The Quest for Soul at Midlife

“Trying to unweave, unwind, unravel
and piece together
the past and the future,
Between midnight and dawn,
when the past is all deception,
The future futureless,
before the morning watch
When time stops
and time is never ending”.

T.S. Eliot, ‘The Dry Salvages’.

Much has been written, in recent years, about the Midlife Transition. Popularly referred to as the Midlife Crisis, we hear curious stories of normal, sane adults who suddenly seem to be reliving what looks like a second childhood. Popular psychological treatments of this interesting phenomenon tend to focus on the symptoms or manifestations of what might be called midlife mania. We see middle-aged men abandoning their successful careers and families, and taking up painting, gardening, meditation, buying a red sports-car, having affairs with women ”young enough to be their daughters”. And women, at this mid-point in their lives, suddenly become more assertive, and take to study, work, politics and travel with a vengeance, and may abandon domestic bliss in the pursuit of freedom, adventure and exciting new horizons.

So, while many midlife women are yelling “I just want to be free”, their male counterparts are lamenting “I just want to find me”. What lies behind this strange phenomenon and what is this crisis all about?

The word ‘crisis’ is derived from the Greek word krino and means “to decide”. [1] The midlife crisis, or transition, therefore, is a time for decision- making. We have reached the mid-point of our lives, and it is now time to stop, take stock, look back at the past, evaluate where we are now, and make decisions about the path which lies ahead. In essence, we have reached a turning point in our lives, and changes are required. This may sound easy on paper, but the process involved can be a long and arduous one, and along the path we are likely to encounter all the ‘demons’ of the past, our deepest fears and insecurities, and in the chaos that can ensue, we may be forced to endure long nights of pain, grief and sadness, as we wrestle with the reality that our youth is past, and our future uncertain.

The passage through midlife can last anywhere from between 35 to 50 years, but is at it’s most crucial peak at around 38-42, corresponding with the astrological transits of Uranus, Neptune and Pluto to their natal positions.

The midlife passage is a journey, and the form it takes may vary depending on one’s sex, one’s lifestyle, and on whether the Pluto square precedes or follows the Uranus opposition and the Neptune square.


The Jungian Psychological Approach

Carl Jung’s own experience of an acute crisis at midlife prompted him to develop his well-known theories of the psyche, in which he coined the term individuation. Between the ages of 38 and 44, Jung embarked on an inner journey which has been likened to a ‘creative illness’. At the end of this journey, he emerged with a clear sense of his vocation as healer. [2]

Through his experiences, Jung came to the conclusion that ‘individuation’ was the primary task of the second half of life. From a Jungian psychological perspective, the midlife passage is symbolic of this path of individuation, or the path towards wholeness, the journey to the Self at the core of one’s being. In its deepest sense, the passage through the terrain of midlife is a spiritual or religious journey, and embodies a search for a new and deeper meaning, value and purpose in life. Jung discovered, after many years of treating patients in the second half of life, that …”there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life”. [3]

The midlife passage is, at bottom, a quest to find one’s soul, and it is not uncommon to find people at this stage of life embarking on all sorts of physical and spiritual pilgrimages in an effort to find an ineffable something, a symbolical Holy Grail. [4]

In Jungian terms, ‘finding one’s soul’ or Self involves confronting the unconscious, and integrating its elements into consciousness. Jung conceptualised the stages of the midlife transition as the breakdown of the persona (or identity); the release of the shadow consisting of those aspects of ourselves which are repressed, denied, rejected; and facing the contra-sexual other: the anima, or inner ‘feminine’ aspect of a man, and the animus, or inner ‘masculine’ aspect of a woman. [5]

The idea is that, at midlife, it is a man’s search for this more ‘feminine’, feeling or yin side of himself that finds expression through intimate relationships, creative and artistic pursuits, solitude and reflection; while a woman’s need to contact her more ‘masculine’ side finds expression through assuming a more powerful and active role in the world. This is admittedly a rather stereotyped and generalised way of viewing the male/female roles, and is probably a reflection of Jung’s era. Today, we may indeed find men at midlife who have led a reflective, meditative existence in the first half of life, and women who have devoted their lives to their careers. The latter are just as likely to relinquish their careers at 40, and have a baby, or to become involved in a deep and intimate relationship, or some spiritual pursuit. At midlife, therefore, it is time to incorporate the opposite polarity, whatever that might be.

The goal of the midlife passage, and the path of individuation, is to become more fully who we are, to become more authentic. Stein states that the midlife transition and crisis involves “making (the) crucial shift from persona-orientation to Self-orientation” and he outlines three stages of this rite of passage: separation, liminality and reintegration. [6]

Jim Lewis, in an unpublished manuscript, associates the Uranus opposition with the phase of ‘separation from youthful persona’, the Neptune square with the phase of ‘floating in liminality’, and the Pluto square with the phase of ‘journey to Hades’. [7]

In an attempt to shed light on the three phases of the midlife passage in relation to the astrological transits of Uranus, Neptune and Pluto, I will draw more deeply on Stein’s work, other Jungian approaches and motifs from mythology.

It is important to note, at the outset, that a survey of the psychological literature, and the observation of clients’ lives in relation to the timing of these transits, suggests that the three phases can overlap and merge into one another. It is quite difficult to separate the emotional and psychological experiences of the midlife passage and neatly slot them into one of three boxes. According to Stein, liminality, or the experience of floating in a “borderline space”, where one’s identity is “hung in suspension”, [8] interpenetrates the other two phases. The experience of Uranian separation can also lead to or include the Plutonian experience of plunging into one’s emotional depths. And one can experience acute depression during the Neptunian phase, as well as during the Plutonian phase.

The midlife journey is a process, and there are many variables involved in defining the nature of that process. Given these considerations, I will attempt to outline in more detail the nature of the experiences associated with each of the midlife outer planet transits. Since most of those currently undergoing their midlife passage are experiencing their Pluto square first, this is where I will begin.


The Pluto Experience ~ The Descent into the Underworld

“…. an old person is passing away.
And until the pit of death is entered,
the process of internal transformation
cannot move to its conclusion,
for at midlife, too,
a new person is being born.”

Murray Stein, ‘In Midlife’

The waxing square of transiting Pluto to its natal place represents a crisis in action on a deep emotional and psychological level. It embodies the impulse to use the Plutonian function “in a new way as a result of experiences in the previous cycle”. [9]

The midlife ‘crisis’ often begins with a growing awareness of our mortality and impending death. Sometimes this may be triggered by an actual experience of the death of a family member, colleague or friend. But more often, for seemingly no apparent reason, we become obsessed with the loss of our youth and other signs of ageing. This can be a critical period where we are plunged into the depths of our feelings. Common experiences are of a deep sense of loss, accompanied by intense feelings of grief, depression, rage, jealousy, betrayal, isolation and disempowerment.

At this time, we can feel dismembered, destructured, and disassembled. Once again, an external trigger, such as a relationship, may seem to be the catalyst for these powerful feelings. But what is really happening, is an internal process. The unconscious is awakening, the psyche/soul is stirring, and something within us is crying out for greater depth and meaning.

This can be a powerful Dark Night of the Soul experience, where we encounters our dark side, and are faced with all the ‘demons’ of the past. In Jungian terms, this phase represents the confrontation with the shadow. It provides us with the impetus, through external experience and internal process, to become more aware of those parts of ourselves which we have repressed, buried, rejected, denied, projected and ignored. It is time to begin recognising, owning and integrating these unlived parts of ourselves. This process is invariably painful, if not frightening. But the key lies in willingly surrendering to the process, enduring the pain, and being prepared to journey deep within our core, to face the darkness, the shadow, the past. Those undergoing this transit are most likely to consult an astrologer at this time, to seek psychotherapy, and may be drawn to ‘inner child’ therapy and other forms of healing.

It is time to begin to heal the wounded child, to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to courageously enter the dark tunnel which stretches before us. We begin to sense that there are changes which need to be made. We have the opportunity, now, to become more conscious.

Mythologically, this phase of the midlife passage can be associated with the descent into the Underworld realm of the Sumerian goddess, Ereshkigal, or the Greek god, Hades. We may identify with the abducted Persephone who is taken forcibly by Hades into his underworld; the abandoned and pregnant Psyche, who, as part of her mission to be reunited with her beloved Eros, has to perform four tasks for Aphrodite, one of which includes entering into the underworld to procure a jar of Persephone’s ointment. Or, we may more closely identify with the Sumerian goddess of the heavens, Inanna, who bereaved and grieving for her dead husband, chooses to enter Ereshkigal’s underworld to attend his funeral, and suffers terribly at the hands of her wicked sister, resulting in her death and eventual resurrection.

Stein describes this phase of the midlife passage quite poetically: “we find loss of personal identity and the coalescence of images of tomb and womb: images of corpses and ghosts come together with images of embryos and neophytes”. [10]

This phase, therefore, is not just about death; it is about birth and renewal. Interestingly, the Greek word ‘psyche’ means ‘soul’ , and also ‘butterfly’. The soul or psyche seeks to awaken, just as the chrysalis seeks to metamorphose into the butterfly.


The Uranus Experience ~ The Separation from our Past

As our distorted glimpses of the dark side
grow into convictions
and the dream disappoints our magical hopes,
any role we have chosen seems too narrow,
any life structure too confining
. Any husband or wife, mother, father, child, mentor,
or divinity to whom we have given faith
can be felt as part of the clasped circle
hemming us in“.

Gail Sheehy, ‘Passages’

Around the ages of 40-42, Uranus reaches the midpoint of its 84 year cycle. As it approaches the opposition to its natal place, the nature of our natal Uranus is illuminated, much like the Moon is illuminated by the Sun at the full moon. In the symbolism of the opposition, or symbolic full moon, therefore, we can see the capacity for objective awareness and re-evaluation of what we have become in the first half of our lives. This is harvest time.

If we have already experienced the Pluto square, then there may be a degree of preparedness for what is to come. The internal destructuring has begun, and the recognition of deeper and darker parts of oneself, may enable us to be more open to the chaotic changes that Uranus may herald into our lives. If the Uranus opposition is the first of the midlife transits, however, we may be in for a shock.

This can be a very unsettling time, as we attempt to come to terms with the realisation that we are no longer in our youth, and death may be just around the corner. Time is running out. This is our second and perhaps last chance to do what it is we really want to do with our lives. Uranus awakens us, enlivens us, stirs us to focus on our achievements thus far, to see our unlived potential, and stimulates us to make the necessary changes in those unfulfilled areas of our lives. There can be a great sense of urgency at this time.

The Uranus opposition represents a quest for our individuality, our uniqueness, our creativity, our sense of personal truth. The pressing need for a sense of inner freedom may manifest in the outer world as the urge to leave longstanding relationships, careers, one’s family, and so on. In Jungian terms, this urge to break from old routines is really an outward expression of the “separation from the youthful persona”. [11]

This is the shift from a persona-orientation to a Self-orientation, and according to Stein, is “critical for the individuation process as a whole, because it is the change by which a person sheds layers of familial and cultural influence and attains to some degree of uniqueness in his [her] appropriation of internal and external facts and influences”. [12]

As we begin to see ourselves more clearly, and the urge to find and express a new sense of self becomes pressing, we feel the need to free ourselves of the attachments of the past, and to begin building a new identity. The man at mid-life who takes up motor bike riding, or the woman at midlife who embarks on a solitary camel trek across the desert, are both expressing this innate urge to find one’s Self. In Jungian terms, the goal of this phase of the midlife passage is to free the Self or soul, and this can only be done if one is prepared to let go of one’s youthful identity, to take risks, to step out and courageously explore new horizons. It is no surprise that this midlife passage has been coined by Sheehy as ‘middlescence’, for it is indeed quite akin to adolescence in many respects.

An important aspect of this phase is the increasing awareness of the “sexually opposite side of our own nature”. [13] If we have experienced the Pluto square prior to the Uranus opposition, this process may have already begun. During the Pluto square, we may have become powerfully and unconsciously attracted to a person of the opposite sex who somehow embodies some of our own unlived qualities. During the Uranus opposition, we can become more aware of the nature of our ‘projections’.

For example, the man can become aware that the young woman with whom he is attracted is an embodiment of the creative, feeling, yin side which he has previously ignored (ie, his anima); and the woman can become more aware that the strong and powerful man to whom she has been attracted embodies her own unlived animus qualities. The man can choose to develop his own feeling side, and the woman can choose to more consciously take on her power in the world. This is not to make a judgement about midlife relationships, as many seem to do. Indeed, such relationships are more often the vehicle for increasing one’s self-awareness; the catalyst which first awakens us to what has been missing in our lives.

Mythologically, Uranus or Ouranos is “a son of Earth”. In the beginning there was Chaos, out of which Mother Earth (Gaia) emerged and bore a son called Uranus. Later, Uranus became Gaia’s lover, and together they co-created the universe. From this union, Uranus created rain, life-forms, lakes, and the sea. [14] Subsequently, Uranus and the Earth became separated. In his castration by his son, Kronos, we can see the symbolic separation from his generative and creative powers. It is the separation of Sky from Earth, of the masculine from the feminine. It is at the time of the Uranus opposition, therefore, that both men and women have the opportunity to reconnect with their unlived generative and creative powers, and to unite the opposites within their natures, in a sacred ‘inner marriage’ which integrates both the male and female polarities within.

The following quote from Jung sums up the achievements of this phase of the midlife transition if successfully navigated: “Above all we have achieved a real independence and with it, to be sure, a certain isolation. In a sense we are alone, for our “inner freedom” means that a love relation can no longer fetter us; the other sex has lost its magic power over us, for we have come to know its essential traits in our own psyche.” [15]

In all, this transit can herald an exciting time, for it provides us with the impetus to make all those changes which are necessary for growth to occur. If we can ride with this Uranian spirit, we may find ourselves reborn into a new sense of self. Confidently, a woman can enter the workforce if her life has been devoted to care-providing, a man can contact his inner life, and both sexes can feel inspired to “follow their dream”, whatever that may be. But, first the dream needs re-visioning, and this is the task of the Neptune phase of the midlife experience.


Neptune Square Neptune ~ Re-visioning the Dream

“…when the ego is separated
from a fixed sense
of who it is and has been,
of where it comes from and its history,
of where it is going and its future;
when the ego floats
through ambiguous spaces
in a sense of unbounded time,
through a territory of unclear boundaries
and uncertain edges;
when it is disidentified
from the inner images that have formerly sustained it
and given it a sense of purpose….”

Murray Stein, ‘In Midlife’

The Neptune phase of the midlife passage is not separate from the other two phases. These three outer planet transits may overlap and interpenetrate each other. At other times, one transit will follow on from the other. When transiting Neptune forms a waxing square to its natal place, we are faced with a crisis of ideals. This can be a time of great disillusionment, dissatisfaction and depression, as we begin to see the difference between our youthful ideals and the reality of what we have achieved at this midpoint of our lives. Sheehy has aptly described this phase as “De-illusioning the Dream”. Now is the time when we must face whether what we have become matches our “ideal self”. [16] Even if we have achieved the dreams of our youth, it is still likely that we will seek a new dream to guide us into the second half of life.

Our religious, spiritual and philosophical beliefs are also open to change and challenge at this time. We may have adhered to a strong political, ethical or religious belief system for the past two decades, such as feminism, catholicism, republicanism, taoism, and now, we wonder whether what we have believed in is valid anymore.

As the dreams of youth melt away, we may find ourselves in what Jungian psychology has referred to as a ‘liminal’ place, often referred to as a wasteland, a dark forest, a desert or a wood, where there is an absence of meaning, a sense of purposelessness, and much confusion and fear. As we relinquish our child-like dreams, sometimes forcibly during the Pluto square or Uranus opposition, we may find ourselves in a state of mourning, grieving for our lost youth and our unfulfilled dreams, and overwhelmed by a palpable sense of meaninglessness. In this liminal place, for a time, we are called on to let go of our dreams, and remain floating, so that a new dream or vision can emerge.

Stein has described this ‘liminal’ or threshold state in great detail. He writes of feelings of alienation, marginality and drift. “The ‘I’ is homeless…It floats..the boundaries between ‘I’ and ‘not-I’ blur”. [17] At this time we may feel as if we are “wandering in the desert” and we may lose hope and faith in the future. In fact, we are likely to feel that there is no future. The inner and outer experiences of this phase can assume a number of forms: there may be a strong sense of unfulfilled longing, romantic fantasies, urges to escape, to find a spiritual path. We may receive messages from the unconscious, in the form of dreams, fantasies, intuitions and synchronistic occurrences, which can guide us to the place of our deepest sense of integrity, essence or spirit. This is, at heart, a spiritual quest. There are no answers. One must simply go through it.

The deeper purpose of this journey through liminal spaces and places of uncertainty, therefore, is to be reunited with our Self, or soul. We have an opportunity, now, to connect with a larger, collective or ‘spiritual’ purpose.

The myth of Eros and Psyche illuminates this Neptunian rite of passage. In the story of Psyche’s union, abandonment and final reunion with her beloved Eros, we see a metaphor for this search for one’s own soul. The experience of Psyche’s abandonment by Eros can be likened to the losing of one’s youthful dreams. Abandoned and rejected, the pregnant Psyche must now face herself, and in her loneliness and grief, she encounters a powerful loss of the will to live. She attempts suicide, only to fail.

Finally, Psyche encounters Aphrodite, goddess of love, who sets her four seemingly impossible tasks, upon the completion of which she may be reunited with her beloved. Psyche receives help, guidance and gifts throughout her ordeals. By the time of the completion of her fourth task, the journey into the underworld to procure Persephone’s ointment, she has grown in maturity, courage and wisdom. The story ends happily with the sacred marriage of Eros and Psyche, and Psyche’s promotion to immortal or goddess status. The product of their union is a child, Voluptia, whose ancient meaning is “plunging into life”. Jean Houston eloquently sums up the meaning of this myth: “She now rises on strong but gossamer wings as the vision of transformation and the call to the soul”. [18]

At the close of this Neptune phase of the midlife passage, we may find ourselves far better prepared to ‘plunge into life’; strong, mature, with a sense of our own power, more in touch with our Self or soul, and determined perhaps, to undertake our mission in life, with a renewed sense of faith, hope and purpose.



We need to keep in mind the relationships between the three outer planet transits if they overlap, and the order and sequence with which they follow each other. This is what makes each person’s midlife passage unique. To demonstrate this, one person born in 1950 experienced the Uranus opposition in 1989, the Pluto square in 1990 and the Neptune square in 1991; while another, born in 1956, experienced the Pluto square in 1995-6, and the Uranus opposition and Neptune square overlapping each other in 1997.

Obviously too, the natal positions of Uranus, Neptune and Pluto, the houses they rule, the house positions of the transiting planets, and any aspects which are triggered, plus other accompanying transits and progressions will also qualify and modify the nature of one’s particular midlife passage. There are many variables to consider, and an astrological analysis of the birth chart can greatly help us to particularise the more generic experience of the Passage through Midlife.

A client, I’ll call her Iris, experienced her midlife transits between the ages of 39 and 41. The Uranus opposition came first, at 39, and at this time, she decided to go to university to train to become a teacher. Her children were teenagers, and she felt strongly motivated to seek a career. This was her awakening, her call to adventure. During the following year, her 40th, she had her Pluto square, and doesn’t recall much about that time, except that she was still largely focussed on pursuing and finishing her studies. Iris was, however, very unhappy in her marriage. It is significant, I think, that just prior to the onset of midlife, and the Uranus opposition, she had developed some unusual health complaints, including severe migraines and a very painful jaw. The following year, at age 41, during the Neptune square, she reluctantly agreed to accompany her husband and family to a foreign country. This was a hard time for her as she struggled with isolation and lack of mobility. Her descriptions of the country are redolent of barren and liminal wastelands. Iris did however, take on a variety of jobs in a number of areas which were new to her. This served to expand her horizons and greatly increased her confidence. She was 42 when they returned to Australia, the three transits technically over.

The time for renewal and reintegration usually comes after the closure of the transits, and the long-lasting changes that initiate us into the second half of our lives, are often made in the mid to late 40s, not during the ‘crisis’ transits themselves.

In Iris’ case, the tension and sense of alienation in her marriage became unbearable during her 42nd year, and by the end of that year, she had separated from her husband. Thus began the next part of the journey of finding herself, a path that is seeing her grow and blossom into fully expressing her wonderful gift of creativity, unhampered by the restrictions of the past.

It is impossible to sum up or encapsulate the midlife journey in a few words. But, it seems to me, that at this time of life, there is an opportunity to penetrate to the core of our being, into our unconscious, and with the planets of Uranus, Neptune and Pluto as guides, we may make a decision, a choice, about what it is we really want to do with our lives. Once we have answered the initial call to adventure, journeyed through the underworld, received our mission or gift, made the decision, taken action, then the journey can truly begin…

“I cannot specify what the gift of soul
to you will be at midlife.
I can only suggest that when it is presented
it be received”.

Murray Stein, ‘In Midlife’

– by Candy Hillenbrand


[1] Ruperti, Alexander., Cycles of Becoming (US & Canada, CRCS Publications, 1978) p. 8.
[2] O’Connor, Dr Peter., Understanding the Midlife Crisis (Sydney, Macmillan, 1981) pp. 26-28.
[3] Jung, C.G., Modern Man in Search of a Soul (New York & London, Harvest Books, 1933) p. 229.
[4] Bolen, Jean Shinoda., Crossing to Avalon (San Francisco, Harper Collins, 1994) pp. ix-x.
[5] Stein, Murray., In Midlife, A Jungian Perspective (Dallas, Texas, Spring Publications, 1983) p. 26.
[6] Stein., ibid. p. 27.
[7] Lewis, Jim., “Peter Pan in Midlife (or, How not to turn into your Parents)”, Quoted in Philip Levine’s ‘Cosmic Perspective’ Astrological Report (Maine, 1996)
[8] Stein., op. cit. p. 8.
[9] Ruperti., op. cit. p. 18.
[10] Stein., op. cit. p. 118.
[11] Lewis., op. cit.
[12] Stein., op. cit. p. 27.
[13] Sheehy, Gail., Passages – Predictable Crises of Adult Life (New York, Bantam Books, 1976) p. 415.
[14] Hand Clow, Barbara., Liquid Light of Sex : Understanding your Key Life Passages (Santa Fe, New Mexico, Bear & Company, 1991) p. 59.
[15] Quoted in Sheehy., op. cit. pp. 415-416.
[16] Sheehy., op.cit. p. 357.
[17] Stein., op.cit. p. 9.
[18] Houston, Jean., The Search for the Beloved (New York, Tarcher/Perigee Books, 1987) p. 168.

This article was first submitted as a paper for the 1997 Federation of Australian Astrologers Practitioners Certificate Examination for which the author co-won the Allan Johnson Gold Medal. It was subsequently published in the FAA Journal, Vol. 28, No. 1, Mar 1998.