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The Middle Passage (Book Review Part I)

The Middle Passage: From Misery to Meaning in Midlife asks the question, how do I arrive at knowledge about my true self? Hollis addresses changes that take place in the middle passage of life; how to redefine our feeling and our view of ourselves, and what is individuation. The main question of the book is: Who am I apart from my history and the roles I play, roles I learnt after birth with which I functioned in the provisional adulthood of my life? He looks at the midlife crisis which is the opening to move from the false self to the true Self.

Ch. 1: The provisional personality p.9-15

Hollis says, we come into the world and view our reality through a lens. And when we look back we realise we did not live from our true nature. Our families pass on certain lenses to us as children which become our partial reality; it conditions our view of life and influences our choices. These views are often informed by childhood trauma which result in a sense of disconnection in the psyche. We create a provisional personality from the strategies we acquired before the age of five, with the common motive of self-protection. Yet, we yearn to recover the connectedness with ourselves. As children, we practice an undifferentiated view of thinking. We believe the energies within and without are aspects of the same reality; that an inner event in the psyche causes events in the outer world, and visa versa. This magical thinking of a child is limited and prejudicial and can restrict the psyches development when carried into adulthood.

Hollis explains, the limiting beliefs are formed when the child interprets his relationship with his parents in three ways which result in a severely partial perspective on life:

Based on parental bonding, the child concludes that life in general will relate to him in the same way; this influences his ability to trust people and the world.

The parents’ actions and attitudes towards the child becomes a statement about his worth as a person. And the approach the parents have about life’s challenges, is internalised by the child as a truth about his inner and outer world.

Furthermore, emotions during childhood such as feeling overwhelmed and feeling abandoned, become strong motivators in the adult personality.

Jung describes these reflexive, emotionally laden responses as complexes. They are unavoidable because we have a personal history. They can be useful, and can be problematic to a person’s psychology. Hollis says, the most influential complexes are those that happened as a result of the child-parent relationship; the father complex and mother complex.

Hollis continues and quotes from the writings of Wordsworth, Eugene O’Neill, and the ancient Greeks who illustrated the false self, the estrangement from our real Self based on our wounded vision. These stories show how we are driven by inner forces which we do not understand.

The only real tragedy in life is when we remain unaware of the split between our complexes and our nature, and choices. It can result in some of our most painful experiences, especially during a midlife crisis. Suddenly our old defence mechanisms no longer work. Hollis says, the distress should be welcomed, as it signifies a real Self that yearns to be expressed, bringing with it a powerful drive and a message of renewal. The transit of the Middle Passage is a clash between the learned (acquired) personality and the demands of the real Self; the first must die and be replaced by the person one wishes to be. Although it can be a source of enormous anxiety, this death and rebirth is not an end, it is a transition in order to live one’s full potential and arrive at the life-giving place of mature aging. Hollis: “Thus, the Middle Passage represents a summons from within to move from the provisional life to true adulthood, from the false self to authenticity.” (p.15)

Ch. 2: The Advent of the Middle Passage p. 16-39

The Middle Passage is a modern idea. Behaviours that were determined by old values from strong outside influences such as families, culture, and church should not automatically be discarded. “The idea that one is here to become oneself, that mysterious but absolutely unique being whose values may differ from kith and kin, was seldom imparted to those who lived before our time.” (p.17) Today the popular wisdom is that as individuals we are able to shape our own world.

Hollis explains, the pressure between the acquired self and the greater Self continues to build up. The greater Self seeks to be realised; not merely to challenge to ego-consciousness, but to relieve psychic pressure. Symptoms such as depression and addictions signify that some form of relief is needed; it is the wonderful ability of the psyche to self-regulate, and it drives the transition. Jung’s view of neurosis (this split between our two selves) is that it “must be understood, ultimately as the suffering of a soul which has not discovered its meaning.” (p.17) Hollis explains, the goal is not a life without suffering, rather the acceptance that suffering is already part of our lives, and requires that we explore its meaning. E.g. the suffering of World War II drove philosophers to find meaning within the horrendous suffering they witnessed; to help them find the ultimate purpose of life. Death and rebirth will result in new life when we approach our suffering in this way. We will rediscovery our life.

The Middle Passage is not a chronological event; it is more a linear succession of the years we have already lived. One is obliged to look into one’s life, to have a depth perspective, and not merely at one’s life. The Middle Passage begins once I ask: “Who am I, apart from my history and the roles that I have played.” (p. 19) Prior to this point, our past still dominated us. We ask what are the roles we play, and we no longer wish to be dominated by social conditioning as it strips us of our dignity and the worth we feel about our lives. If we are courageous, we can get our lives back by going head-on, fully into our suffering. We see our patterns once we have suffered a few times from the same psychological distress. Hollis suggests, we view our life during this second phase of adulthood, from a place of understanding and forgiveness, because we saw with the light we had; while we were still unconscious.

A new kind of thinking – Our task is to move on from the magical thinking of children, from the narcissistic perspective of ourselves where the ego is still inflated. Beset with wishful thinking, the child functions from this point of view until the age of about 10. He believes he is special and can conquer the world. The pain of adolescence soon stuns him, causing severe cracks in his juvenile thinking. He comes to realise he is not immortal. This is the moment the ego reacts in defence; the heroic thinking of the adolescent results. Although more realistic, it is still partly based on fantastic thinking, and illusions of grandeur. As a defence, it is necessary for the survival of the adolescent to travel safely into adulthood so that he can leave home and start a job; and dive into life.

The Middle Passage begins when the magical thinking and the heroic perspective no longer align with the life one is living; resulting in a collapse of the old-beliefs in order to arrive at realistic thinking which provides a more accurate perspective on one’s life. Hollis refers to the writings of Shakespeare and to the Greek myths to illustrate how blind hope is eventually replaced by knowledge and wisdom. The transition is needed to restore the balance of the inflated ego to a position of humility; yet dignified as it stands in its relationship to the universe. The next obvious question should be: “What work then, needs to be done?” (p.22)

Changes in identity – Changes in identity are needed to sustain the transition of the psyche through the Middle Passage. The ego tries to maintain the known identities and status quo; it tries to remain in charge. But the psyche strives toward an inner dialectic of death and rebirth We need guidance, but we lack rituals, which leave us feeling lost and disconnected from the psyche’s force that desire to move us forward. Hollis continues to explain the four life phases that define a person’s identity.

Childhood: when the ego depends on the world of the parents for its identity and meaning; significant psychic dependency. Six traditional rites of passage of old illustrate the need to transition from this state into a state of independence. 1) separation from the parents, 2) death from childhood dependency, 3) rebirth of the new being, 4) teachings of primal myths imparted for adult functioning, 5) an ordeal which teaches strength within, 6) a return and re-entering into the community with new-found knowledge required for the mature role. Hollis notes, our own culture lacks these myths, and children are stunted in their psychic development.

The second identity begins at puberty, e.g. student bodies comprise of other confused adolescents aged 12 – 28 years, only partially liberated from parental dependence; the inner truth is still in a way childlike.

Hollis describes the years between 12-40 as the first adulthood. The young person lacks a clear sense of self; and still dons a mask. Dependency is suppressed, while the first adulthood is still only a provisional existence; not living as an individual with depth and uniqueness. This way of functioning remains intact while it still works; but the Self yearns for expression, and will out in the form of symptoms such as depression, addictions, etc. Because of our projections onto adulthood, we are able to repress the rise of the true Self. Hollis writes: “The ego never was in control but rather was driven by the energy of the parental and collective complexes, sustained by the power of the projections onto the roles offered by the culture to those who would be adults.” (p.25)

The onset of the third phase occurs during the second adulthood, when projections no longer hold the answer. Enter the midlife crisis. The potential presents itself to become an individual beyond the prescriptions of parental and cultural conditioning; only those who allow the death of the first adulthood resulting in greater responsibility for their lives, will live more consciously with the hope that is a worthy fight. This is only possible when the person gives up the provisional personality and allows the false self to die. Those who remain stuck, become bitter and fearful.

“In the second adulthood, during and after the Middle Passage, the axis connects ego and Self. It is natural for consciousness to assume that it knows all and is running the show. When its hegemony is overthrown, the humbled ego then begins the dialogue with the Self. […] This is a mystery larger than any we will ever understand and its unfolding will provide us with more magnificence than our short lifetime can possible incarnate.” (p.27)

The fourths axis, the Self-God axis, or Self-Cosmos connects us to the cosmic drama. Without this our lives will remain fleeting, superficial and without the richness of the universe from which we spring. This enlarged vision is essential for transporting ourselves into the Middle Passage; to provide meaning for our suffering until now. The different axes serve to move us forward in the greater drama so that we can take on more depth and greatness.

Withdrawal of projections – Hollis emphasises, it is necessary for us to withdraw our projections if we are to travel more lightly into the Middle Passage. He quotes Jung: “the general psychological reason for projection is always an activated unconscious that seeks expression. […] In the darkness of anything external to me I find, without recognising it as such, an interior or psychic life that is my own.” (p.27) We hold the idea that the parent is omniscient and omnipotent; when we leave this realm, we continue projecting this onto the outer world; we believe it holds all our answers. During the Middle Passage, it would serve us well to withdraw these projections. Our projections onto marriage are noticeable when we believe our partner should meet all our psychological and other needs. We transfer the needs of our soul onto the subject of romantic love; like the images of the beloved that we projected onto our parents. We believe they held all our unconscious material. Here Hollis refers to Robert Johnson and Rumi. (p.28) who illustrate how the Other turns out to be a mere mortal like me.

We project onto parenthood; we assume we know what is best for our children; we project our dreams onto them and we expect our children to fulfill our lives. When our children leave, the projection can be a dangerous inhibiting tool toward their individual personhood. We also project onto our careers. Hollis writes: “When these projections dissolve, and the dissatisfaction with how one is using one’s life energy can no longer be displaced, then one is in the Middle Passage.” (p.30) What is telling about these projections, is our loss of expectations. Hollis refers to the five stages of projection that Marie Louise von Franz notes in her work, Projection and Re-Collection in Jungian Psychology.” The withdrawal of projection always results in a psychological crisis; but has at its reward self-knowledge. We discover we can save ourselves; be finally free from the trappings of our dependent childhood. Accessing the power of the psyche in this way should not be underestimated.

The body, sense of time, and hope – Hollis continues, the body system changes and it too signals the need for the Middle Passage. He quotes Yeats: “Consume my heart away; sick with desire / and fastened to a dying animal.” (p.32) The body becomes a trap. And so too does time when we realise we are not immortal. This experience of having limitations, signals the end of the first adulthood; we are forced to face the realities of life. In contrast, if one avoids the expansion of consciousness by not withdrawing projections, the result is a psyche that is fixated on childhood wishes: I am going to live forever, I am larger than life. These ego’s defences which also inform the hope for the perfect relationship, is a juvenile state. The disillusionment that all relationships are imperfect and limited in their ability to meet our psychological needs, results in many marriages ending in midlife. We project what we do not yet own as part of ourselves. We can only release the disappointment about the other once we own up to the fact that it is our responsibility alone to provide for our needs; to find meaning for ourselves. Once this has taken place, we can enter the second adulthood.

Neurosis – The Middle Passage also presents as a stage of heightened neurosis, or even psychological insanity when it results in a severe turn-about of a person’s long held way of standing in the world. Hollis describes how a patient threw chairs through a closed window as a way of expressing the inner trapped feeling he was experiencing in his psyche. […] “responding to the enormity of the needs and emotions which beset [him] just at a time when [his] maps of reality no longer match the terrain.” (p.35) During the Middle Passage the widening gap between the learned self and the true Self result in a person feeling separated from himself. The neurosis does not mean a neurological event, rather the division the psyche experiences and subsequent protesting as a result. Therapy is a valuable tool in reconnecting with the real Self. The neurosis signals the place of wounding that the ego is frantically trying to navigate against feeling disconnected with the parts of the psyche; it holds enormous potential for transformation as an opening for the psyche to readjust itself to reality.

Dissociation is another symptom of neurosis. We no longer want to submit to the pressures of childhood, or society’s expectations; we become estranged from ourselves as parts of our psyche resist conforming. Jung’s notion was not to medicate the discomfort away. He mentions the ‘new adaptation’ that results from engaging through dialogue with the fragmented parts of ourselves; a dialogue between the ego and Self which can heal the split in ourselves caused by our history. Here myths serve a valuable purpose in restoring the psyche’s balance and energy. Hollis concludes: “[…] our dragons represent all that we fear and which threatens to swallow us; but they are also neglected parts of ourselves which may prove immensely valuable.” (p.39)

Ch. 3: The Turn Within p. 40-79

Hollis writes: “An insufficiently attained ego identity haunts and hinders a person’s development in the second half of life.” (p.40) The shift from ego state to the Middle Passage causes confusion, frustration and loss of identity; if this task remains incomplete, it can result in significant distress and disillusionment. The natural response of the ego is to blame the outer world, the same way the child held the parent responsible for meeting his needs. The turning toward one’s inner Self, signals the true beginning of maturity; taking full responsibility means we cannot hold God or parents or society responsible. With the breaking down of the ego, it is no longer the prime ruler. This humbling experience although painful, as the story of Job symbolises, is what is needed for the ego to shift from an ego-world perspective to the ego-Self which the second adulthood necessitates. Hollis says it so well: “[…] growing up […] means finally confronting one’s dependencies, complexes and fears without the mediation of others.” (p.42) He suggests, we make fears our agenda; and with this comes a whole new consciousness and way of living one’s life; and summons the persona-shadow dialogue. (Continued in Part II Blog-Post)