The Dance of Spirit in Later Life
by Bolton Anthony
The task of life’s first journey is to construct a competent ego that allows us to survive and succeed in the world: to find work — ideally, work that speaks to our deep passion and contributes to the greater good; to build mutually sustaining relationships with others and open ourselves to intimacy; and to nurture those in our care. The task of life’s second journey is to deconstruct the ego we have assembled with such care or — perhaps, more accurately — to slough it off. This sort of letting go is possible, because the ego is merely the creation of the mind; it “has no existence by itself,” as D.H. Lawrence writes, “It is only the glitter of the sun on the surface of the waters.”
Vision quest guide Bill Plotkin has called the first task our survival dance; and the second, our sacred dance. Though we, of course, begin constructing our ego in earliest childhood, only at that first great transition point in life — when we move from adolescence to adulthood or, in the four Hindu stages of life, from Student to Householder — are we truly ready to learn our survival dance. When the student is ready, the dance instructor will appear. In traditional societies, the elders of the tribe always served as guides and teachers for this rite of passage that launches our first journey.
There is, of course, a second great transition point in life — when we are moving from midlife into elderhood (or from Householder to Forest Dweller). Now we are again ready to learn a new dance, our sacred dance. Here too, elders, in the guise of Sage, have served as guides for this rite of passage that launches our second journey.
Here are two famous literary examples of guides for this rite of passage:
Virgil appears in the first canto of The Inferno to guide Dante, a midlife pilgrim who has wandered into “dark woods, the right road lost.” Like most entering therapy, he wants help now! “See this beast driving me backward — help me resist,” he begs. But, again, the second journey is never about resistance — it’s always about letting go, sloughing off. And because “the way up is the way down” (more about this later), the path Virgil and Dante follow must first descend into hell.
It was in this same borderland — after another descent — that Odysseus, the long-suffering hero of Homer’s Odyssey, encounters his guide, the blind seer Tiresias. After accurately prophesying the many trials and years of wandering that will precede Odysseus’ return home, Tiresias lets him in on a secret: there’s more. The encounter with Tiresias occurs in Book 11 of the Odyssey’s 24 books; Odysseus remembers and recounts the seer’s prophesy to his wife Penelope in Book 23. At this point in the epic, he has come home to Ithaca, driven the suitors out, and been reunited with his wife, son, and father. This is the “happy ever after” ending of his first journey. The secret Tiresias shares is that a second, different journey awaits Odysseus at the end of his life.
So, there is this pattern: the survival dance, then the sacred dance. Learning our survival dance is the task of our first journey in life; learning our sacred dance, of our second. You cannot begin the second task — or, to use mystical language, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven — until you have done the first.
But there is also this paradox: Though our survival dance is about constructing an ego that allows us to “succeed in the world,” if we wish to “graduate” and move on to our sacred dance, we almost always need to fail at the task.
That’s because, as Richard Rohr writes, “The way up is the way down. Or, if you prefer, the way down is the way up.” There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, about a patient that Carl Jung had been treating who would invariably show up for his sessions in the best of moods, everything going well, no complaints. This continued for some time, with the patient — in Jung’s eyes — making only minimal progress. Then finally, one day he shows up not doing well at all, a disastrous week, the world falling apart around him. Ah, Jung says to himself, Now we can get something done!
One of the [soul’s]
best-kept secrets, and yet one hidden
sight, is that the way up is the way down. Or, if
the way down is the way up… [It is] a
secret, probably because we
do not want to see it. We do not want to embark on a further
journey if it feels like going down, especially after we have
put so much sound and fury into going up. — Richard Rohr
The film Zorba the Greek (1964) provides another wonderfully apt illustration. Basil, a young writer of Greek/English descent, arrives in Crete, having recently inherited a small cottage and a long-defunct lignite mine. Zorba — the figure of the sage guide in the film — attaches himself to the younger man, impressing him with his repertoire of indispensable skills, which he points out includes considerable mining expertise.
The Englishman is, of course, stuck — lost in midlife’s “dark woods.” His writer’s block, which he hopes the solitude of Crete will help him break, is the symbol of a much larger emotional paralysis. A series of unmitigated disasters follow — all of them building to this final cathartic scene:
Zorba has constructed a cable line to transport timbers, logged from the stand of trees on the mountain above, down to the entrance to the mineshaft; these will be used to replace the rotting timbers which support timbers in the mine. The whole village gathers, including the abbot and priests from the nearby monastery who provide the necessary rituals of blessing. At Zorba’s signal, the men at the top launch the first log, which gains speed as it travels down and breaks apart. But since it does make it to where Zorba stands at the head of the mine, he tells Basil, “Don’t worry,” and fires the rifle a second time. A second, larger log careens down the singing cable. People scramble out of the way, some of them diving into the sea where the log finally lands. Again (though with tempered bravado) Zorba reassures Basil, “It’s nothing,” and fires the rifle again. With the onslaught of this last log, each brace in turn gives way; everyone scatters, and the entire structure collapses in a dusty explosion.
Here is a litany of what has happened to Basil: The widow who invited him to her bed has died, stoned to death by the jealous villagers; his patrimony, the mine, has proved worthless; his small inheritance has been used up. All has collapsed in a magnificent, “splendiferous crash.” (Now we can get something done!) It is only at this moment — only when everything lies in shambles — that Basil can say to Zorba: “Teach me to dance” — not my survival dance, my sacred dance. “Did you say…‘dance’?” Zorba answers. “Come on, my boy!”
“And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance, I hope you dance.”
This article is excerpted from a much longer essay included in
the anthology, Second Journeys: The Dance of Spirit in Later