from The Theosophist Jan 1960
It is recognized by some that the cycle of a human life from birth to death portrays in its phases the larger cycle of human evolution.
Its early part represents a recapitulation of the evolutionary past of mankind. At the foetal stages we go through primitive vegetable and fish-like forms. Indeed we make a beginning at a condition which is almost mineral. We are born into the world as little animals. Our first consciousness as babies is diffused and unfocused. This becomes gradually as little primitive human beings - not necessarily primitive in any adverse sense, but with innocence and a certain natural charm. We pass rapidly through the various stages of primitive human social evolution and we catch up at last upon the general level of evolution which is shared by the family and community into which we have been born. At that level we usually stabilize in most respects, and our later growth is slower.
Yet what the ancients believed was that, while the early part of life might be a recapitulation of the past evolution of mankind, the later part of life was at least a sketchy rehearsal of the future evolution of mankind and contained, potentially if not actually, the wisdom and splendour of mankind as he is to be in a very glorious future.
If we look at an ancient document of social history, such as the Laws of Manu, we find that age is treated with considerable reverence, because it has access to this greater potential of wisdom. It is not held that age will necessarily give active expression to this wisdom. Indeed it is assumed that the vast majority will get stuck at a more or less adolescent condition and cannot be expected to move on much from there. But a minority of superior types do go on growing up a little bit, and they can give us a sketch of the future that is at least a little less inept than that offered by the majority.
Youth brings into the world something fresh and delightful that can be experienced and admired; but the curious thing is that although youth is original it is not originative. At the beginning of the cycle of experience the new life is of reliable human relationships. If is not only people young in body who grope for a sustaining pattern. The great majority of the human race is still at that early stage of evolution where it needs a dependable external pattern of relationship and behavior, whatever its age of body.
Youth is credited with being rebellious. Often the rebellion is not very deep. The individual in temporary revolt becomes something of a nuisance about a number of matters and then after a while settles down on foundations of habit not very different from those of his elders. The person who is really living life from inside, without dependence, is not in revolt. He does not have to defy convention. He is free of it and goes his own way without constant assertion. One is not free of things if one has to shake one's fist at them.
It is thus age, not youth, which is the proper period of adventure and freedom. It is curious how many people, if one spoke to them of the voice of our future, would think of it as the voice of youth. But the voice of our future us bit the voice of youth - at least as conventionally understood - it is the voice of age. Youth is the splendid spontaneous recapitulation of our past, but age is the time of true adventure, an embarking upon our future, upon the unknown, the occult. Age is the time of opportunity.
The essence of the great cycle of experience is that first we came awake through the help of external form, through spreading ourselves with unself-conscious exuberance into the bodies and the environment that are provided for us; but then we gradually learn that we are something much more than our bodies and our environment, that we are an immortal reality inhabiting thee bodies and this environment. It is from this discovery that the more intense adventure of life begins.
Old age, or at least advancing age, gives us more and more opportunities for learning the lessons of a glorious future when man will live his life from inside, fearing nothing external, clinging to nothing external. And it will be a harmonious future, for the inner life is one life, and so all its conscious expressions are in harmony. So long as we look for our life in the competitive accumulation of externals we are in a state of conflict. When we discover and know the inner life, we may still have heavy tasks to perform and hard heroic things to do, but we shall be at peace nevertheless.
One of the greatest opportunities of age lies in the fact that in age our physical bodies begin to break down and become less mobile and adaptable. The physical body is an external thing, a specialized piece of environment; and as we grow older we have an expanding opportunity to become aware of our independence of it. People say, of course, that if their bodies grow old they cannot do this and that; but the interesting discovery awaits them that it is not really necessary to do this and that. It is not that we may give up, surrender, turn our faces to the wall, cease from the struggle; but we can learn to drop that self-importance that we have come to project onto the fact of doing this and that.
It is helpful to have had some kind of success when young, to have been praised for something, even if only for being good at playing football, to have known the self-confident arrogance, the happy complacency of youth. But the triumph of age lies in what the world often calls failure - to know the reality of the inner life so fully and confidently that external results come to be of secondary importance.
Another supreme opportunity of advancing years is loneliness. Many people as they grow older find that those things which they had once imagined made other people good company have become unreal. The bonds of relationship which seemed in youth to make any feeling of loneliness unthinkable are discovered in later years to be less serviceable in this respect than we had thought.
Now loneliness is of all human experiences probably the most rich in opportunity. In the time of loneliness we seem irrelevant to the great busy world and it seems irrelevant to us. It is the breaking down of the relevance, the significance and values which we had hitherto believed in; and if we will go on and become still more lonely, it can be the beginning of the discovery of an entirely new kind of relevance and significance. Not until we are completely alone can we become capable of the supreme experience of " the flight of the alone to the Alone". Far short of that highest experience there are many grades of deepening appreciation of the significance of our lives in their larger setting; and to initiate our entry upon each of these there has to be a preliminary experience of loneliness, the breaking down of an old standard of relevance so that a new may be discovered. Loneliness is the way of liberation. Freedom was recently defined as complete loneliness combined with complete responsibility.
And then there comes in the end the great moment towards which the processes of old age lead, the time of death. This is the equivalent in our little cycle of experience of that moment in the great cycle when "the dewdrop slips into the Shinning Sea". IT is the activity for which we have been practising all through our lives; for we are able again and again to get practice in dying gracefully to something. Anybody who is sufficiently psychic to enter a little into the mood and feelings of a person who has lately died will know that for many it is an experience of intense happiness and release.
Of course we resist death or we think that we do. After all, every organism contains within it the seeds of its own death. What we resist is the death that we feel to be not properly ours. We do not try to resist death itself so much as assert our right to die in our own way and at what we imagine to be our own time.
It has been said that the sting of death is a bad conscience - true, one supposes, alike for those who die and for those who survive. That is to say, we have a sense of things left uncompleted, not emotionally fulfilled. Not everything can possibly be fulfilled and completed in action, but towards even unfinished things we can have an attitude that completes our relationship to them. It is probably much the same sense of things not emotionally completed that makes some people not want to go to bed at night at the proper time. They are vaguely haunted by the day's failures of fulfilment, and they fiddle about uneasily, unwilling to bring the day to a close which will be an unconscious confession of inadequacy. But if each phase of life or of the day is accepted, fulfilled according to our capacity, and then allowed to drop away into the past, we shall be able to fall asleep in peace.
Our little life cycle, then, can be regarded as a sketch of the great cycle; and, if so regarded, it can be for us a true Path of Holiness. Every stage of our lives has its deep potential. We shall not in one short lifetime explore more than a small portion of that rich potential; but if we can take courage to dip a little deeper into those unknown depths of our lives we shall draw from them something of great beauty and of great consolation and help to others.
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last modified: August 11, 2001