In my book there is a chapter titled “Peter Pan World” where I talk about the lack of maturity which is epidemic in society today. We are all familiar with the three stages of life: childhood, adolescence (i.e. teenagers), and adults. During our first decade of life we develop the sense that “I am,” that there is a difference between me and the rest of the world. In the second decade, our teen years, we establish an ego personality. That ego personality becomes the “avatar” through whom we will live our adult life.
Once we reach adulthood, sometime in our early twenties, society seems to believe that personal evolution has ended. We are who we will be for the remainder of our lives. Of course, we will age and with aging may come more wisdom and accumulated experience, but that is seen as more of a refinement or improvement than a change of state.
Society’s belief that there is only a single stage of maturity—adulthood—that will define us for our remaining lifetime is, I believe, a grave error. While the first two stages are completed in the first 25 years or so of life, each demonstrating massive growth, the third state (adulthood) will persist for 50-75 years with only modest change, we imagine. Are there really no distinctions that can be made about further stages of growth?
To give us a hint of what is possible, let us look not to the norms but to the exceptions. In every society there are great individuals who conduct themselves above the rest. I’m not talking about fame, fortune, genius or success. What I mean by great are people who demonstrate ongoing awareness, generosity, gentleness, presence of mind, wisdom and equanimity far beyond most humans. At the apex of human exceptionalism are those we call “enlightened,” people whose lives inspire us all. How are they able to function in a way that transcends the average person? What sets them apart?
We can understand them better if we break “adulthood” down into two distinct stages. Almost everyone lives in stage 1 adulthood; the enlightened ones live in stage 2 adulthood (and beyond).
The common stage 1 we could call “ego-centric” adulthood. We live our life through the presenting personality—the avatar—that we built during our childhood and adolescence. Life is viewed from “the inside-out,” from in my brain and body experiencing others and the world “out there.” I identify myself as that mind/body organism. We call this “normal” living.
From the perspective of a spiritual teacher like myself, stage 1 is meant to last only until a person’s late 30’s to late 40’s. Beyond that, it is obsolete and a handicap to a fulfilling life. But since our society does not recognize that there are further domains in which a person can grow, we stagnate in stage 1.
Society actually does acknowledge that something may be happening at this point in life. We’ve all heard and probably used the term “mid-life crisis,” and recognize its accompanying ennui, self-doubt and questioning of confidence and purpose. Society is correct to note that something is indeed happening, but we misidentify it as a crisis, rather than as new growth wanting to emerge. At this time of life we undergo a sort of second adolescence, a transition time in which we have the opportunity for growth: a spiritual emergence into stage 2 adulthood. Unfortunately, since stage 2 is not recognized, people have no role model, no education about what is happening, and no encouragement for the growth that wants to happen. As a consequence, like a rocket that burns out before reaching orbit and falls back into the sea, we fall back into stage 1 life. This is a tragedy, because if we fail to reach stage 2, we will never again truly feel ourselves, and those around us will be denied the maturity and wisdom of the more evolved state.
With stage 2 we transition into a self-identity that transcends the limited worldview of stage 1. We do not see self and other in the same way; we do not see ourselves as limited by the body/mind. In the same way that the body of a caterpillar would be a burden to the butterfly and, hence, must be discarded and transformed, the limited view of who I am in egocentric, stage 1 life must be set aside. In its place arises a sense of self-identification with the whole of life and all beings. I am me, but I am also you, and you, and you. And I feel responsible for all of us.
This is who humans were meant to become. We all have this potential in us. Today, though, this achievement is so rare that such enlightened ones, admirable as they are, are felt to be far beyond “normal” human capabilities. We can admire Olympic athletes, but we do not believe we can become one. We admire genius, though we know we are not.
Let me set the record straight. In a supportive environment, stage 2 can (and should) be a natural evolutionary step of humans. It is within the grasp of everyone. Yes, you need to make some effort; yes, you will need to stop hanging on to egoic-identification; yes, you will need to grow; and yes, stage 2 can be yours.
People come to me for spiritual guidance when the malaise of stage 1 living is becoming uncomfortably tedious and unfulfilling. People with nagging questions such as “Is this all there is to my life?” or people with a longing that they can’t understand, notwithstanding all the good in their life. Life has become flat, boring, and no diversion or amusement can keep the lifelessness away for long.
The human soul was meant to go beyond stage 1 adulthood. If it stagnates here it will suffer, and no amount of worldly pleasures or psychological satisfactions will hide that suffering for long.
I am a guide to stage 2 adulthood (and beyond), and so are many of my fellow spiritual guides. If you have feelings such as these, read their books, listen to talks, go to workshops and retreats. There are many honorable and capable people willing to assist you. You CAN do it!