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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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Staying Safe, Playing Small

map-of-egoOne of the odd and wonderful things about us humans is how an extended period of juvenile dependency, which makes us impressionable to social shaping like no other species, also leaves us exposed and vulnerable to all kinds of social abuse. What could open the path for creative evolution and human progress often ends up shutting us down inside neurotic hangups and rigid convictions. Odd and wonderful, but tragic as well.

My diagram is fairly complex, but hopefully not overly complicated. Let’s take a tour by starting with that smaller break-out frame to the bottom-right. Since we were very young, each of us has been on a vigilant quest for three things: security, attachment, and meaning. I reversed their order from how they are presented in the break-out frame to acknowledge their developmental sequence in our early formation.

Our deepest and most pressing concern is for an assurance that reality is provident, that what we need to feel safe, included, and nourished is actually there for us when we need it. If it is, then our sense of security functions to open us further to reality. But if we don’t feel secure, our generalized anxiety motivates us to compensate somehow for the missing assurance, which we engineer by attaching ourselves to others with the demand that they keep us safe and satisfied.

I’m using the term attachment in a way more consistent with the Buddhist notion than how it’s used in Western developmental psychology, where it commonly refers to the close and intimate bond between infant and caregiver. But let’s keep both definitions together as representing a deep paradox we have all experienced time and again: our closest relationships are often ‘the ties that bind’ us and prevent our necessary freedom and growth.

To the degree that attachments compensate for a deeper insecurity – which they are incapable of resolving, by the way – the meaning that we construct around ourselves and those we depend on to manage our anxiety tends to be small, rigid, and closed. It’s small because we can’t risk extending our horizon beyond what we can see and control. Our meaning is rigid in that it lacks flexibility and real-time relevance. And it is closed, which is to say that our mental box excludes discrepant information and alternative views, as it inhibits healthy doubt and intellectual curiosity.

Each of us, then, lives inside a narrative construction called a world, and our world both reflects and addresses our historical quest for security, attachment, and meaning. Whether our quest went well or badly in childhood, even now as adults we inhabit a world built on those early emotional codes. Inside our world is where we came to a sense of ourselves as somebody special, with an identity of our own. Despite having reached physical maturity as an adult, this deeper and more primitive part of our personality – what is named our ‘inner child’ – still comes out and takes over whenever we get poked, hooked, or stressed.

Let’s move from the break-out frame to the center of my diagram, where a larger representation of that same box is displayed. At the top and bottom of the world frame are two important insights to keep in mind. First, every world is an exercise in make-believe. (I put the word “make” in parentheses to indicate our widespread unwillingness to admit that we are doing it.) In another post I defined belief as pretending to know something and then forgetting that we’re pretending.

In other words, we act ‘as if’ our judgments about reality are straightforward descriptions of the way it really is, when there is always an element of our need or wish that it be that way.

It’s easy to forget that reality is not made up of words, or that our words – however connected and stretched into broad fabrics of meaning – are not the reality we presume to define. Reality itself, or what I call the present mystery of reality, is just that, something that eludes our mind and its dragnet of language. Of course, so far as we have closed ourselves up inside a small, rigid, and closed frame of meaning (or world), this realization will be vigorously resisted. If meaning is relative and our world is make-believe, then perhaps our identity is a fantasy as well!

Hang on to that thought.

Those who share our world – or, more accurately, whose constructions of meaning significantly overlap and fuse with our own – are just as committed to the conviction of its truth. We are exactly the somebody special we believe we are, and each of us has our place and plays our role in the web of social interactions that contains and validates our identity. Every scenario is a role-play, every player has a role, and each role comes with a script that seems to drive our behavior without us even thinking about it.

And that’s precisely the point: this thoughtless and scripted performance of social role-plays is what keeps our world turning, as it keeps us under its spell.

Welcome to the consensus trance. The word ‘trance’ is in parentheses because no one wants to admit that much of our life in society (and even in privacy) is lived in a state of robotic stupor, enacting programs that have been installed in our brains.

Moving our attention to the center of the frame we find ego, that separate center of personal identity who’s the star of our show. One aspect of personal identity faces the other – other egos, objects, and even the whole shebang of what’s going on (so-called ‘objective reality’). Particularly in our social interactions – which, we must keep in mind, are role-plays in make-believe – ego takes on what we might call ‘modal identities’, referring to who I am in this or that social context. The Latin word persona (“to speak through”) describes the mask a stage actor would wear in personifying a character in a play, usually equipped with a small fluted mouthpiece to amplify volume and aid in voice projection.

A persona might also be thought of as a kind of socially approved deception. As long as we perform our roles according to script and in conformity with the consensus trance, we can lead others to believe that we are the roles we play. Because others who share our world are already susceptible to being duped in this socially acceptable way, we sometimes take advantage of the opportunity by leading them to believe something about us that is neither honest nor true. (As we are not typically eager to confess this, I’ve put the word ‘deceive’ in parentheses.)

While our ego’s persona (one of many) displays and projects only what we want others to know about us, there is a corresponding but opposite aspect that stays out of view – or at least we try hard to keep it hidden. This is what Carl Jung named our shadow, and its dark shade covers not only the things we don’t want others to see, but also things about ourselves we have neglected or ignored. In addition to those inclinations and tendencies in ourselves that had to be pushed down and out of sight (i.e., repressed) so we could be accepted and included – and which, as Jung insisted, are frequently projected onto others who then serve as our enemies and scapegoats – there are deeper treasures like creative intelligence, artistic talents, and dormant potential that go undiscovered.

Now it should be obvious that when we are profoundly insecure, co-dependently attached, and held hostage by our convictions, the parts of ourselves we are repressing and the social deception we have to carry on just to stay in control (or so we believe) conspire to cut us off from others and from our true self. You might think that since everyone is playing along, what’s the harm?

As it turns out, the harm of staying safe and playing small is significant indeed. According to the spiritual wisdom traditions, the serenity we’re seeking as human beings, and which conventionally gets confused with the security we can’t get enough of, is only accessible by a descending path of surrender through the self. The grounding mystery is only found within, as we are able to release our need to be somebody special and simply relax into anonymous being.

And the harmony we long for, which gets confused with a quality of attachment that is not even possible, calls us to transcend the demand that others play to our script and take the ascending path to genuine communion instead. What I like to call the turning mystery of unity is beautifully exemplified in the nature of our universe (“turning as one”), but it can be found wherever individual egos can get over themselves and join in togetherness.

If we can’t – or won’t – surrender inwardly to the grounding mystery and transcend outwardly to the turning mystery, the consequence is that we end up sacrificing fulfillment on the altar of security; we forfeit community for the sake of our attachments; and we come to despair inside a world that is far too small for our spirit.

 

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What You (Really) Want

At the very deepest level life is desire. Because organisms are open systems – not closed and self-sufficient, but dependent on their environments for what they need to survive and prosper – desire is active even at the cellular level. As our focus moves upwards to higher levels of organizational complexity and consciousness, desire becomes appetite, interest, longing, curiosity, aspiration and quest.

While your life at the individual and daily level may seem hopelessly complicated at times, the truth is that as a human being you seek just four things. Well, they are not really “things” in the straightforward sense, but rather distinct kinds of experience. It’s not really a successful career, a large social network, lots of money, or even everlasting life in heaven after you die that you really want.

What are these four types of experience, the pursuit of which makes you just like every other human being on this planet? Very simply, you want pleasure, happiness, meaning, and well-being. The present arrangement of your life, as well as the ambitions that get you out of bed in the morning and keep you awake at night, is fulfilling to the degree that you have managed to keep these four pursuits in a healthy balance.

Quad

Let’s look at each one briefly, and then explore how we human beings can lose this balance – and consequently lose our way in life.

You are a sensual being (there, I said it). What I mean is, you are wired and connected to reality by sensory pathways that deliver signals to your brain and body, spontaneously eliciting reflexes that move you toward what you need to survive and away from what might be harmful or dangerous. Pleasure is the lure that gets you to reach out for the big juicy apple. Your cells require its vitamins, fructose and fiber to do their thing, but you need incentive to pick it off the tree and take a bite. Apples are delicious and pleasing because they contain the raw energy your body needs.

Once in a while the apple turns out to be spoiled rotten inside, and your bite into it brings not pleasure but disgust – a signal that it is not gustatory, not tasty and edible, not good for you. Pain (disgust in this case) is the sibling to pleasure, and its purpose is to keep you from doing that for too long, which could result in sickness; or in other situations, in injury and death.

Your body is keyed into pleasure and the pursuit of it because organic evolution has made powerful pairings between the requirements of physical health and the numerous “delivery systems” (like the apple) in your environment that carry the goods. Pleasure feels good, and you typically want more of it. Until you get too full of apples; then the opposite signal of pain kicks in and you start to feel uncomfortable and nauseated.

The advertising industry has devised many clever ways of associating (the promise of) pleasure with purchases that really have nothing to do with what your body needs. A beautiful human model slunk over the hood of the latest model car excites our desire for sex and romance, and then anchors this feeling to the automobile. So we rush out to the dealership to find our beckoning lover. Sixty months of financing beyond our means is not too much (at least at first) to have the pleasure we’ve been promised.

In addition to pleasure, however, you also want happiness. This is because you are an emotional being as well as one that’s wired up for the pursuit of pleasure. Being happy – feeling positive, content, cheerful and optimistic in life – is another enticing payoff for getting into arrangements that (again, promise to) provide the support you need.

Happiness is a very attractive experience, and people spend gobs and gobs of their money, effort, and time in pursuit of it. Thomas Jefferson believed that everyone has an “inalienable right” to chase it down, though he probably didn’t foresee the reckless extent to which later generations would go at it.

Quite often – probably most often; okay, all the time – people seek professional help to find happiness. They want desperately to feel better emotionally about their lives, their relationships, their past, or themselves. This will usually involve a delivery system more complicated than an apple, along with a probability of complications and side-effects that carry some risk as well. But the risks are worth it – or so we are willing to believe.

What else do you want? Meaning. This is because you are an intellectual being equipped with a cognitive intelligence that picks up patterns out of the whirligig of reality, or makes them up where they may be missing. Patterns are rhythms and designs, constellations and correlations that connect things and suggest other orders of significance. The root-word sign in significance names something that points beyond itself and “translates” the mind into a cross-referencing system where its meaning is revealed.

Your mind is a factory of signs. The language you learned from your tribe established the basic conceptual building-blocks of your world. By nature your mind is never content with a closed box of meaning, but soon itches with curiosity to know what’s “outside the box” and around the corner of the latest theory. Of course this natural curiosity can be discouraged by your tribe (and often is), to the point where asking questions is tantamount to doubting authority and opening the box becomes a punishable sin.

The social construction of identity, of what we call the ego, involves the methods by which your tribe exploited your natural desire for pleasure, happiness, and meaning. Especially in the early years, your sense of self was powerfully defined by the preferences, attachments and convictions conditioned into you by your cultural handlers (parents and teachers).  Through the early stages of ego formation, a human being was made into “one of us” – an insider, a good boy or girl, a believer.

But the ego itself is an illusion, fronting a persuasive charade of reality while being nothing  more than a rather sophisticated role play. This appearance of solidity is tested in times of doubt and disillusionment, but like a frantic little spider, the ego rushes out to the rupture and weaves a story that will restore security. If it doesn’t take too long, the trance can go on without serious interruption.

But the web does break, predictably. This is because you are a living, growing, and evolving being. The tight suspension that supports your identity, your world, and all the things that impinge on your happiness cannot keep you from growing up and out of your current disguise. It’s not just that you want more happiness and more meaning – although, again, the advertising industry is ready to accommodate your fantasy. Flip the channel and you’ll see what I mean.

Something else is going on.

You are also a spiritual being – not a soul inside a body, but a being that engages reality with a spiritual intelligence. What are you looking for in this case? What qualitatively distinct type of experience is your soul after? Not pleasure, not happiness, and not even meaning, but well-being.

What is well-being? At first blush, it is about being well, which is linguistically derived from being whole. This is not an experience to be achieved, and it’s not about clutching more things and people into your life to make it complete. It is a realization that all is one and you are a participant in something very much larger than your little ego and its meticulously managed world. Something profoundly mysterious and beyond words.

You are inwardly grounded in this mystery as well as outwardly connected, directly or indirectly, to every other existing thing.

The mystical traditions call this experience communion, from com (with, together) and union (one). Your spiritual intelligence as a human being gives you the ability to be conscious of this mystery, even if you can’t describe it and make it finally (once and for all) meaningful. Soul is that standpoint in reality where you can touch the unity of all things and release your conscious self to the deep grace of being-itself.

And then – ploop! just like that – your mind wants to put labels on it, get a box around it, and convert the experience into a belief. Spirituality is made into a religion, mystery collapses into meaning, liberty is turned into obligation, and what was once a life-changing insight gets pinned like a butterfly to the rigid board of orthodoxy.

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat fall into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

To experience well-being, you need to let go of the attachments and convictions that define you. Like the hard shell of the seed which must relax, let go, and open up to allow the green fuse to emerge, ego-identity and the little world you manage must surrender to the soul’s desire.

Until you can give yourself over to the mystery of life in this moment, your human fulfillment is postponed. Let go of fear. Let go of pain, and even of pleasure. Let go of doubt – and let go of certainty, too. Let go of what you think you need to be happy or have a meaningful life. Let go of “me, myself and I.”

Just let go. All is one. The provident mystery of reality will gently catch you. You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

 
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Posted by on January 27, 2014 in The Creative Life

 

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