When I was doing research for my masters some years ago, I was delving into how intelligent and adaptive systems learn and evolve – from biological systems to human minds, social systems, the internet and A.I systems. One common principle that was showing up time after time was the idea that for a system to acquire some radical new knowledge or evolve it needs to momentarily break down its structures. It needs to go into a temporary system meltdown. Real evolution happens through revolutions and crises. It’s not about adding something here and there or do some smooth and gradual mutations through time. When you zoom in you see that in order for a system to accommodate something new within – it needs to reorganise or self-organise itself. This reorganisation calls for certain old internal structures to momentarily dissolve until they are integrated again by a ‘new order’ system which now also includes the new ‘data’. This is a basic principle that governs most, if not all, systems – from DNA to the learning mind to highly complex social nets.
Revolutions & Spirals
All this may sound a bit academic and I agree but it points out something important that we can learn from in our own personal lives. What I had uncovered in my own academic research in fact, was on hindsight perfectly aligned with some timeless spiritual truths. It says that we can only fully grow, mature and transform if we are ready to let go of certain internal structures – beliefs, fear-based thoughts, personal history, memories, attachments, etc. In all spiritual or holistic circles I have been in, this seems to be quite a bit of a mantra but there is also a common understanding that it doesn’t happen once and bang! – you become enlightened and free out of the matrix.
Just like those systems I was studying, this self-organisation happens constantly. When an organism is interacting with its environment or a child’s mind is learning new things, it goes through a series of self-organisation processes. There is each time a mini system crisis going on where some old structures are melted and forged again into a newer version of the whole. So the path of this evolution is a spiral – doing a revolution and moving upwards at the same time.
Our own spiritual evolution also happens in a spiral like way. We come to some breakthrough, a realisation, some life-changing experience or pass through a difficult passage that changed our worldview completely but then there is more. There is always more. There is always more house-cleaning to do, more workouts, more tough patches to go through. At the same time we move vertically up through the spiral. We evolve through crises and revolutions, small and large.
Facing THE Crisis
Sometimes we come across a passage of life where the crisis is quite big. This would be THE crisis and very often it happens in a specific period in life, what popular Psychology refers to as the mid-life crisis. There is good reason why this is so. At a certain stage in life, the individual comes to a point where everything is pointing towards one direction – the increasingly felt sense that all the beliefs, comforts, identities and known points of reference are not sufficient or adequate to sustain the new biological, psychological and spiritual reality being faced. This is perfectly what I had come to understand of a crisis in my studies – when the internal structures do not reflect the outer reality (and vice versa).
Now, the more dissonant the internal and outer reality are, the bigger the crisis. So, THE crisis is a point in life where there is just one thing left to do – the ultimate sacrifice and the ultimate self-organisation – letting go of the remaining stubborn inner beliefs, views and habits…and this requires a lot of sacrifice. It is a very painful experience.
The Death of the Ego & New Beginnings
Another way of seeing it is that of a complete rebirth although this doesn’t necessarily happen. Yet, in a mid-life crisis there is always the opportunity to pass through a momentous phoenix-like spiritual change – a cycle of death (of the ego) and rebirth ( of self-actualisation or what Carl Jung called individuation). All this can of course be tremendously shocking to the system and as we know birth or re-birth is always accompanied by pain which leaves a definite mark of where the old has made way to be replaced by the new. It’s an irreversible process of deep transformative change. All the old stories, beliefs and identities are left behind in one last big shot of heroic courage. It is without any doubt a life process that has been immortalised and epitomised in various mythological symbolisms. In fact, the metamorphosis that can be brought about by a mid-life crisis is in itself an epic mythical journey of the soul full with various perils, trials and tribulations along the way.
The most important thing to take from all this, however, is a simple idea. It’s the idea that a serious life crisis such as the mid-life crisis is not imposing a threat to end your life as you know it but rather a big opportunity for beginning a new authentic life where all the inessential things that did not belong to your life purpose are shed away.