Midlife Crisis

What many of us seem to experience somewhere through mid-life is the sobering recognition that what we had strived for in life, e.g. decent wealth or status, a loving relationship or family, a beautiful home, an ‘improved’ self etc, is still not ‘enough’ somehow to fulfill us completely. We have checked all boxes on our mental ‘happiness list’, and are puzzled and confused as to why lasting happiness and fulfillment still eludes us. Typically, there are three different reactions to this crisis: denial, resignation and/ or concession.

Let’s look at them separately:

The most common reaction is denial. We are in denial when we convince ourselves that our ‘happiness list’ has been either too short or that it had been set up based on mistaken assumptions about what would make us truly happy. Hence, we either try harder (e.g. more wealth and status) or try differently (e.g. to find and ‘follow our bliss’, to get enlightened etc). In denial we haven’t changed our mindset; we still think that happiness is something that can be sought and subsequently found around the next corner.

We are in resignation when we feel we have a right to be happy after all the struggle we’ve been through checking all those boxes. Hence, we feel betrayed by society and by life in general. We may start to behave a bit immature, become irresponsible and even dream of dropping out of society. Some may get depressed by the seeming meaninglessness and emptiness of life. Some may turn to the counterculture or to religion to find meaning. In resignation our mindset changes to reflect our rejection of the established ways to pursue happiness. On an unconscious level, though, we are still convinced that happiness is somewhere ‘out there’ to be found.

We are conceding our failure to reach happiness and fulfillment, when we aknowledge the fact, that it may not be found through our trying and seeking. This is probably the rarest reaction to a ‘checkbox crisis’ because it leaves us in a discomforting and confusing ‘limbo state’ of not knowing what to do and where to turn to. Our whole lives have been driven so much by the next ‘thing’ that it feels insecure and even terrifying not to have a clear goal anymore. Many will thus oscillate back and forth between phases of concession and denial/ resignation. This can feel like being ‘stuck’ between neither having the ambition nor a clear direction on how to proceed on the one hand and the drive to seek happiness through grasping or rejecting the world on the other hand.
A precondition for conceding is a strong intuitive notion of unconditional happiness, that is, of the possibility of uncaused moments of just peacefully resting in ‘being’. This notion usually originates from vivid childhood memories or any other (e.g. spiritual awakening) experience revealing the rich abundance of the present moment, of ‘what is’. Without this notion conceding would not only be unthinkable, but unbearable.

Dancing the limbo
What actually happens in the ‘limbo state’ of sequential seeking and retracting is a bouncing back and forth between resting in our ‘being’ and following the stories of our seeking mind. For millenia the seeking mind has been programed by the impulse of evolution to watch out for predators, look for flaws and weaknesses in our lifestyle and to find ways to change, control, manipulate and improve ourselves and our environment. To protect our organism it is constantly playing the same alluring and juicy record of ‘not quiet there yet’. Once we observe and understand the seeking mind we will come to the conclusion that whatever we will do, it will never, ever be ‘enough’. There will always be a next ‘thing’, no matter what other people or billboards try to make us believe. The essential teaching of Eastern philosophy is that falling for the stories of the seeking mind is like chasing the horizon: we never, ever get any closer to what we actually want. And this is the very root of Samsara, the cycle of insatisfactory existence: getting suckered in by the seeking mind over and over and over again…

This may seem like very bad news. If the seeking mind is hard-wired into our DNA, how can we ever find lasting fulfillment? Since any attempt to conquer the seeking mind is just another way of seeking, it is impossible to do anything about it. If so, how do we ever get out of the confusing ‘limbo state’?

Once we really know that we can’t do anything to find lasting fulfillment, we are finally ready to call the seeking minds bluff, give in, allow and surrender to ‘what is’ as opposed to chase after ‘what ought’ (which is exactly the core message of all spirituality). By seeing through the unfulfilling nature of seeking and the promise it will never be able to keep, a slow wearing out of the seeking mind gets initiated. When we curb the feeding of the impulse of seeking, moments of unconditional ‘being’ become more pronounced. As this happens our innermost nature which is always naturally at rest with all that ‘is’ is uncovered. The ‘Now’ starts to reveal itself as what it had always been: the ‘IT’ which we have been searching for all along.

“Before enlightenment chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”
~ Zen

Short Disclaimer: There are situations where the seeking mind is a very vital tool. Whenever we or somebody else is in danger, in an unbearable or unsustainable situation it would be utterly stupid to not resort to the power of the seeking mind. What I am saying is that once our basic needs are covered the seeking mind becomes an impediment to our happiness. Its function is survival, not happiness and fulfillment.

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2 Comments on “Midlife Crisis”

  1. David Ashton says:

    I like the quote from Shantideva in the Bodhisattvacharyavatara: The source of all happiness is seeking happiness for others. The source of all unhappiness is seeking happiness for ourselves. I’m not sure if I understand what seeking mind is – i.e. synonymous with the intellect or just the part of it that seeks pleasure. If the former, then it’s still a pretty handy tool for figuring out ways to bring about happiness for others.

    • Good point. The seeking mind to me is that which other people would call the ego. It is that which can’t rest in the present-moment because it is too concerned with our survival since it lives in fear. Hence, it is that which restlessly tries to control, manage, improve etc ourselves and our environment to feel safe. Thus, seeking happiness for others could be a pure ego-trip (e.g. if I think it will make me ‘better’, more loveable, etc.). If we seek hapiness for others without expecting a reward, then we are not in the domain of the ego, but I would posit that ‘beyond’ the ego there is no more seeking to do anything in particular, but spontaneous acting according to the situation and/ or one’s character (e.g. if you happen to be a Mother Theresa character you will go out and start helping poor people if you haven’t done so already). As long as I think I need to be like this or that to ‘achieve’ something, though, (e.g. to become enlightened, or a good person etc.) I am simply falling for the alluring voice of my ego/ seeking mind.
      What I find fascinating, though, is that, on the spiritual path, intense seeking, paradoxically seems to be a necessary condition to ‘get’ to the end of seeking. As Nisargadatta Maharaj put it:
      “Unless you make tremendous efforts, you will not be convinced that effort will take you nowhere. The self is so self-confident that unless it is totally discouraged it will not give up.”
      Best, eotA


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