The Middle Passage, from Misery to Meaning in Midlife by James Hollis

The Middle Passage, from Misery to Meaning in Midlife by James Hollis

This book review is by Lynelle Pieterse and will be explored in the bookclub. Follow this link to join the Jungian Bookclub.

James Hollis received his Diploma in Analytical Psychology from the C.G. Jung Institute in Zurich, and is the Director of the C.G. Jung Educational Center in Houston, Texas. He is a frequent guest speaker who spends winters in analytic practice and writes during the summers. In his books, he elaborates on the theories of C. G. Jung. Contemplated are such questions as how people may deal with the passage through midlife, creating a richer experience. He also shows readers how to overcome the hardships and struggles of life and how to live every day to the fullest.

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.

Dialogue with the shadow – Once the ego is no longer dominant, one wonders who one is, who is in charge. It is the place where the persona and shadow collide. The persona being the proudly acquired self, is a compromise as between the individual and society, according to Jung. This dialogue asks of us to find a balance between the external values of society and our inner truth. The degree to which we believe we are our persona is the degree to which we will suffer; feeling disconnected, resulting in heightened anxiety in the psyche. The mask of the ego and the roles, result in anxiety; we know this is not our true selves; we aware of something much larger and greater residing in our inner world.

The shadow contains all that is repressed and problematic, e.g. anger and sexuality. In the case of anger when it is channelled in the correct way, it can result in enormous liberation and change for the individual. At the core, we must bridge the divide between the false self and the true self, and feel whole in relation to all our parts. To experience one’s own reality freely, is to heal the inner split. During the middle passage the energy of the Shadow brings our psyche into balance. Whatever is not yet conscious, will eventually influence us. But the shadow should not be confused with evil; it is merely a part of psychic life which is repressed; and becoming conscious of my shadow, is equal to becoming truly human; being more sincere, and more interesting. Hollis writes, a person without a shadow is pale and uninteresting.

But the shadow will out. And it will do this through unconscious deeds, through projections, through depression, in somatic illnesses. A conscious appointment with my shadow in the midlife is of the utmost importance. By having this dialogue with my shadow, I will relieve much tension in ourselves and in our relationships. If the meaning of life is directly related to the measure in which I live consciously, then the role of the shadow is that of a healer. The more I can know about myself, the more potential I can realise, and the more colourful and richer my experience of life will be.

During the Middle Passage the energy of the Shadow is the aspect which brings our psyche into balance; to bridge the divide between the false self and the true self; to experience one’s own reality and to discover one’s inner world; and to feel whole in relation to all the parts of our inner world. That which is not yet in consciousness will eventually influence us in future. The shadow should not be confused with evil; it is merely a piece of psychic life which is still repressed. The shadow will out, and it will do this through unconscious deeds, through projections, through depression, in somatic illnesses. To become aware of the shadow is equal to being truly human; we become more sincere, more interesting – a person without a shadow is pale and uninteresting. A conscious appointment with the shadow in the midlife is of the utmost importance; by dialoguing with the shadow, we relieve much tension in ourselves and in our relationships.

Relationship problems and marriages – Our long-term intimate relationships in midlife hold the potential for much pain and disillusionment. They carry with them the unmet needs of the inner child in both partners. Many of these relationships were formed during the first adulthood; from a place of relative unconsciousness. During the Middle Passage, we are confronted with ourselves and our partners. Hollis looks at these relationships by discussing the nature of intimacy; we start off believing that marriage and romantic love are synonymous. He has the view that arranged marriages based on the working function of a relationship, have a higher success rate than those based on romantic expectations which feed into both parties’ projections. He illustrates the transactions that take place between men and women in heterosexual relationships at the hand of a diagram. The four entities are: the man’s ego, the woman’ ego, the animus, and the anima. The animus is the woman’s experience of the male principle, primarily influenced by the imprint her father had on her psyche. The anima is the inner experience a man had of the feminine, primarily his mother. The projection diagram shows how the animus in the woman is projected onto the man, and the anima of the man is projected onto the woman. Keeping in mind that anima and animus are unconscious drives in our psyche; and the two egos are our conscious way of relating to each other. Romantic love awards a relationship between a man and a woman with a deep sense of connection. Love at first sight is a good example of an extreme projection onto the other person; believing the other will provide all the happiness in the world.

Real life challenge these projections. Hollis writes: “one is left with the otherness of the Other, who will not and cannot meet the largeness of the projections. So, people will conclude at midlife that ‘You are not the person I married.’ Actually, they never were. They always were somebody else, a stranger we barely knew and know only a little better now.” (p.47) We fall in love with the missing parts of ourselves. Another human can never replace or make up for the part in my psyche which was damaged or went underground. We must take responsibility for the fact that everything we need is available to us when we access our own psyche, our own personality. A relationship with the other can only be as good as my relationship with myself, with the relationship I have with unconscious content in my psyche. It is a fallacy to think that what I ‘see’ in the other is the answer to my missing parts, or to my primal needs that I experienced as a child that may still be unmet. Hollis writes, it is no wonder relationships are so burdened; due to these inhuman demands that we place on our partners; onto what he terms, the magical Other. If the magical Other will not serve our needs, “The question then shifts from expecting the magical other to save us to the role that relationship might play in attaining greater meaning in life. To put the expectation of together we will be one inhibits the growth and development of both individuals – both others. The fusion model in midlife no longer serves. Hollis substitutes this by saying a mature relationship where each person takes responsibility for his or her happiness, is a relationship that contains an open-ended character. Each person can take on the task of being fully themselves by taking full responsibility vs. the dependency model we became accustomed to during childhood.

Hollis continues: “When one has let go of projections and the great hidden agenda, then one can be enlarged by the otherness of the partner. One plus one does not equal One, as in the fusion model; it equals three – the two separate beings whose relationship forms a third which obliges them to stretch beyond their individual limitations.” (p.49) Love relationships, Jung agreed, are one way of living the symbolic life, but not if the partners remain trapped in the superficial. The option of divorce or separation is today an answer to not have to remain stuck in a situation that serves neither party on the journey to individuation. One’s partner can most definitely play a supporting role in our journey, but with the agreement that one does not run away from the largeness of responsibility for one’s own life. The restoration of a marriage or partnership that has been projected on, remains problematic. It can only be conducive to both parties once the projection of negativity onto the partner is withdrawn.

Hollis says, the sooner each partner can commit to the task of individuation as the main aim of the relationship, the greater the chance of success it will have. To take on the role only as partner and not as rescuer or enemy, is the answer. This does not exclude individual therapy. True intimacy results when the parties openly communicate their struggles and disappointments, and generate compassion for the struggle ahead. Only once we have a good sense of what it is like to be the other person, can we truly love the other. A double strength is required – the ability to fully own one’s journey toward happiness, plus have the courage to validate the other’s point of view. True maturity means releasing expectations that the other (like the child released expectations about the parent) should be the sole provider for one’s sense of self-worth. We must learn to be our own best companion and supporter. Healing the messages of the animus and anima is vital for connecting to one’s intrinsic value as a partner. Hollis emphasises, a man must make sure that he has a healthy relationship with his feminine soul (anima); evolving from merely living in his head (thinking) to connecting to what he feels. “Woman cannot be that inner connection; they can only receive and partially carry the man’s projection of her.” (p.54) Women should be challenged to secure the relationship they have with themselves. Once her animus as positive energy is expressed, she can release herself from the sense of dependency and of powerlessness. “Positive animus energy is seldom given; it is achieved.” (p.57)

Affairs – Hollis addresses the matter of midlife affairs: “Whatever merits the third party may have in reality, she or he will certainly be the bearer of projections.” (p.57) The power of the unconscious projections is exactly that, powerful. And once possessed by the drives from the unconscious one cannot be said to be realistic. The draw of the affair relates back to the stages of the first adulthood – to the pull of excitement; a magical promise to supplying restoration for the undeveloped aspects of animus and anima in the psyche. For this reason, affairs hold so much numinosity: “It really embraces one’s lost soulfulness.” (p.58)

In the first adulthood marriage holds the promise of fusion. Hollis says, if we were to see ourselves as a sphere with many facets and not as a half seeking the other half, we realise no other person can relate to all our facets; we can only match up a high average of our facets with a high average of the facets of the other person. Multiple friendships may be the answer to these unmet needs, keeping in mind, boundaries around sexual fidelity should be intact. The midlife affair is often viewed as a way to complete one’s perceived stunted development; from the perception that one seeks wholeness, and that the first partner did not make this possible. It is indeed a disappointment when we must accept that we truly are separate, even when we are relationship; but is this not exactly the liberating moment when we discover and practice taking responsibility for our own completion, our own connection. “If marriage is, as Nietzsche suggested, a grand conversation, most marriages do not meet the test.” (p.60) The only solution for a marriage going through the Middle Passage is for each partner to be a separate person; to then enter into dialogue with the other separate person in the marriage. “Each person must become more fully an individual before there can be a transformation of the relationship. […] Hollis concludes: “Loving the otherness of the partner is a transcendent event, for one enters the true mystery of relationship in which one is taken to the third place – not you plus me, but we who are more than ourselves with each other.” (p.61)

Parents and children – Hollis emphasises, the relationship with our parents should alter during the Middle Passage if our most important task is to separate from our parental complexes. We will never be fully ourselves if we remain stuck in the reactive stage of the first adulthood which determined our sense of self; if we have not yet accepted full responsibility for shaping our own identity. Working through the parent complexes is a key function to address our acquired responses to power and self-actualisation. If we remain in the juvenile state of looking to the outer world to shape our inner identity and orientations, we will not be fully liberated to become who we are meant to be. Many girls have been trapped by aspects of their father’s unhealthy animus they internalised; and the same for boys who carry the unhealthy anima of their mothers. Parents must free their children by ceasing to see their children as extensions of themselves; this is the key to hand to their children toward individuation. Hollis describes, the person who is still trapped by the voice of the internalised parent, is encouraged to find their own voice in therapy so that they may arrive at a place where they come to trust their inner truth. The same principle applies as does in a marriage: “the task is to love the otherness of the Other. (p.65)

It is a developmental truth that we cannot love ourselves unless we experienced what it felt like to have our parents affirm us. The greatest need of a child is to feel nurtured and empowered. We must navigate the second adulthood if these aspects are underdeveloped in our psyche. To access as sense of one’s own knowing and distinguish it from the messages of the parent, is a vital prelude to the second half of life. If these influences remain unconscious, they contain directive energies which manifest as complexes. “What is not conscious from our past will infiltrate our present and determine our future […] The degree to which we can risk relationship, or even to imagine it as supportive rather than hurtful, is a direct function of our level of conscious dialogue with the parent complexes.” (p.71) If we are prepared to take on the daunting task of the personal journey of liberation and individuation, we will be able to move beyond our personal history and manifest our full potential.

Job vs. Vocation – Hollis distinguishes between earning money as a job, which our main focus during the first adulthood, versus the idea of having a vocation. The latter he describes as “what we are called to do with our life’s energies. It is a requisite part of our individuation to feel that we are productive, and not responding to one’s calling can damage the soul.” (p.72) He agrees, we cannot ignore the fact that we have bills to pay, but it is crucial that we arrive at a balance in the Middle Passage. Hollis refers to Kazantzaki’s novel, The Last Temptation of Christ to illustrate the danger of betraying one’s self, and thus betraying one’s individuation. Hollis writes quite poetically: “But for vocation one does not ask; one is asked. And a considerable part of the meaning of one’s life comes from saying yes when asked. The ego does not run life; it knows very little. It is the mystery of the Self that awesomely asks us to become whole, and how we decide to spend our energy plays a significant role in our journey.” (p.74) Living from a place of courage instead of a place of ego-constraint, holds the great reward of releasing our energies that enable us to become the larger person we are called to be.

The inferior function – Hollis discusses Jung’s eight personality typologies which describe how we approach our individual reality. Jung’s notion is that we have a dominant function and an inferior function as influences in relation to our vision and our personality. We feel the inner distress at midlife when we and society encourages us to ignore the whole person. Our dreams present as an antidote to this; they communicate our inferior function by taking us to the opening of the unconscious; they show how we express the other side of our personality. Our aim during the Middle Passage should be to reclaim the aspects of ourselves that we sacrificed in the first adulthood. Jung’s typology model can restore balance to our personality by acknowledging the parts that became out of balance.

Shadow invasions – Jung’s notion is, the persona is the face we believe we should present to the world; it protects our inner world, but remains a fragment of the Self. He emphasises, the Shadow should not be seen as evil rather as a part of us that has been repressed. If making meaning in the second half of life is directly related to the measure in which I live consciously, then the role of the shadow is that of a healer. Hollis writes: “By dialoguing with our shadow we lift enormous projections of animosity or envy off others.” (p.79) The more I can know about myself, the more potential I can realise, and the more colourful and richer my experience of life will be.

Ch. 4: Case Studies in Literature p. 80-93

Contrary to popular writings on psychology which refers to clinical examples, Hollis discusses some literary cases by referring to the writings of Dante, T.S. Eliot, Shakespeare, Goethe, John Cheever, Dostoevsky’s Kafka, Conrad, and the poets Roethke, Richard Hugo, Diane Wakoski, and Sylvia Plath; the content is only partially included in this synopsis.

Hollis quotes Aristotle whose view was: “art can sometimes be clearer than life because art embraces the universal.” (p.80) The examples in the literature effectively illustrate the principles of the Middle Passage. He emphasises, when we read about a shared condition of a literary character, through the dramatization of their human condition, we can identify with the shortcomings, actions and especially insights of the character. This could greatly assist us in feeling less isolated from the process of becoming our true Self. Hollis concludes this chapter by saying: “We must address the making of our myths more consciously or we shall never be more than the sum of what has happened to us.” (p.93)

Ch. 5: Individuation: Jung’s Myth for Our Time p. 94-100

“The experience of the Middle Passage is not unlike awakening to find that one is alone on a pitching ship, with no port in sight. One can only go back to sleep, jump ship or grab the wheel and sail on.” (p.94) Hollis continues to say, when we choose to take responsibility for the journey, we avoid getting stuck in our juvenile notions and neuroses. Jung notion, that we have to understand the shortcomings of our childhood development in order to live a fuller life, supports this. Hollis further writes; “What we need is not unexamined ‘truths’, but living myth, that is a structure of value which guides the soul’s energies in a way that is consistent with our nature.” (p.95) He refers to the symptoms of the midlife crisis: boredom, shifting jobs or partners, addictions, self-destructive patterns, infidelity, depression, anxiety, etc. which refer to the increasing pressure from within, summoning an inevitable crisis of selfhood that is bound to erupt. If we can see this as an invitation for constructive change, we will welcome the suffering which affords an increase in consciousness with the promise of restored psychic energy. The Self has become tired out by ego defences, and aims to direct us toward a better path. Although we would prefer to be saved by something outside of ourselves, and avoid having to ‘swim alone’, we will do well to avoid the safer rout which prevents us from experiencing healing and the promise of renewed life. We will be reconnected to something much more lasting which is our own true Self, and heal from the alienation that childhood and culture caused in the soul. On this point, Hollis quotes Jesus who said: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.” (p.96)

Although the task may seem daunting, it can also be liberating to realise everything we need already exists as potential in our psyche. Here myths have the makings to guide us consciously and unconsciously; but to avoid the prescriptive false myths which say we must always ‘be good children’. Conforming to any expectation that is not one’s own would only serve to alienate us more from our true Self. Jung said “we are forced to choose between outer ideologies or private neurosis. Only the path of individuation could serve as a viable alternative. (p.97). Individuation is the myth for our time which provides a set of images to guide the soul’s energies; it is the call to each of us to become fully ourselves regardless of the limits acquired by our history; keeping in mind Jung’s words: “I am not what I happened to me, I am what I choose to become.” (p.97) We should act as if we are free to choose above our history; removing the notion that we are victims in need of ego-defences which in the end only serve to disappoint. A way to take responsibility is to continuously check what rises up from within our psyche instead of identifying with the objective world as our only reality. This should remind us that we are spiritual beings with a telos, a mysterious goal of our own. The more differentiated we become, the more enriched our relationships will be. Hollis writes: “The paradox of individuation is that we best serve intimate relationship by becoming sufficiently developed in ourselves that we do not need to feed off others. […] when we have something unique, our fullest possible selves, to offer.” (p.99) It is not a narcissistic view of the world as it is the best possible way to inspire others to become less alienated from themselves and others. When we can stand in relationship to something larger than ourselves and our own ego, it can transform us. “We are to know ourselves more fully and to know ourselves in the context of the larger mystery.” (p.100)

Ch. 6: On the High Seas and Alone p.101-117

On the high seas of the soul we are asked to be courageous and conscious. Hollis suggest the following practices and approaches may greatly assist our process of individuation.

From loneliness to solitude – Hollis quotes Marianne Moore who once wrote: “the best cure for loneliness is solitude.” (p.101) We need a keen appreciation of the relationship to the Self if we are to heal and meet our soul. The practice of solitude, that psychic state wherein I am fully present to myself is what is called for. We must confront the trauma of separation, the loss and the withdrawal of projections, and we must address the aspect of psychic fear. If the parent-child relationship was painful and troubled, subsequent relationships will be experienced by a significant degree of dependency. Hollis suggests we ask: “In what way am I so afraid that I am avoiding myself, my own journey?” (p.102) If we are co-dependent in our relationship we will continue to avoid the experience of our own separate being. Asking what voice of the parent is informing my inner script can assist in freeing me to find my own truth. During midlife, we experience many losses in our relationships: children grow up, friends die; divorce takes away much of our security and challenges our identity because of what was held in the projection onto the Other. It is vital that we honour these losses and know that we are far more than any single relationship; we can untie the part of ourselves that we fixed onto our child or partner. Renewed energy springs forth to confront the question, ‘what now’. Courage is needed to let go of the trappings that prevent us from individuating outside of relationship. We need rituals to ensure we take time out for ourselves. At first this may seem forced, but allowing the silence to speak, reaps great rewards. Hollis concludes that self-alienation is a product of the modern world; when on ‘hears’ oneself during chosen times of silence, one finds companionship with one’s self which moves us away from empty loneliness into a place of productive solitude.

Connecting with the lost child – The wounds of early childhood can be a source of healing during the Middle Passage. All aspects of the whole and healthy psyche of the child should be recovered as a psychic practice. We must address the negative aspects of the childhood personality, such as the narcissistic, jealous, enraged, volatile aspects; and reclaim the forgotten good childhood characteristics – freedom, wonder, joy, curiosity. The free child can easily be inhibited by institutions such as marriage or corporates, but healing begins when we openly ask what our spontaneous, healthy child wants; and the inner child needs to be consciously asked what needs to be restored that was restricted by ego-construction during the first adulthood. The left-behind talents hold enormous healing potential for the psyche when invited consciously and creatively.

The passionate life – Hollis refers to Joseph Campbell who said; “Follow your bliss.” (p.105) We must free ourselves form the dictates of parents and culture to connect with our passion (bliss). Artists have a way of informing us about passion as they are always ‘near the fire’ of creativity’s flame. That which pulls us into life and into our true nature, is the thing that can transform us. The only fear should be to fear the unlived life. Hollis writes: “My understanding of this is that when one has been in the presence of the truly creative, the imaginatively bold, then one cannot feign unconsciousness. One is similarly summoned to largeness of soul, boldness of action. Finding and following our passion […] serves individuation by pulling our potential from the depths. […] Living passionately is the only way to love life.” (p.107)

The swamplands of the soul – The goal of individuation is wholeness, not an ego that reigns and keeps the psyche fragmented. The child within depends on the Other to always be there. Loss of the things that matter to us come as a huge shock; it is similar to the loss we experienced when we left the first adulthood and launched into the Middle Passage. We become disillusioned to find that there is no such thing as Happiness, on the contrary, we often find ourselves more in a swampland; we feel our loneliness, loss, grief, doubts, depression, despair, anxiety, guilt and betrayal to name a few. Hollis reminds us: “The psyche has purposiveness which lies beyond the powers of conscious control, and our task is to live through these states and find their meaning.” (p.107) These swamplands represent an aspect of the psyche whose meaning is to be found if we courageously take them on. Dialoguing with the subsequent emotional states affords us our personal integrity and results in enlarged consciousness.

The great dialectic – Jung encouraged that we dialogue with ourselves; asking the daily question: ‘Who am I in this situation, what voices do I hear?’ Parts of ourselves have become split off by experiences and invade us in the form of complexes. We have must find out who we are, if we are not our ego and not our complexes. The ego-Self dialogue is therefore crucial; the Self being that part of ourselves which manifests as larger purposiveness; it prompts us through somatic, affective or imaginal expressions. One of the key areas where we can take part in the inner dialogue is through our dreams. When we explore what the images mean, we access a rich source of inner wisdom; it is our personal mythology, as with Jung’s technique of active imagination when we gain access to an image in order to engage with the emotional charge it holds for us.

Hollis uses the example of two dreams of his patients. A woman dreamt that she was making love to her professor and this assisted her in integrating previously undeveloped masculine and feminine principles in her psyche. A male patient was caught up in a complicated relationship with his mother. He dreamt about a dance he participated in, but was interrupted by a phone call during the dance. The dream gave him an image which showed him his inner map of the relationship he had with his mother. Hollis emphasises, “We are not, in this vast universe, bereft of help, empty of meaning. We have a rich and resonant unconscious which speaks to us through the symptomology of everyday life as well as through the spindrift of dreams and active imagination.” (p.110) This should inspire us to ask where do these images live in me, and what are they saying about the way I stand in the world. Hollis concludes by saying: “The only way to truly revise one’s sense of self is by having this kind of dialogue between the ego and Self.” (p.111)

Memento Mori – In the modern world we have become separated from the meaning myths provide around the subject of death; instead we have placed our meaning-making about life and death in the trappings and escapes of the material world. Hollis writes: “During the Middle Passage both the magical thinking of childhood and the heroic thinking of the first adulthood are replaced by the grim awareness of time and finitude.” (p.111) We do not want to take responsibility for the unknown which would mean life is a series of unknown developments and not a fixed state; we prefer to remain in the comfort zone of the smallness of life. As our bodies age, we naturally feel distressed about the loss of vitality of our youth; the latter affords us only with a state where the ego feels secure. If we become fixed in this state we lose out on becoming part of a larger reality; to become part of the larger rhythm of our whole lifespan. Hollis concludes: “We know we have survived the Middle Passage when we no longer cling to who we were, no longer seek fame or fortune or the appearance of youth.” (p.113)

This luminous pause – Hollis quotes Jung on the definition of life: “life is a luminous pause between two great mysteries which yet are one.” (p.114) What we know consciously about the mystery of life is not the full explanation about the journey. Becoming less dependent on our ego-reality during the second half of life, opens us up for the larger possibility about life. Jung warned that if we do not ask the right questions about life we will continue to feel the soul-suffering of living the primarily materialistic life. We do not know where the journey will take us after the Middle Passage; what we do know is that there is a chance we will be liberated from our anxieties when we accept responsibility for ourselves, and realise that what we seek lies within ourselves and not in the outer world. Hollis quotes Jung who reminds us: “Only the man who can consciously assent to the power of the inner voice becomes a personality.” (p.116) We should remain open to the possibility that we are connected to something infinite; to rise up to the luminous pause between birth and death.


“The conscious experience of the Middle Passage requires separating who we are from the sum of the experiences we have internalised. Our thinking then moves from magical to heroic to human. Our relations with others become less dependent, asking less of them and more of ourselves. Our ego takes a beating and we must reposition ourselves with regard to the outer world – career, relationships, sources of empowerment and satisfaction. In asking more of ourselves, we forego disappointment in others for not delivering what they could never deliver; we acknowledge that their primary responsibility, just like ours, is their own journey.” (p.116)

Finally, the summons of the Middle Passage is the same as Tennyson’s Ulysses: (p.8)

“The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep

Moan round with many voices. Come my friends,

‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.”

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Comments (4)

  • Jenny Gomes Reply

    Thank you for this posting. I am going to buy this book. It couldn’t be more timely. Everything I am going through right now is mentioned here. Our choices often determine who we are or are becoming….yet as I said to my husband (married 37 years) two days ago, “We cannot be who we really are, because in a relationship we tend to make choices that include the partner, or at least with consideration to the other, so how can we be true to ourselves?” That was an aha moment for me and for him I think. A tiny breakthrough for me…since I have been feeling worthless and that life has no meaning, I no longer have a job, I am dependent on my husband, my children are grown….I am at that stage where I am so aware that I need to be self sufficient, even if it means I have to live in a box under a bridge, or work as a toilet cleanre to earn enough to feed my self. Not that it has to be that drastic but that is how I feel. My husband can’t understand why I feel this way, at least now I could show him this and explain and communicate it it so that it makes sense.

    May 4, 2017 at 12:59 pm
  • Mina Lee Reply

    Thanks for this posting! I already read this book and it summarized good points of his book. This book brought me a lot of aha moment for sure with depth analyzing in our cycle and mental process of middle age. I am 35 and quit my job because of the health issue which I never faced before and this book gave me the moment to think about what I was anxious and worried about and figure out how to move on. But your article can give me good summary if I want to go back to review this book!

    April 30, 2019 at 12:51 am
  • David Reply

    Great article thanks for the summary!

    January 26, 2022 at 11:31 am
  • Cornelia Kausch Reply

    Fabulous summary, which I just found, as I am working with my clients on the subject. To individuate according to Jung has indeed a fourth dimension to it and this is reflected in James Hollis world. It deeply moved me when my mother died, as the responsibility for your own journey takes place in every moment of your life and becomes even harder when you are about to die.

    July 28, 2023 at 3:13 pm

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