Waking up at Midlife: Going Underground

The Sumerian goddess Inanna

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.