One evening last week, I went to hear Jean Shinoda Bolen speak about her book, Urgent Message From Mother: Gather the Women, Save the World. It was cold out, I was sick, and it had been a long day. I knew I would not have the time or stamina for the workshop the following day, but I wanted to at least attend this one introductory talk.
While there are plenty of reasons to admire and respect Bolen, one of the most salient reasons for me is a personal one: An MD, Professor of Psychiatry and Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, she is firmly rooted in the mainstream world of psychology. But her emphases, femininity, aging, archetypes and the transpersonal, represent territory into which one cannot step without risk of being considered flaky, less than credible, or “new age.” My sense is that Bolen is successful in this because she is not, fundamentally, a psychiatrist; she is a person, first and foremost, living out of something much deeper than her profession.
At the beginning of the talk, she noted that often in the second half of life, people face an ideological shift. In the first half, we are mostly too busy growing, building a life, raising a family. By a certain point, we’ve either done those things or we haven’t, and either way, it’s time to to turn the focus more consciously inwards, to consider consciously who we are and what, now that we’ve accomplished something, we are to do next. She asked us to consider the baby boomer generation, a large number of people, all reaching that ideological shift around the same time.
She then discussed how, in the latter half of 2007, the concept of global warming, which was previously a fringe idea by many standards, became mainstream. We reached a tipping point where it became acceptable to talk about it as something that is actually happening. It became not only acceptable, but to an increasing extent, expected, to consider what should be done. Other ideas have reached similar tipping points, she said. Once women in this country were thrown in jail for fighting for the right to vote. Now we consider women’s voting rights so fundamental and obvious it seems absurd to even question the idea.
She talked about the Hundredth Monkey Phenomenon, which posits a theory that once the number of people possessing a certain piece of knowledge hits a certain critical mass, the new awareness seems to permeate the collective consciousness such that it no longer needs to be taught, fought for or championed in quite the same way. It becomes, quite simply, taken for granted.
As I sat there feeling sick, tired, ineffective and all too aware of being in that harried, growth-focused first half of life, I was reminded that I have a certain amount of faith in that hundred-monkey process. I thought of what the Nurse wrote on faith just a few months ago, on wondering how to solve the problems of this world and remembering in the midst of the not-knowing that somehow, we just need to be here right now, to bring our full self, our full awareness, to this world at this time. Bolen might say, perhaps we are the 100th monkey, (or the 59th, or the 30th), bringing forth the new consciousness.
At the break, I reluctantly stepped out of the auditorium. I would have loved to stay and hear the rest of what Bolen had to say. But I am, after all, in that first half of life, and what I’m attempting to build requires attention and energy, and therefore, rest. Fortunately, I have not had to wait until the second half of my life before those all important questions of meaning and purpose poked their heads up. I’m reminded as much by Bolen’s example as by her words that the best way to answer the challenge is to be all of what we are. That is work enough. So I asked myself if all of this life-building that was exhausting me so was being done is service of that, such that when I turned a corner and those questions hit me hard, I could answer them honestly and without fear. The answer was yes. And that gave me permission to go home.