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The Sumerian goddess Inanna

Waking up at Midlife: Going Underground

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.

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Cave of Cats: a Journey to the Underworld

Recently, I made a 12-day trip through Ireland, Wales and Cornwall to complete some research and interviews for my forthcoming book. Amongst many adventures, the most powerful was a trip to Oweynagat, the mythical Cave of Cats, at Rathcroghan, County Roscommon. I had only one day, one opportunity to go there, and it happened to be in the middle of a snowstorm, after an unexpectedly heavy February snowfall. I’m singling it out here because it relates in some sense to the series of short articles I’m writing on midlife transitions. A key part of any ‘Journey’, whether it be the Hero’s Journey or the Heroine’s Journey or any other Journey you’d like to invoke, is the passage to the Underworld. The power of the transforming dark; the cauldron; the cocoon. Call it what you will; I encountered it in all its real and tangible force in the rather intimidating Oweynagat, referred to in an old religious text as ‘the hell-mouth of Ireland’.

Battling through an unexpectedly fierce February snowstorm, I found the portal to the Underworld. At the base of a small mound in a farmer’s field in Roscommon, partially obscured by an overhanging, snow-clad tree, is a gaping black maw. It is unmarked, and inconspicuous; only the presence of a stone lintel alerts you to the fact that this isn’t just any old hole in the ground. It is the entrance to Oweynagat, Cave of Cats: Ireland’s ‘gate to Hell’, as it was called in the early ninth-century tale Cath Maige Mucrama (The Battle of Mag Mucrama).

Given that the opening is less than three feet high, you might approach your journey to the Underworld with more than a little trepidation. You’ll want to have a head-torch: just enough light to keep you safe. Get down on your hands and knees, bend your head low, and crawl down into the black. You are passing through a hole in what once was the roof of a partially collapsed man-made souterrain: a particular type of underground passageway associated with the European Atlantic Iron Age. You’ll want to go down slowly; it’s wet, muddy, slippery.

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Crawl for two or three metres, and you’ll find yourself in a small opening, a kind of entrance porch to the cave. Look behind you; shine your torch up at the old stone lintel and at its lower edge you’ll see an inscription in Ogham, the ancient Irish alphabet. The inscription reads ‘Fraoch, son of Medb’.

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Once, a passageway would have led out of this ‘porch’ to your right as you came in, but now it is blocked with collapsed debris, damage likely to be due to the construction of a small lane which comes to a stop directly overhead. The last capstone which is visible in this collapsed rubble also bears Ogham letters, but it is incomplete, and no translation has been made.

Turn left, and wiggle on your backside all the way down another low, slippery, stony passageway which descends steeply for about ten metres. It’s narrow, and it’s dark. As the passageway opens up above you, stand and look up at the rock. Your torch will pick out a myriad crystals of shining rock salt which have formed on the wet, muddy walls. Taste them: taste the salt of the Otherworld. Taste the sweat of the deep Earth.

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Look behind you; the path slopes upwards and only the faintest hint of light can be seen.

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Look up; the roof above you is ribbed. You are in a birth canal, and you are slipping down it into the silent dark womb of the Earth. Take a deep breath; walk on. All you can hear is the occasional drip of water falling from the walls into pitch-black puddles on the floor. The landscape changes again: duck, and slither downwards again as the floor level drops sharply one final time.

You’re there. Oweynagat, Cave of Cats. A long, narrow natural limestone fissure, just 2.85 metres at its widest point and about 37 metres long. Watch your step: the centre of the cavern is filled with mud. It has been known to swallow boots. Edge around the centre to the end of the fissure, where the cave ascends, narrows again, and terminates in a crack. Is this the way to the Otherworld?

You’re in a womb. Yes, really a womb: you’re in the birthplace of Medb. Medb, Maeve: spell it as you will. The goddess-queen of Connaught was born in this cave. Étain, a woman of the sidhe reborn as a mortal, was fleeing from her human husband with her sidhe lover Midir. They stopped to rest at Oweynagat with all of Étain’s companions, including her maidservant Crochan Crogderg, whose name means ‘blood-red cup’. At the end of their stay, Crochan so loved the place that she begged to stay. Étain and Midir agreed, and so it was there that Crochan’s daughter Medb was born.

The birthplace of Medb; the womb of the Earth. Turn off your torch. Turn it off; you know your way out. Turn it off, and slip into the deepest dark you’re ever likely to know. A darkness so complete, so thick that it is tangible. You realise then, if you have not learned it before, that darkness is not simply a lack of light. Darkness is alive, and its life is obscured by light. Darkness puts out its tentacles and touches your face; darkness licks at your eyes and grants you a different kind of sight. Darkness is a blanket which enfolds you in a crushing embrace. Darkness is a voice in the dark. Listen. Can you hear the beat of your heart, or is it the long, slow heartbeat of the Earth? You have no body; you have no limbs. Reach out, and there is nothing there. There is only you, whatever you might be, and the long, heavy dark.

Do you fear this? You should not. You should not, even when you remember that this was the dwelling place of the Morrigan, the Great Queen, the crow-goddess of death, war and rebirth. From here she emerged each Samhain, and here she once appeared in her chariot, crimson-cloaked, leading a heifer to the famous brown Bull of Cuailnge. Can you feel it now, the soft brush of a black crow’s wing?

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Stay in the dark, even though you are thinking now about the stories that are told about Oweynagat. A band of magical wild pigs which emerged from this place, wreaking havoc and destruction on the surrounding land before they were banished by Medb. The Ellen Trechen, a triple-headed monster which rampaged across the country before it was killed by Amergin. A flock of small red birds who withered every plant they breathed on, before they were hunted down by the Red Branch warriors of Ulster.

Chaos comes out of this cave, and you fear chaos. Do not fear it. Stay with the dark.

Oweynagat: Cave of Cats. Three magical wildcats came out of this cave, and attacked the three great warriors of Ulster, before being tamed by Cú Chulainn.

Chaos. Chaos comes from the Underworld, and you fear it. Stay in the cave. Stay, and remember that the Otherworld was also a place of protection and refuge. Think of Fraoch, son of Medb, whose name is inscribed in Ogham on the lintel of this cave. Remember that old Irish tale, the Táin Bó Fraich. Fraoch seduced Findabair, the daughter of Medb. When he refused to pay an exorbitant bride-price for her, Medb sent him on an errand near to the dwelling-place of a water monster. He slew the monster with the help of Findabair, but was severely wounded. A hundred and fifty maidens of the sidhe, all dressed in green, carried him away into Oweynagat and bore him out again the following morning, fully healed. Think of Fraoch, son of Medb, and stay with the healing dark.

The Otherworld grants visions; remember that, too. Remember Nera, the servant of Medb, who saved Cruachan from an attack by Otherworldly forces with the assistance of a fairy woman whom he met in this cave and married. She warned him that Medb’s beautiful palace would be burned to the ground the following Samhain, and her warning enabled Medb to eliminate the danger. But as for Nera … he was left there ‘together with his people, and has not come out yet, and he will not come out until the end of the world.’ Will you come out? Will you find your way out of the dark?

Remember the gifts of the dark. The great cauldron of abundance which once was kept at Tara, but later came through Oweynagat to the Otherworld. Remember the gifts of the dark. Turn around, grope for the wall and lay your forehead on its wet, muddy surface. Can you feel hear the Earth breathing, or is the rasping breath your own? It is warm in here, warmer than the snow outside. It feels safe, and it feels frightening. It feels alive, and you are alive in it. You are alive of it. Remember that. Remember the gifts of the dark.

That is enough for this visit. Turn on your torch, and make the slippery climb up to the surface.

Oweynagat 7

When you emerge from the birth canal which leads out of the womb of the Earth, you’ll be smiling. You’ll be smiling for most of the day. But you’d better wipe that mud off your face before you make your way back to Tulsk, to find a bowl of soup and a comforting pot of tea.

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Waking up at midlife

It used to be called the ‘midlife crisis’; sometime later, it became known as the ‘midlife transition’. Whatever you want to call it, it happens to us all, somewhere in the middle stages of our lives: usually in the years between forty and fifty, but sometimes a few years later. The change in terminology is helpful, though: often it isn’t a crisis, because that word suggests an acute, one-off event. The midlife transition isn’t an event, it’s a process. It can go on and on. Just when we think we’ve worked our way through it and we’re out of the dark woods, bam! – here it comes again, to make us face up to all that we had imagined we understood, but really hadn’t quite grasped at all. The midlife transition takes you by the scruff of the neck, shakes you until you rattle, until don’t know which way is up any more, and keeps on shaking you till you’ve learned what you need to learn. If you don’t fully engage with the process the first time, it’ll be coming round again. You can count on that.

The midlife transition is about waking up. About ripping away the veils, facing the darkness and the Shadow, as well as the light. Both can be equally scary. The midlife transition isn’t easy, but then it isn’t supposed to be easy. The greatest growth comes from the greatest pain, and at midlife, for better or for worse, you get to really grow. It’s not an optional add-on; it’s a developmental necessity. For women, if nothing else has pushed you into it, dealing with menopause surely will. And the only way through it is through it. There are no shortcuts. It’s the ultimate Call. No, not a Call to Adventure – this stage of our lives is all about letting go of the requirement for that kind of thing, for activity, for doing, for plot; it’s time to let go of the active, linear, all-conquering Hero’s Journey terminology. Rather, it’s a Call to something approximating pilgrimage. It is a journeying, but it isn’t about doing. It isn’t even about being – it’s about learning to become. It’s about learning to become what we can uniquely become. It’s about finally getting our act together, in the final stages of our lives. It’s about figuring out what we bring to the world, and getting on with bringing it. It’s about showing up.

All too often, people try to avoid the midlife transition. Why not? – it’s scary, and there are no guarantees. If you follow the Call, all bets are off. And so sometimes we try to resist it. Don’t bother: it’ll get you one way or another. If you don’t heed it the first time, that bell will keep on tolling till you do. But even if we hear the midlife wake-up Call, and even if we follow it, leap off the edge, embark on the Journey, it certainly isn’t plain sailing. Growing can hurt, and if we do it properly, many things must be left behind which once we thought we treasured. The gifts are concomitantly great, but sometimes it’s hard to see that for the darkness of the woods. Midlife is about letting go. About necessary lettings-go. Letting go of illusions, letting go of Shadows. Sometimes, letting go of people and places. Some people blunt the pain of new growth with alcohol or other addictions. We blunt the fear, not just because we are afraid of the dark, but because we are afraid of the light. Because we are fearful of coming into our power, especially when for so many of us – particularly if we are women – our lives have been about keeping it carefully under control. You can’t get away with that at midlife. It’s a time for shaking loose.

Over the next few months, I’ll be exploring midlife transitions on this blog. There are ways to help the process, to work with the learnings. I’ll share them here, and hope they will both resonate with and help many of you, as you grapple with your own midlife awakenings.