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Spiritual Development

In the view of spirituality presented here, enlightenment is a result of spiritual development. However, it would be a mistake to assume that progress toward enlightenment is linear or predictable, or that enlightenment is always total. Many people describe their spiritual journeys in terms of alternating periods of crystal-clear enlightenment and periods of struggle. But a person who has experienced absolute enlightenment, however briefly, knows that enlightenment is a real possibility in a way that those who only think about or aspire to enlightenment cannot. Enlightenment has two important aspects: a capacity to be intensely present without preconceptions or judgments, and constant awareness of oneself as being permeated by the ground of all being.

In 1944 Aldous Huxley published ‘‘The Perennial Philosophy,’’ in which he offered persuasive evidence that basic views about the nature of human spirituality espoused by the mystical strains of each major faith group, Eastern or Western, could be traced to a common underlying set of understandings about the human spirit that originated in India thousands of years ago. According to this view, personal realities are always incomplete pictures of spirituality; intuitive, mystical connection with the ground of being is superior to merely thinking about the ground of being; the human spirit has a divine nature and a person can come to identify with that universal Self rather than with the personal ego; and the ultimate purpose of spiritual development is to experience no separation from the ground of being.

Thus, spiritual development can be defined in terms of movement toward ultimate possibilities, and the highest regions of spiritual development occur in the development of a capacity that allows consciousness to transcend the boundaries of body, language, reason, and culture. Movement toward ultimate possibilities means movement from simple imitative and dependent spiritual thought and behavior; toward a personal mental picture of spiritual issues that integrates both inner and outer life experiences of spirituality; toward subtle, contemplative, and transcendent understanding of the common ground of both inner and outer life experiences; toward being fully united with the ultimate ground of all being. Spiritual development is a process of transcendence that could be seen as a continuing spiral of increasingly broad understanding and experience of oneself and the universe.

Some who write about spiritual development emphasize the continuing nature of spiritual development. For example, Zen master Joko Beck sees spiritual development as something that grows out of the daily practice of sitting meditation and bringing present-moment consciousness to everyday life. ‘‘Enlightenment is not something you achieve. It is the absence of something. All your life you have been going forward for something, pursuing some goal. Enlightenment is dropping all that. But to talk about it is of little use. The practice has to be done by each individual. There is no substitute. We can read about it until we are a thousand years old and it won’t do a thing for us’’ (Beck, p. 5). Also, ‘‘Attention is the cutting, burning sword, and our practice is to use that sword as much as we can’’ (Beck, p. 32). In this view the process, not progress or achieving levels of spiritual understanding, is the focus.

Others view spiritual development as having identifiable stages. For example, Fowler conceived of adult spiritual development as having the following developmental stages: an individual-reflective stage in which the self begins to turn from external sources of spiritual authority, and toward the development of an internal moral and spiritual orientation that has personal meaning for the individual; a conjunctive stage characterized by greater acceptance of paradox and ambiguity, a deepening sense of understanding, disillusionment with the overreliance on logic and rational thought that typifies the individual-reflective stage, and a more open attitude toward religions or views of spirituality other than one’s own; and a universalizing stage involving a rare willingness to give up oneself and one’s life to make spiritual values a reality in the social world. Fowler felt that there was a link between life stage and spiritual development, with the individual-reflective stage being likely in young adulthood and the conjunctive stage developing in midlife and later. He did not think that many people reached the universalizing stage.

Wilber saw spiritual development as progressing from an emphasis on sensory knowing in childhood, through various levels of rational knowing in early adulthood, to contemplative knowing, beginning in midlife. For example, children often have their first mystical experiences through sensory sources, such as communing with nature or listening to sacred music or seeing an awesome sunset. Later on, adults can experience tremendous inspiration through their minds, from written and spoken words, scarcely aware that the silence between and around those words may be crucial to their feeling of spiritual connection. As people continue on their spiritual journey, most develop some sort of discipline, a repetitive activity that allows them to transcend their self-consciousness to experience a serenity of inner being.

Moody and Carroll described five stages of spiritual development: the call, the search, the struggle, the breakthrough, and the return. The call occurs when one experiences an inner yearning for connection, or deeper connection, with the spiritual Self. The call may initially be a feeling that there is an empty part of oneself; later it may be a feeling that the spiritual aspect of oneself is not yet fully developed. The search involves finding and exploring a spiritual path. The search may occur in the context of a traditional religion, or it may involve an exploration and sampling of many sacred traditions. The struggle often involves overcoming the ego’s resistance to meditative or contemplative practices aimed at transcendence. Beginning meditators often experience profound discomfort from the countless objections and obstacles the mind creates to prevent the experience of quiet mind. Breakthroughs occur when the obstacles or objections to transcendence have been overcome, even if the overcoming is temporary. However, once people experience pure mindfulness and transcendent consciousness, they are likely to remain motivated in their intention to be open to experiencing these qualities as part of their awareness.

When people develop transcendent awareness, they do not typically drop out of the world. Instead, they continue their customary lives, but their perspective on those lives is transformed. The return involves bringing the spiritual insights gained through transcendence into the world. The form such service takes depends in large part on the spiritual path chosen. A path of devotion can lead back to being an exemplar of devotion. A path of insight and understanding may come back in the form of being a teacher or a leader. One characteristic that all who have broken through share is the capacity to see the world from a nonpersonal perspective that is open, unselfish, honest, trustworthy, compassionate, and clear-minded, among many other qualities. Quietly bringing these qualities to all that one does in life can be a powerful effect of the return.

Moody and Carroll’s progression is not meant to imply that there is just one course to complete, and then one is enlightened. Rather, it is a cyclic process through which one becomes more and more enlightened by going through the entire process they describe whenever one experiences a call for deeper development.

But how does one know that one’s spiritual experiences are authentic? After all, the human mind is quite skillful in leading one to misperceive all manner of phenomena. First, millions of men and women over thousands of years and in a wide variety of historical eras and cultures have reported having experienced a universal presence as a part of themselves. This inner experience is reported as a direct connection that bypasses the verbal mind and therefore is less susceptible to personal or cultural bias. Second, spiritual communities serve an important function by collectively reflecting on individual spiritual experiences. Sharing of spiritual experiences and insights within a spiritual community is an important protection against mistaking a subtle ego agenda for spiritual realization.

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