Evolution of Consciousness

Gerald Heard’s theory, from his book The Five Ages of Man, as quoted in From Age-ing to Sage-ing:

“Human consciousness…has evolved through five epochs of world history. We recapitulate these stages in our personal lives as we grow from infancy, through adolescence, and into first maturity. When we arrive at elderhood, we have the possibility of taking a quantum leap into second maturity, with its task of spiritual realization.”

We don’t have to agree with this theory to find it thought-provoking. We can’t document much about the evolution of human consciousness. However, consciousness DID evolve over the millennia as early humans became more like modern humans, and there are likely to be some parallels with how our consciousness progresses as we age.

We go from pre-consciousness of ourselves as individuals, through differentiation (Oh! Mother and I are not the same being!), through stages of acquiring autonomy. There is often a period in adolescence when the search for identity leads us to explore spiritual possibilities. And then (with luck), over time, we master some useful skills, and we establish ourselves as independent adults, with homes, families, etc., and perhaps acquire wealth and worldly recognition.

In a stage that Gerald Heard calls “post-individual” (after maturity and mastery), we may feel replete with individual material accomplishments and move towards a greater sensitivity to the inner life and to the needs of others; we may be more interested in being and less interested in doing. This phase has an analogy in Indian culture (mostly in earlier times) where a householder might withdraw from worldly concerns to focus on meditation and contemplation.

There’s often a lot of confusion about what we “should be doing” at different stages of our development. Especially when we’re younger, there may be a lot of doubt and insecurity; we don’t usually have a broad context to help us understand our desires and aversions. Our goals may not be clear to us. Somehow we muddle through; we find something we can do, and we do it.

And then we come to retirement. What are we to make of this? When national social security plans were put into place after World War II, sixty-five was both the retirement age and the average lifespan. Today, most people in “first-world” countries live to be 80 or older. It’s only been two or three generations that have had to think about what to do with their time after age 65. How are we doing?

About lynnjkelly

Australian/American. Practicing Buddhist.
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