Three Stages of a Human Life
There are three layers to a human life, physical, psychological and spiritual. They develop or mature in that order. Each layer has a developmental duration of around twenty years on average. They are not separate but unfold one after the other into and out of the layer before them. What I am about to describe is an ideal or average model and of course no individual person will fall into this model exactly. Nevertheless I think it is useful to have a model and to know that life is a progressive journey and in that knowing we can facilitate our own unfolding. Many people are not aware of this underlying aspect of life. We often feel like we are static, and that it is just the circumstances that change. Circumstances here includes the body.
The second reason for looking at life from the point of view of a progressive model is that it may be helpful for you to get an overview of where your life is heading.
Oftentimes people feel that whatever stage they are in, this is it. It’s not! We are not in the habit of viewing our lives from the perspective of a series of changing stages. As long as there is life there will be change. That’s a given.
Sometimes depression is caused when someone has become stuck in a particular phase, and does not realise it and so does not try to move beyond it.
One reason this happens is that most of us are not familiar with the notion of progression being an underlying fact of our lives and by progression I mean inner unfolding or movement. Modern Western culture is not generally concerned with this aspect of life and the consequences are obvious in the huge numbers of the population who feel depressed, disengaged, and misunderstood.
Someone shared an image with me recently which demonstrates what I am talking about here.
The image said that we mostly live lives as if we are watching a film in which there is a succession of scenes, characters and stories but they all seem disconnected and random. We do not see the underlying plot until the end.
What I am writing about here is an attempt to give you some clue about the underlying plot.
The first stage, the physical begins as soon as we are born. The first five years, or there about’s, is concerned with learning to survive in the world, in a body. We learn to walk, to talk, to feed ourselves, to communicate with others and so on. This is done in the security of our homes with parents or whoever is in the parenting role providing the necessary means of development and encouragement. It is an exciting and challenging stage. It is a time of trial and error and of the innate drive to move forward. No sooner has one challenge been conquered than the next one is looming before us.
By the time we are around five years old things begin to ease off. The intensity of the physical drive has lessened and now follows a period of refining the skills already learned. In this phase communication skills have moved on from making sounds, to making words, to making sentences and to learning to read and write. From walking we have become able to participate in sports and follow rules and participate in team games.
This is often a time of happiness and contentment and achievement.
By the teenage years the body is developing to the point of its full maturation. It is changing from the body of a child to that of an adult, with the capability to reproduce. For all physical organisms the measure of maturity is the ability to reproduce.
These changes in the physical body are accompanied by a the drive for independence from our parents.
In the early years we accepted the views and actions of our parents without question in return for the space in which to have our physical needs met. This was our priority at the time.
All this changes as we reach the stage of our own ability to reproduce. We now develop the need to be the master of our own lives. We start wanting to do things our way and to have the freedom to do as we wish but usually we are not yet ready or able to take total independence.
At this time we start to reject some of the things we have learned in our homes, and to want to find something of our own. We want to become self determining and make our mark on the world and to create a life that suits us. This is the stage of psychological development that goes with the now mature body. This is the real beginnings of the development of our will. We want to be in control of our lives and this means being in control of our environment, or trying to. The problem is that this drive to self determination is also fraught with fears.
With this burgeoning need for independence and control our ego goes through a profound development, accompanied by all the inner conflicts that go with it.
The conflict between wanting to be masters of our own lives and trying to find a way to do this accounts for the hardship experienced by so many youngsters. Not only have we this problem for ourselves, we find that all our friends have this same conflicts. It’s one thing wanting to be master of your own destiny but finding that all your friends have the same goal makes for some delicate social balancing. This is where we learn to hide our feelings in order to fit in and balance our desires against what seems possible to achieve.
Our intellectual faculty becomes sharper at this point, discriminating between what is desirable and what is possible for us. This is a time of trial and error while we make the adjustments necessary in order to find a balance that we can live with.
Needless to say, there is an intimate connection between what we picked up as children and how our psychological development proceeds at this stage because we are operating on the assumptions, beliefs and expectations picked up in childhood.
Unlike physical development, which happens automatically, the psychological phase requires that we actively participate in bringing it to full maturity. This means coming to accept that life is not without problems for everyone, not just you. It is a process of becoming realistic as opposed to idealistic. It requires that you learn to take responsibility for your own life, both inwardly and outwardly. The qualities of a mature adult include; steadiness, equanimity, emotional stability, disciplined, open minded, discerning, common sensical, detachment, self-reliant, realistic self concept, courageous, emotionally calm, tolerant and patient. Many people do not realise that these qualities have to be developed, that they do not come automatically.
It is a measure of how mature we are when we learn to value these qualities and adopt them in ourselves.
Psychological maturation does progress as life goes along but age is not a good indicator of how mature a person really is. The maturation progress is not automatic, nor does it have to be hit or miss as many think. It is really about arriving at the understanding that life is hard for not just for you but for everyone. There are innate problems in being human, both in terms of trying to survive in this modern world and in the emotional conflicts this generates.
From this perspective the spiritual phase begins in earnest.
I could say that reaching full development of one layer automatically leads to an upsurge in the development of the next layer. This same pattern of imposed development seen in the movement from physical to psychological also happens in the movement from psychological to spiritual.
The layer starts out with struggle and novelty and excitement and intense learning. Turning towards the wisdom aspect in us is often heralded by coming across a book or seeing someone talking about spiritual development or meeting someone who looks to us like they have arrived at some settlement in themselves that is as yet unknown to us. It is followed by a period of intense interest: learning and honing skills and ultimately the maturation of the layer. Each layer arises out of the layer prior to it. As the layers progress they become less specific and more unique. There is a movement is towards universality. The whole movement is from specific to universal, from one to The One.
In stage one, the physical, the container or crucible is the home into which one was born. It is specific and intimate.
The second stage, the psychological is contained in the domain or the particular culture in which one lives.
The upsurge of the the psychological stage that begins with leaving home or preparing to leave home now settles down to a way of life. One now has to learn to live without the immediate support of family. One has to learn how to live with others who have grown up in other families. Assumptions and expectations about how to behave are likely to meet challenges.
This is the stage of learning to form relationships within the wider community of the country you live in and indeed in the world at large. It is also the time of consolidating the way you support yourself physically.
Within this context it is also a time of learning to form new intimate relationships. It starts out with exploration. Like the babyhood phase it involves trial and error and setbacks.
This period of trial and error applies both to the human relationships and to the efforts to find a way to support oneself.
All going well, by the time one has reached thirty they are likely to have put some structures in place. You have a job and a maybe steady relationship. If you have not yet achieved these it is likely that this is what you now want to achieve.
This is followed by a phase of contentment and a sense of achievement. You have made the change from child to adult. This is often the phase of contented newly weds or the young family.
You have moved on from being dependent to being independent at the physical level. However, just as in the childhood phase you were still dependent on your parents for shelter and support, you are now dependent on “society” or the culture in which you live for shelter and support.
You are part of a system, of a national society, a work environment, a social environment. You fit in as a member of this society, contribute to it in return for certain securities. You pay your taxes and in return you get a health care system, an education system, a legal system, an infrastructure of roads, energy and so on.
From the physical point of view you are in your prime.
From the psychological point of view you are still developing. You may be looking at the values in your society. You may be questioning what’s right and wrong about society and about your own life in particular.
After a period of contentment and a sense of achievement for having become a fully fledged member of your society, you may begin to tire of it. You may feel some distress at all the terrible stories we hear through the media. Having achieved what society wanted and what you thought you wanted you begin to wonder “Is this all there is?” or “was it really such a great thing to bring children into this world?” if you allow yourself to have such thoughts.
Of course, many just stop here and just try to make the best of what is on offer in the world and do not allow themselves to think such interfering thoughts. And some try to change the world, to make it a better place. Many take prescriptions drugs, drink alcohol, set a goal of making millions, travel the world and so on, just as a way avoid these kinds of thoughts or to pass the time as best they can imaging. This is where many get stuck in their journey to full fruition.
Few are aware that there is another stage to go. It is the wisdom stage. It is just as real and available to any of us who are willing to investigate it, as are the physical and psychological stages.
John Moriarty, an Irish writer wrote:
“I knew how greatly we impoverish our lives when we assume that there is only one puberty, the sexual one.”
He was speaking about our wisdom puberty.
It starts out in the same way as the other two stages, by being a period of investigation, of trial and error and of joy at having found that there is more to life than meets the eye.
The container within which this stage is contained is God, or The Absolute, or Universal Mother or Higher Power. It does not matter what word you use. Use whichever one makes most sense to you, the one which you are most easily able to accept. In fact, it is not a container at all, but the human mind needs some kind of idea to work with.
Like the early stages of physical and psychological development, you do not have any real idea of what is taking place here. You have to trust, just as you once trusted you mother, then you trusted the state, or society, you now transfer your trust your higher power. As of yet you do not even know you can trust it, you cannot articulate it.
But, you are driven to find some way out of the disenchantment with the pleasures of the world. Life on the surface may be good but there is an inner discontent that is driving you into seeking something more. You can’t name it any more than a baby can name its drive to learn to walk and talk or than an adult is driven to create a family or build a bridge. It is just a drive.
The wisdom search begins with a time of learning about new ideas, becoming aware of new possibilities, looking at old teachings with new eyes, learning to meditate and so on. But most of all, you are on a search for something other than worldly pleasures. You have heard reports of enlightenment, awakening to your true nature and so on. You have now become an explorer of the various teachings and clues you are finding all around you. These teachings were always around but until now you had no interest in them, did not even notice them. A new aspect of you has awakened.
Along the way you begin to choose some of these teaching or feel drawn to them. You know you are on to something really important and you are following up on it.
A period of settling in to the search is likely to follow your initial awakening into the spiritual world. You are learning about different teachings and developing some discernment in yourself. You may feel attracted to a particular teaching you can relate to and decide to follow it. You implement these teachings to the best of your ability. You are becoming adept at meditation or prayer. You are finding or creating time in your worldly life for spiritual things. You are reading and listening and learning the language of the spiritual phase.
Like the other two phases, this period of honing skills learned in the early part will also come to an end. Challenges will arise that now force you to reconsider all the ideas you had about life in a new way.
You come to see that you are not in control of your life as you had previously thought.
You are in the hands of the Gods, so to speak. You begin to realise that you had a false idea of who or what you are and in the process you start to make the shift from false to true perspective. This shift is made in recognising that there is something, called the ego, which usurps the human life and that it is a false perspective. Your job now is to find what your are beyond the ego.
You are in the process of awakening yourself to your true nature. The completion of this phase is known as enlightenment or Self-realisation or Christ consciousness and it is a well recognised and documented phenomenon in the world.
You will be reborn or reconfigured as a new being. This is what you have been wanting all your life. It is what you have always been pushed towards, though you could not articulate what it was that you wanted. This is what has been called “The Pearl beyond Price”.
It is your birthright. You have to do what you can to facilitate the movement forward from one stage to the next as appropriate at each stage of your life. Each person has to do this for themselves. All teachings can do is give you clues on how to promote this forward movement in yourself.
These are the three main stages in a human life. Many stop at the second one. From my perspective this is a great tragedy, not only for the individuals but for society at large. A society made up of totally peaceful contented individuals would make for a very different world than the one we now live in.