A Map For My Younger Self
What I would want my Younger Self three years ago to know is this…
What I would want my Younger Self three years ago to know is this…
It may feel like life is falling apart right now, like you’re sinking into a deep, dark, never-ending hole of depression, disillusionment and despair. But in a few years you will soon come to find out that you’re actually, as Richard Rohr so paradoxically puts it, “falling upwards.”
Younger Self, what you should know is that humans evolve in stages. We go from Egocentric (primarily caring about ourself and our immediate family), to Ethnocentric (primarily caring about our tribe and community), to Worldcentric (caring for all humans), to Cosmocentric (caring for all life in all universes).
Developmental psychologists have discovered that a core ingredient often motivating our evolution from stage-to-stage is that which we most often fear: suffering.
Younger Self, you are suffering right now. You’re in a lot of pain. I want you to know that what you’re feeling is real. It hurts. It sucks. And paradoxically it’s also the greatest gift you will ever be graced.
Younger Self, you’re about to grow and expand more than you can possibly imagine! The Universe will guide you on a Hero’s Journey that will result in a psycho-spiritual Death-Rebirth-Resurrection awakening. You will go from a caterpillar, to a cocoon, to a butterfly.
What I want you to know is this: you will survive. But not the you who you knew yourself to be. And that, my friend, is the most beautiful part.
There are many models that map the various stages of human psycho-spiritual evolution. Ken Wilber’s “Integral Theory,” Susanne Cook-Greuter’s “Nine Stages of Ego Development,” Terri O’Fallon’s “STAGES,” Hanzi Freinacht’s “Metamodernism,” Robert Kegan’s “Theory of Adult Development,” Jenny Wade’s “Changes of Mind” and Bill Plotkin’s “Eco-Soulcentric Developmental Wheel.”
One model that I’ve found particularly useful and intuitive is called Spiral Dynamics, originally developed by Claire Graves. It maps our changing worldviews as humans grow and evolve. The model can be applied to both groups and individuals.
It’s a spiral because we transcend and include each of the previous stages. Think of it like Russian nesting dolls. At each stage, our consciousness expands and grows while simultaneously including the previous stages before it. Each transition can be considered an evolution or “awakening,” but it’s important to note that no human is solely at one stage or another, rather it can be said that we have a “center of gravity” — a stage that we most often embody as a result of changing life conditions.
There are eight stages of the spiral, each of which are identified by a color (not symbolic of anything beyond the stages themselves). For an in-depth read on the complete spiral, I recommend this article, this short video, and, for those looking to deep dive, this in-depth video series.
For now though, my Younger Self, I want to help illuminate one evolutionary transition in the spiral: Orange to Green.
Stage Orange is what most of modern western civilization is built upon:
- Reason and rationality
- Democracy and free market capitalism
- Material abundance as a signifier of success
- Life is a game with winners and losers
Like many of you reading this, I grew up in a predominantly Stage Orange world. My grandfather, who I idolized, would constantly remind me to follow a very simple map: get a good education, which will lead to a good career, which will lead to a good paycheck, which will lead to a good life. Learn to play the game that the system has created, and “success” will come my way.
Younger Self, congrats! You won the game. By the time you were 26 you were making more money than you knew what to do with, traveling the world in first class interviewing celebrities and sports stars. You bought a blue convertible. You married your high school sweetheart. You checked all the boxes.
And it sure was exhilarating. Until it was exhausting. And before you knew it, on the same day that you found out you won some big awards, you were contemplating suicide while at a fancy resort in Big Sur.
All you could think was, “How did I get here? Why do I feel so low when I should be feeling so high?”
Like Steve Jobs reminds us in his Stanford commencement speech, sometimes we only see that the stars align when we have the perspective of time.
In retrospect, it’s clear what happened. I evolved to the end of Stage Orange, but I had no map, no mentors and no knowledge that there was anything more to life than the “success” I had already achieved. And when there’s nothing left to grow towards, is there anything left to live for?
I went to a holistic psychiatrist expecting and hoping to be put on antidepressants. Instead, he prescribed me a book. With deadly serious eyes, he declared, “Read it. Today.” The book was “Nature and the Human Soul” by Bill Plotkin, which outlines stages of development for the evolution of human consciousness.
This book saved my life.
Though Plotkin does not directly reference Spiral Dynamics, his thesis essentially advocates for humans to evolve from Stage Orange to the next stage on the spiral, Green.
Stage Green acts as a counterbalance to Orange, like a pendulum reversing course. Green begins to move from the mind to the heart, from masculine energy to feminine, reintroducing spirituality, collectivism and compassion for all beings, including Mother Nature, which Orange far too often views as a resource to be exploited for profits. Green values consensus decision making and is anti-authoritarian, lifting minority voices and marginalized communities. Green reintroduces Indigenous wisdom, seeks inner peace and places more emphasis on emotions, feelings, archetypes and various aspects of our inner landscape.
Needless to say, my “Hollywood Dream” lifestyle working in the advertising industry brought me little exposure to Stage Green values until a man named Bernie Sanders entered the presidential race in 2016. That election, which resulted in the rise of Donald Trump (Stage Green’s ultimate nemesis) completely shattered my already disillusioned Stage Orange lifestyle. Not only had I outgrown the values that I conformed to for all of my adult life, but now it was clear to me that society had outgrown Orange’s values, too.
So what does one do when they feel lost, confused about who they are, and in need of a new purpose to live? Well, my Younger Self, you know exactly what to do: read that book your psychiatrist gave you!
Plotkin makes the compelling case that in order to evolve into psycho-spiritual adulthood, one must go through a “Wanderer in the Cocoon” stage where they dissolve their caterpillar form and prepare for the Universe to resurrect them into a butterfly. To do this, we must first leave behind not only our old ways of being but also our society’s. Basically, we need to evolve through Orange and into Green.
But that’s just the beginning.
What happens next is a Dark Night of the Soul where we allow ourselves to be lost, to sit with the unknown, to sink into our grief, and to pray for whispers from the wind. Younger Self, you’re going to sell all your possessions, quit your job at the height of your career, move to a remote off-the-grid island in Maine, separate with your partner of 10 years, donate much of your savings, delete all your social media, sit in silence for 38 days at meditation retreats, come face-to-face with God via psychedelics, and, through all of this, you’re going to grieve. A lot of grief.
But on the other side of this transformational cocoon you will find your next reason to live: Soul Purpose.
Soul Purpose is a New Story, for a New You, for a New Life, in service of a New World. It’s a baptism into the Underworld. A key to the gates of Self-Actualization. A mythopoetic identity that you can call Home.
Younger Self, it’s okay if you don’t understand what any of this means yet. Just know this: all we’re talking about are stories.
Stage Orange, your current life, is a story about life that shapes your life. Stage Green is a new story, a new way of seeing the world, and therefore, a new way of being the world. Soul Purpose is a story graced on newborn butterflies as they leave the cocoon and prepare to enter true psycho-spiritual adulthood. It’s the first time that you will live into a story crafted by your soul not society.
The day you were graced by Soul Purpose, Younger Self, while having an out-of-body mystical experience dancing naked in front of 20 people in the desert during a Vision Quest, was the day that you began to slowly evolve into the next stage of the spiral: Stage Yellow.
Yellow is the first stage in Spiral Dynamics where one can fully see all the stages that came before it, both in others and in one’s self, a holonic spiral that transcends and includes each color. Instead of shaming or seeing other stages as enemies to be defeated, Yellow integrates and synthesizes the best qualities of each stage while also bringing awareness to each stage’s shadows and blindspots.
Yellow sees the world in systems, a kaleidoscope of ever-changing patterns and structures that interconnect in a highly complex web of constantly evolving parts. Paradoxical thinking is celebrated. While Green places much emphasis on feelings and emotions, Yellow begins to swing the pendulum back towards the center as learning, mapping and understanding become a passionate focus. With this comes a natural desire to witness life from a bird’s eye view, a macro perspective that composes the sounds of colliding systems into a coherent soundtrack.
Younger Self, you left that desert high on the afterglow of a transcendent experience, but little did you know, in less than a week, the entire world would shut down as a global pandemic began to dismantle the world as you knew it. And guess what, Younger Self, your entire life was about to crumble once again.
All of sudden, your past interests will seem boring and dull. The books you loved will collect dust on the shelf. The rituals and spiritual practices you came to rely on will all feel like an old shirt that no longer fits.
“What in the world is going on, God?” you will ask the Universe from your locked-down bedroom as the world collectively hibernates. And that’s when you’ll read another book that will radically alter your life, “Falling Upwards,” by the renowned Christain mystic Richard Rohr, who happens to be Bill Plotkin’s collaborator and a teacher of Spiral Dynamics.
Rohr’s book simplifies all the stages of Bill Plotkin’s “Nature and the Human Soul” and Spiral Dynamics into something vastly simpler: two halves of life. As Rohr writes:
“In the first half [of life] you’ve got to find your identity, your significance; you create your ego boundaries, your ego structure, what I call ‘the creating of the container.’ But that’s just to get you started. In the second half of life, once you’ve created your ego structure, you finally have the courage to ask: What is this all for? What am I supposed to do with this? Is it just to protect it, to promote it, to defend it, or is there some deeper purpose? The search for meaning is the task of the second half of life. (This is not always a chronological matter — I’ve met 11 year-old children in cancer wards who are in the second half of life, and I have met 68 year-old men like me who are still in the first half of life.)”
Younger Self, literally days before the pandemic shut down the world, you will have received your blessing, your moment of grace, your invitation into the second half of life. [To be explored in a future essay!] On Easter Sunday, you will bow down on your knees in tears giving your whole Soul fully to Life. You will begin to write the next chapter of your Story. Well, more like Life will begin to write the next story of You.
Here’s a story you might like someday, Younger Self. Humans are constantly evolving. In the first half of life, we evolve unconsciously from one moment to the next. Often, it’s suffering that is our greatest motivator. But one day, if we’re lucky, we will awaken to the evolutionary nature of our being, and we can actually become conscious evolvers. Instead of suffering guiding us Home, we can embody a meta view of Life and grow in the service of Evolution herself.
This is the story of Conscious Evolution. Younger Self, you are a part of that story. One day, you may even help to write it. But for now, hang in there, my friend. Keep following those synchronicities. Remember that the Universe and I are guiding you. And just know how much I deeply love you.
See you soon,
Your Older Self