The evolutionary cycle
Let us examine the evolutionary cycle, specifically, the internal journey one undergoes as he progresses along the path of spiritual evolution.
The cycle is pervasive and underpins all natural phenomena — day and night, birth and death, growth and decay. We also observe the cycle play out in human history: in the rise and fall of civilisations, and in the booms and busts of our economy.
To understand the evolutionary cycle, let us refer to the market cycle, since we’re all familiar with the ups and downs of the economy.
The market cycle
We will borrow Howard Mark’s description of the market cycle from Mastering the Market Cycle.
The cycle fluctuates around a secular upward trend, in the following stages:
a. recovery from an excessively depressed lower extreme or “low” toward the midpoint,
b. the continued swing past the midpoint toward an upper extreme or “high,”
c. the attainment of a high,
d. the downward correction from the high back toward the midpoint or mean,
e. the continuation of the downward movement past the midpoint, toward a new low,
f. the reaching of a low,
g. once again, recovery from the low back toward the midpoint,
h. and then, again, the continuation of the upward swing past the midpoint, toward another high.
The evolutionary cycle
When it comes to the personal evolution journey, the principle is the same. Internally, we also experience highs and lows.
The cycle has seven stages, as illustrated:
To begin the process of internal change, the person must first want to change. The desire could come in the form of an inchoate dream, the decision to pursue a higher calling, or simply a wish to shake off the fetters of the routine. If a person decides to move away from the comfort of status quo and venture into the unknown, the cycle begins.
Stage 1 — Dreaming and exploration
The evolving person is aware of a vague dream and has a desire for something better. He searches for a form of expression for that dream. The person is very open and willing to explore. The key here is to try as many new things as possible to find the right form.
E.g. After I left banking I wanted to make a difference to people (the dream). But I did not know how I wanted to make that difference. I tried volunteering in Cambodia, training youths in Singapore, working for the government, and learning life coaching. I also enrolled in a leadership program. Eventually I decided on coaching and leadership.
Stage 2 — Perseverance and discipline
After the exploration stage, the person chooses a few forms to focus on. The person must be disciplined and put in consistent effort to master the new form of expression. The person meets with trials and challenges along the way as he expands himself. The key here is perseverance.
E.g. When I first started coaching I was very bad at it, and I kept failing. I also experienced great difficulty in my leadership training course, having to push many of my boundaries to gain proficiency in managing events, organising events, and speaking in public. But I persisted, and eventually gained proficiency in coaching and managing events.
Stage 3 — Outward balance, internal conflict
Although the person has made headway into mastering the new form and has manifested certain elements of his dream, remnants of his old life remain. Part of him clings to the safety of the old life, while the growing part yearns for expansion and breakthrough. Both sides are in constant conflict. As one side gets stronger, so does the other.
E.g. I had a full time job that provided me a stable salary while I explored coaching on the side, coaching people on evenings and weekends. Part of me wanted to cling to the security of a full-time job, while the other part of me wondered what it would be like to dive fully into coaching and make that the primary focus of my life.
Stage 4 — Choice and commitment
To progress successfully to Stage 4, the person must make a choice to go all in. This feels like jumping off a cliff blindfolded. The person does not know whether things will work out, but he must leap anyway. As the person leaps, he soars into the sky. He is rewarded with synchronicities, help, success, and manifestations beyond his imagination.
E.g. There were two paths in front of me. I could stay in my government job, live in a condo I just bought, stay in my relationship, and continue doing coaching on the side (safe path). Or I could give all that up and go all in for coaching (unknown path). I decided to go all in. I quit my job, decided to rent out my condo instead of staying there, and ended my relationship. Coaching began to take off as suddenly I had clients approach me, and friends refer me paying clients. Things seemed to magically line up, giving me assurance that this was the right choice.
The flip after Stage 4
After Stage 4, the person experiences a flip in his orientation. Whereas in Stages 1–3, the person was self-rejecting (i.e. changing oneself to grow), after Stage 4, the person becomes other-rejecting. He begins to assert himself. Everything that does not fit into his new world view, he rejects. He makes a stand for his new beliefs, and attempts to shape the world in his image.
In Stages 1–3, the person is constantly asking ‘Who am I?’ After Stage 4, the person declares “This is me.” This is a natural consequence of the person’s choice and commitment to his new life and new self.
Stage 5 — Facing the shadow self
So begins the descent into the abyss.
At first, the downward slope is gentle. The person experiences a gradual letting go, and he starts to appreciate and enjoy his new life. He is grateful for all the people and events that helped him establish this new reality.
Then the descent continues and the person’s psychological structure disintegrates. A lot of unprocessed emotions come to the surface to be released. The person faces a great darkness. He meets his shadow self.
It is almost as if the whole point of Stages 1–4 was to reach this point, so that the person gains access to large amounts of unprocessed, unconscious data. In Stages 1–3, the person had to work very hard to gain a little insight into his unconscious. Now, the unconscious data spews forth.
Some refer to this stage as the ‘dark night of the soul.’ Alchemists call this phase ‘nigredo,’ or blackening.
E.g. During the appreciation and enjoyment stage, I went on five holidays in one year — two diving trips, two surf trips, and a cycling trip. Then, as I continued sinking into the abyss, all I wanted to do every day was to eat, sleep, and wander around aimlessly. My days lost structure and I felt the weight of the past five years of striving crash down upon me. Every day I felt heavy with emotion, and sometimes I just lay in bed and cried. Each day felt darker than the last, with feelings of hopelessness and despair. I didn’t know who I was anymore.
On motivation and reconciliation
When a person makes a decision to move from Point A to Point B, there is a force directing the person away from Point A to a projected Point B. Point B is the perceived land of milk and honey, a heaven where all his problems would be resolved. This creates positive motivation for him.
However, when a person reaches Point B, he still feels empty. This is the quintessential trope of a person achieving wealth, fame and status and then realising these were never the answer. Despite outward manifestations of success, the person’s internal holes were never filled.
Stage 5 brings a person face to face with his emptiness, allowing the person to confront the negative side of his motivation. What made Point A so unbearable in the first place? Why did he have to dream up a hypothetical Point B to save himself?
Stage 6 — Upturn and final sprint
Once the lowest point has been reached, the person experiences an upturn from the depths of the abyss. The person senses that the cycle is nearing completion, and feels time is running out. He makes a final sprint towards the finish line, working to complete any unfinished business and fulfil any unfulfilled dreams.
E.g. I had previously written a children’s book, Olly the Submarine, but never published it. I suddenly had a desire to get this book out there, so I printed copies myself, contacted children’s bookstores, and got my book into 3 bookstores across 7 locations in Singapore. I also applied for my Professional Coach Certification as a milestone and recognition for my coaching journey.
Stage 7 — Consolidation and integration
The person reflects and looks back on the journey. He assesses the outcome and results. The person must now put things in their place. There is a desire for order, rest, renewal, contemplation, and stillness as the person tries to pare life down to its bare essentials. The person finds a way to express lessons learned. He attains the best of both worlds.
E.g. I had a desire to translate all I had learned into a physical form, like song and dance, writing, or through my work. I suddenly craved a menial job — to be an administrative assistant, selling concessions at the zoo, or being a tour guide — so that I had time to put my thoughts in order. I also continued coaching and instructing. Coaching found its rightful place in my life. Not to be a tool used to ‘save’ people but as a genuine expression of love. I could be happy coaching, I could also be happy just spending time with myself. Also, the attitude of being a coach (openness, discovery) had entrenched itself in my consciousness.
The evolutionary cycle is like a wave, going through peaks and troughs. In life, there is a time to hold on and a time to let go, a time to build and a time to fall apart.
Most people have a preference for integrative processes (Stages 6–7–1–2), and an aversion to disintegrative processes (Stages 3–4–5). However, the disintegrative process is critical to continued growth and expansion as it allows a person to dismantle structures that aren’t working. In the next integrative phase, the freed building blocks can then be reconstituted into a more effective and efficient whole.
Creation follows destruction. Destruction follows creation. Repeated cycles of construction and deconstruction form the basis of the evolutionary path.
Through experiencing the cycle we also understand the yin-yang or dual nature of the self, the light and dark, the conscious and unconscious, the illumined and the shadow.
Here is a non-exhaustive list of works that describe the cycle and its stages. Not all works describe the cycle in the same way, nor include the same stages. They do, however, convey similar themes.
- In Search of the Miraculous by P. D. Ouspensky (Law of Seven)
- The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell (The Hero’s Journey)
- Mastering the Market Cycle by Howard Marks (The Nature of Cycles)
- The Four Stages of Alchemical Work (The Great Work)
- The Bible (Genesis creation narrative)
- Tao Te Ching by Lao Tsu
To understand the cycle from a physical or mathematical perspective, you can read up on waves and oscillations.
The bigger picture
You may also have heard people mention that evolution is like a spiral.
How do these make sense together?
When a person begins his journey, he is traveling along the crest of a loop. If he manages to break through and pass Stage 4, he progresses to a larger loop. Therefore, if the person is continually evolving, his journey looks like a spiral.
Furthermore, if you were to zoom out, you would notice that one evolutionary cycle is part of a larger overarching cycle. There are cycles on top of cycles on top of cycles (it’s turtles all the way down). We move through multiple cycles at the same time.
If you want to know your future trajectory, simply take your current position and compare it to your previous position.
E.g. So if you look at where I was before versus where I am now, you might notice that my journey (from banker to coach/instructor to singer/dancer) has been one of letting go of structures, becoming more emotional, more allowing, and more expressive. Generally I become more withdrawn from the external world as I explore my internal world. A lot of sadness is emerging. I feel like a tired warrior who just wants to rest. This is characteristic of Stage 5. Therefore the trajectory is like so:
Originally published at https://www.betterself.sg on May 3, 2020.