I. 5. THREE JOURNEYS TO ALIVENESS
To be truly alive requires psychological, societal and spiritual journeys.
As each of us moves through life, we engage in 3 major dimensions of experience: (1) psychological experience, largely shaped by interpersonal interactions with members of our family during our early years, particularly ages 0-3, as our brain is being formed; (2) societal experience, as we enter school, go to work, marry, have kids, and engage socially and politically; and (3) spiritual experience , as we have experiences that are not explainable by the laws of scientific-materialism which explain so much of our lives.
To be truly alive, it is important to develop in all three areas, and doing so is largely determined by our willingness to face our death in a way that causes us to appreciate and act for life. It is also important for species survival that we develop ourselves in all three areas, particularly becoming politically engaged not only on behalf of our nation, ethnic group or gender, but humanity as a whole - with a particular focus on saving the biosphere which is today our greatest common human problem.
The idea that is the journey not the destination that matters is nowhere more apt than when considering the fundamental nature of these three journeys to being truly alive. They are lifelong journeys that only end with death. And they have two basic aspects: (1) shifting our consciousness to truly love and appreciate life; and (2) acting in the real world , as on expression of that consciousness. The realm of our action stretches from developing our ability to feel and have decent relationships, to working to save the biosphere, reduce violence and poverty, and invest in the future , to realizing our spiritual potential.
It is useful to see these three dimensions of experience - psychological, societal and spiritual - as innate potentials that reside within each of us. We come into this world carrying elements of millions of years of animal and human experience in our genes, experience which has been necessary for the human species to survive until this point. This experience includes such fundamental potentials as the ability to love others, procreate and rear children, contribute to society and experience dimensions of consciousness beyond human understanding.
The extent to which we are truly alive is largely the extent to which we develop these psychological, societal and spiritual potentials over the course of our lives. Each of these journeys is powerfully influenced by our knowledge of our mortality.
Each of us has a psychological self, which may be thought of as the inner ring of the tree we call our "self". This psychological self is formed during our earliest years, and becomes aware of and begins to defend against anxiety caused by our knowledge of death between the ages of 3 and 8. Death anxiety is thus an integral part of each of us, and causes us to restrict our ability to feel and experience aliveness because of the pain it brings to do so. If we are to feel truly alive as adults, therefore, we need to dare to fully feel our painful feelings about our death in a way that affirms life.
The second ring of our tree, our "societal self", is also framed by death, as our knowledge that our spouse, children and friends will all die, our work will come to an end, and indeed our society and humanity itself will one day pass from the scene. When we face the death of our social self in a way that reaffirms life, we often develop an enhanced desire to contribute to the well-being of humanity, both to those now alive and to the future generations who will succeed us. Experiencing our full potential for aliveness requires that we develop ourselves socially and politically, feeling a deep connection to all humanity which includes, by definition, the 90% of humanity that inhabits the Third World.
The third ring of our tree, our "spiritual self", refers to a realm of non-verbal, non-conceptual experience that cannot be explained by the laws of scientific materialism. The "spiritual" experience involves directly connecting to and feeling awe about, the Mystery of Life. It is opposed to the kind of "religious" experience which tries to explain the inexplicable and divides people from one another. Historically, encountering death has led many to spiritual breakthroughs, including for such renowned figures as the Buddha and Sri Ramana Maharshi. To be truly alive requires developing our capacity for genuine spiritual experience, which can provide an important counterbalance to a morbid focus on death, even as we also do not use spirituality as a sophisticated way to deny the pain we all feel but tend to repress about our mortality.
It is impossible to realize even a fraction of our full potential for aliveness in all three of these areas. It is interesting to note, for example, how most of those we consider "great" in history have usually become so by specializing in one area and neglecting the others. Even the greatest of our political leaders, for example, have often been failures in their one-on-one relationships, and even more rarely developed their spiritual potentials. And our spiritual and psychological heroes have rarely played a major role in the political arena.
Despite the difficulties inherent in becoming truly psychologically, societally and spiritually alive, however, it is worthwhile to try and develop ourselves in all three areas. Doing so expands our experience of life, specialization narrows it. It may also be necessary for society. Humanity may not be saved unless its politics become far more psychologically healthy and spiritually evolved. And such a politics can only be developed by individuals who have engaged in all three journeys.
It is difficult to imagine developing the energy to embark on these three journeys without facing our own death. And, of course, once we are embarked upon these journeys, we inevitably find ourselves face-to-face with our mortality. The "Hero's Journey" through life is many things, but this above all: it involves not hiding from but rather facing death, and triumphing over it the only way we can: by affirming life.