When you find the courage to change at midlife a miracle happens.
Your character is opened, deepened, strengthened, softened.
You return to your soul’s highest values.
...Angeles Arrien in The Second Half of Life: Opening the Eight Gates of Wisdom
As the Baby Boomers have begun their walk of elder-hood, our young American culture is populated by an unprecedented number of over 50 adults who have an opportunity to combine wisdom of the past with emotional and spiritual maturity to make a rich legacy imprint and fuel a rapidly evolving human consciousness.
The work of Angeles Arrien, Ph.D., provides a guide and models for how we can make a difference in not only our own lives, but for the collective American and universal cultures.
As a cultural anthropologist, author, educator and president of the Foundation for Cross-Cultural Education and Research, she lectures and conducts workshops bridging cultural anthropology, psychology and comparative religions.
Recently, I spoke with Arrien by phone from Sausalito, California. Here is the edited text of our interview:
TP: Since we were in contact over a year ago, I have read your books The Second Half of Life and have been working with The Nine Muses, which is a lot to digest.
AA: Yes, it’s a lot to take in. Working with one of those Muses, let alone nine!
TP: What are you working on now?
AA: I’m putting together a little book on gratitude. The book will be out in the fall of 2011. The tapes have been out for a year. Both are by Sounds True.
TP: Ego is a topic that comes up so much in the spiritual books available today and along our spiritual path. It’s really become a dirty word.
AA: Yes, that’s true. And it’s so necessary!
TP: That’s the thing! We wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. We wouldn’t get a project done if it weren’t for ego. I’m rethinking this whole thing about ego. I’m thinking it’s more like the shadow and we have to figure out how to manage and integrate it, not eradicate it.
AA: Oh absolutely.
TP: So you don’t think ego is such a dirty word?
AA: Ego is not a dirty word. In fact to spiritually develop we have to have a well-defined ego or we’re going to take ego into our spiritual work. And then we go into spiritual pride and we become detached from recognizing the inner and outer are not separated in many ways. I don’t see ego as a dirty word or something we should lock in the closet, or kill. But I do see that we have a different relationship to it in different times of our life.
TP: So we have to shift our relationship with it?
AA: I think the ego, especially in the first half of life, is absolutely essential to manifest our gifts and talents and to get a sense of self. The spiritual traditions of the world talk about the two great callings or two great vocations. The first great calling is around our work, our contribution, around our gifts and talents. And that involves ego, which is really the assemblage of beginning to understand Who I Am and Who I Am Not in relationship to What I Do. The second great calling is the discovery of Who I Am beyond What I Do, beyond my interests and beyond my roles, which usually starts after 50 years of age. And that’s when ego goes into the passenger seat or the back seat and is not the driver. It’s still there, as a part of the team, and the navigator, but it’s not the driver. The first half of life is really about ambition, in the most positive sense of the word. The second half of life is about meaning.
TP: Can you give some examples of positive aspects of the ego and aspects that need work?
AA: There are healthy parts of ego and there are unhealthy parts of ego. The unhealthy parts of ego are the over-identification with it. An unhealthy pride, for instance, which is the need to look good, to have it together. To do right, be right. And a high investiture of being seen in a certain way – are all unhealthy forms of pride. But the ego is invested in looking good and having it together, especially in the first half of life. In the second half of life, it’s willing to temper itself but not easily. We put it in the backseat but it still wants control of the driving wheel. It’s really about taking a look at what has heart and meaning, which developmentally is part of the second half of life. There is such a shift from ambition to meaning, from doing to being, acquisition to divestiture, quantity to quality, from me to we.
A healthy ego is one that is willing to change and grow and develop. To incorporate our not being so identified with our interiority or our exteriority. We’re not so identified with our spiritual work that it becomes ego-driven or we’re not so identified with our external accomplishments that we’re ego-driven. The healthy ego is engaged in allowing our gifts and talents to grow, to flourish in a way that we’re not over-attached to it but that we learn and grow from it. And the same is true in our spiritual work, when we’re doing internal work, that we’re not over-identified or measuring what we’re doing or not doing with our spiritual growth or development, or character development.
TP: In your book The Second Half of Life you take readers on a journey through eight gates of wisdom or initiation that take hold around 50 and see us through death. You demonstrate the tasks, challenges and gifts available as we pass through each stage, if we are willing to do the work.
AA: Yes, it’s really about the development of personhood. I love what Oscar Wilde said about understanding who we are. ‘You might as well be yourself because everybody else is taken.’ Until we’re ourselves, we can’t really access truth or our authentic voice.
TP: Who are your mentors? The last Irish author John O’Donohue wrote an exquisite Foreword to The Second Half of Life and I know Joseph Campbell was an inspiration. But who would you say are your mentors?
AA: My very first mentors, the very best of me, are the best of my parents and my grandparents. They were my first great mentors and really informed my values and my personhood. Along the way Margaret Mead was certainly a mentor, Joseph Campbell was certainly a mentor, Houston Smith. Various religions have been mentors. Every participant that I’ve had in my workshops has been somebody that I’ve totally learned from. I don’t think there’s been a case where I haven’t been formed by every person who’s crossed my path.
TP: What about the ancestral lineage whom we did not know in this material world?
AA: Well, there’s not a culture in the world that doesn’t honor the ancestors, the ones who have gone long before us. The great grandfathers and grandmothers.
TP: How would you suggest, a practical way for people to tap into that ancestral heritage at this period in time?
AA: One of the blessings of this time is with genealogy, we have more access to records than ever. We can go back at least five generations in different parts of the world and especially now with DNA research. But basically, the ancestors are always there. We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors. We are not able to do what we do without our ancestors. And many traditional cultures believe that our male ancestry stands on our right and our female ancestry stands on our left. They stand behind us saying maybe this will be the one who will bring forward the good, true and beautiful for all the past generations. Or maybe this one will be the one who will break the harmful family patterns or harmful cultural patterns. Or maybe this one will be the one and we are the one. It’s often interesting to see, who will we be as an ancestor? And who are we, already paving the way for, in future generation? How will we be remembered and honored? What are we doing that will be the first of in our family? The first to graduate from college or the first to get a divorce? What are we paving the way for?
TP: How would you describe this time period we’re in?
AA: I think it’s a time period where we’re involved in great and creative tensions. Robert Johnson, the Jungian analyst, in his little book on understanding the shadow, said there will be a time in history where the polarity and the opposition and the paradox is so strong there will be a need to hold the creative tension until a third option, that are much greater than the polarity, the opposition or the paradox, emerges. We’re in that time of holding the creative tension. Most people can’t hold creative tension and host different possibilities, or wait for the third creative option to emerge, without moving to premature solution.
We’re at that time. The creative tension of the (Obama) presidential election was so strong between the two forces. And even now, you know, the cleaning up but also what’s trying to emerge out of the economic downturn? What’s trying to emerge out of the revealed greed? What’s trying to emerge out of the unhealthy masculine and feminine that’s being mirrored colossally by the Mark Sanfords or the Tiger Woods or the Eliot Spitzers. And all the unhealthy feminine that participated in all of that and has taken advantage of all of that monetarily for attention? It’s just interesting how the shadow in our culture is being revealed all over the place. It’s just amazing the unhealthy masculine and the unhealthy feminine – they’re in high comic relief. Tragically cartoonized. It’s all being cartoonized which is great because it indicates we are breaking the duplicities. You can’t live a duplicit life, you can't have it both ways. And that’s good, it’s healthy that it’s all being revealed.
TP: If we can do the work that we’re being asked to do.
AA: Yes, that we’re being asked to do. Will Wall Street re-scramble to keep the old in place or will there be an opportunity for the new? Will we scramble? – and this is the unhealthy part of the ego, that it always wants to look good, rather than the healthy part of the ego that learns from the mistakes and goes to another standard of effectiveness.
TP: What advice or guidance would you give to people as they turn on their computers and TVs? What well should people be drawing from as all this is playing out and how can they stay grounded?
AA: I think it’s important to draw from what has heart and meaning and really work with the three Spinoza (the 15th Century Dutch philosopher) questions. Somebody asked him how can you track what has meaning in your life? And he said by these three questions: "Who and what inspired me today?" because where I’m still inspired, there’s fire and meaning, "Where did I experience a sense of comfort, peace or balance today?" shows me where I trust. I’m not striving or holding back whenever I have a deep sense of comfort, peace or balance. And then, "What has made me happy today?" Not who’s made me happy cause that’s one of the great illusions – that other people are responsible for our happiness. No one’s responsible for our happiness unless we are responsible for our happiness. But if somebody happens to make me happy, if my children make me happy or if my husband happens to make me happy or my partner makes me happy or a friend makes me happy - that’s frosting on the cake but it’s not the cake. I’ve got to know what makes me happy that’s not relationally dependent. If we stay connected to what has meaning - that will provide sustenance for the soul.
© 2010 Teresa Piccari
In our next issue, I will continue my conversation with Angeles Arrien as she shares ideas on the advantages of our Western culture and how we can apply indigenous and perennial wisdom, along with universal truths found in myth. Be well and may you walk in Beauty and Light until then. Visit Arrien online at www.AngelesArrien.com