Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Midlife Disaster

A crisis at midlife can be a door to greater satisfaction in all areas of life -  if navigated successfully.   Lately I have been thinking that when the midlife crisis is being referenced in our popular lexicon, what we are really discussing is a midlife disaster.   A crisis is simply a critical juncture or turning point in life.  Any crisis is stressful, but not by definition a negative event.   But it is a time for paying attention.    What are the distinguishing features of the midlife disaster?    There are the more dramatic ones that could include the demise of a significant relationship; the loss of one's job, career, or livelihood; depression and even suicide.    But there are also quieter forms of the midlife disaster.   In this disaster, everything on the surface may look perfectly fine, with no major external disruptions.   However in the internal world something is clearly amiss.   I was talking with someone recently who knew that many years ago, without realizing it, she had abandoned something vital in her.   She saw this part of her as someone wild and sensual, who many in her early world felt threatened by.  As a girl she remembers just wanting to go outside and walk in the grass in her bare feet, but even that was somehow against the rules.   Without any one to recognize, help, and 'bless' this energy it led her into misadventures that then locked this energy up further in guilt and regret.    These conditions are ripe for creating those dramatic disasters, if the 'wild and sensual' side jumps over the fence and begins to act (or act out)  without anyone  looking after her.    But it will be equally disastrous, in my opinion, for that force of life to remain caged within her.    The bills will still get paid, the roof will remain over her head, her family's and clients needs will be tended to, but she will not feel passionate and alive.

Copyright © 2010 David O. Aspenson   All rights reserved

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Tending the Garden of the Midlife Mind

Men are disturbed not by the things that happen,
But by their opinion of the things that happen.

~ Epictetus ~

Everything we feel, experience, and do is powerfully shaped by the activity that exists between our right and left ears, - in the perceptions of our mind.     I am using this metaphor, the garden of the mind, to suggest the benefits of tending to the nature of our thoughts and perceptions.   Our ability to navigate the crisis that can come at the midlife juncture - to understand it and make the most use of its hidden benefits - will depend upon our mental gardening habits.    Tending the garden of the mind is one of the most under-utilized strategies we have at our disposal to make positive changes in our lives.    How do we become good gardeners of the mind at midlife?

Weeds in the garden of the mind
There are a number of factors that contribute to a healthy garden including placing it in a location where it will receive the light of the sun, choosing the right seeds for the environment, and watering the seeds you want to grow.    But let’s focus on one especially important discipline required- weeding your mental garden.   Weeds in the garden of the mind are the thoughts, beliefs and perceptions that when left unattended choke the life of the plants we want to grow.    The weeds of our thoughts are what leave us discouraged, demoralized, fearful, and even depressed.    They are the perceptions that will derail us from accomplishing what we set out to do or rob us of our peace of mind.     Some midlife weeds include thoughts such as:  “There is so much more I thought I would have done with my life by now”;   “I no longer  have sufficient time left or the inclination to pursue my dream, or even remember what it was”;  “The best years of my life are over”;  “I can’t really stand the work I do, but I have no choice but to keep doing it”;  “What’s wrong with me- I should be happy with my life just as it is”’;  “The world is for the young, there is no place for me anymore”.      If you have managed to make it to middle age, it’s likely you have some such weeds.    What are yours?     

How to weed
The importance of your thoughts in shaping your experience may not be a new idea for you. However, if you find yourself stuck or suffering inordinately, it suggests you may not be seeing and tending to the weeds in your own garden.   The more typical strategy at this juncture is to look first to changing external circumstances rather than tending to this inner garden.    Here are some tips to help: 
1) Be aware of the signs of too many weeds.    Simply feeling bad is the main symptom of an untended garden.  You may feel chronically frustrated, or find that something you really want to do or have remains forever elusive.  
2) Pay attention.    Listen for thought weeds as they occur.    If you believe you are having a crisis, it is a good time to get your pen or keyboard and write down all the thoughts that the ‘little voice’ in your mind is saying to you about your experience.     Make note especially of the ones that leave you feeling sad, discouraged, guilty, angry, or hopeless. 
3) Most importantly- PULL THOSE WEEDS.   Mental weeding is to adopt the perspective that all those unhelpful thoughts are not literally true.   They are just thoughts - unhelpful thoughts at that.   But if we water them… that is dwell upon and entertain them as literal truths, they can devastate the health of our  precious mental garden.    A good inner response as you pull a mental weed is simply saying to those unhelpful thoughts  “thanks for sharing”, as you turn your attention instead to watering the healthy plants.   When I stumble upon a patch of mental weeds, I like to adopt the persona of the “Dude” (cf. The Big Lebowski) and respond to those unhelpful thought weeds with:  “…Well that’s, like, just your opinion man”.     Try making all of those unhelpful thoughts speak to you with the voice of an old cartoon character, like Elmer Fudd.   That will help put them into perspective.     
4) Think better thoughts.   Sounds simple, but in reality choosing to replace an unhelpful thought with a better one takes a great deal of focus, practice, and mental discipline.    Most of the time, most of us just leave all those weeds to grow like… well weeds. 

If we can bring some conscious awareness to the state of our mental garden, it gives us the option of doing something about it.  Ultimately, it does not matter where those weeds originated.  If they have blown into your garden, they are now your responsibility.      To survive and even thrive as a result of your midlife crisis, tend to this garden…and it will take care of you.  

Copyright © 2010 David O. Aspenson   All rights reserved   

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Midlife Fantasies

I was thinking today while driving home from my Sunday afternoon hike that some might think it irresponsible to encourage people to listen to their fantasies.  In the movie American Beauty the main character, (played by Kevin Spacey-one of my favorite actors) was pining after a teenage girl- a friend of his daughters no less.   If I remember correctly,  his fantasy even included some rose petals on the bed.    Would we encourage that fantasy?   Of course not.   But does that fantasy suggest nothing more than a ridiculous sexually frustrated middle aged man?   It could.    But if our character managed to avoid getting distracted by the literal form of the fantasy (and sent to jail),  maybe he would notice that it is trying to tell him something.    Perhaps it is trying to tell him that as went about finding his way in the world, something vital was lost.    Maybe it is a much larger and broader passion for life that is trying to wake up.    Yes, it would be irresponsible to take such a fantasy literally.   But it may also be irresponsible, in equal measure, to not listen to these fantasies, nor deeply consider what is trying to wake up in our own soul.

© Copyright David Aspenson

Friday, November 5, 2010

Midlife Fantasies

To successfully navigate a midlife crisis you must adopt a useful relationship with your fantasies.    Fantasies can emerge with a vengeance at midlife.  They are typically formed out of certain important needs that have not been really attended to in the life you have built to date.     Someone told me recently they fantasized about having three months away from their business to wander leisurely to California and back.   Though they did not consider this 'realistic', it was still important to pay attention to what the fantasy was trying to say about what was missing.    In a  nutshell, the 'useful relationship' to your fantasies is to listen deeply to their underlying message without 1) taking them too literally by acting prematurely and thoughtlessly or 2) denying them altogether as irrelevant and impractical in your life.    I will come back to this subject later.

© Copyright David Aspenson

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Has your partner gone crazy?

If your partner seems to have gone 'crazy' at midlife - suddenly voicing a wide range of extreme discontents that you have not heard before - this is also a crisis for you. Life as you knew it has suddenly been disrupted and it is not even your choice. What do you do? There are two coping strategies at the extreme ends that you want to avoid. On one end is feeling over responsible for where your partner has landed, and assuming it is up to you to 'fix' things. Recognize that if you are pulling your own hair out in a frustrated attempt to get things back to where they were - it is your own anxiety that is working on you. You are certainly entitled to that anxiety under the circumstances, but in the short run it will be more effective to work on managing the anxiety directly and taking care of yourself. It might help to not take everything you hear from your partner as a literal truth at this point. The other end of the coping strategy continuum is a little more subtle to describe. On this end, you discount anything your partner has to say as a symptom of his or her midlife craziness. Here is the temptation to adopt more of the stance of a victim. No matter what the circumstances when we start down the victim path we feel our life is just circumstances that are happening to us. If only those circumstances would line for us for once, then all will be OK. There is not much sense of personal power and self-direction down this path. You are not the cause of your partner's apparent temporary insanity, even if they directly or indirectly insinuate that you are. But we do not want leave you as an innocent victim is this drama. There may well be something here for you to look at in your own life. The most effective strategies for coping with your partner's crisis are found in the middle ground between these two extremes.

© Copyright David Aspenson