Many traditional societies saw an implicit order in life that we moderns often fail to see. Among the more important lessons that traditional people drew from such an order was that every stage of life offers a specific set of challenges and lessons that add to our maturity and support our individuation.
In the early part of the 20th Century, Rudolf Steiner, the great seer and philosopher, offered his own map of life that revealed some of the important lessons we must master as we develop. Steiner presented this map as 10 cycles that all of us who make it to the age of 70 years old must pass through. Each cycle, Steiner said, is composed of seven years, and each cycle offers its own challenges and rewards. If we confront these lessons with courage, honesty, and sincerity, the lessons will be mastered and our psychological and spiritual development will bring forth great rewards. Here are Steiner’s cycles of life.
AGES 0 to 7: From Oneness with Mother to Growing Autonomy
We are never more dependent in life than we are at birth and during the early years of our lives. Yet, we naturally move away from our mothers toward a growing sense of our own individuality and autonomy. This is the lesson of the first stage of life – the experience of utter dependence on our mothers for life, followed by a natural movement away from her toward a growing sense of our own individuality and power.
In the early years of life, especially between birth to age two, a child can hardly distinguish between himself and his mother. But as the child begins to crawl, and then stands up and walks, she naturally experiences a greater sense of personal power and freedom from her mother. The energetic umbilical chord is being tested. It is stretching and eventually is meant to be broken.
We typically refer to this process as growing up, but Steiner saw it in exactly the opposite way. He said we are “growing down,” meaning the spirit, little by little, is incarnating into the physical body, thus making it stronger and, in the process, giving the child a greater sense of self.
Gradually, the child comes to know himself as separate from his mother. He has specific needs and wants that demand attention and fulfillment. The child enters the “terrible twos,” when individuality is thrust upon him. He or she is experiencing separation and the early stages of his or her own desires. And all of it reveals that the child’s own unique soul is moving ever more deeply into the physical body.
As the child incarnates, her etheric, or energetic body more fully integrates with, and permeates, the physical body. One of the early signs that this is happening is that the child produces teeth, thus allowing her to eat solid food and wean from breast milk.
At the age of four or five, the child goes off to school – a big moment of separation from mother – and begins to socialize more extensively with other children. This experience will draw forth the child’s individuality even more fully. He has begun the path of experiencing who he is.
AGES 7 TO 14: A Fight for, and Commitment To, Life
The emerging power of the child’s life force and commitment to life is tested during this period. Suddenly, the childhood illnesses appear — measles, mumps, and chicken pox. These illnesses challenge and threaten our lives. The disease fighting forces within us – indeed, the very will to live – is confronted and tested. The immune system must either rise and meet the challenges, or be defeated by them. Our very survival is on the line.
Huge energetic shifts take place. The body’s life force takes the next step of grounding more fully into the physical body in order to meet the challenges to life. Fevers rage, elimination processes – such as runny noses, watery eyes, diarrhea, and frequent urination – run wild. The body is fighting for its life. And in the process, it is drawing on life forces that must either ground and stake their hold on life, or retreat and leave life behind.
When the diseases are defeated, a rebirth takes place, marked by hormonal changes that move us into puberty. We have landed and are now incarnating as a sexual being.
AGES 14 TO 21. Wild Emotions, Raging Hormones, Sexuality
Steiner maintained that our emotions are housed in a specific aspect of our spirit, which he referred to as the astral body. The etheric body is pure life energy, with its own intelligence that is needed to run the physical body and maintain its health. The astral body is another layer of the field of energy that comprises the human energy field. The astral aspect of the energy field holds the emotions, which during this period flare up like a wild horse and demand attention and harnessing.
This phase of life is dominated by often unruly and confusing emotional energies. This turbulence is reflected in the unpredictability of our relationships. We form friendships that somehow turn into conflicts and betrayal. We become infatuated, fall in love, establish intense romantic attachments, and just as easily fall out of love, often resulting in great pain and enormous emotional dramas. In other words, we’re a mess.
Physical and emotional instincts run wild. Hormones rage. We’re driven by emotional and instinctual needs that are irrational and often beyond our control. Indeed, the rational mind has not yet been fully integrated into our nervous systems. Hence, we have no real grounding, nor a strong controlling or tempering force.
Steiner maintained that during this period, our animal nature rules our lives. We are attempting to face, and take the first steps toward, integrating the powerful emotional and instinctual energies that lie within the human soul. We are little prepared for such a confrontation, which is why this period seems so confusing and filled with mistakes in judgment and behavior.
AGES 21 TO 28. Play That Turns Toward Responsibility
In the early and middle 20s, we gain a modicum of control over our emotions and start to integrate our rational faculties, which give us greater control over our actions. During these years, most people are healthy, full of energy, and lusting for life. Meanwhile, our physical powers are peaking. It’s common for young people to feel a certain invincibility and even arrogance. People at this age are often possessed by wild enthusiasm, independence, and recklessness. They take risks, play hard, and often make mistakes.
These are the years that young men are sent off to war. Despite the horrors of war, many young men enlist for the fighting, always believing that they will not be among the ones who are killed.
Over time, the abandon of the early and mid-20s gives way to the growing maturity that slowly takes hold as we enter the later 20s and start looking at the approaching milestone of 30 years of age. As we approach 30, we begin to feel the need to become a responsible adult.
Indeed, the events coincide with those feelings and needs. People marry and have children during this time. Young men have to grow up, get steady jobs, early a living, and provide for their wives and babies. For many, the wild years pass away. Responsibility starts to tie us down.
The compensation, Steiner said, is that we begin to experience the first signs of our talents and special abilities. We awaken to vocations that we feel a special attraction to and, for some, even love. Our mythological flights of fantasy and arrogance are passing. We are landing in life, and just beginning to become more practical.
We are also learning to think about people other than ourselves. We are being stretched to see life in broader and more selfless terms.
The centaur, or the mythological beast that was half human and half horse, best characterizes this period, Steiner said. The human is emerging from the base, animal instincts. We are still driven by our animal impulses, but we are learning to cope with them, as the higher human faculties become more available to our us.
AGES 28 TO 35. The Body In Full Bloom
By the age of 35, the skeleton has reached its optimal bone mass and density. Everyone loses about 1 percent bone mass per year. The body will begin its decline after 35, but between 28 and 35, its remarkable powers are peaking.
At this point, the physical body has matured to the point that it has given us as strong foundation as it can. Yes, we can improve our health and even enjoy greater physical vitality after this period — if we behave in ways that support the physical body. But such health-enhancing behaviors must call upon potentials that already lie within the physical organism. Such potentials are there in the bank of the body, awaiting the opportunity to manifest, under the right conditions.
Having established our physical foundation, we start to experience the full thrust of our ambitions. The talents that may have begun to announce themselves in the late 20s are, for many people, bursting forth during this period, as well. We strike out on a career path that will allow us to utilize our abilities for our own benefit.
At the same time, there is often an enormous appetite for learning and enhancing our skills. This period challenges us to channel our skills into specific area of life. We are being asked by life to specialize and develop expertise. Individuate, life is saying. Become a unique being. In specialization and individuality, you will gain power.
Many people become highly competitive with others during this period. Our ambitions and desires to get ahead can cloud our vision, forcing us to see people and situations in simplistic contrasts of friend or foe, black or white. We are being challenged to look beyond these simple formulas and see more deeply into the complexity of people and of life.
As metaphor, Steiner said that this period can best be characterized as a knight riding a horse. We are now in command of our physical powers and instincts and able to use them for our personal vision and desires.
AGES 35 TO 42. Crisis and Questioning
In gardening, it’s called “pruning.” A plant gets cut back, trimmed, made smaller, and in the process it is made stronger. It may have seemed that we were pressing ahead, and that our power was rising, but this is precisely when things seem to go awry.
During this period, crisis hits. Usually that crisis occurs when we are in our early 40s, as opposed to the mid-30s. In any event, many of us experience being cut down by events that seem beyond our control. And in the process, we experience disappointment and a sense of failure. The most common of these disappointments are divorce, or the collapse of a business, or financial strife. Others suffer a health crisis of one kind or another.
Whatever occurs, many of us experience life-altering setback and lose confidence in ourselves and in life. At this point, we can either embrace our limitations and live smaller lives, or begin again. We are challenged to start anew, to refine and rethink our ways, but to remain committed to our dreams.
We are also asked to expand our vision of life and to embrace a more spiritual approach to living. We did not come into this life to be wholly consumed by materialistic goals and ambitions. We came here to learn and to grow our souls. The soul shakes the cage of life during these years and wakes us up to its presence and its needs.
We are being urged by Spirit to ask a few simple questions: What is the true source of my happiness and all that I want for me life? Is it the material world, or does all I need and want flow from the Great Spirit? If the latter is true, than I must turn to Spirit for all that I need and want. And in the process, I must begin to form a new relationship with my Source.
Steiner said that this period could best be described by the metaphor of a man or woman leading a horse by the reins. Our humanity, with its rational and spiritual qualities, is now in front of our instincts, leading the way. The spirit is emerging and is starting to take charge of our lives. It is a time of transition. We once lived exclusively from our own will and power. Now we turn increasingly to God for all that we need.
AGES 42 TO 49. Soul Searching and Wonder
The 40s are a time of hard work and of laying a strong foundation for our lives. We develop our own value and work hard to establish a true competence and expertise in our chosen field. Meanwhile, as we approach the age of 49, we become increasingly aware of a great transition in life. Children are moving away from home. We are freed from old responsibilities of family and child-rearing. Women enter menopause or become perimenopausal. The burden of childbearing is lifted. You’re more settled, grounded, and adept at living life. Meanwhile, we sense big changes ahead, as our 50s approach.
During this time, there is both soul searching and wonder about life. No matter whether we are aware of it or not, we are moving toward a profound balance between mastery of early skills and new spiritual powers with which can help us utilize those skills.
As enter the latter stages of this period, creativity and imagination blossom. Our vision of life expands and we set off in new directions. We are more firmly established in our professional lives. We have dug a deep root in life. We feel more powerful. And we are more rewarded for what we do.
We the first real signs of success, we start to mellow. Many become involved in their community, or local government, or do some kind of civic or charity work. We develop a broader, humanitarian vision of life. We seek to be of service to those in our community, or country, or our world. Steiner said that spirit is making greater demands on us to incarnate our spiritual values and ideals into our daily lives. He called this period the emergence of spirit-man or spirit-woman. It is a time when the soul has gained increasing control over our lives and is imposing its values upon us. We begin to see, if only intuitively, that a balance must be achieved between our earthly needs and our idealistic concerns for humanity. As we move closer to 49, we start to see those parts of our lives that we overemphasized, and those parts that we did not value sufficiently. This is a time of self-reflection.
Our intuitive powers now become the compass by which we direct our lives.
AGES 49 TO 56. An Ever Growing Vision and Understanding of Life
The gift of the 50s is inspiration, mastery, and growing power. We are blessed with a wealth of experience, which has given us a certain wisdom. If we have integrated the gifts and ideals of the previous cycles, and developed our souls, we naturally emerge as important guides and leaders in our communities and society at large. It is the start of a new period of mastery and personal power.
You’ve suffered failures and experienced success. Life has softened you and given you perspective. You are no longer thrown about by the vicissitudes of daily events. If you have taken care of your health, and have retained your vitality, you can now start to become the person you have always longed to be. You are blessed with a second wind that can take you the rest of the way in your life. The dream of being your true self starts to take shape. It is within your grasp.
Those who have neglected their spiritual life feel increasingly confused by the aging process. They are also terrified for their own mortality. They cling to an illusory and faded youth, which becomes ever more fleeting as the years pass.
AGES 56 TO 63. The Crossroads: Mastery or Reevaluation.
Steiner maintained that 56 is a major turning point in life. At this point, new intuitive and spiritual powers emerge into consciousness, especially if you have been guided through life by your heart and soul. Your intuition is now the single most important sense, guiding you to your answers and giving you direction in life. It is the basis for your sense of connection with the Source. And as that connection grows, you experience greater relaxation and comfort with life. All of this occurs as your true dream for living emerges into consciousness with greater clarity and power. You feel called to a mission and you begin to devote all your talents, understanding, and wisdom to a cause greater than your own personal needs and ambitions.
For those who have neglected their spiritual life, Steiner said that the age of 56 marks a turning point in which life forces a reassessment. This time is often accompanied by some form of crisis that makes us self-reflect and return to a more heart-centered and spiritually based life. In the face of that crisis, we can experience a loss of direction, a desperate fear of mortality, which can awaken the need to return to a more spiritual life.
Steiner said that Spirit forces a good hard look at your life at this time, which can be painful and confusing, especially if we have not spent a lot of time working to develop our souls
AGES 63 TO 70. A Time of Harvesting and Spreading the Wealth.
This period is a time of blessing, grace, and opportunity. In traditional communities, these were the elders, those who were turned to for their wisdom, vision, and intuitive gifts. We have been freed from the struggles of life. Yet, we may still have considerable energy and vitality. We are teachers, advisors, guides, and sources of inspiration to others. This is the period when we wish to give back to the those who come after us, and are still embroiled in the struggles of life. It is a time of great power and reward. We still care deeply about the struggles of others, yet we are no longer bound by those struggles ourselves. Our main tether to society is our love and caring and the knowledge that others still need the gift of our experience, wisdom, and guidance.
AGES 7O AND BEYOND. Reflection.
During this period, you are no longer bound by any responsibility to others. It is a time when you assess and take stock of your life, reflecting on the past, and experiencing the richness of the present. You are at the threshold of rebirth into the next world and you are preparing yourself for that next adventure. You are awaiting the call.
There are blessings at every stage of life. All traditional cultures maintained that life improved as we go older. That is not the message so many of us are given in this youth-oriented world of ours. Nevertheless, there is still truth in what Steiner and others have said – that the best years are ahead of us, if we follow the dictates of the heart and develop the awesome powers of our souls.