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Spiritual Growth

Everyone has the potential for growth towards wisdom and enlightenment.

The new paradigm for psychology deliberately uses secular terms when possible, sidestepping religious language. Although religious material may be useful by way of illustration and comparison, contentious and divisive religious claims are avoided.

To begin with, there is a distinction between beliefs arrived at solely through reasoning and convictions based on deeply personal experiences. More than rational logic is involved whenever someone is struggling to find truths by which to live. Psychology is therefore less concerned with beliefs, focusing more on observations, experiences and spiritual practices: regularly helping others, for example, in a context that need not be specifically religious.

Two elements mentioned in earlier posts come together at the heart of the new holistic or ‘psycho-spiritual' paradigm with a third. The first element involves spiritual development throughout life in stages (based on James Fowler's six ‘stages of faith'). The second element involves a split or dissonance, which first grows and later diminishes, between the ‘everyday ego' and the ‘spiritual self'.

The third element involves high, medium and low trajectories of spirituality through life (as in the diagram) and the possibility of abrupt or gradual shifts up or down between them in response to events, when ‘something happens' to weaken or strengthen a person's spiritual development.

Trajectories of spiritual development

This diagram may appear dull and two-dimensional, but it maps out exciting ideas that are backed by empirical research and other evidence. It shows along the baseline that we each begin our spiritual journey through life with an unblemished or ‘pristine' ego, characterised by wholeness and spontaneity, the purity of which remains influential within us as a true, higher or ‘spiritual' self, until a more complete ‘enlightened self' appears in stage six.

Very early, the infant perceives and identifies with its body, capable of feeling pain, discomfort, frustration, abandonment, emptiness and insatiability, experiencing itself as helpless and dependent one minute, all-powerful and all-knowing the next.

Needs associated with survival and desire come to the fore; matters at the heart of human psychology involving attachment, threat and loss. The pristine ego is pitted from the outset against the body-bound, earth-bound, time-bound ego of desire and survival. However, continuing as the spiritual self - some would call it ‘the soul' - its indivisible, holistic nature remains inviolable, however masked or otherwise hidden it remains.

Emerging from the pristine ego, the everyday ego and spiritual self are forever bound together like two light particles emanating from the same source. Spiritual maturity involves their reunion, but before that, in the nature of things, they must grow apart.

The drama plays itself out in adulthood mainly through stages three, four and five. Young children retain a strong capacity for spiritual awareness, but the ego/self split begins to widen as the teen years approach. It is useful to conceive of those retaining the strongest spiritual sensitivity as developing according to a low trajectory. Similarly, those who later do not consider themselves spiritual, people dominated by secular, worldly rather than spiritual values (of which more another time), can be considered as following a high trajectory. The majority of people, we can then say, follow a middle path somewhere between the two.

Child's grave

People on lower trajectories may experience shifts upwards to a medium or even high trajectory when ‘something happens'; something very challenging, like encountering an influential atheistic ideology, or like the sudden and unexpected death of a much-loved child. What follows can be characterised as ‘loss of faith'.

People on higher trajectories may comparably experience a shift downwards, characterised as ‘spiritual awakening'. This occurs again when ‘something happens', this time to illuminate their consciousness and sensibilities: surviving a plane crash, for example, or when a man gets up to speak at a conference and finds himself saying something profound that really moves the hearts of his listeners.

Hudson River plane crash 2009

He does not know how this happened, or where the eloquent words he has just spoken came to him from. This is why ‘something happens' is in quotes here, to indicate a transcendent quality to the experience. There is a sense of otherness, the affected person feeling influenced by some greater, wiser force or being. The effect is both profound and incontrovertible, however difficult it may be to describe or explain.

Implicit in the holistic paradigm, in this way of understanding human spiritual development, is that everyone has the potential for growth towards maturity, wisdom and enlightenment; although a person may get stuck at any of the earlier stages.

Fowler himself makes two important points: that, "The faith stages are not to be understood as an achievement scale by which to evaluate the worth of persons. Nor do they represent educational or therapeutic goals toward which to hurry people". (James Fowler ‘Stages of Faith', HarperSanFrancisco, 1981, page 114.)

Judging the spiritual development of other people is tricky, partly because of its deeply subjective nature, and partly too because - unless highly spiritually mature - we see each other only from our own incompletely developed perspective. One way or the other, our judgements are bound to be skewed.

Statistically, most adults are either at stage three, stage four, or in transition between the two. Transition between these stages involves a shift in values. It usually involves giving up attachments (to people, places, possessions, institutions, ideas and ideologies). It can therefore feel threatening in prospect, and be accompanied by a sense of loss when it happens. In other words, it can be tough... But progress also means gain, and I will say more about this too another time.

Copyright Larry Culliford

The diagram comes from my book ‘The Psychology of Spirituality: an introduction'. (London & Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley publishers, 2011, page 29.)

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