Nature and the Human Soul – Chapter 1
We must go far beyond any transformation of contemporary culture. We must go back to the genetic imperative from which human cultures emerge originally and from which they can never be separated without losing their integrity and their survival capacity. None of our existing cultures can deal with this situation out of its own resources. We must invent, or reinvent, a sustainable human culture by a descent into our pre-rational, our instinctive resources. Our cultural resources have lost their integrity. They cannot be trusted. What is needed is not transcendence but “inscendence,” not the brain but the gene.
—Thomas Berry, the Dream of the Earth
it’s 3:23 in the morning
and I’m awake
because my great great grandchildren
won’t let me sleep
my great great grandchildren
ask me in dreams
what did you do while the planet was plundered?
what did you do when the earth was unraveling?
surely you did something
when the seasons started failing?
as the mammals, reptiles, birds were all dying?
did you fill the streets with protest
when democracy was stolen?
what did you do
— Drew Dellinger, “hieroglyphic stairway”
Crisis and Opportunity
In our moment of history, perhaps the most sweeping and radical transformation ever to occur on Earth is under way. This “moment” is the twenty-first century, a lifetime from a human perspective, yet a mere dust mote of duration within our planet’s 4.5 billion years of exuberant evolution.
As is so often the case, the opportunity at the heart of this moment arises from a great crisis. Over the past two hundred years, industrial civilization has been relentlessly undermining Earth’s chemistry, water cycles, atmosphere, soils, oceans, and thermal balance. Plainly said, we have been shutting down the major life systems of our planet.
Compounding the ecological crisis are decaying economies, ethnic and class conflict, and worldwide warfare. Entwined with, and perhaps underlying, these devastations are epidemic failures in individual human development.
True adulthood, or psychological maturity, has become an uncommon achievement in Western and Westernized societies, and genuine elderhood nearly nonexistent. Interwoven with arrested personal development, and perhaps inseparable from it, our everyday lives have drifted vast distances from our species’ original intimacy with the natural world and from our own uniquely individual natures, our souls.
But if we know where to look, we uncover great opportunities spawned by these crises. All over the world, we are witnessing a collective human response to exigency, an immensely creative renewal, addressing all dimensions of human activity on Earth — from the ecological, political, and economic to the educational and spiritual.
This book is my contribution to the global effort to create a viable human-Earth partnership.
My beginning premise is that a more mature human society requires more mature human individuals. For twenty-five years, I have been asking how we might raise children, support teenagers, and ripen ourselves so we might engender a sustainable human culture.
My second premise is that nature (including our own deeper nature, soul) has always provided and still provides the best template for human maturation.
In these pages, you’ll find a narrative of how we might grow whole, one life stage at a time, by embracing nature and soul as our wisest and most trustworthy guides. This model for individual human development ultimately yields a strategy for cultural transformation, a way of progressing from our current egocentric societies (materialistic, anthropocentric, competition based, class stratified, violence prone, and unsustainable) to soulcentric ones (imaginative, ecocentric, cooperation based, just, compassionate, and sustainable).
In contrast to those presented in most other developmental models, the stages of life portrayed here are essentially independent of chronological age, biological development, cognitive ability, and social role. Rather, the progression from one stage to the next is spurred by the individual’s progress with the specific psychological and spiritual tasks encountered at each stage.
This, then, is an ecopsychology of human maturation, a developmental psychology with a unique angle: it’s a portrayal not of typical or “average” human development but of exemplary development as it occurs in the healthiest contemporary people — and as it could occur for everyone.
A third premise is that every human being has a unique and mystical relationship to the wild world, and that the conscious discovery and cultivation of that relationship is at the core of true adulthood. In contemporary society, we think of maturity simply in terms of hard work and practical responsibilities. I believe, in contrast, that true adulthood is rooted in transpersonal experience — in a mystic affiliation with nature, experienced as a sacred calling — that is then embodied in soul-infused work and mature responsibilities. This mystical affiliation is the very core of maturity, and it is precisely what mainstream Western society has overlooked — or actively suppressed and expelled.
Although perhaps perceived by some as radical, this third premise is not the least bit original. Western civilization has buried most traces of the mystical roots of maturity, yet this knowledge has been at the heart of every indigenous tradition known to us, past and present, including those from which our own societies have emerged. Our way into the future requires new cultural forms more than older ones, but there is at least one thread of the human story that I’m confident will continue, and this is the numinous or visionary calling at the core of the mature human heart.(1)
The Great Turning
What shape or pattern will the human story take in the future? As of this writing, we cannot predict with any certainty the outcome of our current planetary cataclysm. In this tiny interval of the twenty-first century, we, the human species, will either learn to become a life-enhancing element within the greater Earth community…or we will not. If we fail, humanity will be reduced to a small number, we will have forsaken our potential as a species (this time around, at least) and we will have perpetrated the extinction of many thousands of species, perhaps millions — beyond those that have already perished at our hands.
And yet we now behold the possibility of a radical and foundational shift in human culture — from a suicidal, life-destroying element to a way of life worthy of our unique human potential and of Earth’s dream for itself. What lies before us is the
opportunity and imperative for a thorough cultural transformation — what eco-philosopher Joanna Macy calls the Great Turning, the transition from an egocentric “Industrial Growth Society” to a soulcentric “Life-sustaining Society,” or what economist David Korten in The Great Turning calls the transition “from Empire to Earth Community.” The cultural historian Thomas Berry refers to this vital endeavor as the Great Work of our time.(2) It is every person’s responsibility and privilege to contribute to this metamorphosis.
Transformational progress is already under way through the creative initiatives of countless ecocentric (3) people and groups the world over. The Great Work has been launched in all realms of society, including technology, science, the arts, economics, education, government, and religion. A few examples: Major technological breakthroughs in clean, safe, local, renewable energy (wind, solar, small hydroelectric, and biofuels) and innovations in energy conservation methods. The science-rooted “new cosmology” — the sacred telling of the evolution of the universe and life on Earth.
Local, human-scale economies and food systems that honor the “triple bottom line”: people, planet, and profits. Primary and secondary education curricula rooted in ecoliteracy — the study of our relationship to nature, our first and foremost membership. The popular recent movements in South America that suggest the emergence of true Western democracies. The widespread longing for a more intimate relationship to the inscrutable mysteries of life as evidenced, for example, in the huge wave of renewed interest in nature-based and alternative spiritualities, from Celtic, goddess-oriented, and shamanic to Buddhism, Taoism, and Sufism. The burgeoning popularity and power of the environmental movement (the one movement that is surely not a “special interest”), the creation and widespread adoption of the Earth Charter (an international declaration of interdependence of all species and habitats), and the appearance of new laws (the “wild laws” of the new Earth jurisprudence) that grant essential rights to noncorporate nonhumans.(4)
These efforts and many others are unfolding largely outside the interest and coverage of mainstream media. Yet there are numberless groups, organizations, and communities around the globe creating the infrastructure of not only a new society but also a fundamentally new mode of being human. If we succeed, this century might be known in the future as the time Earth shifted from the geological epoch of the Cenozoic (now some 65 million years old, having begun at the time of the mass extinction that ended the reign of the dinosaurs) to what Thomas Berry calls the Ecozoic Era.
Will the twenty-first century turn out to be the Great Ending or the Great Turning? Will we succeed at the Great Work? It’s up to us…you and me and all others who are waking up to the extraordinary challenge, opportunity, and imperative before us. As poet Drew Dellinger asks, “What did you do…when the seasons started failing?”
The Wheel of Life
In this book you’ll find a model of human development that is both ecocentric and soulcentric — that is, a nature-based model that fully honors the deeply imaginative potentials of the human psyche. I think of this model as a new natural history of the soul, a description of the organic, indigenous process by which a human child grows into a soul-initiated adult. Other times I’ve overheard myself say that this is a field guide for growing a genuine elder, starting, that is, at birth. This book asks the question, What do the stages of modern human development look like when we grow, in each stage, with nature and soul as our primary guides?
Twenty-five years in the making, this eight-stage model shows us how we can take root in a childhood of innocence and wonder; sprout into an adolescence of creative fire and mystery-probing adventures; blossom into an authentic adulthood of cultural artistry and visionary leadership; and finally ripen into a seed-scattering elderhood of wisdom, grace, and the holistic tending of what cultural ecologist David Abram calls the more-than-human world.(5)
The model, which I call the Soulcentric Developmental Wheel, the Wheel of Life, or simply the Wheel, is ecocentric in two respects. First, the eight life stages are arrayed around a nature-based circle (as opposed to the familiar Western linear timeline). Beginning and ending in the east and proceeding clockwise (which is sunwise), the stages and their attributes are based primarily on the qualities of nature found in the four seasons (east-spring, south-summer, and so on) or, alternatively, the four times of day (sunrise, midday, sunset, and midnight).
Second, the developmental task that characterizes each stage has a nature-oriented dimension as well as a more familiar (to Westerners) culture-oriented dimension. Healthy human development requires a constant balancing of the influences and demands of both nature and culture. For example, in middle childhood, the nature task is learning the enchantment of the natural world through experiential outdoor immersion, while the culture task is learning the social practices, values, knowledge, history, mythology, and cosmology of our family and culture.
In industrial growth society, however, we have for centuries minimized, suppressed, or entirely ignored the nature task in the first three stages of human development, infancy through early adolescence. This results in an adolescence so out of sync with nature that most people never mature further.
Arrested personal growth serves industrial “growth.” By suppressing the nature dimension of human development (through educational systems, social values, advertising, nature-eclipsing vocations and pastimes, city and suburb design, denatured medical and psychological practices, and other means), industrial growth society engenders an immature citizenry unable to imagine a life beyond consumerism and soul-suppressing jobs.
This neglect of our human nature constitutes an even greater impediment to personal maturation than our modern loss of effective rites of passage, and it has led to the tragedy we face today: most humans are alienated from their vital individuality — their souls — and humanity as a whole is largely alienated from the natural world that evolved us and sustains us. Soul has been demoted to a new-age spiritual fantasy or a missionary’s booty, and nature has been treated, at best, as a postcard or a vacation backdrop or, more commonly, as a hardware store or refuse heap. Too many of us lack intimacy with the natural world and with our souls, and consequently we are doing untold damage to both.
But it is not too late to change. This book suggests how we might embrace the nature task in each stage of human development and how we can address the culture task much more thoroughly and fruitfully than we do in industrial growth society. By devoting ourselves to both tasks, we can reclaim our full membership in this flowering planet and animated universe, and become more fully human, both as individuals and as societies. We can grow unimpeded into adulthood and, eventually, elderhood, and create twenty-first century life-sustaining societies.
Becoming Fully Human
Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown explain that the Great Turning is happening simultaneously in three areas or dimensions that are mutually reinforcing and equally necessary. They identify these as
- “holding actions” to slow the damage to Earth and its beings;
- analysis of structural causes and the creation of alternative institutions; and
- a fundamental shift in worldview and values.(6)
The first dimension includes a great variety of endeavors to defend life on Earth, including campaigns for progressive legislation and regulations, political actions and lawsuits that slow down the destruction of Earth’s life systems, and direct actions such as boycotts, blockades, whistle-blowing, protesting, and civil disobedience. This is the more immediate, short-term work that provides time for the other two dimensions of building a life-sustaining society.
The second dimension asks us to deeply understand and demystify the dynamics of the industrial growth society so that we truly know how it works and why it is both seductive and destructive, and then to create alternative structures and practices in all our major cultural establishments, including economics, food and energy systems, government, and education. This book highlights some of these alternatives, especially in the realms of parenting and education.
The primary focus of this book, however, is on the third dimension of the Great Turning, which Joanna and Molly deem “the most basic.”(7) They note that, in order to take root and survive, the alternative institutions created as part of the second dimension must be sourced in a worldview profoundly different from the one that created the industrial growth society. They see such a shift in human consciousness emerging in the grief that so many of us are feeling for a plundered world; in our new understandings from ecology, physics, ecopsychology, and other fields about what it means to be human on an animate planet; and in our deepening embrace of the mystical traditions of both indigenous and Western peoples.
The Wheel of Life provides a means to support and quicken this foundational shift in worldview and values; it offers a set of guidelines for actualizing our greater human potential. As Thomas Berry tells us in this chapter’s epigraph, “We must go far beyond any transformation of contemporary culture….None of our existing cultures can deal with [our current world] situation out of its own resources.” In addition to creating new cultural establishments, we must enable our very mode of being human to evolve.
But I do not mean something implausible or fanciful. I mean what simply amounts to growing up. Rather than become something other-than-human or superhuman, we are summoned to become fully human. We must mature into people who are, first and foremost, citizens of Earth and residents of the universe, and our identity and core values must be recast accordingly. This kind of maturation entails a quantum leap beyond the stage of development in which the majority of people live today. And yet we must begin now to engender the future human.
Consequently, the question of individual human development becomes critical. How can we grow whole so that an ecocentric identity becomes the rule rather than the exception? How can we foster a global ecological citizenry?
There are three reasons that enhanced human maturation is essential to the Great Turning. First, we live in a largely adolescent world. And it is, in great measure, a pathological adolescence. There is absolutely nothing wrong with (healthy) adolescence, but our cultural resources have been so degraded over the centuries that the majority of humans in “developed” societies now never reach true adulthood. An adolescent world, being unnatural and unbalanced, inevitably spawns a variety of cultural pathologies, resulting in contemporary societies that are materialistic, greed-based, hostilely competitive, violent, racist, sexist, ageist, and ultimately self-destructive. These societal symptoms of patho-adolescence, which we see everywhere in the industrialized world today, are not at the root of our human nature, but rather are an effect of egocentrism on our humanity.
The Great Work cannot be completed as long as there are billions of people living a patho-adolescent lifestyle of conspicuous consumption — or aspiring to one — while billions of others live in abject poverty, or as long as there remains a majority of voter support for politicians (from either the right or left) with patho-adolescent ambitions and agendas, or as long as we live within political and corporate systems that suppress all alternatives to the industrial growth society.
As soon as enough people in contemporary societies progress beyond adolescence, the entire consumer-driven economy and egocentric lifestyle will implode. The adolescent society is actually quite unstable due to its incongruence with the primary patterns of living systems. The industrial growth society is simply incompatible with collective human maturity. No true adult wants to be a consumer, worker bee, or tycoon, or a soldier in an imperial war, and none would go through these motions if there were other options at hand. The enlivened soul and wild nature are deadly to industrial growth economies — and vice versa.
The second reason that human maturation is essential to the Great Turning is that the most potent seeds of cultural renaissance come from the uniquely creative work of authentic adults. All such adults are true artists, visionaries, and leaders, whether they live and work quietly in small arenas, such as families, farms, and classrooms, or very publicly on grand stages. They are our most reliable agents of cultural change. This book suggests a set of guidelines for restoring and refining the process of human maturation so that increasing numbers might grow into true twenty-first-century adults, into mature transformers of culture.
Thomas Berry writes, “We must invent, or reinvent, a sustainable human culture by a descent into our pre-rational, our instinctive resources….What is needed is not transcendence but ‘inscendence.’”(8) This descent, this inscendence, is the journey of soul discovery, which can be engaged only by those who have moved beyond the early adolescence in which our society has stalled. Through an individual’s initiatory time in the underworld of soul, she uncovers a dream, a vision, or a revelation that will “inspire, guide, and drive the action” for the rest of life, as Thomas says. “The dream provides the energy for adult action.”(9)
The most inspiring work in the world today is being performed by those who have undergone this initiatory passage, those who have returned with precious resources for a soulcentric or life-sustaining society. This is the descent of which Thomas writes, the mature hero’s journey described by mythologist Joseph Campbell, the descent to the goddess portrayed by Jungian therapist Sylvia Brinton Perera, the process of individuation identified by Carl Jung and other depth psychologists such as James Hillman and Marion Woodman, and the subject of my first book, Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche.
We cannot simply think our way out of our current planetary impasse — not even with blue-ribbon panels of the world’s best minds. As Albert Einstein noted, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”(10) A viable plan for transforming our culture will not come from the worldview or the values that produced it. Viable cultural systems have always been sourced in the soul-rooted revelations, visions, and dreams of those with the courage to wander across borders into exotic psychospiritual realms, those like Crazy Horse, Gandhi, Jesus, and Buddha, and the equally inspiring but (in a patho-adolescent society) less-celebrated visionary women such as Mother Teresa, Hildegard von Bingen, and Wangari Maathai.
Mature revelation demands mature people. Positive cultural change is the natural outcome of healthy individual development, because mature people vitalize culture through their individual and collective actions. Cultural health and individual health engender one another. This book explores nature’s ways — and every vital culture’s ways — for raising healthy children; preparing adolescents for the initiatory adventure that opens the way to mature, authentic adulthood; and enhancing the cultural artistry and fulfillment of adult and elder lives.
The third reason individual maturation is essential is that, to succeed, the Great Turning must be overseen by true elders like Thomas Berry and Joanna Macy and tens of thousands of others like them. In its largest scope, the human venture must be guided not by assemblies of adolescent politicians and corporate officers, not even by mature, initiated adults, but by genuine councils of wise elders.
A Patho-Adolescent Society
In current Western and Westernized societies, in addition to the scarcity of true maturity, many people of adult age suffer from a variety of adolescent psychopathologies — incapacitating social insecurity, identity confusion, extremely low self-esteem, few or no social skills, narcissism, relentless greed, arrested moral development, recurrent physical violence, materialistic obsessions, little or no capacity for intimacy or empathy, substance addictions, and emotional numbness.
We see these psychopathologies most glaringly in leaders and celebrities of the Western world: Politicians blatantly motivated by image preservation, reelection prospects, power, wealth, and privilege. Moralizing religious leaders caught with their moral compasses askew. Entertainment icons killing themselves with alcohol, drugs, eating disorders, and cosmetic surgeries. Captains of industry reaching unprecedented nadirs of greed and power obsessions.
When we take an honest look at the people in charge of the governments, corporations, schools, and religious organizations of industrial growth societies, we find that too many are psychological adolescents with no deep understanding of themselves or the natural environment that makes their lives possible.
Many Western men spend their lives aspiring to the adventures of early-adolescent heroism — whether on elite playing fields, in the fastest cars, the highest summits, the most beds, or the most exclusive boardrooms. Many women hope to land the best male exemplar of that adolescent hero — or become a female version of him.
With so few ripened leaders, our communities have become caravans astray in a cultural wilderness. We’ve lost our bearings and forgotten where we were headed in the first place. When we arrive at a difficult crossing — say, a river or a chasm — having no boats or ropes, we sadly stare and then turn away to try another direction, perhaps hoping a god or a genie might someday come along to rescue us.
Although many of our social and psychological problems surface as early as the preschool years, our cultural disorientation becomes most evident in our remarkable failures with the life passage of puberty and the stage of life that follows it. As a society, we’re profoundly confused about adolescence. We don’t know if it is a form of early adulthood, late childhood, a blending of both, or something else entirely. We’re not sure if we should treat a thirteen-year-old as an adult or a kid; we’re not even sure how to do either. Parents of teenagers toss up their hands in mutual despair and resignation. An increasing proportion of teens feel lost and confused and cannot find someone trustworthy and wise to whom they can turn.
These confusions about adolescence are reflected in how we have collectively responded to puberty, which is, other than birth and death, perhaps the physically most obvious human transition. As a whole, Westernized societies don’t seem to have a clue about how to prepare a young person for sexual flowering, social independence, authentic personal expression, soul discovery, or a lifetime of interdependent relationships in the more-than-human world of nature. Traditional rites of passage, stripped of their vitality centuries before, have become empty shells, like the longdiscarded husks of departed souls.
Consequently, we are seeing the most alarming signs of cultural pathology in teenagers and children. We are witnessing an increasingly high percentage of teens who are drug addicted, violent, plotting to take their own and others’ lives (and often following through), imprisoned, diagnosed with severe psychological disorders, and routinely prescribed mind-altering and emotion-numbing drugs.
And almost inconceivably, some prepubertal children are exhibiting adolescent pathologies. We are witnessing seven- and eight-year-olds involved in sex and drug addictions, homicides, and gang warfare. This is perhaps the clearest and most alarming symptom of a patho-adolescent society in the terminal stages of degeneration: even childhood is robbed of its wholesomeness.
A healthy childhood is rooted in nature and a supportive family, but many children in the Western world have been uprooted from both and given sexuality and trifles instead. Having lost the training and rites that prepare a girl for becoming truly queenly, a mature woman, we have instead beauty-queen contests for five-year-olds.
The Promise and Hope of Adolescence
But adolescence itself is not the problem. In fact, adolescence — healthy adolescence — holds our master key to both individual development and human evolution. Adolescence, at this time, is the locus of both our crisis and our opportunity. The crisis of adolescence and the crisis of our culture are two facets of the same impasse. Seizing the opportunity in one quickens the opportunity for the other. Once enough people embrace the true nature of adolescence — its promise and potential — Western culture will transform and again become life sustaining. To the extent that we don’t know what adolescence is for, we don’t know what humans are for.
It is likely that people who don’t understand teenagers are the same people who, in their teen years, were not understood by their parents and teachers. Consequently, in each generation the promise of adolescence goes unrealized. This is our cultural dilemma.
A fourth premise of this book is that this dilemma — which has its roots in cultural changes associated with the advent of agriculture six to ten thousand years ago — is not accidental or due to bad luck. Rather, it is an intrinsic feature of what it is to be human: it has been, and is, unavoidable. This is a quandary hundreds of generations old, one so tangled and complex that we can’t be surprised that humanity is just discovering means to resolve it.(11)
I believe our dilemma arises from the innate vulnerability, or Achilles heel, of the human species, a “sacred wound” that derives from our uniquely human mode of consciousness and that holds the secret to our destiny, our collective human soul.(12) Our distinctive ego-based consciousness — made possible by our reflexive self-awareness — engenders both our crisis and our opportunity. Ego consciousness is our greatest liability as well as our greatest power.
The symptoms of our human wound become most apparent in adolescence. This is the phase of life in which most contemporary people get stuck and the phase in which most need the greatest support. Adolescence holds the key to our becoming fully human.
Genuine adulthood is not obtained merely by reaching a certain age, birthing or raising children, or accepting certain responsibilities. The adolescent must undergo an initiation process that requires letting go of the familiar and comfortable. She must submit to a journey of descent into the mysteries of nature and the human soul. She must plunge to the depths, in a sense to “hell,” but not at all in the way mainstream society has come to understand — and to fear. The descent that adolescents must undergo is what most scares people about teenagers (including teenagers themselves). But this is also what grieves many older people, because, somewhere inside, they know this is where they needed to go as teens but didn’t, and the question still hovers in the air in front of them as to whether it is too late.
Through psychospiritual adventure, the adolescent comes to know what she was born to do, what gift she possesses to bring to the world, what sacred quality lives in her heart, and how she might arrive at her own unique way of loving and belonging. Entry into the life of the soul demands a steep price, an ordeal, a psychological form of dying. The uninitiated adolescent does not easily give up her claim on “the good life.” Grasping this, we must invent, or reinvent, forms and methods for soul initiation. A deeper understanding of adolescence is where our hope lies.
Inventing the Wheel
Through my work as a depth psychologist, wilderness guide, and ecotherapist, I’ve had the privilege of observing how people grow into vibrantly creative, socially engaged, deeply fulfilling adulthood. I began with a great curiosity about how people uncover their destinies, their place in the more-than-human world. In 1981, as a complement to my psychologist hours, I plunged into guiding a contemporary Western version of the age-old cross-cultural vision quest. This was a ten- to fourteen-day experience that included four days of fasting in wilderness solitude.
Most participants came away with heart-rending or soul-stirring experiences, but by no means a single variety. I began to keep track of the many experiential themes, and over time, about eight groupings became evident, some centered on emotional healing or heart opening, some involving intimate communion or bonding with nature (often the first of a lifetime), and some featuring encounters with profound mysteries.
I wondered what factors influenced people’s experiences on their vision fasts. I gathered notes from my own programs as well as the observations of dozens of other guides I knew. Gradually, a pattern emerged: personal response to a vision fast seemed foremost a function of psychological maturation, and secondarily a combination of the individual’s intent for his fast and the guide’s understanding of the meaning and potential of the experience.
During my programs, on the day before the fast began, my coguides and I began to predict — privately between us and solely for our own learning — the category of experience each participant would have on his or her upcoming fast. We based our conjectures mostly on a rudimentary model of developmental stages. To our own astonishment, we were correct at least 80 percent of the time.
Those who returned from their fasts with the most mysterious and world-shifting experiences — which we began to call soul encounters (revelations of the images, symbols, or themes of personal destiny) — were the ones who, at the outset, seemed to us most mature psychospiritually. Most always, these same folks were also the ones most at home in nature. Not surprisingly, the latter fact turned out to be correlated with a childhood history of ample unsupervised time in the wild world. I found it exceptionally interesting that these three things seemed so closely associated: a childhood immersed in nature, personal maturity, and the depth of experience on a vision quest.
So I became absorbed, almost obsessed, with the question of how we humans grow whole…or don’t. I wondered why there appeared to be such disparate levels of development among people uniformly considered “adults.”
For example, some of my colleagues who were guiding what we called “contemporary rites of passage” spoke of their programs as facilitating the grand shift from childhood to adulthood, as if that transition happened in one fell swoop courtesy of a two- to ten-day wilderness experience. They spoke as if you could take any child or teenager (or even an older person) and put him through a rite of passage and, presto-change-o, you’d have an adult. This led to troubling questions: What about that alleged stage of adolescence between childhood and adulthood? When do the passages into and out of that stage happen? Does someone — either a child or an adolescent — become an adult by merely undergoing a rite of passage? Isn’t some kind of developmental preparation necessary? And what do we mean by adulthood anyway?
It became evident to me that the day-by-day process of personal development was a much bigger factor in maturation than the ritual marking of passages between stages. You might say this was a challenging realization for a person who had previously thought of himself as a rites-of-passage guide.
As you’ll see throughout this book, I remain greatly encouraged that the more progressive elements of our society have become reattuned to the importance of rites of passage at times of major life transition. Indeed, one of the signs of a healthy society is that it provides its members with such rites at many of the major life transitions. But I am even more encouraged that we are beginning to learn that what happens during the life stages themselves is a good deal more essential to our development. A transitional ritual can have its intended effect only when the individual has made sufficient progress with the developmental tasks of the preceding life stages.
So, without intending it or desiring it, I became a developmental psychologist …but with a twist. Rather than taking the conventional approach of studying current theory, or contributing research about “average” people in everyday American life, I spent very intimate time — eight to fourteen days at a stretch — in wilderness settings with small groups of exceptional people experiencing extraordinary personal, interpersonal, transpersonal, and terrestrial events. I was, of course, deeply and personally rearranged myself, both through my experiences of assisting others with their soul discovery and through my own wanderings in the wild realms beyond the familiar borders of the Western mind.
I began to create and flesh out a life-cycle model for what I was discovering, and named it the Soulcentric Developmental Wheel.
The Dance of Nature and Culture
For approximately two million years, we humans have evolved within a matrix woven equally of nature and culture. However, since the beginning of Western civilization some five to ten thousand years ago, and certainly in modern times, our lives have become increasingly less attuned to nature and more solely to culture. And because of this, many modern cultures have diverged from their origins in nature, resulting in billions of modern lives radically alienated from the natural world and cultures devoid of the integrity and survival value implicit in natural systems.
Given this understanding of our human story, my first design principle for the Wheel was that each life stage must be envisioned from the perspective of nature as well as from that of (healthy) culture. To my knowledge, there are no other developmental models in the fields of Western psychology and contemporary Western spirituality that embrace nature as a core design element. (This absence of nature-based thinking and practice is itself revealingly diagnostic of both Western psychology and Western culture.)
The first choice to be made was which common parameter to use as the central characterization of each stage. I settled on the developmental task, because of what I had learned about the new rites of passage. If I had surmised correctly — if a rite of passage effected a true developmental shift only for people whose earlier life experiences prepared them for it — then we could say that readiness for a passage was a significant type of achievement. And if we were to speak of developmental achievements, there ought to be associated tasks in every stage that provide the opportunity to succeed (or fail) at those very achievements. Consequently, you’ll find that each of the eight stages described in this book — two each for childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and elderhood — are characterized by tasks that the individual must address in that stage.
My understanding of the specific nature of each task arose largely from viewing each stage through the lens of nature — its cycles and rhythms as embodied in the progression of the seasons and the times of day. I kept returning to a specific question: “Given that we humans are as natural as anything else, what might these archetypal patterns — the rhythms of Sun and Earth — suggest about how a human life is meant to unfold?” (Several other design influences, in addition to nature’s template, asserted themselves along the way, as I describe in chapter 3.)
As the model took shape and ripened, it became apparent that there was not one but two tasks in each stage, or in some cases, one task with two dimensions. For years, I found this duality merely interesting and ascribed to it no special significance. Then one day I noticed to my astonishment that there was indeed a deeper and unvarying motif. For each stage, one task (or one dimension of the single task) had to do with nature — with growing deeper into our human nature and our membership in greater nature — and the other with our relationship to culture. And furthermore, there was a dynamic tension, a necessary push-pull, between the nature and culture tasks of each stage. Immediately I realized it could not have been otherwise. Still, it amazed me it had taken so many years to see this, especially given that, from the start, I had intended the Wheel to be faithful to both nature and culture.
What has become clear is that the always-shifting dance between nature and culture is one of the principal dynamics that make us human. This appears to be true both for our individual development and for our species’ collective evolution. Human ontogeny is shaped significantly more by cultural influences than is the ontogeny of any other life-form we know. And yet, as we’ve seen, a thorough experiential grounding in nature is equally essential for us: without it, pathology and self-destruction result.
This discovery of the twofold nature of the developmental tasks was followed by a second, even more surprising realization that, in hindsight, seemed equally obvious: contemporary Western society minimizes, suppresses, or ignores the nature task in every life stage, especially the first three. We no longer grow into our natural wildness, our true human nature. Rather, we retreat from it. For the majority of people in the world today, personal growth becomes arrested in the third stage of eight due to our alienation from nature — from both our human nature and greater nature. Furthermore, this alienation is the cause as well as the effect of dysfunctional culture. Each generation has a more difficult time maturing, resulting in cultures less capable of facilitating the maturation of subsequent generations — an ever-sinking spiral.
The Wheel of Life explores the nature task and the culture task in every life stage and suggests how we can get back on track with what nature intends for us as humans.
My third major realization was that nature’s intention for us is not static. This intent itself has been evolving from the very beginnings of the human story: how we are presently designed to grow whole is not quite the same as how we were designed to grow whole in the past.
For example, one of the things I’ve learned from Thomas Berry is that modern science and cosmology require us to think about the world as not only unfolding in ever-repeating cycles but also as on a one-way, progressive, nonrepeating trajectory of evolution and transformation. Everything in the universe is steadily moving into entirely new terrain, entirely new sequences of development. There is a panoramic arc to our own existence as well as a replicating pattern.
This is a relatively new idea on the human scene, and a revolutionary one. The older, ever-renewing cycle model — for example, the repeating rhythms of the day, the Moon, the seasons, and the stages of plant and animal growth — is what we find in the traditional, classic, and indigenous views. In contrast, the irreversible trajectory model — for example, the universe originated in a big bang about 14 billion years ago and is still expanding, and birds evolved from dinosaurs, humans from apes, and all life ultimately from primordial single-celled organisms — is the perspective we find in modern cosmology and biology. Thomas refers to the latter perspective as “the time-developmental model.”(13) His larger point is that our approach to the development of anything must now embrace both models — both circle and arc (in a sense, both feminine and masculine), which together describe a spiral progression through space and time.
Applying this pivotal insight to human evolution, we must recognize that, although our individual lives still unfold in a familiar nature-rooted cycle (as in the Wheel), we are nevertheless, as a species, collectively evolving in ever-new ways. The human life cycle itself is evolving. So although the Wheel takes the shape of a circle, this does not imply that we are now the same humans we were fifty thousand, ten thousand, or even two thousand years ago. We are developing as a species, too. We are still very much on an evolutionary adventure.
One of the recent developments we can identify in our evolution as a species — a phenomenon central to the design of the Wheel — has to do with the curious season of life we call adolescence. In a certain way, adolescence is a relatively new occurrence. The word adolescence itself was not used to refer to a stage of human development until 1900, by the first American to earn a doctorate in psychology, Stanley Hall. I have come to believe that modern adolescence represents a potential evolutionary advance, but one that we have not yet begun to fulfill.
Microbiologists tell us that our genetic coding is 98.6 percent identical to that of chimpanzees and that the other 1.4 percent mostly dictates the duration (that is, the slowness) of our juvenile development (neoteny). In other words, a major part of what differentiates us humans from other primates is the relatively long, pre-adult phase of our individual development.
It appears that adolescence is an evolving stage of growth, a stage gradually distinguishing itself from both childhood and adulthood. As the millennia unfold, we humans are each maturing slower and, on the average, living longer. Rather than a sign of psychological regression or biological error, modern adolescence might be evidence of an evolutionary trajectory, a momentous advantage we have not yet understood or benefited from. Longer juvenility allows for, but does not compel, fuller maturation. It is possible that, over the past ten thousand years, we’ve been evolving as a species but becoming less mature as individuals. Now we have the opportunity to mature as well.
As for our evolution, we might go so far as to speculate that a new dimension of the human species is in the process of emerging, or that the present human species is collectively mutating, and that the new wrinkle is not in our visible anatomy so much as an alteration in our mode and capacity of consciousness. Most significantly, at the heart of this postulated shift in human consciousness is our notably expanded and amplified capacity for imagination, a capacity that requires a healthy modern adolescence for its full realization.
To grasp the importance of an amped-up imagination, first recall that the human is the only creature we know of who has the ability to imagine alternative futures (and create them, using symbolic language and opposable thumbs).(14) This has been true of humans from the beginning, but now this faculty acquires a significance more pivotal than at any previous moment in Earth’s evolution and, conceivably, in the universe’s. In the twenty-first century, humanity must learn to use its forward-seeing imagination not only for its own sake but for the sake of all other species as well. As Thomas writes, “We now in large measure determine the earth process that once determined us. In a more integral way we could say that the earth that controlled itself directly in the former period now to an extensive degree controls itself through us.”(15) For better or worse (and so far it is unmistakably for worse), humanity has become the dominant presence on this planet, as great as any geological force of the past or present.(16)
For this reason, our capacity to imagine the numberless facets of a viable future has far greater consequences and opportunities than ever before. We are now imagining not only for ourselves but for all Earthly creatures. A highly skilled and nuanced imagination — exercised by not just a few but the majority of humans — now acquires the most fundamental significance for survival. As a species, we must go beyond all previous functioning of our uniquely human imagination.
“We cannot intentionally create unless we are able, first, to imagine,” writes my colleague, the author and wilderness explorer Geneen Marie Haugen. “Imagination may be the most essential, uniquely human capacity — creating both the dead-end crises of our time and the doorway through them.” She coined the appellation Homo imaginens many years ago to refer to our evolving consciousness, our way into the future. “Homo, human, and humus are thought to arise from a shared root — of the Earth. Thus, Homo imaginens might translate not only as the imagining human, but as the imagining Earth.”(17) We might speculate that Earth is trying to imagine its own future through us. Psychologist Thomas Moore has more recently employed the almost identical Homo imaginans.(18)
We know that the geo-biological community of Earth excels in its ability to engender countless new forms and species to fill opportunities and needs within its constantly evolving and self-organizing web of life. This occurred, for example, 2 billion years ago when most terrestrial life took the form of primordial, single-celled, anaerobic bacteria (prokaryotes) living in the oceans. A by-product of their metabolism was oxygen, which, for them, was a poison. They generated such prodigious volumes of it that Earth’s atmosphere became significantly altered and the prokaryotes were beginning to suffocate in their own waste. It was then that a new form of life appeared — bacteria that fed on oxygen (eukaryotes). Without such a transformational moment, life on Earth might have ended right there.
And now we find ourselves at a similar juncture. The human species is creating so much toxicity and pollution — and again radically altering Earth’s atmosphere (and land and waters) — that its own survival is very much in question. If ever Earth, in its fecund generativity, were going to bring forth a new human species, now would be the time.
In 1988, Thomas Berry also suggested this possibility of a new species: “Because we are moving into a new mythic age, it is little wonder that a kind of mutation is taking place in the entire earth-human order. A new paradigm of what it is to be human emerges.”(19)
Three of the most likely indicators of a new emerging human paradigm are as follows, features found in neither the contemporary Western human (yet) nor the traditional indigenous human.
- Universal awareness of an evolutionary arc to the unfolding of the world. This is the time-developmental perspective inherent in the science-informed universe story. Not only will the world change, but we will be transformed as a species when we collectively grasp and learn to live from the knowledge that (a) the universe is continuing to evolve, (b) we humans are both a part of and an essential mode of this evolution, and (c) relative to Earth, at least, we humans now have a determining role in this evolution. Humanity as a whole has never before confronted such a psyche-shifting idea or such an awesome, Earth-shaping responsibility.
- Universal visionary capacity. For most of human history, the highest development of visionary skill was limited to a few exceptional individuals in each community (shamans, prophets, visionaries, and so on). Now this capacity of deep imagination must be cultivated by all adults if we are to create sustainable cultures.
- Healthy modern adolescence. As I’ve suggested, we’ve not yet understood the potential and benefits of this new developmental period, which encompasses not one but two distinct stages with different, even divergent, tasks. Modern adolescence makes possible the more complete and destined development of the deep human imagination, our visionary capacity. This possibility is a central feature of the character of stage 4 on the Wheel of Life (as we’ll see in chapter 7). Imagination might very well be the single most important faculty to cultivate in adolescence. Without this cultivation, true adulthood might never be reached.
My first book, Soulcraft, is a somewhat elaborate description of stage 4 (the Cocoon), which I think of as late adolescence, the period in which we intensively explore the mysteries of nature and psyche in preparation for initiation into true adulthood. In the Cocoon, if all goes well, we’re granted a vision or revelation of our unique place in the world. When we commit to the practical embodiment of that vision, we enter adulthood.
Five Facets of the Wheel
The Wheel of Life represents not one but five things:
- A map or story of optimal human development
- A set of guidelines for individual psychological healing and wholing(20)
- A design tool for creating healthy human communities and life-sustaining
- A deep cultural therapy — a way to heal and transform our existing human cultures
- A portrait of the emerging stage of human evolution
A Map or Story of Optimal Human Development
The human life cycle is best understood as a story. The Wheel tells a story, in eight acts, of becoming fully human, and it offers a map for reaching that destination. It is at once a model of how human development would unfold in a modern, soulcentric, life-sustaining society — a hypothetical one — and of how it can and does unfold now in our existing egocentric society when there is sufficient support from soul-centered parents, teachers, extended family networks, schools, religious organizations, and social programs.
The Wheel is ecocentric in that it models individual human development from the perspective of nature’s cycles, rhythms, and patterns. Not only does the natural world feed us, clothe us, and shelter us; not only does it offer us communion with sacred mysteries; not only does it present us treasures such as flowers, gems, and seashells that we can offer to each other as gifts; not only does it inspire our music and art, but it also informs and guides every chosen step of our maturation, if we let it. The Wheel is, in essence, a biomimetic model of human development. Half the time, I call it the Ecocentric Developmental Wheel.
The Wheel is also soulcentric, in two ways. First, it shows how soul attempts to guide our individual development. Second, it envisions the principal goal of maturation to be the conscious discovery and embodiment of our souls. It can equally well be called the Soulcentric Developmental Wheel.
Given that the human soul is the very core of our human nature, we might note that, when we are guided by soul, we are guided by nature. Both soul and greater nature do guide us in our individual development, whether or not we ask for this guidance. But if we know how to listen, we can benefit much more. Living in an adolescent culture does not banish us from soulcentric development. The assistance of nature and soul is always and everywhere available. In our own society, a large minority of people develop soulcentrically despite the cultural obstacles. The soul faithfully comes to our aid through dreams, deep emotion, love, the quiet voice of guidance, synchronicities, revelations, hunches, and visions, and at times through illness, nightmares, and terrors.
Nature, too, supports our personal blossoming (if we have any quiet exposure to her) through her spontaneities, through her beauty, power, and mirroring, through her dazzling variety of species and habitats, and by way of the wind, Moon, Sun, stars, and galaxies.
If we look at the biographies of our society’s most celebrated geniuses, artists, and visionaries, we find that most of them had regular immersions in the wild, especially in childhood, and that all of them had great sensitivity to the stirrings of the soul’s deep imagination.(21)
Although the Wheel resonates with the life ways of many traditional peoples, it is not a description of their approach to individual development.(22) Rather, it is a model of the underlying structure of healthy life stages traversed by contemporary people from any culture, including the healthiest and most creative Westerners.
The eight developmental stages together constitute a single story, the story of a deeply fulfilling but nevertheless entirely human life. The story the Wheel tells is very different from the one that most contemporary people live. What we need now are new stories to share with each other, new tales to live into the world, which is to say, stories to make real by living our own versions of them. As David Korten suggests, the most difficult and essential aspect of the Great Turning might be to change our stories. The Wheel provides guidance for shifting the stories of our individual and collective lives.
A Set of Guidelines for Individual Psychological Healing and Wholing
There are two general approaches to alleviating psychological problems: pathology-centered and wholeness-centered (holistic). (This is also true for medical problems more generally.) Using the pathology approach, we ask, “What symptoms of dysfunction is this person exhibiting, and what can be done to eliminate these symptoms and/or this dysfunction?” Common psychological symptoms include anxiety, depression, obsessions, eating disorders, addictions, and mania. A shallow version of the pathology approach simply attempts to eliminate or suppress the behavioral, somatic, or emotional symptoms. A deeper approach tries to understand the psychodynamics of the dysfunction and then foster healing by addressing the deeper causes.
All pathology approaches begin and end with a symptom focus: you don’t know what, if anything, is needed until symptoms appear, and you don’t know your intervention has succeeded until the symptoms diminish.
Some pathology approaches attend only to the individual, and others consider the individual’s difficulties to be symptoms of the larger system in which the individual is a member (his family, school, or community). The system perspective with the widest lens, found among ecopsychologists, conceives of individual pathologies as symptoms of environmental illness, illness generated by human activity; as symptoms of our disordered human relationship with nature.
With the holistic approach, in contrast, dysfunction is not a central focus. We ask instead, “What qualities or capacities are missing from this person’s embodiment of wholeness, and what can be done to cultivate these qualities or capacities?” The goal is to encourage and foster something functional and fulfilling rather than to remove something dysfunctional and deadening. Missing psychological qualities might be, for example, innocence, wonder, body awareness, nature reverence, creativity, and the development of values and virtues. Capacities of wholeness include social skills, cultural knowledge, emotional and imaginal skills, conflict resolution, and self-reliance.
Although the identification of symptoms can be useful in the holistic approach, there’s no need to wait for signs that something has gone “wrong” before making an assessment of your own or another’s embodiment of wholeness. When symptoms are observed, the holistic approach views them as indicators of the qualities of wholeness that the psyche is attempting to activate — as opposed to something dysfunctional that needs to be removed. The symptom is honored as a message from the person’s wholeness and becomes a guide for identifying what needs to be encouraged and cultivated.(23)
The holistic premise is that most dysfunctions and their symptoms are resolved in the course of restoring or engendering wholeness, which is far more than a cure. Any dysfunction is itself viewed as a symptom — of compromised or unrealized wholeness. In a successful pathology-approach, in contrast, pathology is cured but wholeness is rarely achieved or even attempted.
For example, with a holistic approach to depression (by which I mean, not sadness, but unassimilated emotions), not only is it rare to use antidepressants (which the holistic perspective views primarily as symptom blockers), but also the experiential release and assimilation of the emotions — say, grief following a major loss — would be considered only a partial treatment. The holistic practitioner would, in addition, coach the bereaved in fully developing his emotional skills (including emotional access through bodily experience, followed by intrapsychic insight and adaptive action or affective expression), since such skills are an essential component of every person’s wholeness.
The pathology approach is reactive (eliminating dysfunctions when they appear), while the holistic approach is proactive (cultivating wholeness, whether or not there are observable symptoms) and can be employed anytime, on a regular basis, and by most anyone.
A crucial component of a holistic approach to individual development is a map or model of psychological wholeness. Without one, there’s no systematic way to assess what elements of wholeness are missing. We need a map or model that is sensible, functional, sufficiently differentiated and nuanced, and both realistic and inclusive of the exceptional. With such a map or model, we can assess a person’s wholeness independent of symptoms — in fact, without identifying symptoms at all.
The Wheel is a model of human wholeness differentiated into eight life stages. For each life stage, there is a set of qualities and capacities that a healthy person in that stage would be expected to develop. The Wheel, then, can be used as a tool for assessing deficits in wholeness. In describing how each of the developmental qualities and capacities is cultivated, the Wheel also provides specific guidelines for addressing developmental deficits. It is specifically an ecopsychological version of the holistic approach to individual development that looks at human wholeness through the lens of nature’s patterns and cycles, which themselves always function holistically.
The Wheel suggests that the most common psychological symptoms result from neglecting developmental tasks in the first three stages of life. The ideal response is to, when possible, address these tasks with or without professional support. (Severe symptoms, like suicidal thinking or acute emotional trauma, must, of course, be attended to first, preferably by a well-trained professional.)
A holistic approach provides options well beyond prevention methods. Consider teen drug use, for example. Common prevention efforts include drug education, tellings teens to “just say no,” teen-center drug-alternative activities, addiction counseling, positive and negative reinforcement (bribes and threats), and incarceration. All of these “treatments” are reactions to the symptom of drug use itself; they are attempts merely to eliminate the symptom, to get teens to stop using drugs. A holistic approach to drug use, in contrast, does not focus primarily on drugs but offers teens the opportunity to address their developmental deficits through a great variety of experiences, deficits that might have no obvious relationship to drug use or abuse. For example, one of the common wholeness deficits among drug-abusing teens is the unfulfilled and utterly natural longing to directly experience the mysteries of life. This is a common deficit in Western societies due to the near absence of cultural practices for fulfilling this normal feature of teenage wholeness. An adequate holistic approach to teen drug use must include, among other things, instruction in effective and suitable methods for altering consciousness and exploring the mysteries of nature and psyche.
Another example concerns the current epidemic in childhood depression, obesity, and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). All three are most commonly treated with drugs and behavior therapy, with very limited genuine success. Recent research suggests that these dysfunctions are symptoms of wholeness deficits, especially of those qualities awakened by free-play time in nature, qualities like wonder, imagination, creativity, the love of learning, intimacy, and joy. This research shows that children with these dysfunctions, when allowed regular unstructured time in nature, show a rapid decrease in depression, obesity, and ADHD. (More on this in chapter 5.)
A core hypothesis stemming from the holistic use of the Wheel is that the “mental health” needs of a large percentage of troubled children, teens, and older persons would be much better addressed by helping them with their unfinished developmental tasks from the first three life stages than by pathology-centered psychotherapies or symptom-suppressing medication.
Another hypothesis is that the reason for the demonstrated effectiveness of the increasingly popular wilderness-based therapies is that they cultivate specific dimensions of human wholeness that contemporary societies neglect. Chief among these dimensions is the visceral, emotional, and imaginative discovery of nature’s enchantment, something normally achieved in a healthy middle childhood (stage 2 on the Wheel). This sort of nature learning calls for regular time outdoors in natural environments but does not require a full-on wilderness setting. Other dimensions include value clarification, the development of affective and self-reliance skills, and the acquisition of ecological responsibility — all normally achieved in a healthy early adolescence (stage 3 on the Wheel), and all of which can be fostered perfectly well outside wilderness settings.
A third hypothesis that follows from developmental holism — there are many possible — is that the demonstrated effectiveness of meditation as a psychotherapeutic complement derives from the fact that it restores a dimension of wholeness that is ideally preserved and protected in early childhood (stage 1 on the Wheel) but rarely retained by people in patho-adolescent societies, namely, the capacity for present-centeredness or innocence.
A Design Tool for Creating Healthy Human Communities and Life-Sustaining Societies
This is the third of the five facets of the Wheel.
A healthy society is, among other things, sustainable, just, and compassionate. It is sustainable because it is expressly organized as an integral component of the greater community of Earth; it establishes a niche for itself that benefits both its people and the greater geo-biological community of which it is a member. It is a just society because it provides equal opportunities and benefits for all persons. It is compassionate because it shares its wealth with all other societies and with the greater web of life; it does not exploit other peoples or species. A healthy society also embraces and celebrates our enchanted human senses, bodies, and emotions and encourages our imaginative exploration of the mysteries of psyche and nature.
As a design tool, the Wheel does not dictate any specific versions of a life-sustaining society. To the contrary, any community — whether a family, village, or nation — can use it to help create its own version of an ecocentric culture. To cultivate an authentic, viable society, the specific design of its component establishments must be rooted in the revelatory experiences of its individual members as well as in the dreams shared by the majority of its people.
Such a society cannot be created by simply sitting down and planning one, no
matter how enlightened the designers or design principles. It arises only through a natural process of cultural evolution galvanized by soul-infused actions. The specific form the society will take is unpredictable. Being transcultural, the Wheel both respects and requires cultural diversity.
The primary way the Wheel functions as a design tool for healthy societies is by assisting communities in creating and implementing developmental practices— especially parenting, educational, and initiatory practices for children and adolescents — that allow for optimum individual maturation. In doing these things, the community begets true adults and elders, who in turn engender, through their lives and work, specific cultural forms that are authentic, vital, and effective because they arise from soul, which is to say, from nature. In other words, the Wheel has an indirect function in creating healthy cultures. It can help communities establish the conditions for the growth of mature individuals who, in turn, establish life-sustaining cultural practices and customs (including those that go into making schools, governments, spiritual organizations, and economies).
The Wheel, then, is a deep-structure model designed to be transcultural. It is deep-structural in that it characterizes the stages of life, and the transitions between them, in terms of their essence, depth, or significance, not in terms of their specific cultural practices, traditions, myths, or ceremonies. What makes for developmental progress within any stage is the intrapsychic and interpersonal significance of what the individual and her community does, as opposed to the specific cultural practices in which she engages. It is the meaning and developmental consequences of her actions that count, not the particular cultural forms or styles through which she achieves them.
Readers familiar with biologist Rupert Sheldrake’s work might recognize that the Wheel is a description of the “morphic field” underlying human psychospiritual development.(24) A morphic field is the underlying formative pattern of a self-organizing system, such as an oak, a bear, a human, an ecosystem, Earth, the Milky Way, or the universe. The morphic field depicted by the Wheel gives the entire human life cycle its distinguishing properties. In Buckminster Fuller’s terms, the Wheel identifies the nature-generated “pattern integrity” of human development. And to borrow an idea from the physicist David Bohm, the Wheel corresponds to the “implicate order” of human maturation. Bohm’s term refers to the generative field underlying specific manifest forms, from atoms to humans to galaxies.(25)
As one example, in the fourth stage of the Wheel, developmental progress requires a person to wander far from the familiar “home” of his adolescent ways of belonging, doing, and being. He must, as poet Mary Oliver puts it, “[stride] deeper and deeper into the world.”(26) His culture will greatly influence the manner in which he wanders, as will his gender, physical constitution, psychological temperament, age, and bioregion. In one culture, his wandering might take him geographically far from his hometown or village. In another culture, geographic movement will have little importance for the true depth of his wandering. What is critical is not whether he engages in this practice or that, or undergoes this ritual or another, but that his wandering changes his relationship to the world, that he leaves the home of his adolescent identity, and that his border crossings usher him into the mysteries of nature and psyche. These deep-structure changes are necessary to maintain the pattern integrity of stage 4 and, thereby, of the entire Wheel and of the whole human-Earth relationship.
Only a deep-structure model of human development can approach the goal of being transcultural. Another way to say this: The Wheel itself is not a spiritual path but is designed to be compatible with most. A specific spiritual discipline is a tradition-based method to meet one or more spiritual goals. The Wheel makes room for all spiritual goals without identifying particular traditions for reaching them (except by occasional illustration) and illuminates the relationship between spiritual goals and other developmental goals, stages, archetypes, and so on.
Another example: What really makes a person an elder has nothing to do with, say, chronological age, number of grandchildren, retirement, or even achievement in a certain craft or career. Rather, it has to do with a way of belonging to the world that is consciously centered on the soul of the more-than-human community.
In addition to being transcultural, the Wheel is gender-neutral, a portrayal of the deep structure of both male and female development. While there are obvious differences between masculine and feminine humans and the way they develop, these differences are either on the surface (different styles) or in the middle depths (the social practices and psychological dynamics by which the deep-structure outcomes are reached). The surface and middle-depth differences between masculine and feminine are greatest in early adolescence (stage 3). Because this is the stage in which Western societies have stalled, and because our societies are not informed by the deep structure of human development, gender differences have seemed bigger and more definitive to us than they really are.
With the social advances brought by feminism in the late twentieth century, some have contended that healthy female development differs from that of male development, and that the imposition of male patterns on women continues the centuries-old oppression by the patriarchy. While I agree, my perspective is somewhat different. There is no question that women have been economically, educationally, and politically oppressed in patriarchal societies (as have most minority and lower-class men), but both men and women have been cut off from soul and nature, and both have consequently faced great difficulties in maturing. Although healthy female development is different from patho-adolescent masculine development, this is equally true for healthy male development.
The essential issue concerning oppression is not gender-based or race-based but egocentric versus soulcentric. In my view, the core problem with patriarchal (and matriarchal) societies is their patho-adolescent egocentrism, which generates economic-class oppression, not their conspicuous suppression of the feminine or glorification of the (immature) masculine. Men have no monopoly on egocentrism. Men and masculinity are no more the problem than are women and femininity. I believe that most people would agree that we will not create a healthier society by affording women the equal right to be as pathologically egocentric as a large proportion of men have been for millennia, to acquire the equal opportunity to excel in the patho-adolescent, class-dividing world of prestige, position, and wealth, academic and corporate ladder-climbing, and power broking. Rather, mature men and women must join together to foster soulcentric development for both genders and for all races and cultures.
A Deep Cultural Therapy — A Way to Heal and Transform Our Existing Human Cultures
Speaking bluntly, Thomas Berry, a lifelong student of world cultures, refers to the current, near-universal commitment to industrial progress, unlimited growth, and a consumer society as “the supreme pathology of all history.”(27) A valid response to such a pathology, he says, must include remedial treatment:
The entrancement with industrial civilization…must be considered as a profound cultural disorientation. It can be dealt with only by a corresponding deep cultural therapy….
At such a moment a new revelatory experience is needed, an experience wherein human consciousness awakens to the grandeur and sacred quality of the Earth process. This awakening is our human participation in the dream of the Earth, the dream that is carried in its integrity not in any of Earth’s cultural expressions but in the depths of our genetic coding. Therein the Earth functions at a depth beyond our capacity for active thought. We can only be sensitized to what is being revealed to us. We probably have not had such participation in the dream of the Earth since earlier shamanic times, but therein lies our hope for the future for ourselves and for the entire Earth community.(28)
Thomas is suggesting that the cultural therapy we need springs from revelatory or visionary experience, an awakening to the dream of the Earth. Given that such an awakening calls for the journey to our individual depths, then our cultural healing requires a means to facilitate that descent — a contemporary methodology corresponding to what we had in “earlier shamanic times.” The Wheel proposes a means to galvanize a human awakening to the dream of the Earth, an awakening impelled by an identifiable series of developmental experiences, starting at or before birth, evoked and guided by parents, educators, initiators, mentors, and elders.
If it is true, as the human ecologist Paul Shepard and others have observed, that our environmental crises are due to a widespread failure of personal development, especially among the people in power in industrialized nations (mostly wealthy males), then a radical overhaul in our way of parenting and educating children is in order. How do we raise children to become compassionate, nature-revering, visionary, actively engaged adults? And how do we enable these adults to become, in time, true elders with the capacities of heart and mind to care for the soul of the more-than-human community?
The deep cultural therapy we need and seek requires profound changes in the way we embody and support every stage of human growth. The Wheel suggests the broad outlines of such a therapy.
A Portrait of the Emerging Stage of Human Evolution
Thomas Berry refers to the great transformations in the evolution of the universe as “moments of grace.” These are “privileged moments” in which “the future is defined in some enduring pattern of its functioning.”(29) The supernova that gave birth to our solar system is one such moment of grace. Others include the appearance on Earth of the first living cell and, later, the emergence of a cell capable of metabolizing oxygen. The advent of humans — primates with conscious self-awareness — is another such moment.
We might think of these junctures as moments of grace because, in them, the unutterably creative and mysterious imagination of the cosmos manifests itself most profoundly. Each of these extraordinary turning points is one of both crisis and opportunity. Says Thomas, “The catastrophic moments are also creative moments.”(30)
And now we, both as a species and as a planet, have arrived at another crisis, a most dangerous and unique opportunity that requires what Thomas calls “a comprehensive change in consciousness.”(31) Will we cooperate with grace, with the imagination of the cosmos, during this potential turning point? I say “cooperate,” because, unlike any previous transformation known to us in the unfolding story of the universe, this one, if it is to happen, will require the conscious and deliberate cooperation of a sentient life-form. The cooperation with grace needed here is beyond anything humanity has previously achieved. It requires not only worldwide collaboration between individuals, communities, and nation-states but also, more daunting, something akin to the collectively activated human imagination, as suggested earlier in the idea of Homo imaginens. Innumerable new, generative images must be retrieved from the depths of the individual psyche and of Earth’s own dream, images that are the seeds of cultural renaissance. And then, as a grand network of cooperating communities, we must come together to build a new world from those images.
The Wheel, then, is a portrait of this emerging stage of human evolution, a planetary moment when humanity develops, as Thomas writes, “a profound mystique of the natural world” and experiences “the deep mysteries of existence through the wonders of the world about us.”(32) Collectively, the eight stages of the Wheel present a profile of the future human, a human capable of consciously cooperating with grace — the deep imagination of the cosmos.
Just as the universe evolves through moments of crisis, so do individual humans. Each of the nine life-stage passages on the Wheel evokes a crisis, a death-rebirth transition. And just as grace is an element in the universe’s evolution, so it is in our personal unfolding. Our conscious cooperation with grace makes all the difference at our life passages, especially after early adolescence (stage 3). I believe that learning to cooperate consciously with grace — as individuals and as a species — is one of the essential elements in our current evolutionary opening.
The chapter epigraphs are from Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988), pp. 207–8; and Drew Dellinger, “hieroglyphic stairway,” YES! (Summer 2006): 47.
- We find similar definitions of adulthood articulated by Joseph Campbell (namely, the hero who has descended to the underworld, experienced ego death and rebirth, and returns with, or as, a gift that helps restore his community to wholeness), Abraham Maslow (“people . . . devoted to . . . some calling or vocation . . . which fate has called them to”), Angeles Arrien (“walking the mystical path with practical feet”), Thomas Berry (“a person with a practical way of carrying out a vision or a dream”), and others. These quotes come from Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (New York: Pantheon, 1949); Maslow, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature (New York: Viking, 1971), p. 43; Arrien, “Walking the Mystical Path with Practical Feet” (a talk presented at the Institute of Noetic Sciences conference, 2001, Palm Springs, CA); and Berry, personal communication, March 16, 2006.
- Macy attributes the formulation of the term “Industrial Growth Society” to the Norwegian ecophilosopher Sigmund Kvaloy, as does Dolores LaChapelle. See Macy and Molly Young Brown, Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World (Gabriola Island, British Columbia: New Society Publishers, 1998), p. 15; and LaChapelle, Sacred Land, Sacred Sex: Rapture of the Deep (Silverton, CO: Finn Hill Arts, 1988), p. 50. “Life-sustaining Society” is Macy’s term. David C. Korten, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2006). Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (New York: Bell Tower, 1999).
- For ecocentric people, their primary conscious membership is not in a family, ethnic group, or nation, but in the more-than-human Earth community. Synonyms for ecocentric include naturecentered, biocentric, and nature based.
- For many more examples and much inspiration, see Paul Hawken, Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming (New York: Viking, 2007).
- David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World (New York: Random House, 1996).
- Macy and Brown, Coming Back to Life, pp. 17–24. 467 NOTES
- Ibid., p. 21.
- Thomas explains further: “The new cultural coding that we need must emerge from the source of all such codings, from revelatory vision that comes to us in those special psychic moments, or conditions, that we describe as ‘dream.’ We are, of course, using this term not only as regards the psychic processes that take place when we are physically asleep, but also as a way of indicating an intuitive, nonrational process that occurs when we awaken to the numinous powers ever present in the phenomenal world about us, powers that possess us in our high creative moments. Poets and artists continually invoke these spirit powers, which function less through words than through symbolic forms.” The Dream of the Earth, p. 211.
- The final two quotes in this paragraph are from Thomas Berry, personal communication, March 16, 2006.
- A related Einstein quote is, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Quoted in Margaret Wheatley, Leadership and the New Science (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 1999), p. 7.
- With the development of agriculture, a new form of adolescent pathology became possible (in fact, inevitable), a pathology that begins with greed and eventuates in hoarding, domination, and violence. Before agriculture, there was little to hoard because there was little material surplus. Among hunter-gatherers, no one within the tribe was significantly wealthier (in a material sense) than anyone else. The tribe’s survival depended primarily on cooperation among its members. Extreme or pathological selfishness was not tolerated. However, with the advent of agriculture and farming (the domestication of selected animal and plant species), came the inevitable pathogenic notion of personal property and the possibility of some people deciding that hoarding things for themselves might be a good idea. Once an agriculture-based tribe produces a single individual determined to hoard — and able and willing to use lethal force to do so — the cultural fabric of that society begins to disintegrate. To protect themselves, other individuals begin to hoard as well. The tribe becomes increasingly materialistic, competitive, anthropocentric, and violent. Economic-class structure and slavery soon follow. Before long, the ruler of such a tribe (a patho-adolescent individual, usually male) decides that raiding other tribes for their crops, animals, women, and other “wealth” would be another good idea. This is the beginning of empire. As historian Andrew Schmookler explains in The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995), the neighboring tribes now have four options: be exterminated, be conquered and assimilated, become aggressive and warring themselves, or flee (migrate a sufficient distance from the violent tribes). And that, in a nutshell, is the history of our world over the past several thousand years. Most societies eventually came under the control of pathological (sociopathic) adolescent leaders (tyrants, usually male) who systematically altered cultural traditions to enhance their ability to dominate. Among the alterations were (and are) anthropocentric, androcentric forms of religion; an emphasis on hostile competition over cooperation; land “ownership”; suppression of naturehonoring and nature-based rituals; class stratification and slavery; racism; sexism; militarism; plutocratic forms of governance; the systematic murder of true adults and elders (shamans and other cultural and spiritual leaders); compulsory egocentric education and the resulting ecological illiteracy; and perhaps the ultimate modern subversion of healthy society: the creation of corporations bestowed with the rights of persons. A primary result of these and other cultural changes was the suppression of the human’s innate ability to mature into true adulthood and elderhood, further undermining the cultural resources that support human development. This disruption of the natural course of human maturation is a central aim of dominator societies for the simple reason that children and 468 NOTES to PAGES 7–11 developmental adolescents (of any age) are much easier to control and dominate than are true adults and elders. In the twentieth century, this process of cultural degradation and greed-rooted empire-building reached its inevitable culmination, and in two ways. First, most every “tribe” in the world has now been assimilated within the modern dominator model of culture: the global industrial growth society. There is virtually nowhere left on Earth for healthy, partnership societies to live in peace. (There might be a few yet remaining in the most remote corners of the planet.) Second, the industrial growth society now threatens the entire human species with extinction. As a consequence, we find ourselves faced with the global necessity to cooperate and form partnerships with all beings (human and otherwise) with whom we share our small planet — or perish.
- I am indebted to Geneen Marie Haugen for helping me grasp the full significance of this wound.
- See, for example, Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (New York: Bell Tower, 1999), pp. 162–63 and 198–99.
- It was Geneen Marie Haugen who first pointed this out to me.
- Berry, The Dream of the Earth, p. 133.
- Indeed, as mathematical cosmologist Brian Swimme has noted, humanity is itself now a geological force.
- Geneen Marie Haugen, “Cultivating a Planetary Imagination” (working manuscript, 2006). Original italics.
- “But human beings are imagining people. I’d call my book on culture Homo Imaginans, The Imagining Human.” Thomas Moore, “Songs of Unforgetting,” Parabola (Winter 2003): 8.
- Berry, The Dream of the Earth, pp. 132–33.
- Making ourselves whole again is a lot more than mere healing. Healing resolves deficits, while wholing cultivates invaluable psychological resources.
- Ruth Wilson writes, “Early experiences with the natural world have been positively linked with the development of imagination. The work of Edith Cobb (1977) is perhaps the most noteworthy in this regard. Her work, based in large part on a search for the creative principle in the human personality, involved a careful analysis of a wide variety of autobiographical recollections of highly creative adults. Many of these recollections reflected an ‘early awareness of some primary relatedness to earth and universe’ (Cobb, 1977, pp. 17–18). Based on these and similar findings over her 20 years of research, Cobb concluded that childhood represents a special phase in life ‘during which the most actively creative learning takes place’ (Cobb, 1977, p. 17). “Early experiences with the natural world have also been positively linked with the sense of wonder. Wonder, as described by Cobb (1977), is not an abstract term or a lofty ideal. It is, instead, a phenomenon concretely rooted in the child’s developing perceptual capabilities and his or her ways of knowing. This way of knowing, if recognized and honored, can serve as a life-long source of joy and enrichment, as well as an impetus, or motivation, for further learning (Carson, 1956).” Ruth A. Wilson, “The Wonders of Nature: Honoring Children’s Ways of Knowing,” Early Childhood News 6, no. 19 (1997). This article can also be found at Early Childhood News, www.earlychildhoodnews.com/ earlychildhood/article_view.aspx?ArticleID=70 (accessed September 18, 2007). The references Wilson cites in this excerpt are Edith Cobb, The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977); and Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder (New York: Harper & Row, 1956).
- Some differences between contemporary and traditional human development have already been mentioned: a new approach to and further differentiation of adolescence; a universe story that incorporates the time-developmental perspective as well as ever-renewing cycles; universal visionary capacity; and the emergence of Homo imaginens. NOTES to PAGES 11–20 469
- For this understanding, I am grateful to depth psychologist and wilderness guide Peter Scanlan.
- Rupert Sheldrake, The Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance and the Habits of Nature (London: Fontana/Harper Collins, 1989).
- R. Buckminster Fuller, Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking, vols. 1 and 2 (New York: Macmillan, 1975, 1979); David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order (London: Ark Paperbacks, 1984).
- Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), p. 114.
- Berry, The Dream of the Earth, p. 206.
- Berry, The Great Work, p. 165.
- Ibid., p. 196.
- Ibid., p. 199.
- Ibid., p. 200.
- Ibid., pp. 200–201.