The Glass Ceiling of the Heart
First published in WNC Woman Magazine
Sheryl Sandberg’s newish book, Lean In, discusses how the glass ceiling for women has raised many rungs but still stalls the upper levels of success, which remains largely a boy’s club with a few sassy skirts here and there. Her book posits that the hardest glass ceilings to shatter for we modern women are our own perceived limitations, our reluctance to elbow our way through the executive suite to the corner office.
Maybe, but there is a different glass ceiling that can prove hard to crack—the one that separates your head from your heart. I’d never thought much of it in my 20s and early 30s when my compatriots and I were doing exactly what our brains are wired to do—to define who we are and find our way in the world by following the example of others (while thinking we are making our way on our own), to find our happy place in our collective consensus reality (while, again, believing we are forging new ground), and to build a foundation on which to grow the rest of our lives.
I remember the certainty of that time, it felt as if there was a yellow brick road out in front of me, and even if I couldn’t see miles down the road the direction just felt so right.
Then I hit the plateau of midlife. I wondered what the heck I was doing, and where I was headed. For the first time, I felt angst that I might not get “there,” wherever “there” was. I felt disconnected from the person I always felt myself to be, and I couldn’t find my way back. I found I wasn’t alone. Friends, clients, and strangers in the grocery store line all kvetched about this midlife madness that had no clear label. Like porn, it’s hard to define but you know it when you see it: primary relationships are well established or over, the kids are of an age that they don’t require intensive attention, the career is chugging along, life reaches a contented flow of functionality. Then the floodwaters that whooshed you through the foundation-building phase of your life recede overnight, abandoning you on unfamiliar terrain.
The most disorienting thing about this plateau is that the landscape is so familiar—the same career, the same relationship, the same kids and house and dog. But it feels different. As if someone dug up the yellow brick road one night and replaced it with a blanket of green grass with no trodden paths to follow. That comfortable skin suit I wore all those years suddenly pinched in all the wrong places. Or perhaps it was all the right places.
Beneath my mind’s noisy panic about feeling unmoored, my heart whispered for me to take off my shoes, feel the soft blanket of green grass caress my feet, and wander around for a while taking in the newness. I heard my heart invite me to lean inward to hear its softly spoken wisdom, saying, you are not who you think you are, you are much, much more, and wouldn’t it be yummy to take a peek?
Have you felt this inner stirring, too? If so, you are not going crazy, though it may feel like it—I sure do at times. It turns out that you and I are in a second adolescence. The first adolescence, you recall, is the self-conscious surge of brain and body development that transforms you from your parent’s child to your unique self-identity. This adolescence develops your unique mental map of the world and yourself. Building this mental map requires the anguish we all remember—the bliss and bruising of first love, the scar tissue of fractured and repaired relationships, the shrugging off of the tethered life preserver to plunge into the pool and swim for yourself.
The surge of hormones from this time blessedly wanes, but the work of creating your mental map goes on until the early to mid-thirties when the life you have created using that map as a guide starts to slip as the foundation you built it upon gives way. This sudden disconnect from the you that you knew, from the life you built, breeds a sense of dissatisfaction and disconnection that can be expressed in divorce, depression, angst, career shifts, an identity crisis, a frantic grasp for an updated life purpose, any number of ways. But the problem isn’t with the externals of life, it is the crumbling of your life’s foundation. This disconnect is life’s call to let go of a foundation rooted in the mind to one built from the heart.
Your second adolescence arises in response to the call of the heart to reprioritize all that you believed was important to you. The rite of passage of midlife is to replace the failing foundation laid by your mental map with the wisdom of the maturing heart.
The heart’s glass ceiling is part of the mental map of your early life, put in place to block your heart’s expansive, untamed nature from rising. Your mind needs this illusion of being in control to do the essential work of exploring the world from a position of duality—me and not me, good and bad, right and wrong. The mind’s sense of control is an illusion, however, because your mind is your slowest information processor, and thus the least reliable source to gauge what’s real. When the brain is at its fastest—in the young mind—it operates by using one or the other hemisphere to assess the world and make decisions.
In midlife, you view the world and make decisions from both brain hemispheres working together, and this opens the door for you to experience yourself from a more integrated wholeness. This integration requires slightly longer processing, but because it is less dualistic, it is more open to being influenced and directed by your fastest information processor—your heart. That is if you are willing to break through the glass ceiling and let your heart have its way with you.
Leaning inward to your heart’s wisdom is an invitation to shift from leading your life from your mind to leading your life from your heart. It’s that simple—in theory, anyway. Yet we resist this natural inward shift, pathologizing the disillusion that defines the midlife plateau as hormonal, menopausal, aging, and slowing of the brain, and as a loss of the vitality that invites depression from having your so-called best years behind you.
Just as the experience of your first adolescence cannot be adequately explained by raging hormones and a reorganizing brain, neither can midlife adolescence be dismissed by, well, raging hormones and a reorganizing brain. The spiritual journey of midlife is to unlearn who your mind thought you were and embrace the mystery of who you truly are.
The mind’s great limitation (old or young) is that it only knows what it has learned, including the mental map that is your self-identity. This learned identity erodes as the heart’s glass ceiling cracks and the heart seeps its sweet knowing of the limitless you into your awareness. The schizophrenia that you feel in midlife is the oscillation between mind and heart.
As your heart lures you to lean inward, the siren call of your mind screams to cling to the familiar, refer back to the culturally approved mental map you spent all those years perfecting. Your mind commands you to push harder, do more, and take bigger, bolder steps, to regain control. It assures you that the next accomplishment will bring you the satisfaction you have been searching for. But that career shift, new relationship, and gym obsession only fill the yawning void for a time; at midlife, the heart turns just as ruthless as the mind, and twice as cagey.
The heart bangs away at the ceiling trying to get you to listen in any way it can: job loss, divorce, death of a loved one, illness, raging hormones, burnout, and exhaustion. You can fight it for years, but you will save yourself a lot of pain if you simply surrender, quiet down, and lean inward to listen to your heart.
In the stillness of this surrender, you hear a deeper truth about life and yourself, you can explore your true values and realize your inborn dreams. Your heart invites you to live from the integrity of your innate wisdom and inner authority and to let the world be of the world as you slip to a more distant shore. The great gift and the great madness of midlife is that as you flick away the glass shards one by one, all you have come to believe about yourself falls away with them, revealing the wholeness of who you are beneath the mind’s illusion. In midlife, nothing but the relentless pursuit of this journey truly satisfies.
When the heart calls, resistance, as the Borg say, is futile. Midlife is about becoming whole by bringing your heart into the forefront of your life and living your life from your authentic core. Your heart desires to fully experience each moment—even the painful ones—without the limiting filters, stories, or mental contortions of the mind. It is to live, fully and freely, in your unfolding truth.
In the end, it’s a simple choice. Your mind has been conditioned since birth to be a certain person in a certain body and it uses that conditioning in moment-by-moment entrapment to keep you from substantively changing. Your heart is unconditioned love and total acceptance of who you are, no matter what path you choose; its only real desire is to live life from as much freedom as it can inspire you to step into.
Which would you rather have leading you through the second half of your life?
A simple first step to exploring your heart is to sit still in silence and breathe. Imagine that you are breathing in through the front of your heart, then down into the deep belly, and back out through the front of your heart. Long, slow deep breaths. When your mind tries to pull you back into thought (and it will—the mind loves to control experience by filtering it through your thoughts) just return your attention to your breath and your heart.
Over time, this way of breathing loosens the mind’s control and connects you to your heart’s undiluted rhythm. This, in turn, attunes your whole system to your heart, harmonizing your body and being with your heart’s knowing and wisdom. As you practice this simple breath, the highways and blockades of your mind’s mental map reroute and then dissolve, to allow you more spaciousness to experience life as it is rather than via the conditions you and others have demanded it conform to. Shard by shard, the glass ceiling that your mind has built to defend itself will melt into a new foundation of the heart
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Pushing the edges of my consciousness has been my passion for as long as I can remember. This has flowed me into writing, podcasting, and becoming a hypnotherapist to help others push past limiting perceptions and expand their awareness and possibilities, too. Welcome to my world. Thanks for visiting!