Gautama Buddha began is spiritual path as a young prince with a beautiful wife and newborn baby. Many important seers predicted Buddha would be either a great king or a great spiritual leader. His father wanted him to be a king, so he sheltered Buddha from religious teachings and seeing anyone elderly or suffering. But at the age of 29 he accidentally saw a man dying, and Buddha became distraught. His young and beautiful wife would one day become old and decrepit and his new born baby would eventually taste death. This realization was too much for him, and he left everything to become a monk in the forest. Buddha had a major existential depression. The two paths were presented to him, and he, like all heroes, chose the path of death. So many spiritual traditions point out that there are two paths, and like Buddha, the truth lies on the difficult road.
Not to belabor the obvious, but our modern society puts so much time and energy into avoiding seeing and discussing death that we seem to be constantly running from it. One turns forty and becomes melancholy which turns into some plastic surgery, a new car, and a prescription for anti-depressants. Even our government bans photographing flag covered caskets because, God forbid, people might begin equating war with the death of young people. Death is the only teacher; it defines us, tempering our appetites and rage. It is our better half, and the more we try and escape it, the sillier, shallower and more pathetic we become.
Of course some depressions are entirely chemical in nature and need to be treated with medication. But many are simply existential crises which if treated with introspection, will inspire growth and spiritual development. Our avoidance of the tough topics has lead to an immature society. Look at the great debates of our times and you will see few if any mature voices above the fray. We have become a society of screamers, name callers and megalomaniacs. How else can one explain Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck leading political discourse in this country? A mature person must pass through "the dark night of the soul', and often more than once. It is unpleasant, eerie, foreboding and at times hopeless; but how can one be human without crossing that bridge? By trying to escape it we are running from our higher destines both individually and collectively.
Doctors need symptoms before they can cure, and people need symptoms to grow. Take romantic love for example. While it is surely one of the most wonderful feelings humans can have, only when it is lost do we actually learn and grow from it. People happily in love are like carefree drunks on a park bench. Only when their love ends can they hope to develop. Our society so longs to label and package things that it wants to take the great questions of the day and turn them into music videos. Hollywood, television, malls, pop-music, bestsellers and cheap gurus are tuning our minds into mush and our souls to silicone.
The most important transitional crisis is undoubtedly middle age. It is the point where people either return to their youth, escaping the inevitable onslaught of time, or they take the courageous turn toward death and jettison the ego and material world for something much more profound and transcendent. Jung called it the process of individuation and was not interested in patients younger than forty, finding them lacking enough existential leverage to reach deep spiritual understanding.
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