The Human Odyssey: Navigating the Twelve Stages of Life

The Human Odyssey: Navigating the Twelve Stages of Life

by Thomas Armstrong Ph.D


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"This is truly a major contribution — brilliant, beguiling, and as broad in concept as it is deep." — Jean Houston, PhD, author of The Possible Human

Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D., an award-winning educator and expert on human development, offers a cross-cultural view of life's entire journey, from before birth to death to the possibilities of an afterlife. Dr. Armstrong cites both clinical research and anecdotal evidence in a comprehensive view of the challenges and opportunities we face at every stage of our development. His accessible narrative incorporates elements of history, literature, psychology, spirituality, and science in a fascinating guide to understanding our past as well as our future.

"I loved the tone, the pacing, the sense of audience, and especially the richness of the associations . . . It's a book that one would like to keep around — a guidebook even." — John Kotre Ph.D., co-author of Seasons of Life: The Dramatic Journey from Birth to Death
"The Human Odyssey is superb, magnificent, astonishing, unique, engrossing, eminently readable, informative, enjoyable, entertaining, profound.  What else?  I could go on. I hadn't expected anything like so remarkable a book." — Joseph Chilton Pearce, author of The Crack in the Cosmic Egg and Magical Child
"I have read through The Human Odyssey. It is in many ways impressive. I also think that it has great commercial potential. Many people will find attractive your dual focus on the scientific and the soul/spiritual dimensions." — Howard Gardner, Ph.D., The John H. and Elizabeth A. Hobbs Professor in Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, author of Frames of Mind
"I extend my congratulations to you for this monumental undertaking and wish you the very best for your impressive efforts." — Marian Diamond, Ph.D.  Professor, Department of Integrative Biology, University of California, Berkeley; co-author of Magic Trees of the Mind; pioneer researcher into the effect of the environment on brain development; dissected Einstein's brain
"I very much enjoyed The Human Odyssey. Your breadth of sources is remarkable, and you have put them all together in a smooth and integrative way.  I think it will be informative for people, and also inspiring for them to make their stages of life more meaningful. Overall, this is an impressive tour de force." — Arthur Hastings, Ph.D., Professor and Director, William James Center for Consciousness Studies, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology; Past President, Association of Transpersonal Psychology
"Extraordinary. I hope that it is read by many people." — Laura Huxley, widow of Aldous Huxley, founder of Children: Our Ultimate Investment, and author of This Timeless Moment, and The Child of Your Dreams
"A  wonderful and encyclopedic summary of human development." — Allan B. Chinen, M.D., Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, University of California, San Francisco; author of Once Upon a Mid-Life: Classic Stories and Mythic Tales to Illuminate the Middle Years and In the Ever After: Fairy Tales and the Second Half of Life
"Absolutely remarkable. The Human Odyssey is written with lively scholarship and contains great depth and breadth, a wide range of fascinating materials, and many useful resources. It's a kind of 'everything book.'" — George Leonard, "the granddaddy of the consciousness movement" (Newsweek) and author of The Transformation and The Ultimate Athlete

"The Human Odyssey provides readers with a fresh approach to developmental psychology. Dr. Armstrong has included a spiritual dimension of human growth that is lacking from most accounts but which is essential for a complete understanding of the human condition. It is a splendid, brilliant work." — Stanley Krippner, Ph.D., former president of the Association for Humanistic Psychology, author of Personal Mythology: The Psychology of Your Evolving Self, and co-editor of The Psychological Impact of War Trauma on Civilians:  An International Perspective
"An integral approach to human development, from birth to death, that provides practical information for all who see spirit interpenetrating all of life." — Michael Murphy, co-founder of the Esalen Institute and author of The Future of the Body, The Life We Are Given, and God and the Evolving Universe
"This is a thoroughly researched and beautifully written account of the story of human development. Drawing on the most recent scientific studies, as well as literature and films, mythology and major spiritual traditions, Armstrong shows the way to a truly integrated understanding of the complexities of the human life cycle." — Ralph Metzner, Ph.D., author of Maps of Consciousness and The Unfolding Self, co-author (with Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert) of The Psychedelic Experience, which was the inspiration for the Beatles' song "Tomorrow Never Knows"
"I loved this book. What a vast terrain it covers! I enjoyed the way it wove into each developmental stage a rich array of materials from Greek myths, Martin Buber, psychology, rituals, spirituality, and so many wonderful stories. As people read this book, they will be much more aware of the different stages of life and how they impact all of us personally and collectively." — Barbara Findeisen, President, The Association for Pre- & Perinatal Psychology and Health and creator of the documentary film, The Journey to Be Born, featured on Oprah  
"I'm awestruck!  This looks like the most important book of the century." — Jan Hunt, author of The Natural Child:  Parenting from the Heart; member of the board of directors of the Canadian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children
"The Human Odyssey is just that: a tour de force by one of the leading experts in whole person development. I've never before seen such a comprehensive and readable work on the many stages that we humans go through on our journey through this life." — John W. Travis, M.D., founder of the first wellness center in the United States in 1975, co-author of Wellness Workbook, and co-founder of Alliance for Transforming the Lives of Children.
"Thomas Armstrong's The Human Odyssey is an extraordinary book; an intellectual feast.  Armstrong has amassed and integrated an amazing amount of information from developmental and transpersonal psychology, modern consciousness research, biology, anthropology, mythology, and art, and created an extraordinary guide through all the stages of the adventure of human life. While the rich content of this book will impress professional audiences, it's clear and easy style makes it quite accessible to the general public." — Stanislav Grof, M.D., former Chief of Psychiatric Research, Maryland Psychiatric Research Center; author of Realms of the Human Unconscious, Beyond the Brain: Birth, Death, and Transcendence in Psychotherapy and Adventures in Self-Discovery 
"Thomas Armstrong has written a brilliant, caring and beautiful book on the human lifecycle. Such an all-inclusive book is rare and adds a sense of the wholeness of life, into and beyond death, in the mere reading of it." — Stuart Sovatsky, Ph.D., author of Words From the Soul, Your Perfect Lips and Eros, Consciousness and Kundalini, and co-President of the Association of Transpersonal Psychology.
"I cannot imagine anyone who will not benefit from this wise, beautifully written description of life's journey. If you are looking for encouragement, understanding, and strength, this is your book." — Larry Dossey, M.D., author of The Extraordinary Power of Ordinary Things and Healing Words
"A beautiful compilation of world wisdom. Well written and inspiring." — James Fadiman, Ph.D., co-Founder, Institute for Transpersonal Psychology and author of The Other Side of Haight
"Armstrong synthesizes an enormous amount of material from many fields and wisdom traditions to create a book that is fresh, provocative, and important. His holistic approach presents us with the largest possible map as we navigate across our own lives. Bravo, captain." — Mary Pipher, author of Writing to Change the World and Reviving Ophelia                                                            
"Thomas Armstrong is an original thinker whose perceptions broaden our understanding of children, education and society. In The Human Odyssey, Armstrong provides a comprehensive framework for human development with characteristic depth and optimism." — Peggy O'Mara, Editor and Publisher of Mothering Magazine
"This is truly a major contribution — brilliant, beguiling, and as broad in concept as it is deep." — Jean Houston, Ph.D. author of The Possible Human

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780486831800
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 03/20/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D., is the author of 13 books that have garnered numerous awards and been translated into 20 languages, including the bestselling The Myth of the ADHD Child. He has appeared on national TV shows, and his articles have been featured in many popular and professional publications around the world. His website is

Read an Excerpt


Prebirth The Undiscovered Continent

* * *

Show me your original face before your parents were born.

— Zen Koan

There's a beautiful legend from the Jewish tradition about our life before birth. In this tale, the fetus in the womb has a light that shines above his head that sees from one end of the universe to the other. This light encompasses the unborn's own deep past and his ultimate destiny. Just before birth, however, the angel Lailah comes up to the unborn babe and lightly strikes her finger on his upper lip. This act extinguishes the light and causes the child to take birth in total forgetfulness of all he has known during his prebirth existence. The purpose of life is to recover this light. It's said that this is why we bear a little crease in our upper lip called the philtrum: This is the mark of the angel. It's also said that this is why, when we suddenly recall a forgotten name or a misplaced object, we instinctively touch a finger to our upper lip and exclaim, "Ah yes, now I remember!" We've made contact with our angel of destiny once more.

This story hints at how our prenatal lives may not have been as unconscious as modern science suggests. Instead of a body up progression of purely biological steps leading to birth, prebirth might as well have been a whole universe of conscious experiences, now forgotten, but still perhaps alive at some deep level of our being. As the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge once wrote: "The history of man for nine months preceding his birth would, probably, be far more interesting and contain events of greater moment, than all the three score and ten years that follow it."

The Countdown to Conception

The excitement all begins with conception. This is a kind of lunar docking operation that requires the precise coordination in time and space of two vehicles. The first vehicle is an ovum traveling down the fallopian tube and available for fertilization only for about a twenty-four-hour period. The second vehicle is one among hundreds of millions of sperm cells racing at a speed of three inches per hour toward this ovoid destination.

Imagine the entire population of the United States, Russia, and Japan leaving the starting block at the same time on a megamarathon sprint proportionately longer than a trip to the moon. In this contest only one robust runner makes it all the way to the finish line. You begin to get a picture of the challenges facing a sperm on his way to a link-up with his egg "cellmate." Brave New World author Aldous Huxley once expressed this event biblically when he wrote: "A million million spermatozoa / All of them alive / Out of their cataclysm but one poor Noah / Dare hope to survive." Research suggests that the sperm may actually "sniff" its way to the egg. That one lucky sperm succeeds essentially by using his lashing tail to outdrill the last couple of hundred survivors clamoring to break through the ovum wall. Once the victor gains entry, the ovum initiates chemical changes that essentially close the castle gates to any other competitor.

Then begins the single greatest event of all biological existence. The nucleus of the sperm cell travels deep into the ovum and fuses with the egg nucleus, mixing his rich genetic material with hers and bringing an entirely new life-form into being; a fertilized one-celled organism or zygote, the first "you."

It's amazing to think that each human body walking around on the planet today was only a little while ago a single cell buzzing around in a liquid environment. The bodies of the president of the United States, the Pope, the chairman of General Motors, your mother-in-law: They were all zygotes. And so were you. Look in a mirror at your adult self. As you do this, think about being a zygote just a few decades ago. You might even get a little bit dizzy trying to comprehend the mystery of it all.

Of course, this is only half of the story, the beginnings of the body up journey. There is also a spirit down side to this great mystery of creation. In fact, there may be more life in and around that little zygote than seems at first apparent from a purely physiological point of view. The medieval Christians referred to the male sperm as numen and viewed conception as a numinous process (a Latin word meaning "filled with divinity"). A twelfth-century miniature by Christian mystic Hildegard of Bingen shows this perspective graphically by depicting the descent of the soul directly into the fetus of the mother. In many African creation myths, the first people are lowered to earth from the sky. Chinese Buddhist philosophy believes that the life force comes from the air above, down to and into the earth force of the fetus.

Perhaps the most remarkable map of prebirth as a spirit down journey is found in The Tibetan Book of the Dead (or Bardo Thodöl), an eighth-century Buddhist guide for helping departed souls achieve liberation from the wheel of rebirth. Tibetan Buddhists believe that beings continually reincarnate until they come to realize the illusory nature of existence. Unfortunately, the "winds of karma" (a person's desires and past actions) usually push them back into rebirth. And so the last portion of the Bardo Thodöl contains explicit instructions on the art of choosing a womb site in which to be reborn. The text explains how the traveling soul will begin to see pairs of copulating couples. It counsels that the soul will start to feel attracted to the opposite-sex parent and angry toward the same-sex parent. The Bardo Thodöl thus anticipated the Oedipal complex a thousand years before Freud and suggested that it begins in the womb. Ultimately, the soul takes birth with parents who will provide the karmic lessons necessary for eventual liberation.

These crosscultural spiritual perspectives as noted above are mirrored in contemporary clinical accounts of individuals remembering their prenatal existence. In one account of a session of hypnotic regression, a patient reported: "I am a sphere, a ball, a balloon, I am hollow, I have no arms, no legs, no teeth, I don't feel myself to have a front or back, up or down. I float, I fly, I spin. Sensations come from everywhere. It is as though I am a spherical eye." Canadian psychiatrist Thomas Verny comments, "I have heard dozens of similar accounts from my own and other psychiatrists' patients and, more to the point, I have found that if you examine them closely, these recollections often correspond to events in the early stages of pregnancy."

In her book The Child of Your Dreams, author Laura Huxley, Aldous Huxley's wife, compared the moment of conception to the big bang theory of the universe: "Another explosion much closer in time and space to you was just as momentous: it took place when a sperm and an egg came together and created you. This event is usually not described in such terms in the average biology textbook. However, when regressed to the moment of their own conception, a number of individuals report this experience as a joyous burst of the exultant fireworks of life."

The Great River Journey

After fertilization, you began the voyage down the remaining portion of the six-inch-long fallopian tube, headed toward implantation in the uterus, a journey that took about three days. This was probably the most treacherous journey that you've ever taken. You were lucky to have survived it at all. Only 50 percent of fertilized eggs make it all the way down the tube to implantation in the uterus. You could have died right after conception due to genetic defects. You might have been killed by white blood cells that mistook you for an intruder as you traveled down the fallopian tube (the equivalent, perhaps, of the one-eyed monster that tried to kill Odysseus on his journey back to Ithaca). You could have become entrapped among the various scars and adhesions in the fallopian tube left over from wear and tear to your mother's body tissues. But with time, you grew bigger and stronger.

About twenty-four hours after conception you began to divide into a multicelled clump called a morula (Latin for "mulberry"). Then, over the next three days, you grew in size to about one hundred cells and became a blastocyst (Greek for "sprouting pouch"). As you finished your trip through the fallopian tube, you had your first experience of "birth," not into the world of human beings, but into the world of your mother's own uterus. You actually had to squeeze through the last part of the fallopian tube at its narrowest point, and your mother helped you by going through mini-contractions of the fallopian tube. You could have gotten stuck right there in the tube and miscarried as an ectopic (Greek for "out of place") pregnancy. However, you made it!

Once inside the uterus you faced a whole new set of challenges. First, you had to break free of your zona pellucida (Latin for "transparent girdle"), a kind of suit of armor that protected you during your dangerous journey down the fallopian tube. Then, like a Greek sailing vessel, you had to search for a suitable landing site on the surface of your mother's uterus. For several days you floated along in the uterus until you found a soft, thick, warm surface that appeared hospitable, and expanding in mass, you attached yourself to this uterine lining or endometrium (Greek for "within the womb"). You were lucky to find such a site. If your mother had developed endometriosis or experienced other problems with the lining of her uterus, your attempts to attach to the uterine lining might have been like trying to land your boat on a rugged and rocky seacoast.

There were other dangers as well. The endometrium might have attempted to reject you as a foreign substance by flushing you out of the womb, or birth control measures might have thwarted your attempts to gain a foothold. However, nature provided just what you needed to survive. Your mother secreted chemicals to shut down the processes of rejection, and you found yourself set up in a brand-new home with a nine-month lease.

While you probably don't remember this incredibly dangerous journey, many cultures seem to have recorded the details of this trip in their heroic myths. There is a whole class of myths that reflect what mythologist Joseph Campbell in his book The Mythic Image termed "the infant exile motif": stories about the births of heroes who were threatened with death by evil authorities, hidden in a container by an ally, and sent up a body of water, only to be retrieved and nurtured by animals or people. These stories narrate the origins of such legendary figures as Hercules, Krishna, and Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, who were raised by wolves. They might at some archetypal level also be telling the story of the journey of the human zygote on its way to implantation in the uterus.

The first tale of this kind in world mythology is from Babylonia around five thousand years ago and describes the birth of its founder, Sargon. As legend has it, after Sargon's mother gave birth to him in a hidden place, she put him into a vessel made of reeds, closed the opening with pitch, and dropped him into the Euphrates River. He floated down the river until Akki, a water carrier, discovered Sargon and raised him as his adopted son. Later Sargon would rule the kingdom of Akkad for fifty-five years.

Similarly, in the Bible, Moses was sent down a river in a basket of bulrushes as an infant. The pharaoh of Egypt had ordered all his people to throw every newborn Hebrew boy into the Nile. A Levite woman, however, hid her infant to avoid the pharaoh's plot. Exodus 2:3–4 reports: "... she got a rush basket for him, made it watertight with clay and tar, laid him in it, and put it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile." He was discovered by the pharaoh's daughter, who adopted him and raised him as her own in the royal household. Eventually, Moses escaped and led his people out of Egypt into the Promised Land.

R. D. Laing suggested that these scenarios parallel the uterine journey in many startling respects. The heroic leader is the zygote placed in a boat (zona pellucida), which floats down a river (the fallopian tube), lands on a shore (the endometrium), receives the care of people or animals (the nurturing forces of the mother's uterus), and grows into maturity (development of the fetus to full term). Laing saw these prenatal elements not only in mythology, but also in the dreams and struggles of his patients. One thirty-six-year-old businessman, for example, wrote: "I feel I'm hanging on to a cliff with my fingernails ... if I let go, I'll float off down the river ... I'll be washed away ... I shall be completely mad." Laing pointed out that many of life's deepest fears and most existential conflicts might be traced back to these earliest days of prenatal existence. Like Odysseus, each one of us encountered great dangers on the waters in our prenatal sailing craft.

Becoming a Fetus

Eight days after conception you were an embryo consisting of thousands of new stem cells governed by a genetic process that began assigning roles and job sites to areas that soon became your nervous system, digestive system, and other major physiological functions and anatomical structures. These embryonic stem cells were of the same type that are now being used in scientific research to generate specialized tissues for treating a wide range of diseases. Over the next few weeks you went through more transformations than a contortionist in a traveling circus. Just fourteen days after implantation you looked a little like a plump frankfurter split at both ends. Between weeks three and four, the split ends of the wiener closed to form a shrimplike brain and spine: the beginnings of your nervous system. Between weeks four and five, your eyes, nose, and mouth began to emerge, your spine curled around like a dragon's tail, and you resembled a strange prehistoric creature. In the nineteenth century it was believed that during these first few weeks of life, the human organism recapitulated all the stages of evolution from sea life to amphibian to mammal. This isn't exactly what occurred. You didn't actually become shrimp, a lizard, or a minuscule Jurassic Park monster. But, you did share some of the same genetic codes as primitive vertebrates, which in these early embryonic stages made you resemble them to some degree. By week six you looked like an alien from another planet, with a large head and beady eyes. In another couple of weeks the formation of your organs was complete and you had pretty much every physical structure found in a full-sized adult. At this point in your journey you became officially known as a fetus (Latin for "bringing forth"). Your spirit down soul may have been witnessing all these physical changes going on from its celestial realm, but it's around this time that the initial twinkling of a rudimentary body up consciousness may have begun. Your first neural reflexes occurred at eight weeks, when fetuses have been observed to withdraw their hands in response to stimulation of the lip region.

During the next few months of intrauterine life you were like a scuba diver rolling around in a warm and comfy cushion of amniotic fluid at a temperature of about 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit. You were enveloped in water. It's interesting to note that many of humanity's creation myths begin in water. Genesis 1:1–2 says: "In the beginning of Creation, when God made heaven and earth, the earth was without form and void, with darkness over the face of the abyss, and a mighty wind that swept over the surface of the waters." In the Babylonian creation epic, Apsu (a freshwater god) and Tiamat (a saltwater god) represent the primeval waters at the beginning of time. Even the first Western philosopher, the Greek thinker Thales, suggested that the world originated from water, believing that the earth actually floated on the liquid stuff. Collective creation myths such as those found in the Bible and in other sacred and philosophical texts worldwide give us possibly the earliest chronicles of the actual collective memories of intrauterine existence as earthly body up awareness and celestial spirit down consciousness come together in a unified way.

Traditions differ in their accounts of when the spirit or soul actually enters the fetus. Buddhism generally regards conception as the time when the soul incarnates into matter. Judaism views the fetus as a "partial life" and only at birth is there a full human being. Aristotle wrote that the human fetus was animated or "ensouled" forty days after conception for males, and ninety days after conception for females. Some early Christian theologians regarded quickening (that time around the fourth or fifth month of pregnancy when the mother feels the life moving inside of her) as the central moment of the soul's entry into the fetus. In Dante's Divine Comedy there is an account of the spiritualization of the fetus given by the deceased Roman poet Statius to Dante and Virgil as they travel through Purgatory. Statius says, "Know soon as in the embryo, to the brain, / Articulation is complete, then turns / The primal Mover with a smile of joy / On such great work of nature, and imbreathes / New spirit replete with virtue, that what here / Active it finds, to its own substance draws, / And forms an individual soul, that lives, / And feels, and bends reflective on itself." Here one may also think of the words in Genesis 1:3–4: "Let there be light. And there was light. And God saw that the light was good." From the time of quickening, the light of consciousness shines more brightly from within the womb. Even a purely body up perspective bears this out. Science tells us that myelin deposits, those substances that provide insulation to the nervous system's wiring and conduct nerve impulses, appear as early as the fourth month of pregnancy and that brain life as we know it may begin around the 28th week of pregnancy.


Excerpted from "The Human Odyssey"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Thomas Armstrong, PhD.
Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Table of Contents


Introduction Starting Your Incredible Odyssey
Chapter 1 Prebirth: The Undiscovered Continent
Chapter 2 Birth: Through the Tunnel
Chapter 3 Infancy: Legends of the Fall
Chapter 4 Early Childhood: The Magical Mystery Years
Chapter 5 Middle Childhood: Entering the Civilized World
Chapter 6 Late Childhood: Becoming a Part of the Crowd
Chapter 7 Adolescence: Adventures in the Twilight Zone
Chapter 8 Early Adulthood: Building an Independent Life
Chapter 9 Midlife: Through Muddy Waters
Chapter 10 Mature Adulthood: Scaling the Peaks
Chapter 11 Late Adulthood: Approaching the Horizon
Chapter 12 Death and Dying: Crossing the Bridge
Chapter 13 Beyond Death: Travel to the Other Lands
Conclusion Planting Your Oar in the Sand
Appendix A
Appendix B
Appendix C

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