There is a dangerous passage in human development, where the individual must traverse a kind of psychic wilderness on his or her way to becoming an adult. Not all of us make the journey successfully. For any number of reasons, the challenge of separating ourselves from Mother (and all she represents archetypally) proves too much, and we end up caught in a sucking whirlpool of insecurity.
Even now as grown-ups we continue to cling to our blankets and pacifiers, although by now these go by other, more sophisticated, names.
Our journey out of childhood requires more than the passage of time, however. Along the way we will have to learn how to rely increasingly on ourselves for comfort, assurance, and recovery from distress. The infantile state of emotional attachment to Mother – and all her surrogates, substitutes, and symbols – is where we find security in those early years. With the gradual formation of an executive center of identity, subjectivity, and self-control (ego), our personality achieves integrity and we are able psychologically to stand on our own.
In the symbolism of world mythologies, Mother represents not only the maternal caregiver who may have given birth to us, but the material ground of existence as well, connoted by the prefix “mat” (also in matter), meaning “mother” or “source.” By extension She also included the body, mother Earth, and the whole provident universe (Big Mama). “Nature” has its roots, as well, in Mother’s power of giving birth (from nāt) to all living things.
Even in early cultures where Mother in all Her forms and manifestations was worshipped, it was recognized that every human being as Her child needed at some point to separate and become an adult.
Among the higher civilizations, this progress of development into an ever more individuated and ego-centered mode of consciousness was registered in myth by the featured character of a hero whose journey involves (1) leaving the security of home, (2) entering an often perilous gauntlet of trials and dangers; securing some victory, award, or lucky find; and then (3) returning home to the community with the prize of his or her efforts. The general purpose of this vision quest was to come back as an adult – not just older but more mature, ready to take up his or her rational commitment to society.
My diagram illustrates the Hero’s Journey from emotional attachment to rational commitment, from home to society, from existential security to ethical agency, from Mother to Father. As the critical bridge and crossover figure in this mythic narrative, the hero needs to find his or her center (integrity) and begin to include others in an enlarged self-understanding. (See my meditation on the meaning of “Love your neighbor as yourself” in Empathy and Human Salvation.)
Unless this happens – and it’s certainly not a foregone conclusion that it will happen – the perilous passage to adulthood cannot succeed.
What often happens instead is that we fall into that sucking whirlpool of insecurity, which, as I suggest in the post referenced above, has been in competition with empathy over the millenniums for the final destiny of our species. As life gradually removes us from the archetypal object of our emotional attachment (i.e., Mother), our insecurity over that loss can pitch us into a spinning vortex of neurotic attachment, where we grab hold of whatever we expect to calm us down and make us happy – which nothing can, or nothing outside ourselves.
In the West especially, individual development beyond emotional attachment has been particularly perilous. Our neurotic insecurity has estranged us from Mother in all Her forms and manifestations: from our bodies, nature, planet Earth, and the universe. We even twisted our religions away from their age-old aspirations of healing, wholeness, fulfillment, and wellbeing, to a very anxious fixation on subjecting nature, escaping the body, and leaving this world for an imagined paradise some place else.
It’s no wonder that so much of our life is not deeply savored but hastily consumed, not honored but ignored, not appreciated for its sacred worth but used up and cast aside on our way to what’s next.
When our journey has gone well for the most part and we are committed to the Four Disciplines of being present (security), staying centered (integrity), making room for others (empathy), and getting focused in creative purpose (agency), consciousness aligns vertically and resolves into a highly coherent state.
We now have access, by a mystical and inward path, to a deeper oneness, into the contemplative depths of soul and its release of faith to the grounding mystery of Being. Having become somebody, secure (enough) and centered in who we are, the prospect of letting go and dropping into communion is not terrifying – as it would be if we were anxiously attached; in fact, it wouldn’t even be possible – but profoundly liberating.
Worries and concerns, ambitions and beliefs, along with all the identity contracts that define us “up here,” are surrendered for a deep inner peace.
And the deeper we drop into communion, this same vertical axis of super-coherent consciousness (what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow”) opens out at the top, so to speak, by an ethical, outward path to higher wholeness, into the transpersonal realm of spirit and wisdom and genuine community. Having become somebody, we are finally capable of getting over ourselves.
As I explore in Empathy and Human Salvation, descending to deeper centers within awakens us to larger horizons of empathy and inclusion. Conceivably our ethical agency (i.e., loving our neighbor as our self) might inspire us to live with the whole universe in mind.
Our journey in life from the emotional attachment of childhood, through the dangerous passage of ego formation, and eventually into the rational commitment of adulthood is not an “elective” in the curriculum of human development. We don’t have a choice over whether or not to embark on this journey, but our choices all along the way will determine whether or not the journey reaches fulfillment – in the liberated life.