The path of spiritual and psychological development is not linear. In short, this means that we can toss out the idea that we are supposed to get better and better, day-by-day, eventually reaching a pinnacle of perfection. In reality, development is not only continual, but it is cyclical in nature.
By continual, I mean that we are never finished. It's easy to see that physical fitness isn't something that we "complete." We don't imagine that if we exercise everyday, we will eventually have a perfect body, free of disease and inevitable decay. We don't think that yesterday's yoga class means that we never have to stretch again. But we can feel that way about our mind and spirit—like we should be done already. People bemoan the work it can take to stay mentally and spiritually healthy: "Haven't I done enough therapy, gone to enough meetings, etc.?" The answer is, "No." Not that you need to relentlessly manage your spiritual and emotional path, but you do have to acknowledge that you are still on one. And you will be tomorrow—just like you will need to eat breakfast even though you ate it today.
By cyclical, I mean that we will spiral around the same themes throughout our lives. Our relationship to the themes will change over time, but we don't necessarily conquer them. Personal growth isn't like checking todo items off of a list. We carry who we are from one item to the next, and we stay who we are throughout our entire lives.
An example of cyclical development can be seen when we look at faith. A person's faith waxes and wanes over time. It may become more robust in the long haul, but this usually occurs through a process of spiraling through connection and disconnection. This is because circumstances in life create new learning about what you believe, which in turn informs how you feel and express those beliefs. Depending on where you are in your cyclical process, you might be feeling a lot of faith, or none at all: and neither defines the totality of your experience. They are just markers for where you are at the moment.
Cyclical development does not mean that there isn't growth or change, or that freedom from certain patterns isn't achieved. In fact, it is because we are forever moving into different places in our lives (that are truly new) that the pattern itself is not the same as it was experienced before. Remember the saying by Heraclitus,
"You cannot step twice into the same river; for other waters are continually flowing in."
We are forever changing just as the waters are changing. So you might be beating yourself up for going through something "again," but chances are it is a more nuanced experience this time around, with more insight then you had before. And, this isn't a static state. Even if you stay put in the river, the water will continue to wash over you, ultimately informing and changing your experience.
One positive aspect of cyclical development is that we don't have to feel bad if we aren't in the "sweet spot" all the time. There are days when you don't want to exercise. It doesn't mean you will never want to exercise again. The same is true with your spiritual and emotional path. You may not feel very connected to your Higher Power, or you may be experiencing some challenging feelings. I invite you to bring great compassion to your process and to trust that the inevitable cycles of life will bring you back to the "sweet spot" of mastery, maturity, or mindfulness once again. In this view, there really are no wrong turns when it comes to emotional sobriety. There is simply a process of returning back to your true self, back to your challenges, and back to another opportunity to redefine them in a more sophisticated and nuanced manner.
Ingrid Mathieu, Ph.D. is a psychotherapist and author of Recovering Spirituality: Achieving Emotional Sobriety in Your Spiritual Practice.
Copyright by Ingrid Mathieu, Ph.D., 2011. All rights reserved. Any excerpts reproduced from this article should include links to the original on Psychology Today.