Many models of human development seem to suggest two major tasks for each human life. The first task is to build a substantial "container" or identity; the second is to find the contents that the container was meant to hold.
Western society is a "first-half-of-life" culture, primarily concerned with surviving successfully. Life's first task involves establishing an identity, a home, relationships, friends, community, and security and building a solid platform for our life.
It takes much longer to discover "the task within the task": what we are really doing when we are doing what we are doing. Two people can have the same job description. One is holding a subtle life force energy (POWER) in doing their job, while another is holding a not-so-subtle negative energy (FORCE) while doing the same job.
When we begin to pay attention and seek integrity in the task within the task, we start to move from the first to the second half of our lives.
Integrity essentially has to do with purifying our intentions and being honest about our motives. It is hard work. We often don't pay attention to that inner task until we have had some failure in our outer tasks.
During the first half of life, we invest so much of our blood and sweat, tears and years that we often cannot imagine there is a second task or that anything more could be expected of us.
Most people keep doing the first half of life over and over again; we are made to think that the container is all there is and all they should expect.
We understand we had to do the wanting and the trying and the achieving and the self-promoting and the accomplishing. The first half of life is all about some performance principle. And it seems that it must be this way.
We have to do it wrong before we know what right might be.
If we are open to understanding the second half of life, we start to live life not only about doing and achieving; it's about being and giving.
The second half of life presents a rich possibility for spiritual enlargement, for we are never going to have more extraordinary powers of choice, never have more lessons of history from which to learn, and never possess more emotional resilience, more insight into what works for us and what does not, or a more profound, sometimes more desperate, conviction of the importance of getting our life back.
We become fully responsible for who we are in this journey we call our life. So often, the idea of individuation has been confused with self-indulgence or mere individualism, but what more often asks of us is the surrender of the ego's agenda of security and emotional reinforcement in favour of humbling service to the soul's intent.
The agenda of the first half of life is predominantly . . . framed as "How can I enter this world, separate from my parents, create relationships, career, social identity?" Or put another way: "What does the world ask of me, and what resources can I muster to meet its demands?"
But in the second half of life . . . the agenda shifts to re-framing our personal experience in the larger order of things, and the questions change. "What does the soul ask of me?" "What does it mean that I am here?" "Who am I apart from my roles and history?" . . . If the agenda of the first half of life is social, meeting the demands and expectations, then the questions of the second half of life are spiritual, addressing the more significant issue of meaning.
The psychology of the first half of life is driven by the fantasy of acquisition: gaining ego strength to deal with separation, separating from the overt domination of parents, acquiring a standing in the world. But then the second half of life asks of us, and ultimately demands, relinquishment—relinquishment of identification with property, roles, status, provisional identities—and embracing other, inwardly confirmed values.
We must surrender to "die before we die."
The second half of life, the grandiose ego is periodically summoned to surrender its identifications with the values of others, the values received and reinforced by the world around it. It will have to face potential loneliness in living life from within rather than acceding to the noisy demands of the external world. It will have to submit itself to what is genuinely more extensive, sometimes intimidating, and always summoning us to grow up. And how scary is that to each of us? No wonder, so few ever feel connected to the soul. No wonder we are so isolated and afraid of being who we are.
Yet, paradoxically, the achievement of ego strength is the source of our hope for something better. We must be strong enough to examine our lives and make risky changes. A person strong enough to face what we most desires, the distractions of most cultural values, who can give up trying to be well adjusted to a neurotic culture, will find growth and greater purpose after all. The ego's highest task is to go beyond itself into service, service to what is desired by the soul.
During the second half of life, the ego will be asked to accept the absurdities of existence seductive of comforts. How counterproductive is our popular culture—with its fantasies of prolonged youthful appearance, continuous acquisition of objects with their planned obsolescence, and the constant, restless search for magic: fads, rapid cures, quick fixes, new diversions from the task of soul?
The abandonment of ego ambition, one will be freed from having to do whatever supposedly reinforces one's shaky identity and then will be granted the liberty to do things because they are inherently worth doing. One can experience the quiet joy of living in a relationship with the soul simply because it works better than the alternative. The revision of life feels better in the end, for such a person experiences their life as rich with meaning and opening to a larger and larger mystery.
This is the point when we don't feel holy or worthy. We feel like a failure. When this experience of the "noonday devil" shows itself, the ego's usual temptation is to be even stricter about following the first half of life's rules. We think more is better when in fact, less is more. We go back to laws and rituals instead of the always-risky fall into the ocean of mercy.
Yet that is the only path toward our larger and True Self, where we don't need to prove ourselves anymore, where we know, "In love, there can be no fear. Fear is driven out by perfect love. To fear is to expect punishment still. Anyone who is still afraid is still imperfect in the ways of love" (see 1 John 4:18).
We all came into this world gifted with innocence, but gradually, as we became more intelligent, we lost our innocence. We were born with silence, and as we grew up, we lost the silence and were filled with words. We lived in our hearts, and as time passed, we moved into our heads. Now the reversal of this journey is enlightenment. It is the journey from head back to the heart, from words back to silence, getting back to our innocence despite our intelligence. Although very simple, this is a great achievement. Knowledge should lead you to that beautiful point of "I don't know." The evolution of man is from being somebody to being nobody and from being nobody to being everybody. —Sri Sri Ravi Shankar
The journey from order to disorder to reorder must happen for all of us.
This transformation process is slow, and none happened without much prayer, complementation, self-doubt, study, and conversation.
It seems we all begin in innocence and eventually return to a "second inexperience" or simplicity, whether willingly or on our deathbed. In my experience of working with the living and dying, it is most convenient to lean into the second half of life while you are still fully alive.