Since the age of 20 or so, I’ve seen my life in distinct stages, stages that feel like different lives. Sometimes it makes me very disoriented. Looking back can leave me unsettled, as if my past self is a complete stranger.
In a way, I guess that’s true.
Most people live multiple lives, in a settled pattern that goes something like this:
- Adolescence/Early adulthood
- “Settled” adulthood
- Late adulthood-death
The details change from culture to culture. In less developed cultures, for example, most people skip adolescence (or experience a very brief adolescence) and go straight from childhood to adulthood. In more affluent cultures, the adolescent/early adulthood stage can last many years. Interesting things to think about.
But not the point of this post.
The point is that, with some variation, there is a single, broad pattern, a kind of trail we follow, moving from one life to another within a single lifetime.
The big, universal pattern is based on the natural cycle of birth-growth-production-death.
Within each life you live in this pattern, there’s a different focus, a different feel; your entire environment and your primary relationships may be completely different in adulthood than they were in childhood. (If there’s not a significant amount of change, maybe check your pond for stagnation. You’re gathering moss, bub. Roll on, clean off.)
There’s not a problem with the pattern.
There’s a problem with the way society, after some period of stability, will do the inevitable thing that society does: Make Lots of Rules.
So here we are, you and I, living in a society. We receive a distinct set of expectations, requirements, boundaries, and goals attached to each life we get to live.
How boring. How limiting. How depressing to have it all planned out for you. How draining to know what your goals are supposed to be for any given life.
And how ingrained. How deeply ingrained in us these rules are. You can flee the society that raised you. You can logically dismantle the philosophy underlying it. You can proclaim your independence of it. You can loud-and-proud reject the rules it’s given you.
And you can still struggle to quiet the voices in your head, to still the anxiety, to smooth away the guilt that will rise up even when you know it’s ludicrous.
Most of us won’t go to all that trouble: the fleeing and arguing and proclaiming route. The rejecting-the-rules route.
Most of us will try something else: the compromise route. We will live with some connection to the society that raised us. We will make some gestures of independence but nothing too crazy. We will break some rules but not the big ones. We’ll seek differentiation, perhaps within the broadest limits of what’s acceptable, but still within them.
So much of the pain of life comes from comparing what we are with that arbitrary picture of what we are supposed to be, at any given time.
This is why we stress out about not reaching some milestone within some particular decade of life.
We stress out because there are certain achievements built into each life; not explicitly spelled out, maybe, but we know. And we compare. And we feel bad when we don’t get there.
We also feel scared. This is all supposed to make us happy. Right? What if it doesn’t? What then?
There’s nothing wrong with the big pattern, the birth-growth-production-death cycle. And there’s no way to escape that cycle. It’s the life cycle. The whole thing. Death, too.
Live, and you’re in it.
But, um, what are the other universal requirements in the pattern?
There aren’t any.
Think of it like this: the life cycle (which in a single lifetime can include many separate lives) is like a river. You’re on the river. That’s the only universal requirement: be on the river. Or in it.
You can swim. You can float on a raft or in a tube. You can be in a rowboat or a big fancy yacht. You can float alone or with other people. You can wear what you want, sing what you want, spend your time how you want. You can notice how the rapids get big and how there’s a waterfall ahead and you can spend your time being afraid of it, or you can throw your hands in the air and say, “Here we go!” and see what happens. You can track your progress down the river every day, or pay no attention to it.
The river doesn’t care. The river is flowing and you’re flowing with it.
If you find yourself in a group, of, say, well-dressed rowboaters, they might care if you’re hanging out half-naked on a bamboo raft. Maybe you like floating in a big, spacious boat with lots of family and friends around, and this speedy group of single-person kayaks starts making fun of you.
Like, whatever, man.
Who cares if they don’t get it? Who cares if they make fun of you? Who cares if they care? You don’t have to care. The river certainly doesn’t care.
Funny thing is, we’re all going down the same river. The only thing that’s true for everyone and that matters for everyone is completely out of everyone’s control.
Some people try to dam up the river and create a little lagoon of stability, off to the side, in some protected cove. This never works for very long.
But who cares? Let ‘em try. The river doesn’t care. The river keeps flowing.
Some people try to go upstream, pushing against the flow of the river, trying to jump up waterfalls, carrying boats over the rocks, all while battling the current. This is a lot of work. Nobody knows what they’re trying to get to. They’re inspired by salmon? I don’t know. I don’t think they know. It’s so much work. (I know because I’ve tried it.) People doing this will get hurt, a lot, and they’ll burn out. Sometimes they keep trying, anyway.
Okay. Let ‘em try. The river doesn’t care. The river keeps flowing, and you and I are flowing in it.
Life is much more chaotic, complicated, creative, and interesting than any societal plan laid out for you. Nobody is going to live the same set of lives as anybody else.
You can row your boat or lay back and float; it doesn’t matter. We’re all flowing in the same river.
What do you like better? Do that. Flow merrily. Why not?
Standard societal instruction tells us that:
- you only get a limited number of lives in one lifetime
- those lives are pretty clearly defined, by the way
- the change from one life to the next is triggered by a Big External Event
So, for example, you GET BORN and you have entered childhood. (Good job on that!)
You GET A JOB or GET A SPOUSE or GET A HOUSE or something and you have entered adulthood. Or so they say.
It can be confusing, disorienting, and terrifying to enter the wild, chaotic, ever-changing flow of the river with these expectations. Many people lock down, go into defense mode, and stay there for the rest of their lifetime. True story. Sad story.
However, it can be exciting, amazing, thrilling, incredibly freeing to realize that these societal instructions are made-up and have absolutely zero to do with the nature of reality. (Reality, of course, is the flow of the river, which still doesn’t care what kind of boat you’re in or what the hell you’re doing on it.)
Here are the real instructions:
- you can have as many lives as you want in one lifetime.
- you define each life (its purpose, meaning, behavior, relationships, goals, environment, feeling, etc.) for yourself.
- the change from one life to the next is triggered by an internal shift which you control and can initiate anytime you want.
External change doesn’t come from external causes. Silly.
Internal creates external, all the time, every time.
We don’t do it consciously most of the time, so external events seem to pop up (SURPRISE! AH!), and we often react in shock, fear, and dismay.
But what’s really happening? We experience internal events, and we create internal shifts, and those internal shifts kick off a series of external events, which happen just as we notice we’re leaving one life and entering a new one.
The external events don’t cause the shift into a new life, any more than the presence of food causes hunger. The presence of food simply causes us to notice, to become aware of the hunger that is already present.
Hunger is a natural, recurring part of life in the physical.
Growth is a natural, recurring part of life in the… in the everything.
Let’s sum up:
- You get to have as many lives as you want in one lifetime.
- Society has a lot of rules about the lives you get to have (how many, what to do, how to shift) but those rules are all made up.
- Internal shifts create external changes.
- External changes often happen just as you notice that you’re moving out of one life and into your next.
- The more aware you become of your internal growth, the more you can consciously direct and participate in it. And that’s exciting, because that’s means you don’t have to wait around and see what happens in life. You decide.
- If you’re tired of your current life, then what you do is start shifting your internal reality. You can do that Right Now. You don’t have to wait for anything.
- Sooner or later, your external reality will shift to match your internal reality. People watching you will notice the obvious, external event and give that event all the credit. Cool. But you’ll know better.
- The river doesn’t care. Do your thing.