The Second Half of Life:
Opening the Eight Gates of Wisdom

by Angeles Arrien


Sounds True, 2005. ISBN 1591792525.
Reviewed by Mary Ann Moore
Posted on 05/10/2006

Nonfiction: Life Lessons; Elders

Dr. Angeles Arrien is a cultural anthropologist who uses images, poetry, metaphor and other forms of symbolic language from world cultures in her work. I have enjoyed and learned from all her books: The Four-Fold Way: Walking the Paths of the Warrior, Teacher, Healer, and Visionary; Signs of Life: The Five Universal Shapes and How to Use Them; The Nine Muses: A Mythical Path to Creativity; and The Tarot Handbook. They have inspired my writing and the writing I do in community with others. Arrien is a consultant to many organizations and businesses, serves as president of the Foundation for Cross-Cultural Education and Research, and is a Fellow at the Institute of Noetic Sciences.

In her latest book, The Second Half of Life, Arrien invites readers to reconnect and resurrect their dreams that may have been derailed along the way. She describes the thresholds we must cross, in our middle years, in order to fulfil the final stages of our destiny. It is a real honouring of our elder years, which I very much appreciate in a culture that wants us to look and act as if we are not aging at all.

The book was elegantly designed by Bren Frisch and Karen Polaski for Sounds True. The hand images at the beginning of chapters and the foot images at the end of chapters are symbols of entering and leaving the eight gates. They also symbolize much more, including the purifying or marking of hands and feet before or after an initiation, as is done in many cultures of the world.

The eight gates, each with a chapter devoted to it, include "the task," "the challenge," and "the gift" followed by "reflections." As Arrien points out, "Reflection is one of numerous contemplative wisdom practices found in all world traditions." Journaling your insights is suggested as "an old reflective practice" and one that will help you notice "what is arising in the moment." "Practice" follows "reflections" as a way to build upon reflection by taking daily action that supports change. For instance, the Silver Gate (the first of the eight gates) compels you to look back at what you already know of yourself and to begin the "long journey back home to our true selves." The practice is to track the five stages of the soul—the call, the search, the struggle, the breakthrough and the return.

The task at the White Picket Fence is to "uncover or awaken to the essence of who we truly are beyond masks..." The Clay Gate (the third gate) is "our initiation into intimacy, sensuality, and sexuality." Arrien quotes a wide array of poets, writers and thinkers, including Eduardo Galeano who wrote, "The body says: I am a fiesta." When you think of your body in that way, it helps to embrace it more fully.

The Black and White Gate is a double gate of relationships and the only one you must go through in the company of at least one other person. Relationships (including those between mates and lovers, parents and children, teachers and students), according to the author, "teach us about our capacity for love, forgiveness, and respect for others."

At the Rustic Gate of weathered wood, readers are asked to explore meaningful work, service, and creativity. The challenge of this gate is to stay connected to the Four Rivers of Life and ask, "How will we use our generative energies?"

The sixth gate is the Bone Gate, which brings us to the "bones of who we are"—a metaphor for our authentic self. The Bone Gate urges a development of character, integrity, and wisdom. Again, Arrien passes on the wisdom of indigenous peoples who say "In order to return to our true nature, we must befriend four essential symbolic bones in our body"—the backbone, the wishbone, the funny bone and the hollow little bone. The hollow little bone allows "the Mystery to work us rather than trying to work the Mystery."

The seventh gate is the Natural Gate, where "we are encouraged to come home to our natural rhythm and our internal sanctuary." Many spiritual traditions recognize four natural sanctuaries as the desert, the mountains, the waters, and the woods. In the Practice section of the chapter, Arrien suggests spending an hour outdoors every day and spending at least a half hour every day in silence "to deeply listen to the center of your being."

The final gate in the initiatory process of the "second half of life" is the Gold Gate, the gate of "surrender, faith and acceptance." The challenge is to release critical judgments, accepting circumstances rather than resigning ourselves to them. Theologian Mary Reuter, to whom Arrien refers, "says that we can experience fearlessness through three layers of detachment: detachment from material gain; detachment from self-importance; and detachment from the urge to control or dominate others. To hold onto nothing is the root of happiness and peace." In the practice section of this chapter, Arrien suggests creating a Book of Revelations, including favorite memories, turning points, spiritual practices and important dreams. It sounds like a worthwhile way to assess what one truly values and to acknowledge longings that have not yet been satisfied.

The Second Half of Life is very rich in resources throughout the book and in the extensive bibliography. That doesn't mean it's at all overwhelming. I found the book a very gentle way to initiate oneself into the fullness of our elder years. As wise elders who have honoured ourselves, we can pass along our lessons and unique gifts as a legacy to the generations that follow us.

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