Often the histories of civilizations are divided into preclassic, classic and postclassic periods. With a little practice anyone can usually recognize Maya society's preclassic, classic and postclassic art styles.

For example, preclassic Maya pottery (±2000 BC-AD 250) is utilitarian and ornamented with reserve, if at all. Classic (±250-1000 AD) pottery often is painted with more than one color (polychrome), vessel walls are thinner, shapes are more streamlined, and hieroglyphic text may be worked into the design. Texts typically deal with events of war and religion. Postclassic (±1000-conquest) vessels often bear a glassy finish from higher kiln temperatures, and figures and hieroglyphics on them are executed with flair, with quick brushstrokes, sometimes appearing to have been mass produced.

From what I've seen, all complex, evolving systems develop along similar lines. People are complex, evolving systems, so do humans pass through preclassic, classic and postclassic periods? When I think about it, I see lots of analogies.

A problem with the notion is that the word "classic" suggests the maximum expression of something, so that "postclassic" automatically takes on the aura of being a lesser time, one of degeneration. Everyone wants to be "classic," not "postclassic."

But, if you pay attention to history, it's clear that postclassic periods aren't so bad. A postclassic society may have lost its military and economic domination, and its religious zeal, but, really, is that so bad? I'm not the only one to wonder whether ancient Maya civilization "collapsed" not because of a particular war, famine, disease, hurricane, or soil depletion, or any other of the usual suspects, but from this: In their postclassic/old-age wisdom, maybe people just finally figured out that it was silly to keep supporting all those wars the politicians got them into, and to keep building temples and delivering sacrificial victims to their ever-more-extreme but obviously ueseless priestly class.

I find lots of older folks coming to the same conclusions about their own postclassic lives, and I regard that as enlightenment, not degeneration.

Maybe one reason people hesitate to think of their own lives in terms of preclassic, classic and postclassic periods is the thought of what comes when the postclassic ends.

The Maya say that when one cycle ends, another begins, so they're not too worried about it. I'm not, either.

In fact, I rather like contemplating the end of my own postclassic period... the very moment when old beliefs fall away but new ones haven't formed yet. The moment of purified being, and nothing more.