07/10/2011 05:56 pm ET Updated Sep 09, 2011

Adulthood, Elderhood, Buddhahood: The Stages of a Spiritual Life

Harry Roberts was a part Native American who had spent his youth on a Yurok reservation in Northern California, training with his Yurok uncle in how to be a medicine man. When I lived at Green Gulch Zen Temple in the 1970s, Harry, by then in his 70s, served as a farm adviser, horticulturalist and down-to-earth spiritual adviser.

One day a group of us was walking with Harry to inspect a water reservoir. Harry brought up the rear. We were all chatting among ourselves when suddenly from behind he spoke up sharply, "Stop! Don't step on that."

We all froze. Usually Harry spoke quietly, in a barely audible voice. It was a surprise to hear him talk so forcefully.

He strode past us and pointed at the path beneath our feet. "That's yerba buena. That's a medicine plant. You never step on that."

That's when I learned that Harry always watched where he put his feet.

In my last post I wrote about elderhood, the stage of life when we assume a role in society of mentorship, guidance and wisdom. I pointed out that in traditional societies elderhood is well-defined, with specific roles, tasks and honors that are granted men and women once they reach a certain age. The Yurok reservation where Harry grew up was such a traditional society. His admonition about not stepping on the medicine plant was a typical expression of an elderhood role. It was the kind of teaching he would have received from his uncle, who himself was a teacher and elder for Harry.

In modern societies that kind of mentorship is less likely to happen. Harry knew how to express his elderhood because his uncle showed him how, but these days we each need to define our own expression of elderhood. Nevertheless, I believe elderhood does come organically as an emerging stage of a fully developed human life. This is what I mean by the word "buddhahood" in the title of this post -- not the technical definition, but the innate spiritual flowering of any deeply mature person.

When I was a senior in college, I was fortunate to take a class from renowned psychologist Erik Erikson. The subject of the class was the human life cycle -- the "eight stages of man" that Erikson first presented in 1950 in his book "Childhood and Society." Erikson designed our college class to provide us graduating seniors with a useful perspective to help us make the transition to productive adulthood. The class was hugely popular. Three times a week hundreds of us crowded into a large lecture hall to hear the great man hold forth.

What I am calling elderhood, Erikson called "integrity," the eighth and final stage of life, which he described in "Childhood and Society" as "the time when we have come to the point of being able to understand our place in the world and the life we have lived in it." We have reached integrity, he taught, when we can look back at our life, with all its triumphs and sorrows, and accept it as it has come to be. That acceptance is what allows us to serve as elders to others, and to give back to others all that our own life experience has given us.

In his earlier published writings, Erikson did not describe the Integrity Stage in specifically spiritual terms, but as he grew older his thinking may have gravitated in that direction. After his death, his wife Joan Erikson published a book (with Erik as co-author) called "The Life Cycle Completed," in which she described a ninth stage of development called " gerotranscendence." Quoting sociologist Lars Tornstam, who coined the term, she wrote, "Gerotranscendence asserts that spiritual development gradually and steadily increases from middle age onward and results in a shift from a materialistic, role-oriented life philosophy to a transcendent, spiritual perspective in late old age."

This is, in a nutshell, the thesis of my upcoming book, "Aging as a Spiritual Practice: A Contemplative Guide to Growing Older and Wiser." I believe that this "transcendent, spiritual perspective" is our natural potential and destiny. Not everyone who grows old becomes wise, for sure. Aging alone is not a sufficient cause for wisdom. Other things, such as a regular religious or contemplative practice, may be required. Though this spiritual perspective may not be everyone's cup of tea, it is the goal of Buddhism and all the other great wisdom traditions. It is also one answer to the question we first may ask in adolescence and often return to again as our life comes to completion: Why are we here? What is our purpose on this earth?

Adulthood, elderhood, buddhahood: From childhood onward, there are these many "hoods" or stages, each one building on the insights and accomplishments of the last. Do we still know how to negotiate them? Someone (I forget who) once commented that these days everyone seems to be about 18 years old. Popular culture and cyberspace notwithstanding, surely this statement is somewhat an exaggeration. But when I think of Harry Roberts and mentors of his ilk -- those who are still scattered everywhere, anonymously for the most part, guiding as best they can -- I wonder if in our haste to re-engineer our lives for material perfection we have lost something vital from the realm of the spirit that has from time immemorial always sustained us.