It takes honest introspection to admit that we sleep walk through life most of the time. In our somnambulant state we try to find meaning in ego pursuits. We seek prestige through the acquisition of knowledge, the accumulation of stuff, and the attainment of position. But in the end we often ask,
“What is the point of all this?” and “where is this getting me?”
Then in middle age something changes.
Psychiatrist Carl Jung observed that the middle years are when many people start yearning for meaning in life. However, often the person in crisis is confused about this life passage. He/she can be easily derailed.
I remember (with some embarrassment) the red Porsche that I bought in my mid-life passage. Sure there was the thrill of racing up the winding roads of a mountain pass. Then there was the ego boost of gunning the car at the green light and leaving other drivers in the dust. But ego fixes are short lived. You can shop until you drop, but after that, what then?
A real mid life crisis is in fact a soul cry. It is a yearning for meaning and is reflected in the poignant midlife question, “What is the point of my life?”
What has been your mid-life question?
My burning question for past decades has been
How can I be as awake as possible to all of life?
Many have no clue as to what being awake means. Or we perceive the waking state as too painful. Anthony De Mello writes in his book Awareness
“The chances that you will wake up are in direct proportion to the amount of truth you can take without running away”
A key component to being awake is found in our capacity to connect with our feeling world and that of others. It is crucial however for us to define what we mean by “feeling world”. Some of our emotions are dysfunctional. They pop up easily without any censorship in the form of rage and jealousy. Then there are positive feelings like compassion and kindness. At times they have to be squeezed out like toothpaste from a crushed tube.
The chief cause of constricted feelings comes from the ego wall that we construct around our hearts. We have an image of ourselves that we want others to see. This is an ego publicity stunt. The sexist impression that many males want to display in our society include status, strength (god forbid vulnerable), knowledge (recounting facts), and in control (my way or the highway). In the impression management men don’t want to appear like the stereotypical “weaker sex”.
As a male I needed a lot of good mirrors that would reflect back my emotional dysfunction. Years of psychotherapy, spiritual direction, feedback from significant women in my life, and reflection on some of my foolish life decisions started to open me up to my feelings.
Here are some strategies for navigating the feeling world
Being responsive, not reactive
We all have our hot button issues. People who trouble or perplex us typically activate these pain points in our psyche. In reaction to such persons we have strong negative emotional reactions like anger, dislike, judgment, and avoidance.
More often than not, these persons are simulating an old conflict with ghosts from our past. We react automatically and unconsciously to them “as if” they were embodied in the person irritating me in the present.
The key to managing these disabling feelings is to know what is going on by identifying the hurt parts of us that they activate. We can learn to curb our reactivity by hitting the brakes and learning detachment from the emotional situation . Viewing these difficult people as our teachers and looking for their inner essence is a helpful discipline.
Feed the soul starve the ego
The soul should always stand ajar – Emily Dickinson
When I speak of self-awareness I must ask a deeper question like “What is that self”? And here’s the rub. We are all made up of two entirely different selves.
There is the ego self, which is based on the story the mind constructs about us. Mixed in with that story is the preoccupation we have with the opinion of others. Ego baggage includes a dualistic narrative that tells me that I am,
“separate and distinct from others, entitled and privileged, measure yourself by your performance, and what’s in it for me
I like what Michael Pollan says about the ego that
”It is that inner neurotic who insists on running the mental show, is wily and doesn’t relinquish its power without a struggle”
Other practices useful in the toppling of the ego include prayer and meditation. However demolishing the ego is an almost impossible task. It is not like the toppling of a statue of some despotic ruler. It is more like the popular arcade game of Whack-a-Mole. One knocks the ego down and it pops up in another location. I believe that the attempt to demolish or whacking the ego is a life long quest.
To date, the best I can expect from self-awareness is to quickly identify the presence of the ego with a “there you go again” and then to make soul-based choices.
We also need to learn how to step
back from a busy thought life that behaves like a barrel full of hyperactive
monkeys. The talkative brain can be silenced through mindful meditation or
centering prayer. The meditation technique that I find useful is every time the
mind starts chattering, I don’t resist it but say instead “I see you mind talking away”. It is often in those moments that into
that pause steps the observing self. He/she is more likely to be objective
about our person. In so doing it reflects the true self.
So, what woke you up to your true self?