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A Conceptual Model of Aging (Or Why Spirituality Matters as We Grow Old)

I recently dreamed that I was back in college at a party. We were all leaving school the next day as if the term were over or perhaps it was time to graduate. I was talking to a girl who seemed interested in me, but I was ambivalent and she eventually disappeared. On awaking, I sensed that an important part of my life was coming to an end - the academic part, the part organized around achievement, competition, and productivity, the warrior drive - and that I had just missed an opportunity to dwell in the realm of love, symbolized by the young woman. I sensed this dream described my evolving movement from achiever/seeker to lover/sage. For me, it is time to leave the world of heroic ambition and melt into the divine ground of being - the feminine dimension of love, the movement from Ego to Soul. It was the end of narcissism.

Some twenty years ago, I conceived a model of the Religious Psyche integrating psychology and spirituality and called it the Ego-Soul Matrix (But Where Is God? Psychotherapy and the Religious Search). The model emerged spontaneously one day as I was pondering the relationship between Ego and Soul. I knew this model would help me process my dream.

The model is composed of two intersecting lines (this blog format could not display the visual graphic so I'll describe it here and you can draw it for yourself). The vertical Ego axis moves from high levels of Ego control and expression at the top to low or absent levels at the bottom, and the horizontal Soul axis moves from pure levels of Soul expression on the right to minimal or absent levels on the left. The top left quadrant is called the False Self. The top right is called the True Self. The bottom left is the Unconscious and the bottom right is labeled Divine Self/Sage. The left quadrants, top and bottom, are psychological in nature, the right quadrants, top and bottom, are spiritual. Draw the matrix so you'll have a visual chart of the religious psyche.

To understand this model, we need first to define its terms. Ego refers to the "I" in the personality - that aspect of our self-experience that gives us the feeling of being a separate entity in control of our behavior and our life. Soul refers to our spiritual self - that essence of who we are that comes packaged deep in the personality. It represents the part of the divine that we are uniquely here to develop and share with the world, as well as our capacity to experience Divinity directly as Presence and Being.

My first insight was that when Ego supports Soul, that is, when I listen to, nurture, and express my Soul-nature, then my True Self shines forth. This is who I was born to be, my deep psychological nature formed by Soul carrying the gifts from the divine. But few of us truly align with the Soul, especially in the first half of life. We constantly betray our Soul to meet the conventional (and often superficial) standards and goals defined by society. When we betray the Soul, that is, when Ego pursues false or shallow cultural standards, we create the False Self - the person we think we should be. It follows that the right side of the matrix expresses our spirituality, and the left side expresses the Ego's psychological construction of self (variously called false self, persona, self-idea, ego ideal, etc.).

How does The Ego-Soul Matrix reflect the spiritual dimension of aging? The process of aging is reflected in two fundamental movements in this model. First, as we age, we are called to intentionally dismantle the False Self - the persona we have created in work and life - and move in the direction of the True Self and the spiritual life, the life of Soul. We learn to move into the Presence and live from the heart, from love. This is the horizontal path of spiritual growth (described in Ordinary Enlightenment: The Experience of God in Everyday Life and my recent works on aging: The Three Secrets of Aging, Bedtime Stories for Elders, What Aging Men Want).

The second dynamic of aging, however, is not under our control but will change us nonetheless. This is the vertical axis, where aging creates a journey of descent resulting from the Ego's declining dominance. In aging, we progressively lose control as our various powers steadily decline (intellect, senses, physical strength, independence, Ego strength). But descend into what? If we are dwelling in the spiritual left side of this model, we descend into Spirit. Here the ego surrenders its primacy and separation and melts increasingly into Divinity experienced as the Divine Self or Sage - the omnipresent divine Ground of Being of which we, too, are made.

In so far as we are still functioning primarily in the psychological left side of the matrix, the dissolution of ego lands us in the psychological Unconscious, exposing buried or unresolved psychological conflicts and wounds. Here we regress to younger emotional states and re-enact our old traumas, a process seen especially in times of illness, helplessness, or dementia. Separated from the Unity, we struggle with personality issues unaware that in awakened consciousness, personality is largely a fiction.

What are the implications of this model?
1. In aging, we need to release our False Self and move toward Soul. This is not a time for duty or narcissistic display, it is a time to open the heart, a time to love and express the divinity that we are.
2. Aging also involves the descent of the Ego. As body and mind fail, Ego loses its grip. This decline in Ego further undermines our ability to maintain the False Self.
3. To resist the Ego's descent in aging means that we are clinging to the False Self and its illusion of control. Aging will still deconstruct the Ego but the experience will be more frightening and distressing as our unresolved personality issues are exposed.
4. Insofar as we have move to the spiritual side of the matrix, the Ego's descent is akin to settling into the arms of the divine mother. We give up control and melt into the One.
5. Men and women may differ in this process. Men may need to surrender their separateness and control and learn to merge with the other; women may need to surrender their merging and caretaking and learn to stand independently from the other.
6. Of course, conceptual distinctions are never so absolute for we experience both sides of the Ego's descent. If we understand the process, however, we can focus more on merging with the Divine Self, which may ease our struggle with old wounds and allow us to surrender with greater comfort and faith.
7. It can be seen that our spiritual development (expressed in the horizontal axis) is critical to a meaningful and fulfilling experience of aging, allowing us to understand and accept our progressive lose of control. The more we can consciously and willingly surrender Ego during its descent, the more we merge with the Divine Self and open the experience of the Sage.

I have often asked people to use this matrix as a spiritual growth exercise. Fill in your experience of each quadrant. Describe your True Self, your False Self, the wounds and conflicts you have hidden in the unconscious, and your first-hand experience of Divinity. Explore these different lands of the Religious Psyche so you can travel into the aging experience with purpose, hope, understanding and love.

Coming full circle, my dream reflects both movements in the Ego-Soul Matrix: I am recognizing that my high-achieving False Self is no longer so important and that the journey is now to love. I am also beginning to accept the reality and significance of the Ego's descent - my loss of control will be progressive, but my journey will be into God.

(For a further development of this model, see Finding Heaven Here.)
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