by Bill Plotkin
Due to the loss or degradation of vibrant cultures, most contemporary people — at least 80% — get stuck in the third of the eight life stages, which is to say in early adolescence. By “adolescence,” I mean a psychosocial stage, not a chronological interval coincident with the teen years. And the early adolescence in which the majority of post-pubescent Westerners sleepwalk through the rest of their lives tends to be not even a healthy adolescence but, rather, what I’ve called a patho-adolescence. This is an egocentric existence focused upon the attempt to look good to others; to conform and/or to rebel against the ordinary and mainstream; to “get ahead” in the dog-eat-dog competition for material possessions, financial wealth, and social status; and to minimize the experience of challenging realities by way of addictions (whether to substances or to compulsive behaviors such as shopping, impersonal sex, or gambling).
The natural and wholesome virtues of a healthy adolescence have become relatively rare, virtues such as the cultivation of personal authenticity that grows hand in hand with social belonging and cooperation; the discovery of the joys and responsibilities of a healthy sexual identity and of erotic embodiment in intimate relationships; the desire and capacities to contribute to and help create a healthy, just, sustainable, imaginative, and life- enhancing human community; and an ever-developing reverence and gratitude for the web of life, with all its creatures and habitats, and a desire and capacity to protect and enhance the Earth community of which we are all natural members. In a healthy, mature culture, these virtues are defining qualities of early adolescence; their development is not postponed until adulthood.
This begs the question: What, then, is adulthood, true adulthood?
From the perspective of the Eco-Soulcentric Developmental Wheel, adulthood is a stage of life that has become progressively rare in the Western world over the past few millennia. It is not meaningfully defined in terms of the acceptance of “mature” responsibilities, or in terms of raising a family, contributing to community, earning a living, or honing a craft or vocation. All these achievements are fully realizable (and, except for raising a family, ordinary) in a healthy early adolescence. (In mature societies, although sexual exploration naturally begins in early adolescence, starting a family is normally postponed until the achievement of true adulthood.) Rather, true adulthood is the stage of life in which one consciously recognizes and embodies the unique life of one’s soul. This is a psychospiritual state that contemporary Western society would consider mystical, but would seem quite ordinary in a healthy society.
By “soul,” I mean our individual and unique place or niche in the Earth community — not our place in the human village (identified by social and vocational roles) but our place in the greater web of life (identified in terms of nature-based metaphors, human archetypes, or other mythic or poetic images). Your soul, in other words, corresponds to what poet David Whyte refers to as “the largest conversation you can have with the world” or “the truth at the center of the image you were born with.” This niche, this conversation, this truth, this image, is not primarily cultural or merely human; rather it is ecological and mythopoetic, which is to say clothed and communicated in the metaphors, symbols, images, dreams, and archetypes of nature and of our own wild minds.
Bill Plotkin, Ph.D., is a depth psychologist, wilderness guide, and agent of cultural evolution. As founder of western Colorado’s Animas Valley Institute in 1981, he has guided thousands of seekers through nature-based initiatory passages, including a contemporary, Western adaptation of the pan-cultural vision fast.