Waking Up in Time

Maturity - Coming of Age

The distance between man and the gods is not all that much greater than the distance between beasts and man. We have already closed the latter gap, and there is no reason to suppose that we shall not eventually close the former.

Ken WIlber

Our state of semi-awakening is not something we are stuck with. It is just a reflection of our as yet incomplete inner development, both as individuals and as a species.

It has long been recognized that from the moment of conception our biological development mirrors the evolution of our species. Like the first life on Earth, our own life starts as a single cell. This cell divides, becoming a simple colony, and folds in upon itself to form a simple tube -- much as early multicellular organisms started off as simple “feeding tubes.” After a few weeks the growing embryo develops gills as if it were becoming a fish. Then it resembles a reptile and a little later takes on some of the characteristics of smaller mammals. Even at week ten it still has a tail.

Scientists sum up these parallels in the phrase “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” Translated into simpler English that means “the development of the individual (ontogeny) repeats the pattern of the development of the species (phylogeny).”

Although the principle is usually applied only to our biological development, a similar pattern can be seen in our psychological development. The stages that our species went through in the evolution of its consciousness are paralleled in the newborn human being as it embarks upon its own journey of inner development.

A year or so into life we start to walk -- something our hominid ancestors did several million years ago. During our second year we learn to use words; and later we begin to entertain ideas and make abstractions -- developments that parallel the evolution of language and thought.

As we grow so does our awareness. To begin with we are learning how to interpret the data pouring in through our senses and how to control our bodies. At this stage there is little distinction between self and surroundings. A sense of individuality begins to dawn only as we move from total dependence upon our mothers towards greater autonomy. We learn how to use our hands and how to create change in the world. We discover relationships of cause and effect, and develop a will. Through this growing interaction with the world comes the realization that we are independent entities -- people in our own right. And as our facility with language develops we begin to give expression to this realization. “I like this.” “I want that.” “I can do this.”

These steps in inner development would seem to mirror the stages that early humanity passed through. To begin with, the general consciousness was probably similar to that of a young child -- people were aware of the world and aware of themselves as physical beings but had little sense of an individual self. If there was any sense of identity it was of oneness with the Great Mother -- Nature, the provider of all.

It was the development of tools and the move away from an agrarian culture towards urban civilization that sowed the seeds for the emergence of a more egoic consciousness. We discovered our ability to change the world, to influence the behavior of the Great Mother. A new sense of identity had been born. We were something special -- separate, independent beings with a will of our own.

The Wisdom of the Young

But let us return to the image of the child. One almost universal characteristic of young children is their purity. What mother has not looked at her young child and marveled at the light that shines through him? Children have an innocence that adults have lost, an awareness of simple truths that we have forgotten. They are reminders of how we too once were.

This purity seems to be something innate. Children do not learn it from their parents -- on the contrary, parents frequently find their children to be the teachers in these matters. Nor is it something they are educated into -- if anything they are educated out of it. More likely it is a reflection of human consciousness in its natural, unsullied state.

It is the same with the development of our species. What evidence we have of life in early communities suggests a much greater respect for Nature, and less materialistic attitudes than is found in modern civilization. Some of the evidence for this is archaeological, but we can also get a good idea of how our ancestors may have lived by looking at various contemporary indigenous cultures who have not yet been overly influenced by contact with Western civilization -- the Kogi of Colombia, the Bushmen of the Kalahari, the Penan in Malaysia. These people often know many simple truths that we appear to have forgotten. They smile at our attachment to things, and the energy we put into trying to be masters of our world. In general they are content with life. They have a deep respect for their local ecology, and how to live in harmony with the land and other living beings. Moreover, like little children, they can be teachers to us, reminding us of the innocence we have lost in the rush of progress. And of the wisdom that we are now seeking to regain.

The Descent into Matter

This loss of purity -- both in the growing child and in a technological society -- is probably unavoidable. It is part of the process of development, part of our engagement with the world of matter. The more a child learns how to control the world the more fascinated he becomes with his discoveries -- with what he can do and with what he can achieve.

Likewise with our social development. As our tools became more powerful and our understanding of the world deepened, we became fascinated by the changes we could create. Our urge to improve the quality of life led to the Industrial Revolution. And its successes reinforced our infatuation with the material world.

The more ways we discovered to manipulate and change the world, the more our belief that we were individuals in control of our own destiny was strengthened. As our abilities grew we seduced ourselves into believing that such prowess could satisfy all our needs, psychological as well as physical.

This preoccupation with our own well-being led us to become increasingly self-centered. More and more we saw ourselves as separate individuals, each concerned with his or her own fulfillment, competing with others for the means to achieve it -- and with all the dangers that entails. Less and less were we prepared to devote ourselves to the group -- indeed, the more industrialized we became, the more self-interest became a virtue.

This sense of separateness was further boosted by a scientific paradigm that saw the world as a mechanism, devoid of spirit. Like a boisterous teenager we became full of ourselves and our capacities, relishing our new-found sense of freedom from the family. Except that in this case the family that had brought us up and supported us so far, and from which we were now separating ourselves, was Mother Earth.

Ontogeny Heralds Phylogeny

Important as it is to see our absorption with material things as an unavoidable phase in our development, it is equally important to see it as a passing phase. Most of us do move beyond adolescence. We learn from our experience (to varying degrees). We learn to be less self-centered; we learn to take responsibility for our actions.

As we grow older we admit that there is much we do not know and will never know. We become wiser about human nature -- its virtues and its failings. We accept the ways of Nature. We become less attached to our possessions; less upset by events of little consequence; less needful of others’ appreciation. Many of us become better at living in the present. And some of us come to accept our own mortality.

A few of us may even come to know that we are free, that our well-being is not dependent upon the world we perceive. These enlightened ones may release themselves from all their imagined burdens and find true peace of mind. They may even complete their inner awakening and come to know the nature of consciousness as fully as we now know the world of form. These are the ones we call the saints and mystics -- those whose lives have illuminated the history of humanity. The awakened ones.

At the moment full maturity is still a rarity. But rather than considering such individuals as exceptions we should think of them as heralds. They are portents of what could lie ahead of us as our own inner maturity blossoms. They are also portents of what could lie ahead for the human race -- should we survive our troubled adolescence.

In this respect ontogeny heralds phylogeny. Both as individuals and as a species we are heading in the direction of self-liberation.

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