How do we determine human maturity? Is there something more than the usual lenses of maturity (physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, intellectual) we use to gauge this process? Who or what decides?
Do you ever give this any thought or attention? I’ve turned the concept of maturity upside down over the decades while looking for the end of suffering and pain, or at least a temporary remedy or soothing balm for fear, illness, and death. Below are my journal notes about maturity written between 2000 and 2010 and compiled into a document to reveal what I uncovered, based on my experiences and hindsight.
It seems as though advancing chronological years results in an age called “maturity” for both humans and animals. Begging to differ, this was certainly not the case here. When turning 18 years of age, I thought of myself as an adult. I could cast a vote in elections, serve in the military, and drink beer. I also thought I was an adult at age 21, and again at age 25 when my first child was born. I was mature, or so I believed.
In retrospect, and after 15 long years of individual therapy, I can now see I was hardly an adult at age 25 — my psychological and emotional age was more closely aligned with a 15 year old. My daily experiences of being 25 years old were shaped by beliefs and perceptions that sounded adult-like, but were more consistent with the emotional and psychological maturity of a young girl, say around 15 years old, and sometimes like that of a frightened 5-year-old. There must be more.
Moving from childhood and young adulthood into maturity requires many phases of growth and healing for most of us. Emotional maturity also involves developing what is known as emotional intelligence. This stage of maturity focuses attention on healing unhealthy emotional patterns in order to communicate and live from a healthy and solid emotional foundation.
For many, and especially those of us from traumatic childhoods, our young adult minds are a bramble of deeply hidden beliefs, concepts and lies. A skilled therapist can certainly aid with untangling the thorny mess of memories and provide a compassionate and neutral space to sort and pick the healthy messages to propagate. I entered individual therapy around age 32 and was no where near maturity of any kind…except physically… I had birthed three babies and was newly divorced.
Emotional maturity requires dealing purposefully and methodically with all our repressed emotional issues from childhood, developing healthy self esteem, and practicing self awareness to be in tune with our emotions, beliefs, thoughts, and concepts.
We normally deal with emotional maturity issues in therapy after crisis or tragedy has paid a visit to our aching heart or wounded psyche. The aim of this phase of maturity seems to center around becoming an emotionally mature human being. For some of us it takes longer than for others. We can tell how we are progressing and maturing by the degree with which we accept and embrace life as it currently unfolds.
I was foolish when younger to believe physical maturity is the same as psychological maturity. Clearly, given Maslow’s hierarchy of needs…food, clothing, and shelter, etc… many of us will grown into adult-looking humans but may be woefully immature and unprepared to deal with the psychological ups and downs of life in a stable and healthy manner. I was a perfect example. Psychological intelligence, in my opinion, mostly centers around healing childhood and early adulthood traumas and woundings while also becoming aware of how our particular brain chemistry and circuitry is wired to express as humans.
Gaining an understanding of the role the biochemistry of the brain and the power of the unconsciousness mind exerts on daily behaviors was one of the keys to healing the psychological wounds and patterns in my case. By the way, I am not referring here to the medically documented disruptions causing debilitating brain and personality disorders and diseases.
Once we know more about our physical, emotional, psychological maturity, we have the opportunity to explore our authentic and evolving spiritual or philosophical beliefs. From my perspective, this is moving into the depths of compassionate and loving maturity. The spiritual and philosophical questions, being intangibles, are much more difficult to unpack and explore. As examples:
- Where was I before birth?
- Will I return there when I die?
- Am I real?
- Am I an illusion?
- Do I die? What dies?
- Do I have a Soul?
- How do I know?
- What makes the grass grow and the Moon glow?
- What is time and space? How do I know?
- Is it ever not now?
- Where am I in deep sleep?
- How do I know?
- Is the world based on cause and effect or is it acausal?
- Is reality a dream? Who knows this?
- Am I a dream? Who or what knows this?
At some point, some curious humans begin to ask these deeper questions which propel them on a spiritual or philosophical path. Some seek the end of suffering, and some stumble on a spiritual path for reasons they cannot articulate. Suffering and fear motivated me to push forward asking these questions. Many reach the spiritual path to explore death and to investigate the possibility of a here-after or eternity as I did. For decades, it was quite comforting to believe this energy of “mine” carried over into another life or another dimension and that I rested in God’s hands.
All these areas of maturity listed above hinge on a “me” wanting answers to what is perceived as the unknown. But who or what am i? Who or What Matures? The concept of “me” seems to have came from what others have said about me, felt, or declared about me. I earnestly made a list in my journal of all the words and concepts others had used to describe me. Was my true identity a consensus of opinion, a moving target? That did not feel quite right so i continued to excavate my inner landscape to see if I could find and uncover the real me, the inner me.
What Christian Mystics Write about Maturity
While exploring my identity, I studied St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, both Christian mystics who wrote at length about going beyond the personal ego and enduring the dark night of the soul. I found strength in their words to continue hacking back to the origins of my insidious questioning ego and fragile identity. This was the hardest ego, the spiritual ego, by far, to crack open and examine.
In wisdom literature, including the teachings of Jesus the Christ, there are stunning and lengthy teachings which are expressed as “You are not the doer.” This means that we are like a vessel which Life pours Itself through. Nonduality is the most common phrase in the US attached to these teachings but all cultures have similar teachings. It’s giving up a personal identity and realizing the conscious energy animating the body is an impersonal consciousness, never for one moment as a separate and real anita.
We are always confused when we believe we are separate beings having a separate consciousness, identity, and body. This is the main work of dissolving the ego. It’s paradoxical in the same way heads and tales are two sides of the same coin. To investigate what or who we are is the hallmark of maturity, though I have many deeply intellectual friends and family who strongly disagree.
The Tipping Point – Dark Night of the Soul
Uncovering the core of true identity begins by deeply and methodically exploring every belief and concept we know, believe, and love. This is bloody hard work and is usually referred to as self-inquiry by those traveling in spiritual circles. This exploration into yourself is not for the casual explorer or those faint of heart. This work is exploring the deep, dark depths of the personal ego, all the shadows, and lights, to determine what is existence? What is existing? Does the personal self and ego really exist or are they an illusion? How will i know, can i know?
For me, realizing that I did not exist as a personal self was like a ripping out of the heart and soul – along with everything I cherished – a bitter pill to swallow. I was often reminded of Jesus’ words …”for those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (Mark 8:35).
Jesus was the master of using parables and paradox. I took such comfort in His words while enduring the dark nights of the soul. Going through the valley of death is necessary in order to examine death and shake loose from the belief in a personal self/ego. Indeed, the ego identity and the personal self must be seen as the illusion they are in order to dissolve. The personal self and ego have always been figments of the brain/mind’s imagination!
Shattering the Personal Identity
When the confusion and misperception about our identity dissolves, when we emerge from the (Plato’s) cave, when we move into the light after enduring protracted self inquiry the dark nights of the soul, it is evident that a personal self is an illusory identification, a misperception, a shadowy form on the wall of the cave in which we have imprisoned ourselves with our own beliefs, habits, and thinking.