Here’s how my middle passage began: I had recently broken my arm falling off a zip line. I was recuperating in the murphy bed in the basement, a room without doors or closets that I had claimed as my own. I was 50, married, mortgaged, and mother of two kids. A friend had just told me a broken bone could portend a break with destiny. I contemplated that as I weaned myself off the Percocet. I knew I never wanted to share a bedroom with my husband again. I didn’t know how we would afford divorce, but I also knew I couldn’t afford to spend my life in the war zone of my marriage.
The struggle was all too real—and so was midlife angst. But the jaded reaction our culture has to the concept of “midlife crisis” was inherently flawed. It deserved more than a snarky eye roll. And what I learned is that if we can be intentional about this precarious milestone of our lives, it’s actually a gift—a reawakening of my soul’s deepest desire.
It helped that I was reading James Hollis’ The Middle Passage: from Misery To Meaning in Midlife. “Awakening to the Middle Passage occurs when one is radically stunned into consciousness,” Hollis writes. The wake-up call tends to be humbling, like being bucked off a zip line because I was afraid to let go when I should have. Typically, it happens after 40, when you are old enough to recognize life events not as provisional, but as part of an underlying pattern—a pattern that you are largely responsible for. Some people are never ready to be accountable for the life they find themselves in; they may not have to navigate the tectonic pressures that bubble up from below, but they pay the price by living a life lacking in depth.
Essential to Hollis’ “second adulthood” is that it arrives once your younger projections have worn off. Then the real dialogue begins: the one you have with your inner self instead of the outer world. This erasure of projections is disorienting. But as the sobering reality set in, I understood that in the ruins of my dashed expectations, a new potential might come into play.
I realized I had two choices: To fall into the trance of postponement or become fully alive to the moment. On my deathbed, it is unlikely I will circle back to whether I accomplished all the tasks on my to-do list, healed every wound from my past, or wrapped up my endless self-improvement project. The real burning question to ask at any major juncture, Hollis writes, is this: Does this path, this choice, make me larger or smaller? And even if every choice represents a kind of loss or death, better to choose the dying that leads to growth than the dying that keeps me stuck.
As you might have gathered, I’m a woman hot on a midlife mission of living my largest life. What follows are the biggest lessons I’ve learned so far.
Lesson No. 1: The best antidote to trauma is pleasure.
Much like Dante at the beginning of the Inferno, midway upon the journey of my life, I found myself within a forest dark (otherwise known as marriage), for the straightforward pathway had been lost. I couldn’t find my ground. I was awash in misery, stuck in complaint, traumatized by having pitched my stake in a battlefield where the mutual hostilities rarely abated. I’d been living my diminished life for at least a decade, and I knew it was time to orient to something less defeated. Part of that was asking my heart what it wanted.
It wanted to be beloved, my heart told me. It wanted to be love.
Not just spiritual love, but embodied, earthly love. Love in the sense of day-to-day, the ordinary, the kind of love I could reap simply by paying close enough attention to life. It was dawning on me that to move forward, I had to stop fixating on my wounds. After all, if trauma identifies what is broken, pleasure resonates with what’s intact.
“You can’t heal trauma without pleasure,” says Kimberly Johnson, trauma educator, somatic guide, and author of Call of the Wild. “Pleasure does not come after we heal trauma, it is how we heal trauma.” Sex can play a huge part in that healing. “The more sex hormones you have, the less stress hormones that you have,” says Johnson. On a nervous system front, pleasure is downregulating, calming, soothing and expansive.
Many women may think of midlife as a drying up of physical intimacy, of putting frivolous pleasure aside in favor of sobering aspirations such as prudence. But midlife is juicy, people. Yes, it is also a death—but only so far as rebirth follows close on its heels.
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“Sexuality often lives at the intersection of how we feel about our body, aging, past relationships, grief, divorces, children, abortions, and miscarriages,” says Johnson. As much as sexuality is linked to our historical narratives and the body’s physiological metamorphoses, it’s also intrinsic to what Johnson refers to as the low hum undercurrent of being alive. “We live in a culture that touts regret-free living as if having no regrets is the hallmark of a good life,” she says. “It’s the opposite. You have regrets, then you learn. You go forward. You don’t repeat and forget what it was that you did the last time, that didn’t lead you in the direction of where you wanted to go.”
I regretted so many things about my marriage, especially the way my libido seemed to be ghosting me. I craved an intimacy do-over. Johnson says healthy relationships can be a steady source of healing, “arousal energy.”
“When aroused, our system gets very open and new imprints can stick,” says Johnson. She explains how arousal stokes our wild, uninhibited power, where we feel erotic, expansive, and connected to an ancient part of ourselves. This is Johnson’s jaguar, her version of Clarissa Pistola Estes’ Women Who Run With the Wolves 1989 bestseller. Orgasm opens a door to aliveness. In somatic terms, orgasm functions as an “organic nervous system cleanser,” says Johnson. Similar to being inside a snow globe, it shakes things free. In the relationship I am now involved in, I experience a sense of being both whole onto myself and profoundly interconnected with another at the same time. To simply be in a field where so much love is circling is deeply settling, a double homecoming.
Related: You have questions about orgasms? We have answers
Lesson No. 2: Sometimes you need a little help from your (plant) friends.
The quest to enlist a plant’s biochemistry to alter consciousness is both ancient and universal. Following decades of prohibition, psychoactive substances are having a resurgence, largely because of their inherent potential to improve mental, emotional, and spiritual health. From 2015 to 2018, the rate of LSD use increased by more than 50 percent in the U.S. Many ongoing clinical trials are dedicated to validating therapeutic uses for these substances—which are slowly becoming legalized—including MDMA, DMT, and psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms.
As acceptance of psychedelics grows, so does the language for talking about the extraordinary realms they uncover. Terms like ego dissolution—defined as a peak consciousness characterized by bliss and goodwill, interconnection, a sense of the “sacred” along with a loss of a subjective self—or even encounters with spiritual entities and God(s), are no longer considered esoteric. While spiritual paths, such as Buddhism, have always been big fans of ego dissolution, the contemplative approach tends to be slow and incremental, entailing years of witnessing the mind before one gets a glimpse through the veil. Psychedelics, on the other hand, offer a relatively instantaneous path into the mystic.
During the early months of the pandemic, I felt drawn to the “trip treatment.” I had experimented with mushrooms and acid in my youth, but this was a much more conscious foray, the idea of set and setting uppermost in my mind. The mushrooms helped me see beyond my current circumstances—the strain of isolation, the sense of languishing, the regrets of my failed marriage—into a larger picture. Coming down after my first trip, I wrote this, earnest as heck, despite the platitudes: “My ‘I’ died. I know who ‘I’ am. Great mother. Great spirit. Total Love.”
I talked with Katrina Michelle, PhD, LCSW, a holistic psychotherapist who practices integrative psychotherapy and spiritual coaching, about how to integrate the messages of psychedelics into everyday. “I think the beauty of plant medicine is that it gives us a renewed sense of our interconnection with life beyond the physical self,” she says. “It can remind us that we are bigger than the personalities we inhabit, the rules that we live, and the ways we identify in relationships. That mystical experience can give us a sense of our true nature by reconnecting us to our sense of being a cosmic being in interconnected relationship with all of life.”
Of course, this message is always relevant, no matter your age. But it becomes particularly pressing at midlife, as the years ahead become markedly more precious. “I think part of the challenge at midlife is there is often the sense of, ‘Have we achieved our purpose? Have we made something of ourselves?’” says Michelle. Conditioned by Western notions of success, such as raising children or having ample financial means, it’s easy to run amok amidst materialism. “What we are actually here to do is to enjoy our life, embodied, in harmony with the natural world, recognizing that we are a part of it and it is a part of us,” says Michelle. “When we expand our world in this way, we create a new lens, a new paradigm for being a witness to our own rebirth into the middle passage. We look towards the next phase of our life with renewed clarity, shedding some of those layers of conditioning that have been etched into us.”
The rebirth is not always pretty. It can be painful and messy and disorientating, Michelle says. Sometimes the material one encounters on a trip is dark and challenging. But even if the trip can be likened to a “spiritual emergency,” there is something of value to be learned—a painful but necessary medicine for the emergence to come, says Michelle.
Lesson No. 3: Risk everything—and reap the rewards.
Paralleling my midlife passage, or perhaps instigating it, was learning to ski at the ripe age of 47. I was terrified by downhill skiing and thus drawn to it. Every time I skied, I had to face down gremlins of doubt, self-preservation, and hesitation. Inside me warred a desire to hold back and an even deeper desire to let it rip. The learning curve of skiing unfolded as a conundrum wrapped in a riddle. The only hope for mastery on a ski slope is to pitch forward, hips to tips—the more you can let yourself fall, the more control you have. To be able to ski with a modicum of mastery was a midlife goal. It expressed total commitment, the kind of clarity undiluted by confusion or sidestepping.
It turns out skiing is an apt metaphor for how to navigate the middle passage. I can’t think my way through this. I have to go for it.
For many, midlife can come with depression, love or passion that has been stifled and so creates an inversion of grief. Rote living, in cahoots with the social and cultural matrix of expectations, can be deadening. Deep inside, the small still voice asks: What does my soul want to be examining or exploring? You ignore that voice at your own peril.
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If you are able to listen to that voice, those glimmers of mortality intertwined with truth bombs will start to do their work. Keep prodding, and the voice that comes from your innermost self starts to respond.
At first, the answer may arise as discontent, as low-grade irritability with the ho-humness of a life lived merely on the surface. “But if you keep finding yourself dissatisfied with your life, that’s the good news,” says Michael Regan, a soul-worker who melds leadership, creativity, and self-discovery. “The longer you compromise your soul, the more agitation you will experience and the more miserable you will be.” The deepest purpose of your life may not align with the goals of a productive life—the cushy job, the second home, the one-upmanship that expresses pervasive insecurity. It might even come at a cost to the personal self, with its hankering for self-aggrandizement.
“The truth is the great dismantler,” Regan tells me. It requires complete surrender, does not accept playing it safe or holding it back. The truth takes the brakes off; it hurtles you into the new, fresh potential always waiting for you to step in. Otherwise, you spend your life all jammed up, in one way or another. “Eventually that will hurt so much,” says Regan, “you will have to find the solution.”
At midlife, the crux is whether to move beyond a narrative of accumulated disappointments—or stay with the pablum of quiet desperation. Yes, the personal self gets humbled, but midlife brings genuine, soul-based satisfaction, the chance to harvest what matters most. What Regan pointed out was the paradox of the hero’s journey is that come midlife, you need to ditch any concept of hero. A hero is someone admired for worldly achievements, but the soul only wants the heroic task of truth—the ultimate inside-job—not heroic acts.
Yesterday I was back at my ski mountain, facing the moguls, feeling my fear as well as the grit of my determination to find a new way to navigate it. I positioned my upper body down over the slope instead of up away from it. The slope was slippery, to be sure. But the beauty was in going down anyway, crouching and lifting at the same time, my core strong, my heart in my feet. I knew there was no predetermined path; the path is made by the accumulation of brave pivots, the path is made from being committed to going down it.
Elizabeth Marglin is a Colorado-based journalist, writer, and poet. She is the co-author of The Wild and Sacred Feminine Deck: A 52-Card Oracle and Guidebook (Shambhala Publications 2022), and writes regularly for Yoga Journal, Spirituality & Health, AARP, and more.
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