franciscogoya-Saturn-Eating-CronusAs we have learned in this series so far, fairy tales are ironic. They tell a truth so shocking that it can only be revealed in innocent children’s stories. 2500 years ago, in Plato’s Republic, Socrates said the truth exposed in these stories was so dangerous that they should not be allowed to be read by children at all!

Socrates spoke about one of the earliest Greek myths, the story of the origins of the universe. In this story, Uranus hated his children so much that he buried them in the darkest place. Then his son, Cronus, castrated him. Cronus received a prophecy that he would be dethroned by his children, so he ate them.

Socrates responded to these tales by saying,

“The doings of Cronus, and the sufferings which in turn his son inflicted upon him. . .ought certainly not to be lightly told to young and thoughtless persons; if possible, they had better be buried in silence. But if there is an absolute necessity for their mention, a chosen few might hear them in a mystery, and they should sacrifice not a common [Eleusinian] pig, but some huge and unprocurable victim; and then the number of the hearers will be very few indeed.”

What these tales tell us is that the wounded parent has been wounding the child since the beginning of things. Our pain is not the fault of our immediate forebears, our parents, and the wounds that we inflict as parents are the result of a multi-generational pattern that goes back to the earliest times.

As parents, with this knowledge, we have the opportunity to break this cycle and to do our part in healing a broken world. As Confucius said,

“To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order; we must first cultivate our personal life; to cultivate our personal life we must first set our hearts right.”

The creators of fairy tales were in touch with their own child-like nature and so understood things from the child’s point of view. The intent of the inventors of these stories was less to entertain the child and more to return the parent to the child’s world.  Parents need to read fairy tales so they can understand how their children experience them. The harsh lesson of the stories is not one that a child can say directly to the parent and so the story does it for them.  If we can listen to the hidden message, then we can understand what we need to do to become better parents.

From ancient times,  the creators and tellers of the tales were old women. What were the lessons these elders were trying to teach? These women were actually engaging in a subversive act. These crones were able to reach across the generations and communicate on a subtle level the hidden truths about life. They were saying, “Watch out for your parents, and don’t worry, there is a way out.”

These tellers of tales validated the child’s emotional reactions to their world. Children respond to the stories because unconsciously they feel grateful that someone acknowledges their reality, albeit in disguised, symbolic, form.

When the child asks about the story, “Is it true?” they are secretly saying, “Mom, I want you to know that the story is true. You hurt me and make me feel bad about myself, but I can’t tell you.” When the grown up gives their ironic answer by saying “No, this is just a fairy tale,” the secret message to the child is “I understand now what it is that I do, and I’ll do whatever I need to so that I won’t do it anymore.”

Before saying that children should not be exposed to the shocking truth of the murderous rage of the father against the son, Socrates had a hard time accepting the truth of such stories. He said,

“First of all, I said, there was that greatest of all lies, in high places, which the poet told about Uranus, and which was a bad lie too, –I mean what Hesiod says that Uranus did, and how Cronus retaliated on him.”

Before accepting the truth of their own destructive impulses, parents sometimes denigrate fairy stories because they confirm their worst fears about themselves. Denying the reality that we harm our children in big or small ways makes a significant contribution to the problem in the first place. By evading our responsibility, the child ends up believing they are the problem, and this is how they develop shame, or the belief that there is something fundamentally wrong with them. The child comes to believe that if they are being treated poorly by their parents it must be their own fault.

The fairy tales are a way for the the true facts to be introduced to the parent without eliciting this denial and getting the child into trouble. Fairy stories try to make it easy on grown ups by critiquing them without the listener knowing what is going on. In this way, the parent can hear these important lessons about themselves.

For example, the modern story, The Emperor’s New Clothes says to the parents that they are self-absorbed hypocrites, and it is the “child” in the story who reveals this. The story itself symbolizes the process of confronting the parent with their character flaws. The child in the story is the only one who has the guile to reveal the naked truth about the king. Because the story is supposedly about someone fatuous and ridiculous, the parents are not offended. But if they are open to the message, they know the story is about them. Can we grown ups face the truth in these stories? This is the great task, because without it, we will repeat the crimes reported in the tales.

From the earliest times, these stories were told in groups, and adults listened and heard them as well as children. This is still the way it is today. Grown-ups bring their children to see plays like The Lion King, or movies like Coraline. The structure of these fairy tales are barely different than the stories told 5000 years ago. Parents may resonate with them more profoundly than the children, as we have a greater appreciation of the depth of their message. Parents were children once, too, and they had parents, as well. We know the ways we have been wounded by our predecessors and we intuit the ways that we harm our children despite our best intentions.

Here is the message we parents are offered when we enter the world of fairy tales. In a great chain from the beginning of time, you were hurt by your forebears and your society. This has resulted in your having a lost heart. This means that you have not fully realized your universe-given capacities for thinking, feeling, acting, imagining and loving. You are not fully being that which you are meant to be. The result is that you cannot give to your children all that they need to optimally realize these same potentials themselves. In some way, great or small, you are passing down the wounds to the next generation.

The stories then go on to tell us that this does not have to be. You can leave your old ways of being behind. You can liberate yourself from the constrictions imposed on you from without. You can free your capacity for growth become wise, passionate, strong, creative, and loving. You can heal. You can find your heart. The stories tell us that as parents, this is our charge and obligation. The stories demand this of us, because humanity is striving to end this cycle of wounding, shame and self-limitation. In order for the world to survive and thrive, we need to live a life of self-cultivation, where we heal our wounds, liberate our children, and fix a broken world.

The stories provide hope for all children and grown ups who are still spellbound by a giant ogre. The stories tell us that there is a force in the universe which will come to our aid if we show the pluck and courage to fight the demon within.  The stories are revolutionary in this way. The threatening giant may keep the land under a spell for a thousand years but eventually the child in each of us can grow up and save the kingdom. As parents, if  we can free ourselves, then we will not continue the cycle by becoming the tyrant, ourselves.

If parents take responsibility for their own imperfections by sharing the tales with their children, then there can be a relationship based on reality and acceptance. This can help move the child toward self-love and love of others. If parents can take the lessons of the tales to understand their own shortcomings, they can follow the heroic journey presented in the stories, and become King or Queen.  This means becoming a great parent.

When parents share fairy tales with their children, the parent conveys to the child that they accept what the happy ending of the story means. The parent’s main job is to surrender to the great chain of being, and enable their children to become King or Queen themselves. In the end, we need to accept our own death, and give the universe over to our children’s dominion.  Even though, this means, as sometimes happens in the stories, that the parents end up in a vat of boiling oil.

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FAIRY TALES AND THE INNER MALEFICENT

nielsen-scheherazadeIn the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty, at the party that celebrates the birth of the new princess, an evil witch named Maleficent shows up and ruins the whole event. She puts a curse on the infant that destines her to a painful existence. Who is this nefarious character that makes an appearance in many different guises in endless stories?

The truth is, there is a Maleficent who lives in each of us. All of the explorers of the human condition have recognized that we are not a unity. We are not simply the singular “I” that we imagine ourselves to be. We possess multiple sub-personalities. There have been countless names and descriptions for these inner part-selves and how they work. Freud divided us into three, id, ego and super-ego. John Bradshaw named the “inner-child.”  Jung named these parts complexes and archetypes. Fritz Perls described the relationship between the parts by calling it the topdog/underdog game. Eric Berne, in transactional analysis, named three interacting parts, the parent, the adult, and the child. The purveyors of the object-relations school split what they call internal representations into at least four parts, the good and bad self and the good and bad object. Watkins describes ego-states, a family of coherent sub-personalities that live and compete within us. Historically, it has been known as the cosmic battle between good and evil. In cartoons, we see an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. Whatever name we give it, it is apparent that we are a multiplicity within a singularity, we are many within the one. Our search is for that oneness within our many-ness: like our money says, e pluribus unum, within the many, one.

Freud’s profoundly disturbing discovery is that we are not masters in our own house. Strange as it may seem, these part-selves, sub-personalities, or ego-states, though they exist generally outside of our awareness, have a tremendous influence over our thoughts, feelings, imaginings and behaviors. That person that we think of as “I,” who we believe is in control of our lives, is actually oftentimes not in command of what we do. Despite the fact that this has been well known for well over 2500 years, having been described by Plato, we still have a hard time grasping this fact and accepting it. But the truth is told by fairy tales. Maleficent, the troublemaking fairy, lives inside of us. We know this because we set an intention, but all too often don’t live it through. How many times my clients have said, “I know what I want to do and what I should do, why don’t I do it?”

Some fear when they hear that we have hidden personalities that this means we are crazy and have multiple personality disorder. What we now understand is that this syndrome is merely one extreme end of a long continuum. Only the most wounded of us risk such a complete shattering of personality.

The extreme can illuminate what most of us experience in a far more subtle and integrated way. A schizophrenic may hear disembodied voices that tell the person they are worthless and should die. This does not happen for most of us, but all too many of us, when we dig deep within, discover that there are parts of ourselves that undermine our good intentions by telling us we are worthless and that nothing will work out for us anyway.

These parts of ourselves that sometimes can act against our own apparent self-interest are not evil, or necessarily intend harm. Rather, they serve a protective function. The ways that they protect us may be far outdated and no longer help us, but those parts still think they are aiding us. In this sense, there are no irrational acts. If we can understand the motivation behind the act, we can see the rationality in it, even if they are operating out of wholly false premises. For example, whenever one particular client of mine makes any kind of mistake, he punches himself in the head. Now this is what his father did. His father believed that this was the best way to teach his son not to make mistakes. He did not recognize that what he was doing was completely harmful. He thought he was doing the right thing. Now this client does not want to do this to himself, but feels compelled to. This internalized father behaves autonomously, outside of my client’s control, and he continues to do what he believes is the right thing, even though one day it might kill him.

Very often these parts of ourselves are our own unrealized potentials. Hiding our potential selves is one way of describing what it means to have a lost heart. These unrealized potential aspects not only remain in an unmatured state within us, they corrupt, putrefy or distort through a long period of non-acknowledgment, lack of support and lack of conscious use. They become vitiated. They corrupt because they have gone so long uncultivated. That is what makes their influence negative. They may be enraged, and are protective in the sense that they are seeking revenge on our behalf for a lifetime of neglect and hurt.

The tales reveal this as well. In one fairy tale, a fisherman frees a genie from a lamp. The genie says to the fisherman that he will grant him one wish and that is to choose the method of his death. The fisherman says that is not the way the story is supposed to go. Genies are supposed to give those that free them three wishes of anything they would like. The genie says he would have done that had he not been trapped in the lamp for 10,000 years. After being in there so long, he was too enraged to do anything but destroy.

Oftentimes we battle against these inner demons with our conscious will, but we often lose the battle, because the part of us that we fight with is not invested with sufficient energy to win the battle. We identify with the part that fights, but that is not really our source of greatest strength. All too often, the ogre rules the kingdom.

Fairy tales speak to this outer battle which has become an inner battle. It speaks to those undeveloped parts within ourselves that are hurt and afraid. It speaks to all the lost children within us who feel so all alone. It speaks to those children within grown up bodies who don’t want to come out and grow up, because of the fear that the pain will be too overwhelming if they get abandoned again.

180px-Gustave_Doré_-_Dante_Alighieri_-_Inferno_-_Plate_7_(Beatrice)FAIRY TALES INTRODUCE US TO THE WISE ONE WITHIN

There are also parts of us that are wiser and stronger than we are aware of. In order to counter the power of Maleficent, we need to call on these good powers within us.

One of the most significant collections of tales is the ancient book, “The 1001 Nights.” In this cycle, the Sultan is so troubled by being betrayed by his wife that he plans to marry and then kill a new woman each day. Scheherazade comes up with a plan to save the women of this realm, but in order to do so she needs to put herself into the ultimate peril. She herself will marry the Sultan. She convinces him to let her live each day by telling him a different story for each of 1001 nights.  By telling him these tales, the Sultan becomes cured of his condition. He finds his heart, falls in love with Scheherazade, and eliminates his decree to marry and kill a woman a day. The cycle tells us that in this first recorded course of psychotherapy, the cure was fairy tales.

Scheherazade was an extraordinary woman. She had studied the wisdom of the ancients. She had followed the travels of past pilgrims of the heart. She was a fine poet. She had mastered science and philosophy. She was verse in stories and folk tales. In other words, she had lived the life of self-cultivation that is necessary for finding the lost heart. This gave her true courage in the sense that Paul Tillich described in The Courage to Be.  She did not avoid her destiny, even though she risked death. She was willing to risk all for authentic being.

Scheherazade is what Jung would call an anima figure. This is that great source of wisdom and power that lives deep within each of us. If we can get past the limitations imposed on us by our own woundedness, we will find her, and the great riches she offers. She is our Beatrice, our guide out of hell and into paradise. We need this wisdom figure if we are to counter Maleficent. In the tale “The Sparrow with the Slit Tongue,” after the man journeys in a dark forest, he comes upon a garden. In the garden is a beautiful house. In the house is a magical princess. This house in the garden in the center of the wood is our heart. This is the home of the divine within. As The Upanishads tells us, the heart is the home of Atman, the great source of all.

The stories tell us that if we are to overcome impossible obstacles we need supernatural help. In order to access our “inner Scheherazade,” we need to do what she did. We need to live a life of self-cultivation. We must study the world’s wisdom, be creative, become knowledgable, and immerse ourselves in tales. By taking this outer journey of studying the collective wisdom of human kind in its multifarious variations, we call on the power of the magical princess. With her aid we can overcome our shame, and render our demons powerless.

The life of self-cultivation described by the stories combines this outward journey with the inward one. We need to feed ourselves with everything we can from the outside to awaken our inner guide, and then we turn inward and hope for communication. The way to discover the answer to our problems is to enter ourselves the way we enter the story. We look inside, and with patience we wait. If we listen carefully, something eventually bubbles up to the surface. This is the way to find a pathway to our heart. The stories tell us that the inner guide will give us all we need, if we are willing to do the work of finding her. She is the guide to our innermost being, where the world and our nature are one.

To understand ourselves is to understand everything.

FAIRY TALES AND SHAMEimages-cinderella-g

The true cause of the problems in our lives is revealed in stories like Snow White. When the queen discovers that Snow White is more beautiful than she, she determines that her heart should be cut out. Mothers can be so envious of their daughters that they will do all they can to prevent the child’s beauty from emerging. One client of mine was shocked when her mother tried to undermine her new love relationship by suggesting that her boyfriend was cheating on her. She said, “I can’t believe it, but I’m sure she is jealous!”

In endless stories the child ends up being adopted by a family where they live well beneath their station. In Cat-Skin, the story of the princess whose father wanted to marry her, the young girl escapes into the forest and finds another castle in which to live. She hides her dresses of gold, silver and diamonds in a walnut shell, covers herself in rags and ashes, and lives underneath a staircase as the scullery maid.

What this means is that in order to protect ourselves from the dangers presented by our parents, we develop a pervasive sense of shame. This is the feeling that goes along with the belief that there is something fundamentally flawed about us. We learn to hide our best attributes because they threaten our parents. Instead, we play the scullery maid. That is, we act like we are inadequate. Our screwed-up lives are our way of hiding our true nature.

Our hearts go out to characters like these because we have suffered like her. We live in rags, unrecognized as the princess we actually are.

THE TALES REMIND US OF OUR ESSENCE

Once we live in rags, hiding under the staircase for a long time, we almost forget that there is more to us than our surface appearance. This part of us is so far buried that we may despair of our authentic self ever finding its way to the surface to be realized. Fortunately, the tales remind us that there is more inside of us than we are aware of. We learn from the tales that the forces of nature are stronger than our individual wills. We cannot stop the circular flow of time. The stories tell us that the child can prevail and gives us the way to do so. When we follow the rules of the tales we can transcend our shame, come out of hiding, and become the glorious beings we are meant to be. In the end, the princess takes her dresses out of the walnut shell and lives happily ever after.

The plot of the fairy tale emerges from the struggle to claim our birthright, to become all we are meant to become, to realize our true nature in the face of the dangers we all face. The stories tell us that our goal is to live from the heart despite all the forces that stand in our way.

ADULTS WHO HAVE NOT GROWN UP NEED FAIRY TALES

In many stories the child who has been hurt by his parents lives in hiding for a long time. This is the next painful truth that the tales reveal. Many grown ups have not achieved true adulthood. They have yet to live out the path to dominion that is laid out in the tales. A child will develop their capacities for thinking, feeling, acting and loving which are the mark of true maturity if they are given the proper emotional sustenance in childhood. Our grown-up struggles are the results of the ways that we have been wounded and shamed.  This is part of what it means to have a lost heart.

The messages of fairy tales are for the wounded children that grown ups all too often are. Grown ups need the message of the tales more than any child, because they have yet to go out on adventure and fulfill their destiny. It is not something that is meant to happen in some future time as it is for the child. It is meant to happen now.

FAIRY TALES HELP US TO IMAGINE

Fairy tales help us to cultivate our imaginative faculty. Along with thinking, feeling, acting and connecting, imagining is one of humanity’s five essential potentials. There is no better source for cultivating our imaginations than stories, and no better stories for this task than fairy tales and myths.

When we lose connection to our imaginations, we no longer develop our creativity and moral aspirations. We end up living in our heads. Research now confirms that cogitation without feeling, intuition and creativity does not lead to the best decisions. We do not fully develop our capacity to envision, to see the impossible, which is central to achievement in life. We do not see into the world in depth, and so we lose the ability to fully appreciate our world and ourselves. The world loses its beauty and enchantment. We don’t see the elf or fairy in the forest, we do not trust in the mysterious and half-seen. We have lost spiritual consciousness, the faith in the power of that which we cannot know directly. We lose the humility of recognizing that there are unknown, and perhaps wiser, parts of the self than we know. Without this ability of imagination we do not have the suppleness of sensibility to understand ourselves and the world on a deep and profound level. When we approach the world in a shallow way, we see a shallow self and a shallow world. We end up wanting simple prescriptions for our lives, but this is not the way that life works.

Without the world of symbol embodied in tales, life lacks magic. As Paul Simon said in the song, “My Little Town,”

“All of the colors are black
It’s not that the colors aren’t there
It’s imagination they lack
Everything’s the same back
In My Little Town”

Thus we have become estranged from our inner life and we are left depleted. We are left feeling incomplete. In order to reawaken and cultivate our imaginations, grown ups need to read fairy tales. The way to overcome our stuckness is to engage the forces that connect us to the deepest layers of our being. We must let this deep part of us hear the stories, because it is this part that can hear the truth, and put the answer into practice. This is one way to find the lost heart.

FAIRY TALES HEAL US

Fairy tales should be used by adults the way they have been used traditionally for centuries in Hindu cultures. People who were faced with psychological difficulties were given a folktale to study. Through this meditation the person would come to understand the nature of his or her difficulty, recognizing that the problem is within, and point the way to a solution.

Grown ups need to read fairy tales because, as G. K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis felt, fairy stories are “spiritual explorations” and hence “the most like life” since they reveal “human life as seen, or felt, or divined from the inside.”

The stories teach us how to be what we are meant to be, how to fulfill our greatest potentials, in a world that hurts us by stultifying and vitiating our greatness and capacity for love. This is our greatest spiritual challenge, and the one that fairy tales address. It is not a battle against our lowest nature, as the Freudians would have it, but a struggle to realize our highest nature.

Thanks to Bruno Bettelheim for some references. Look for Part Three, soon.

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Obama Nazi communistObama claims to want to help Americans by improving health care. He states that he wants to create a system where health care would be available to the 50 million people in this country who don’t have it, and reduce costs for the rest of us. He says that he wants to insure the long term viability of Medicare and Medicaid. He wants to provide more preventative care so that we live healthier, longer lives, reducing the need to manage debilitating diseases like diabetes. He makes the case that all of this would improve our long-term economic outlook. Now what could be wrong with all of that? Well, then, why has he provoked such anger with this plan?

I believe the most significant reason is a strange phenomenon that I have recognized through doing couple’s counseling, which I call “couple trap number two.” Here is how it works. One of the partners has a long standing need that has gone unmet. Let’s say the wife wants her husband to say “I love you.” For years, she has railed in pain and frustration about how he never says those words. Utilizing my techniques, the husband finally softens, and says the magic words, “I love you.” Now we would expect that the wife, having finally gotten what she wanted, would be grateful, thrilled, excited. Oh, no. As soon as he speaks, I start counting backwards from 10. By the time I get to 7, almost without fail, the wife gets furious. She says, “You didn’t say it the right way! You didn’t mean it! You’ll never say it again!” and the like. The husband gets angry and says, “You think I’ll ever say that again? You’ve got another thing coming!” It is as if I tipped a see-saw out of balance, and within a few seconds everything goes right back to where it had begun. The status quo is reestablished. The wife returns to complaining, the husband to withholding. Why do people get mad when they finally get what they want?

When we are emotionally hurt enough times, we not only learn that we shouldn’t trust the world, but we also come to believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with ourselves. The feeling that goes along with this belief is shame. This feeling and belief may be so pervasive that we are barely aware of it.

Let’s say we are a child and have an alcoholic father who treats us cruelly when he gets drunk. We know we can’t fight him, and so we simply hide the terrible humiliation we feel. This humiliation festers within us. This results in us feeling like there must be something wrong with us. That is why Dad treats us so bad.

Finally, after 8 years, mom gets rid of this guy and marries someone who is sober and really nice. This new guy wants to do good things for us. He makes big promises. The promise of getting what we want brings up not having had our needs met in the past. All the buried anger that we have kept inside comes bubbling up to the surface. We feel the kindling of hope within that we are finally going to be treated well and get what we need. This hope brings up fear. If we allow ourselves to want, we risk being disappointed again. We must reject this hope and tell ourselves it is all a lie. It will never come true! Our dad always made promises he never kept. Why would it be different now? We get angry at ourselves for being such a fool.  Since we have become convinced that we are bad, we know that we don’t deserve good treatment anyway. When someone offers us something positive, we can’t take it in, because it doesn’t conform to our negative view of ourselves. Why would Obama really want to do anything good for me? It’s all a sham! Irrespective of the treatment we may have received from our cruel father, we are also loyal to him. To accept this new, loving treatment is also to betray our rotten father. Out of loyalty, we would rather suffer than change.

So, when we are presented with a man who is offering us a positive change that will improve our lives, instead of responding with joy, many of us respond with fear and anger. Underneath that fear and anger is shame. This means that all too many of us have been continuously hurt and disappointed both in our personal lives and in our political lives. Seeing the possibility of good makes us feel things we would rather bury: our humiliations, our hurt, and our disappointment. Rather than feel those things we reject in anger. Since on a deep level all too many of us loath ourselves, we would rather destroy ourselves with obesity than accept the help that Obama’s new plan would provide. We find all the good reasons in the world why it just won’t work. When we have been so badly hurt in the past, our reaction to something good is to reject it. When people get angry at Obama, it is like the old story of the tiger who has been beaten in the circus. When the poor animal was finally offered food and kindness he attacked the giver.

If we want to gain people’s trust when they have been so wounded and feel so badly about themselves, like the tiger, we must approach them very gingerly. Until they can heal their shame their likely reaction will be to snap.

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If you’d like to read an excerpt from my book,

Finding the Lost Heart: A New Path to Growth, Love and Wisdom,

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Leonard Cohen on Canada Day, 2007
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JungWhat happened to the generation that self-actualized, explored the outer reaches of consciousness, believed in peace and love and eschewed materialism for exotic paths to nirvana? They are coming back. The baby-boomers, that demographic lump that has dominated our culture for 60-odd years, is about to enter its next phase: a return to original values. When all the folks who were muddy and nude at Woodstock had to start paying rent, they had to give up their dreams of making a world based on deeper values than making a buck. And they got into money with a vengeance. 60’s idealism gave way to 70’s decadence which gave way to 80’s materialism gone wild. The binge lasted 30 years as the boomers got married and divorced, raised blended families, bought houses and went into debt. Now we can see that the winds are shifting again, and the times they are a changin.’ 74-year-old sexy poet, Zen master and musician Leonard Cohen is stunning sold-out crowds at concerts. The right-wingnuts of Darwinian economics and draconian foreign affairs have given way to dialogue and fairness. Stevie Wonder, who once made an album to help make plants grow with love, is in the White House.

Carl Jung recognized that people’s needs changed once they passed the mid-line of life. We have pushed back that threshold and 60 is the new middle-aged. In this life phase we get to stop being the hero and going out to conquer the world or being the caretaker. The boomer’s parents are going or gone, and the kids are out of the house. The college bills have stopped coming in. Husbands and wives are looking across the table and seeing that they are actually married to someone and the relationship that has taken a back seat to soccer games now needs some attention because its the only thing these people have. This refocus on relationship brings people back to themselves again. When we get to this point in life, Jung recognized, we once again have a total recentering of identity that parallels what we went through in adolescence. In the book Passages, Gail Sheehy called this phase middlessence. At this change, our needs turn inward. We begin to look for the deeper meaning of our lives. We have the time to consider what is of real importance to us. We recognize the compromises we have made, and along with coming to an acceptance of them, we reevaluate our priorities. The baby boomers are coming to realize that though they were trying to do the best they could, they lost something essential along the way and didn’t even realize it. As my favorite sage, Mencius, said, “When people’s dogs and chicks are lost we go out and look for them, but when people’s hearts  — or original nature — are lost we do not go out and look for them.”  But as boomers are hitting 60, they are remembering the values that were paramount in their youth, and there is a longing to return to their “original nature.” If you find yourself going to YouTube and listening to “All You Need is Love,” and remembering how much it meant when you heard that song for the first time, you can bet that you are in middlessence.

There is a great promise in this new life stage. The passing thrill of self-examination that occured in adolescence takes on a deeper cast as we begin to see the shadows of the end when we enter this phase of life. It is time for us to become what the archetypal psychologists call the senex. This is when we become the wise elder who through the experience of a lifetime can now understand the ways of the universe and help the next generation hold onto the essential.

What does this change mean in terms of our culture? We are already seeing a cultural shift in our politics; ironically it took our first post-boomer president to recognize this desire for a return to original values. This is the role of the redeemer; he is always a figure of renewal. What we can look forward to in the next several years is a culture that is deeper, less ephemeral, less concerned with an instant, short term result and is more interested in eternal truths. We can look for a culture that helps people to define and manifest what will be their lasting legacies. Research shows that this generation is interested in lifelong learning, and we will see a great surge in adult education as people do not want to be put out to pasture or the shuffleboard court, but want to grow throughout their lives. We can see a great increase in people coming together and working to make the world a better place. Certainly in our culture there is a great premium on youth and baby boomers certainly want to deny that they are aging and do all they can to stay young. Hopefully, they will realize that the best way to do this is to rejoin a process of self-cultivation that they may have put aside decades ago; that true youth rests in spiritual development; and that they can recapture their lost days by returning to the highest ideals of the 60’s generation.

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Jesus on the mainlineOn the website, personallifemedia.com, Brian Johnson’s podcast tells us about the obscure New Thought guru, Wallace D. Wattles. Wattles suggests that in order to be great we need to be able to read the thoughts of god, and we can only do this when we do not feel fearful or anxious.

This parallels the wisdom of the Chinese classic, The Highest Order of Cultivation. This is the text that tells us that in order to live in harmony with the intrinsic order of the universe we have to cultivate  serenity. It is only when we do this that we find our hearts, which means that we live out our potentials for wisdom, passion, strength genius and love. Through finding inner peace, we do our part to bring our relationships, our culture, our politics and the universe into balance.

The only part that Johnson gets wrong is that all we need to eliminate our anxiety and fear is to do something in the moment, like take a bath, or have a run.

If it were that simple, we’d all be enlightened, and Brian and I would be out of a job. To overcome the intrinsic wiring and life-long conditionings that lead us to experience fear and anxiety require a life-long commitment. As Mircea Eliade explains it in his book of the same name, this is the definition of the word yoga (see page 4-5), which is any intensive, ongoing practice that leads to liberation from our conditioned existence.

In all likelihood no one of us will be wholly freed from that which keeps us from that mainline with god. But it is our life task of seeking that brings us, and humanity, ever closer to that goal.