as myself, are specially trained in facilitating self-actualisation, that is to help others recognise and navigate spiritual awakening/midlife transitions and uncover their authentic self and purpose. Whether it's a professional coach, a spiritual guide, or even a trusted friend, having someone to navigate the journey with can be highly beneficial in challenging your existing beliefs, encouraging your growth and providing support during challenging times.
Embrace Life-Long Learning
Adopting a mindset of life-long learning keeps the mind vibrant and open to new experiences. Explore new hobbies, learn a new skill, read widely, and always keep your curiosity alive. This not only brings novelty and excitement into life but also keeps us mentally agile and open to new possibilities.
Practicing gratitude can shift our focus from what's missing to what we have. It creates a sense of abundance and contentment, enabling us to see the beauty in our journey, even during challenging times. Keep a gratitude journal or make it a habit to remind yourself of something you're grateful for each day.
In the end, the journey through midlife is deeply personal and unique. It's an exploration of our deepest selves and our place in the universe. It's about realizing that there's more to life than material possessions or societal accolades, that our true essence is much more profound and fulfilling. So, let's embrace this journey with an open heart, with patience and kindness towards ourselves, knowing that it's not just about reaching a destination, but about savouring the journey itself.
Midlife is not a crisis; it's an awakening—a gateway to self-discovery and self-realisation. Don't shy away from it, embrace it, and let it guide you towards a life of deeper meaning and purpose.
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 Roberto Assagioli (2023) Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roberto_Assagioli (Accessed: 16 June 2023).  Chang, E. (2020) ‘The Chinese word for “crisis”’, LinkedIn, 2 April. Available at: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/chinese-word-crisis-emily-chang/ (Accessed: 16 June 2023).  Chinese word for ‘Crisis’ (2023) Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_word_for_%22crisis%22 (Accessed: 16 June 2023).  Assagioli, R. (2012) Psychosynthesis: A collection of basic writings. Amherst, MA: Synthesis Center Inc. (in cooperation with the Berkshire Center for Psychosynthesis).  Maslow, A., (1970). Motivation and personality. 2nd ed. USA: Harper & Row.  Assagioli, R. (2012) Psychosynthesis: A collection of basic writings. Amherst, MA: Synthesis Center Inc. (in cooperation with the Berkshire Center for Psychosynthesis).  Murdock, M. (1990) The heroine’s journey. Boston, MA: Shambhala.  Murdock, M. (1990) The heroine’s journey. Boston, MA: Shambhala.  Dark Night of the Soul (2023) Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dark_Night_of_the_Soul#cite_ref-15 (Accessed: 16 June 2023).  Eckhart on the Dark Night of the Soul (2023) Wikipedia. Available at: https://eckharttolle.com/eckhart-on-the-dark-night-of-the-soul/ (Accessed: 27 June 2023).