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The Four Ages of Life

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The big money in mental health research goes toward the problems and disorders that interfere with normal functioning, personal happiness, and human fulfillment. Volumes of theories, diagnostic manuals, and expensive interventions are devoted to correcting what’s wrong with us, or, if the cause is unknown, at least relieving the symptoms of our suffering.

Critics have noted that the conventional notion of a mental “disorder” is problematic in that it presupposes something (mental “order”) of which we have no clear understanding. This leaves the market open for a proliferation of so-called disorders – as many as need to be invented – and their matching medications.

The science behind the trend of reducing mental health (and health generally) to molecular biology and the pharmaceutical interventions that can fix us tends to dismiss spirituality as not only less than helpful on the matter, but as so distracted into its own crystal ball of unfounded metaphysical claims and spooky practices as to be utterly irrelevant. In the minds of many, science accomplished our liberation from spirituality, as it trained our attention on things that actually exist. As they define it, spirituality is a holdover from our benighted and superstitious past. In the verse of Alexander Pope: “God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.”


In numerous posts I have worked at correcting this widespread but erroneous characterization of spirituality. For sure, there’s a lot of metaphysical malarkey out there, and good people have fallen for it again and again. Angelic visitations, divine revelations, psychic readings, and miraculous powers are found in sacred myths, folk tales, and personal testimonies around the world, but such things shouldn’t be confused with spirituality. They are adornments of religion, not its true essence.

As a symbol system and way of life, religion might be organized around such mythical characters and events, but its primary function is in providing social structure for the expression of a deeply interior experience.

Now, it might sound as if I’m thinking of this deeply interior experience as something esoteric, in the sense of secrets kept hidden from the uninitiated and simple-minded by those who really know the truth. Typically this secret knowledge involves the translation of popular myths and symbols into a vocabulary of metaphysical abstractions protected by an occult tradition of rituals, creeds, and hierarchies of authority. Esoteric religion is thus an underground version of what’s going on at the surface of conventional society, but with the veil of ignorance purportedly removed. It’s not really a deeply interior experience at all, just another kind of religion carried on by an elite few.

What I mean by spirituality has nothing to do with supernatural realities, metaphysical realms, or secret knowledge. It is the deeply interior experience of being human: of existing, striving, and becoming fully human, more fully alive. Genuine and true religion is the structural expression of this adventure in the life of society, linking the individual ego inwardly to its own grounding mystery, across the social synapses of community life, and outwardly to the turning mystery of the universe.

In its better days, religion facilitates the progress of spirituality and our construction of meaning. At its worst, it blocks progress and even represses the creative spirit. Unfortunately, many have identified religion with its degenerate forms and historical periods of corruption, concluding that we are better off without it.

It’s this idea of spirituality as a deeply interior experience that grows, develops, and evolves over time which I will expound on here. If we think of human nature as actualizing through distinct periods, then each period corresponds to some aspect of our full capacity which is activated (or suppressed) during that stage. (In the interest of space, I won’t go into what happens when spirituality doesn’t progress and the reasons why. My reader is invited to check out other posts in this blog which delve into the hang-ups that get institutionalized in pathological religion.)

The Age of Faith

In the beginning – and I’m using that phrase for its resonance with Creation myths – we were carried in the dark waters of our mother’s womb and eventually delivered through a narrow passage into another dimension. We were vulnerable and dependent, relying on her (or her surrogates) for the satisfaction of our every need. In the nursing embrace we gained a base of security, and her supervising care instilled in us a sense of reality as resourceful and responsive – in a word, as provident.

This is also the earliest, and deepest, stage of spirituality. To some greater or lesser degree, all of us have (and continuously seek) this experience, which is named faith. It’s critically important that we distinguish such an existential faith – this open trust and absolute surrender to reality – from the catalog of beliefs that any given religion might regard as orthodox (“correct opinion”). Faith in those first days and early years of life was indeed closely associated, if not identified, with the existence of our higher (or taller) power. This may explain why existential faith, as I have described it, is frequently confused with belief in the existence of god.

What we carry with us from that primordial experience is not a set of opinions, orthodox or otherwise, but again a deep interior sense that we are supported in a provident reality. Our ability to relax, trust, release, and open up to What Is will continue to influence everything about our life going forward. Without faith we are groundless, without a sense of support, cut loose and adrift in an absurd and uncaring universe.

This isn’t something that religion itself can give, but religion will tend to translate the dominant or majority experience of its members into a more general worldview and way of life. By cultivating a community that is more grounded and intentional in its care for the very young, religion can foster the activation of faith in all its members.

My diagram suggests chronological markers that define the time periods and developmental thresholds of spirituality. This earliest stage, from prenatal life to the end of the first decade, is what I’ll call the Age of Faith. The prominent themes of spirituality here are grounding, providence, security, trust, and openness to reality.

The Age of Passion

From roughly age 10 to 25 is the second critical period of spirituality, the Age of Passion. This is when our openness to reality involves us in exploration, experimentation, and discovery. It’s also the age when the social construction of our identity undergoes significant trials and temptations. If we’re tracking along with world mythology, then this marks our Exile from the Garden of protection and infantile dependency, to the desert of self-conscious isolation and the jungle of sexual urgency. From here we might look back at what we lost and wish for it again, which is how some religions frame the challenge.

Whether it’s by a method of ego glorification or ego renunciation, the solution in either case exposes a fixation of this period on the separate center of personal identity.

Everything seems to turn around our needs and desires. In calling this period the Age of Passion, I am acknowledging the natural and very healthy way that consciousness regards all of reality as “staring at me,” as “judging me” and “making me feel” one way or another. While the word passion might have connotations of an extroverted drive for excitement, its root definition has to do with undergoing something, being “done to,” and suffering as a patient who is passive (“hold still!”) under treatment.

The Age of Reason

After 25 and until we’re about 60 years old spirituality progresses through the Age of Reason. This is typically when we are finishing our qualifications for a career and starting a serious job, finding a life partner and managing a family. By design, it is the time of Conquest and Settlement, when we take creative authority in making meaning, clarify a life purpose for ourselves, and expand our horizon of influence.

Faith and Passion continue to give us grounding and make life interesting, but it becomes increasingly important that our place in the greater scheme of things is relevant and contributes value to the system(s) in which we belong. This is the time in our development when, in the interest of intellectual integrity and rational meaning, many of us step out of organized religion to work out for ourselves a personal philosophy of life.

Religions don’t help when they intimidate us and condemn our quest for relevance as jeopardizing our place in the community or, worse still, in heaven after we die.

But the logical coherence, theoretical integrity, and practical application of meaning is not at all the acid or opposite of a passionate faith – although it does have exactly this effect on a belief system (orthodoxy) based in outdated models of reality and antiquated moral standards. Any belief system that is not rational, reality-oriented, and relevant to our times should either be reinterpreted, remodeled, or set aside.

The Age of Wisdom

There comes a time, however, when our most cherished constructs of identity and meaning need to open, like parting veils, to the present mystery of reality. In other posts I have characterized this threshold between the Age of Reason and the Age of Wisdom as bringing about an Apocalypse – a collapse of our world, a burning away of the canopy we had erected over ourselves for security, orientation, and significance.

The timing of our disillusionment with the years when we are starting to disengage from the consensus trance of school, career, parenting, and managing a household is probably no accident. Just as the carousel is winding down, our inner spirit is ready to drop out.

By ‘dropping out’ I really mean dropping in – out of the illusion of our separate existence and deeper into the present mystery of reality, into the Real Presence of mystery. Wisdom is not a function of accumulating knowledge, but is rather the breakthrough realization that nothing is separate from everything else, that All is One, and that We’re All in This Together. Oneness is not a matter of intellectually comprehending the totality of all facts, but of intuitively understanding that facts and thoughts, self and universe, the grounding mystery within us and the turning mystery all around us, are one reality.

What we do to the Whole, we do to ourselves. What we do to our neighbor, we do to ourselves. We are not separate from the rest. We are one.

Welcome to the Age of Wisdom.

 

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Philosophy of Tears

Any theory of what life ultimately means, if it means anything at all, must take into account the reality of loss. We can contemplate things at some high level of abstraction, safe in the refuge of logic and ideas, or we can grapple with what’s really going on in life as we live it. And life includes a lot of suffering.

Obviously the Buddha realized this before I did, although I’m not quite ready to jump on board with his diagnosis and treatment plan. He believed that “life is suffering” (dukka), but that it doesn’t have to be this way. Suffering is eradicable; if we understand its cause, we can conceivably fix the problem and live without suffering (or at least with less).

His theory was that we suffer because we attach ourselves to things and people that are by nature impermanent (anicca). Our desperate need (craving, tanha) for them to be a certain way in order to make us feel safe, powerful, important or whatever, locks them inside expectations that are hopelessly unrealistic. As they change or inevitably fail to meet our expectations, we are left hurt, disappointed, and profoundly discouraged.

Siddhartha left his wife and child in order to pursue enlightenment, which he found through the discipline of extinguishing desire and relinquishing every attachment to this passing world. The ultimate reality he came to realize was representable only by the symbol of a candle flame (desire) blowing out (nirvana). An absolute quiescence and undisturbed tranquility was the consistent result of his meditative effort; unattached and untroubled. This, he thought, should be our goal: liberation from suffering.

The Greek school of Stoic philosophy taught something similar. By gaining detachment from the things that change and fall away from us, a certain equanimity can be attained that will make the philosopher immune to anxiety and disappointment. This was believed to be a superior state of existence – something like the gods who hover just outside the flux and frustrations of mortal life.

A certain quality of intellectual transcendence (and emotional disengagement) has infiltrated just about every part of the high culture of the West. Experimental science, colonial politics, and other-worldly religion have all benefited from this ability of ours to detach from our feelings, our bodies, and our sympathetic connection to each other and the earth.

The title of this blog post is intentionally ambiguous. Is it about the tears real human beings shed in response to the hardships and losses of life? Or does it refer to tears in cloth, ruptures in the stitch-pattern that holds fabric together? As my readers might guess, the answer is “Yes.”Dynamics of LoveLong before the rise of medieval love poetry and the Arthurian knights, Jesus of Nazareth was the first Troubadour. He didn’t teach escape from suffering through renunciation and detachment. He didn’t instruct his disciples to extinguish desire and separate their minds from the complications of mortal existence. In a variety of ways, he encouraged his friends to get into life, reach out to others, and look for God in everything. Suffering is not to be idolized or pursued for its own sake, but I hear him saying that unless we are willing to take on the full burden of existence our lives will fall short of fulfillment.

So let’s begin with love, which is another name for the dance of attraction, copulation, ecstasy, and communion that spins the atoms and electrifies the cells of all living things. When two people meet, this interplay of forces carries on at both conscious and unconscious levels. The inherent intelligence of the universe is toward relationship, cooperation and oneness; if we can loosen up our definition a bit, then love is this intelligence. It’s what moves us to open up, reach out, and connect ourselves to another person. I will name this aspect of love, desire.

To his credit, Siddhartha discriminated between desire as such and selfish craving, extinguishing the latter as he sought to direct the former along the eightfold path of a virtuous life. But even at that, his program for liberation tended to steer around the tangles of everyday interpersonal love. This may be due to the fact that our closer relationships intrude on that inner fortress of security, self-defense, and secret motives we call “myself.” Just declaring it an illusion (anatta, no self), a kind of reaction formation that has no reality apart from the peculiar way it flinches and contracts against the conditions of existence, is not terribly helpful.

When we look into it, the mystery of interpersonal love is perhaps most apparent in the dynamics of trust. Here we must be more or less willing to allow another person into the vulnerable and less defended parts of ourselves. This is what love requires, which means that we must open ourselves to the possibility of getting hurt, exploited, abandoned, or betrayed. If we struggle with shame or self-doubt, this requirement to let down our guard may be more than we are able to manage.

Our ability to trust another person and allow him or her into our life is a function of self-confidence, which in turn has roots in what I have elsewhere called existential faith – the act of releasing oneself to the gracious support of a provident reality. This is where deep inner peace can be found, in the “letting go” of self and simply relaxing into being. If we lack this internal grounding, then we might try to make up for it in our relationships. Where there needs to be healthy trust, instead we turn our desire into demanding and unrealistic expectations on our partner to be just as we (so desperately) need him or her to be.

But if there is this inner peace – this faith-full release of to the deeper mystery of being-itself – then trust will happen and we will allow the other person into our lives. Desire, in turn, will move us into the dance of longing and embrace, bringing us together as one. It is here that we find true joy.

Desire motivates us to reach out to another person, to connect, to mingle, to entwine the branches of our separate lives into a shared pattern of meaning unique to our relationship. The distinct anchor-points in this connection are where we hold on. What I’m calling joy, then, is the experience of fulfillment we have as we share ourselves with another person and discover an expanded life together. In the very word fulfillment is this idea of capacity (“filled full”), expansion, and self-transcendence.

Now if you’re with me so far, the foregoing has been a set-up for the real point of this post. When we love another person and merge our life together with theirs, the time will come when one or the other “passes on.” I don’t only mean that we physically die, but that we change. We may change our minds, our life direction, our values and ambitions. Perhaps we want something else out of life and decide to move on. Or maybe our loved one does die. However it happens, those anchor-points that had tied our lives together suddenly become tears in the fabric of life’s meaning.

If you want real joy in life, then you need to learn how to love another person. That may not sound very Buddhist, but it certainly is Christian – in the sense of being right in line with the life, teaching, and philosophy of Jesus. A more Stoic or ascetic perspective would counsel against the quest for joy in life, since the place we find it (in love) will only lead to suffering. In our grief we long to have our lost love back in our life. To avoid this suffering, you should keep yourself from the entanglement of love.

A philosophy of life worth anything at all needs to embrace suffering. It must be willing to take on the grief of a fully human existence. We want joy, and so we need to learn how to love; but in loving we will eventually come to grief. True enough, we can renounce suffering as unnatural, as not part of “The Plan.” We can imagine a future day when nothing changes, everyone lives forever, love is uncomplicated, and joy never ends.

For now, however, we have an important choice to make.

 
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Posted by on April 26, 2014 in Timely and Random

 

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