Skip to content

The Wise Old Man and the Eternal Youth

The last few years I’ve been attempting to harmonize elements in my psyche – the rational and the ecstatic, or Socrates and Dionysus. I want to approach this idea today through the lens of Jungian psychology, and his idea of the two archetypes of the Puer Aeternus (or Divine Child) and the Senex (or Wise Old Man) – two aspects of the psyche which are superficially antagonistic but which actually need each other.

The archetype of the Puer Aeternus was mentioned rather briefly by Jung, and then developed by later Jungian psychologists like Marie-Louise von Franz and James Hillman. By ‘archetype’, Jung meant mythological figures that rise up from the collective unconscious, representing aspects of the psyche and its journey towards self-actualization. The aim of self-actualization is to recognize and integrate these different archetypes without being possessed by any of them.

Jung is largely positive about the Puer Aeternus, seeing it as the harbinger of spiritual and natural rebirth.  In his chapter, The Psychology of the Child Archetype, he notes the appearance of the Divine Child or Eternal Youth in many different mythologies – Tammuz, Attis, Iacchos-Dionysus (the child born at the climax of the Eleusinian Mysteries), Krishna, and of course the Christ-child (he doesn’t talk about the divine girl). They are the chosen ones who will redeem their societies. The child-hero is also an important figure in fairy tales – Harry Potter, Paul-Muad’dib, Luke Skywalker, Rae, Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, the Little Prince, and so on. 

The Christ-Child and Krishna

The dark side of the Puer or Puella archetype – if you become over-identified or possessed by it – is you can fall prey to massive ego-inflation and start thinking you’re an exceptional being, a Messiah. You can get incredibly inflated expectations of your life and the great work you will do, and you may escape into fantasy or drug addiction when boring reality doesn’t measure up.

Marie-Louise von Franz focused more on these negative aspects in her book, The Problem of the Puer Aeternus. For her, a man (she focuses entirely on men) who becomes possessed by this archetype ‘remains too long in adolescent psychology’. They’re the boys who never grow up, the Peter Pans or Don Juans, possessed by ‘a kind of asocial individualism – being someone special, one has no need to adapt’. Puers abhor commitments and schedules, and are usually single and freelance – ‘there is always a ‘but’ which prevents marriage or any kind of commitment’.

Puers are stuck in ‘the provisional life’ – they don’t commit to the here-and-now because they’re waiting for the day when they ‘will be able to save the world, that the last word in philosophy, or religion, or politics, or art, or something else, will be found’. She writes: ‘There is always the fear of being caught in a situation from which it may be impossible to slip out again’. Instead of dull reality, the Puer dreams of flight, and shows ‘a fascination with dangerous sports, particularly flying and mountaineering’. Puers also have a yearning for ecstasy, for altered states, for sudden psychic leaps out of the mundane. James Hillman writes: ‘personal revelation is preferred to objective knowledge’.

The puer complex may come from being a daddy’s boy – always being bailed out by a doting father – or from being a mummy’s boy or daddy’s girl, their special child, into whom the parent pours all their own frustrated dreams – one thinks of DH Lawrence, Russell Brand or Simon Amstell, these restless boy-men endlessly searching around the world for personal and cultural redemption, never quite sticking to anything. Are there similar ‘golden girls’ who never adjust to adulthood because they’re still obsessed with pleasing Daddy? 

The Senex, or Wise Old Man, is another archetype that can arise from the unconscious, who represents ancient wisdom, rules, duty, virtue, habits, schedule, temperance, rationalism, evidence, self-control and discipline – everything the puer lacks, in other words. The dark side of the senex, if one becomes possessed by it, is a pompous sense of one’s own wisdom and virtue, over-seriousness, as well as boredom, depression, pessimism, drudgery, and a lack of spontaneity, playfulness or inner vitality.

Both these archetypes can appear and dominate cultures or subcultures at different times, and there can be a dynamic polarity between the puer yearning for ecstasy, rebellion and disruption, and the senex desire for stability, order and tradition. One sees the puer archetype particularly strongly in, say, the Sixties counter-culture (Marc Bolan is the ultimate Puer), in Silicon Valley (Mark Zuckerberg), and in the New Age. I want to talk a bit about how I became somewhat possessed by this archetype while at English boarding school, which is a culture that really fetishizes the cult of the golden youth.

Marc Bolan channelling the archetype of boy-god Dionysus

                                                                   *********

Like I said, certain cultures or subcultures really celebrate the golden youth. Modern western culture is quite obsessed with the golden youth, and English boarding schools are particularly obsessed with them (that’s why it’s so appropriate that Harry Potter goes to one). Boarding school can mess you up in various different ways but one of the more insidious dangers is it creates these school heroes or heroines who subsequently fail to grow up, fail to fulfil that early promise, or spectacularly crash in later life. Allow me to extrapolate – this might seem a bit niche when only 0.5% of the UK go to boarding school, but unfortunately some of these golden boys end up crashing our country. 

Boarding schools are self-organizing societies in which the boys and girls more or less govern themselves. They are driven by the desire for acceptance and glory, and the fear of shame and ridicule. Pupils tend to hero-worship certain individuals, labelling them a ‘legend’ or some such hyperbole. Many teachers are also enthusiastic boy or girl-worshippers. They treat the children like paper aeroplanes – let’s see how far this one goes.

And the schools themselves feed the cult, showering promising youths with honours. I heard last week about a friend of mine who arrived at Eton already garlanded with legend from his prep school – he’d scored two centuries, and the school had named a holiday after him. Can you imagine how unhealthy that is for a 12-year-old! He dropped out after Eton, and has now re-discovered himself as a healthy human being, rather than a Golden Boy.

Excessive early hero-worship can lead to an ecstasy of adulation. One’s ego expands in the echo-chamber to imperial proportions. But the flip-side is a terror of shame and failure. The high-flyer wipes out, or feels they haven’t lived up to the expectations of others. They go through life in a school daze, perpetually turned to the fading glory of youth. I know many GBS (Golden Boy Survivors). One older boy was a promising actor, tipped as the next Damien Lewis. I asked a teacher-director, who had a crush on him, how he was doing in the real world. ‘Drugs’, the teacher sniffed. ‘The light has gone from his eyes.’ Don’t worry sir, another will be along presently.

The cult of the golden youth is an ancient phenomenon. The journalist Cyril Connelly wrote in 1938: ‘Early laurels weigh like lead and of many of the boys whom I knew at Eton, I can say that their lives are over…. Once again romanticism with its death wish is to blame.’  He’s right – the natural conclusion of the cult is early death. In The Hill, Horace Vachell’s 1905 novel about Harrow, golden boy ‘Caesar’ Desmond makes a brilliant catch in the Eton-Harrow match at Lords. He will ‘never never know again a moment of such exquisite unadulterated joy as this’. There’s nothing for him to do but die, which he does, a few years later, in battle. How many books and films romanticise the cultic sacrifice of the golden youth, from Dead Poets’ Society to Picnic at Hanging Rock. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

Sending your children to boarding school increasingly seems to me like giving them a powerful hallucinogenic drug for five years. Some may be traumatized. Others will leave firmly believing they are masters of the universe, and will convince many – even whole countries – they are right. They seek opportunities to do something dashing and boyish – walk across Afghanistan! Leave Europe! They suffer from the opposite of Imposter Syndrome. They dangerously overestimate their capacities. ‘How hard can it be?’ Dave Cameron quipped before entering Number 10.

Products of the boarding school cult of the golden boy – Boris Johnson, Hugh Grant and Rory Stewart

                                                                      ********

I only had a half-measure of public school adulation, but it almost did for me. By 18, my ego was soaring. I then crashed out on drugs, and spent my early 20s feeling deeply ashamed at having failed to live up to some impossibly-high expectation of glory.  I had recurring nightmares where I was flying and the fuel ran out, sending me hurtling to the ground.

What healed me from this ‘fallen Icarus’ psychodrama? As regular readers will know, I was initially healed from Post-Traumatic Stress by a skiing accident – when I was 24, I crashed through the barrier on the side of a mountain in Norway, fell 30 feet or so, broke my leg and two vertebrae, and knocked myself unconscious. Except I wasn’t unconscious –  I was immersed in a loving white light, and felt myself psychically healed and regenerated. I was then flown in a helicopter to a hospital in Lillehammer, where they put a metal pole in my leg, which is still there today.

In Jungian terms, this was a crisis of the Puer Aeternus – I felt broken, traumatized, and very ashamed at failing to live up to the golden expectations I believed society had of me. I felt like Icarus, or a fallen angel. My subconscious engineered it so that this subconscious situation played out in real life  – I flew off a mountain and crashed. Just to make it even more Jungian, it’s a mountain in the Peer Gynt valley. Peer Gynt is a Puer Aeternus figure from Norwegian mythology, always flying off into fantasies of escape (he tells a tall story about flying on a reindeer).

Peer Gynt flying off on his reindeer

I could have died in that accident, but instead it was healing and renewing. The boy becomes grounded, and lame – the metal pole in the leg, fixing him on Earth. I realized the world didn’t much care about me, and I managed to get over the feeling I was special, and had failed to live up to my specialness. I later became fascinated by Stoicism, and the idea of training my mind. I spent 15 years or so working on the revival of Stoicism in western culture, and became a sort of public philosopher. In Jungian terms, this was the switch of my personality from the puer archetype into its opposite, the senex archetype – being drawn to ancient wisdom, rationality, self-control, discipline, duty and so on. Stoicism is the ultimate senex philosophy.

But by the time I was nearing 40, Stoicism was beginning to feel rather dry, boring, depressing, lonely, pompous and brittle. Stoicism can feel like it’s lacking in heart, love, connection, spontaneity, dance, and ecstasy. I remember that time I went to a public reading at the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain, and abruptly found myself in conversation with the spirit of my dead Irish grandmother. ‘Why are you so serious now?’ she said to me, through the psychic. ‘You used to be so funny. You should go to more festivals.’ ‘She’ was telling me to put down the archetype of the Senex and rediscover a bit of the Puer playfulness. 

I’ve spent the last five years or so searching for the ecstatic, and trying to find a way to harmonize these two archetypes. I feel I’ve made some progress in this.  I found the ayahuasca retreat in Peru particularly helpful, because on the one hand psychedelics appeals to the Puer Aeternus in me – the flight out of the ordinary ego, the opening of the imagination, the risk – while on the other hand the psychedelics were taken in a cultural context that was quite Senexian – we dieted and fasted in preparation for the retreat, then were guided by these quite elderly Indian shamans, and were told to continue our ascetic practice after the retreat.

It’s an interesting challenge for our culture – how to integrate the Puer aspects of New Age spirituality – play, spontaneity, improvisation, ecstasy, childishness and the yearning for the new – with more Senex aspects of spirituality – wisdom, tradition, routine, habituation, moderation.

The Divine Child and the Wise Old Man in the art of William Blake

Spiritual materialism

Hello. Well, this is awkward. I stopped writing this newsletter two months ago, just before travelling to the Amazon jungle for an ayahuasca ceremony. The good news, back then, was that I’d been handed a philosophy column for the New Statesman magazine – the culmination of a dream I’d had for over a decade. I first pitched a philosophy column to the editor of the Times, back in 2007. Now, finally, out of nowhere, the dream had fallen into my lap. So I bowed a gracious goodbye to my newsletter subscribers, and headed off to Peru.

I emerged from the jungle, still extremely high, and checked my emails. It was amazing how few emails of any interest I’d received while I was away. You expect the world to be as altered as you are, and to be waiting for you to climb onboard like a dragon kneeling before Daenyrys. Instead, the internet was filled with strange news – a hurricane was about to hit the UK, Theresa May had lost her voice during the Tory conference, a fish had jumped down a man’s throat. No emails about exciting new opportunities. And no emails from the editor of the New Statesman. An ominous silence, of the sort freelance journalists know only too well.

Over the next few weeks, it gradually and painfully emerged that the column was not going to happen…Either the editor had changed his mind, or there was some internal obstacle, or I’d done something wrong. I don’t know. He emailed to say he was ‘still interested’ in the idea (which, to be clear, was his idea) and hoped to find a space for it next year.

I felt pretty sad about it, but still hope it might happen. Meanwhile, there were other freelance opportunities to pursue. The New Yorker responded positively to a pitch – another long-term dream of mine. But that also faded away. The Spectator liked an idea which I pitched last Friday, and asked me to write it for this Monday. I spent the weekend writing the piece, sent it off on Monday and….ominous silence. I haven’t heard back since.

This is the freelance life. I’d forgotten how irritating it is to deal with all-powerful commissioning editors, who you want to tell to f*ck off for their cavalier treatment of you, but can’t, because there are about five intelligent magazines in the UK, so you need to keep them sweet. But at least, in this day and age, you can still blog without needing anyone else’s approval. So I’ve decided to start up my newsletter once more. I can’t do it once a week, but will try to do it once a month. Thank you to those who support the costs of the newsletter on Patreon.

This issue I want to talk about spiritual materialism, a phrase coined by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a mad Tibetan monk who came over to the West in the 1970s, and inspired some of the greatest western Buddhist teachers, like Pema Chodron and Tara Brach. By ‘spiritual materialism’ I think he means the way we westerners smuggle our worldly ambitions into our spiritual quest.

Whenever I’ve had dramatic spiritual awakenings, I’ve expected it to convert rapidly into some sort of worldly success. I’ve expected it to shake up my external life and lead to sudden, radical improvements – I would suddenly meet the love of my life, for example, or be offered a new job, or a book deal, or something.

When I did the Alpha course, and had a heart awakening, I expected it to transform my external life for the better. I was told by the Alpha vicar, Nicky Gumbel: ‘Jesus has amazing plans for you’, and I thought, ‘Excellent! Bring it on, Jesus’. It didn’t quite happen like that.

When we begin to pursue the spiritual life, we want all the good things of a conventional life – a rich love life, a successful career, a happy family, a lovely home, a sexy body, delicious cocktails, wonderful holidays, fabulous dinner parties, and so on. We want all of that, plus soulfulness.  Like Rod Tidwell says in Jerry Maguire, we want the kwan: ‘it means love, respect, community… and the dollars too. The package. The kwan.’

You see this a lot in soulful hipsters in London or New York in their 30s and 40s. We pride ourselves on our spirituality and on being counter-cultural, but in some ways we’re just as hung up on conventional success as everyone else – we want the prestige, the prominence, the great love-life, the sexy body, the beautiful home, the glamorous holidays, the Instagram life. Like Bwyneth Paltrow, we want the gratification of our ego desires and soulfulness – what could be more gratifying than that!

A friend posted something recently on Facebook, an advert for a meditation and yoga retreat at a place called Tres Posh in Ibiza. It says: ‘We’re back at the tres posh, swanky pants yoga villa for five glorious days of Ibiza sun and shine in September. The days will begin with meditation, yoga and nidra folllowed by a magnificent brunch made by Pete’s fair hands. There will be massage, therapies, lounging by the dreamy pool, walking, resting, reading and snoozing before thai massage or a yoga practice in the evenings and an outrageously delicious dinner.’ They are cheap compared to some of the yoga retreats out there. 

A western goddess of wealth and worldly power

I am not being scornful here. I have exactly the same aspirations. I want conventional success and comfort, plus soul. Which is why it hurt when I emerged from an ayahuasca retreat, wondering what wonderful gifts the universe had waiting for me, and I unwrapped the first package to discover – dada! your dream-job of having a column has just vanished!

I had it easy, in fact. One member of our group had to go home early, after the first two ceremonies, when his sister suddenly fell ill and was rushed to hospital. He’d travelled 48 hours to get to the retreat. Now he had to go and be in that family crisis, on an ayahuasca comedown.

The fact is, the rules of the spirit world are not the same as the rules of this world. We think they are, and we want to win at both. But they’re not the same at all. What looks like abject failure in this world might actually be incredible success in the spirit-world. And what looks like total victory in this world might actually be utter failure in the spirit-world.

We want to maintain our status as all-powerful superhero westerners who control our lives and get what we want. But that’s not surrender.

The wind bloweth where it listeth. The medicine does exactly what it wants to do. You have to trust it. It’s not predictable, and it won’t necessarily make it easy on you. But you have to trust that in every experience, however unpleasant (and losing a magazine column is not particularly unpleasant in the grand scheme of things), there is wisdom to be found in it.

We can’t necessarily tell what is good for us and what is bad for us. And perhaps we need to go beyond these instant judgements of good and bad.

One person in our random collection of ayahuasca-pilgrims, Vadim, was there partly because of a bereavement. He had a powerful awakening during the first ceremony. And he’s kept on awakening in the weeks since. Last week, he sent out emails every day to our group, with a YouTube video of him talking over some amazing graphics. He sent out nine of these videos, each around ten minutes long, in a series called Awakening. I’d wake up in the morning to find a new video from him in my inbox, and I’d watch it over breakfast, and listen to his voice.

In the third video, he says:

We constantly are judging, labelling things as good or bad, from the point of view of our personality.  In the present dream generated by our subjective consciousness, we have a tendency not to remember that everything that surrounds us physically, despite being amazingly designed, organically is made up of temporary forms. All and any of those forms at some point will change into a different form. The form will die, and be reborn, and possibly reborn into another form that may be very alien to us when we meet again, if ever. Why, one will ask. Because that is what life is made of. Life is made of constant change….How not to judge the moment of the event? Life-experiences are not given to us by the universe to make us endlessly suffer, nor to make us endlessly happy…Experiences are given to us simply to observe them. Observe the feeling, and that’s it. We should be ready to treat events that change our life-circumstances simply as epic moments of experience.

From the point of view of this world, what happened to Vadim was ‘the worst thing that can happen to someone’. That’s what we say, isn’t it? And yet even bereavement, even the loss of a child, can be a catalyst for a powerful spiritual awakening. Sharon Salzberg talks of her most important teacher (55 minutes in to the interview): ‘She’d had tremendous suffering in her life. She came to practice after losing two children and her husband, and was so struck with grief she couldn’t get out of bed. The doctor said ‘you’re going to die of a broken heart unless you learn how to meditate’. So she got up out of bed and went to learn. When she emerged, she was so compassionate and so loving. She’d found a way to translate that terrible pain into compassion.’

One of the most useful things I heard to prepare me for psychedelics was from Rick Doblin, the head of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). He said: ‘A difficult trip is not a bad trip.’ This is certainly true on ayahuasca – the first ceremonies I had were lovely, fun, confidence-boosting. But they were just preparatory. The third and fourth ceremonies were much harder, darker, scarier. But that’s where all the healing happened – when I got the opportunity to face difficult emotions and experiences, and to react with more courage, wisdom and love than I have in the past. Difficult does not mean bad.

I can’t expect, therefore, any spiritual awakening (however small) to translate naturally into worldly success. It doesn’t work like that. The spirit-world has different rules to this world. It’s not like western yoga – you do this many sessions, you’ll definitely get a sexy bum, and probably a better sex life. 

We confuse the two worlds. We think there is a correlation between how prominent a person is in this world, and how wise and gifted they are in the spirit-world. The Pope must be the most spiritually advanced person, right? Osho must be the most spiritually gifted person – look at his spiritual empire! Sadhguru must be the incarnation of Shiva – look how many Facebook followers he has!

We mistake prominence for spiritual power. But they’re not the same. I’ve met a handful of people in my life who struck me as people of genuine spiritual power. And they were pretty much all obscure and uncelebrated. The shamans I met in the jungle, for example, have never written any books, they don’t have Facebook pages or ITunes podcasts. No one knows their names. I barely know their names. But they have huge amounts of spiritual power.

Maybe this is all an elaborate rationalization of my disappointment at not getting my magazine column. It does piss me off, and it’s OK that it pisses me off. I guess what I’m trying to say is this: when we embark on the spiritual life we think it will be more or less like the worldly life, just with a bit more soul. We’re like Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin when they’ve just left the Shire, thinking they’re on a fun little adventure. They have no idea what they’re getting in to, or what it will cost them…not less than everything.

The unpredictability of the spiritual life can scare us. We don’t want to lose what we have in this world – the success, the comfort, the status, the security. We may read articles about the risks of meditation, the dangers of psychedelics, the damage from gurus or religious communities, and think, screw that, I’ll just stay in the worldly life. But is it any safer here? Are we on solid ground? We’re still going to suffer and die, over and over and over. Why not gather up our courage, and get going?