Psychological early adolescence is a life stage reached by most everyone at puberty, but in the contemporary world only a small minority, perhaps ten to fifteen percent, ever mature beyond this stage due to the difficulties of completing its developmental task. That task is to fashion a social presence that is authentic and at the same time accepted by one's peer group. For an early adolescent (of any age), "purpose" is whatever might achieve that dual goal. But that goal, as simple as it might sound, is extraordinarily elusive in the egocentric and pathological environment of contemporary Western culture.
The challenges of reaching that goal are largely due to the all-too-common failures with the tasks of the two stages of childhood, especially with the nature-oriented tasks of childhood. For example, it's hard to be authentic when you have trouble being present to yourself and others. Cultivating the capacity for sustained presence is the nature-oriented task of early childhood (a task that must be addressed by the parents and other family members of the young child). But it's never too late in life to cultivate this essential capacity, which can be done through meditation or mindfulness practice, other contemplative arts such as tai chi or nature solos, expressive arts, presence-cultivating psychotherapies, and other practices. Presence is a prerequisite for true empathy and compassion -- including self-compassion. Empathy for others and compassion for oneself have become rare achievements, and they are both essential for achieving authenticity.
Authenticity is also much more difficult when you don't feel at home in the more-than-human world (that is, the more extensive and differentiated world that includes our human world as a subset). Learning the enchantment of the larger world that enables the human village to exist at all is the nature-oriented developmental task of middle childhood. Nature connection is the evolutionary and psychological foundation for feeling at home in any other context, including your peer group.
All challenges in human development stem from the cultural disconnect from the greater Earth community. Conversely, our single greatest collective need now is for what I call eco-awakening -- the somatic experience of being fully at home in the more-than-human world. Our second greatest need is the cultivation of personal authenticity and heartfelt social belonging.
Because psychological authenticity and social belonging have become so rare, they are perhaps the greatest and most pervasive longings in the Western world today. Witness the explosive growth and addictive qualities of social media such as Facebook. Being liked (or even "liked") and being authentic is what most people mean when they say they yearn for greater meaning and purpose in their lives or for the opportunity to participate meaningfully in the world. These are core middleworld desires and purposes. People want to feel more real and more a part of a real world, in greater communion with the web of life. They want their lives to make a difference. This, indeed, is the ultimate goal of the journey of soul initiation, but the necessary foundation for the soul journey is an achieved middleworld experience of psychological belonging (to yourself), social belonging (to a peer group), and ecological belonging (to the more-than-human world), the latter being eco-awakening. The eventual achievement of a soul-infused belonging to the world is built upon this prior three-legged middleworld foundation of belonging.
It seems what most people mean when they say they want more "soul" in their lives is actually this sense of psychological and social belonging. A smaller group also means greater ecological belonging. A group smaller yet mean the kind of mystical, underworld belonging to the world implied by the way I use the word soul in these pages. For yet others, "to experience soul" means to merge with the upperworld realm of Spirit or the divine.
- Bill Plotkin