For a person who can see the limitation of materialism as a way of life, then perhaps sometime in his mature years he will feel the call of an internal yearning. This yearning signifies that his soul is calling him. This yearning will propel him on a voyage of discovery as he seeks to understand and fulfil that yearning. As he goes on the traditional ‘soul search’ to find meaning in life he needs to understand that this soul search has several stages to it, which reflect the stages of spiritual development, spiritual growth, that he has to traverse.
This stage theory of development is comparable to the stages of cognitive growth in childhood. I give a résumé of one influential stage theory of the child’s growth of understanding, that due to Jean Piaget.
Piaget saw cognitive growth as occurring in four clear stages.
Stage 1 is from 0-2 years and is called the sensori-motor stage. The child’s thinking is mainly non-verbal and it explores the world through trial and error. During this period the infant begins to develop symbolic functions, for example, the beginning of language, the use of make-believe play, and imitation of the actions of other people.
Stage 2 is from 2-7 years and is the pre-operational stage. Symbolic functions continue to develop. The child’s thinking is pre-conceptual, since classifications of objects is rudimentary. It understands absolute terms, for example ‘tall’, but not relative (that is, relational) ones, for example ‘taller’. It focuses on one attribute at a time when handling objects: it can order objects according to height, or according to shape, but not according to both simultaneously.
Stage 3 is from 7-11 years and is the stage of concrete operations. The child can perform logical operations but only on real objects actually present. Absolute thinking declines and is replaced by relative thinking. The child can classify objects on the basis of two or more attributes. Questions and statements are understood literally ; imaginative power is limited – asked what will be the consequences if people had tails, the child will dismiss the question as being nonsense, or merely say where on the body a tail might be seen.
Stage 4 is from 11-15 years and is the stage of formal operations. The child acquires the ability to manipulate ideas or propositions: it can reason by using verbal statements alone, the presence of objects being unnecessary. Its intellectual ability develops.
Some thinkers have included a fifth stage : the ability to handle uncertainty in scientific and ideological theories.
These ideas of Piaget apply to the spiritual seeker. Whatever his chronological age, when he begins his soul search he is beginning it as a spiritual child.
In the first stage the person fumbles chaotically with all the seemingly diverse, even contradictory, ideas on the spiritual life. What should he investigate, what should he avoid ? . Everything is trial and error. Sooner or later he begins to reach the end of this stage. His thinking on his search is mainly symbolic, since he cannot yet conceptualise what he needs.
As he begins to feel in harmony with some particular tradition he enters stage 2. His symbolic thinking continues to develop: it may be aligned to romanticism, for example the romanticism of Camelot and the Grail Quest ; or it may be aligned in a more solemn direction, for example the seriousness of religion. At this stage, symbolic thinking dominates ; the advantage of symbolism is that the seeker can adjust traditional teachings to suit his own feelings. So symbolically Jesus died for our sins, thereby promising a place for us in heaven ; so Krishna’s antics as a child allow us to align with a beneficent and playful god, thereby symbolising that not all gods are wrathful ones.
If the seeker’s religious feelings are light-weight ones then he may gravitate to an evangelical church ; if his feeling are heavy, he may prefer Catholicism. His ideas on spiritual reality tend to be non-cohesive: he functions on single attributes at a time and cannot fit his ideas into a coherent pattern. For example, he sees himself living just one life until he enters everlasting paradise ; where he came from before birth and why he is at present on Earth are issues that he cannot handle. Reincarnation is too complex a theory for him to accept. He tends to think in absolute terms : his path is the only right one and all other paths are wrong or inferior. He cannot yet take individual responsibility for his life (though he may participate in group responsibilities).
Stage 3 inaugurates concrete operations. The seeker takes literally the stories of the childhood of his revered teacher and takes literally the meaning of scriptures. This literal interpretation is the centre-piece of his religious understanding. He will be dismayed by liberal theologians who attempt to discard this romantic scenario. Now the seeker may focus on ritual. Everything has to be concrete in order to be real to him, and ritual turns symbolism into concrete acts of worship. He is beginning to take individual responsibility for his spiritual life.
As he matures in this stage he may begin seriously to practise meditation and any other technique which will develop psychic ability in him. His thinking gradually discards the absolute mode and becomes relative: he can now be tolerant of opinions different from his own.
A few seekers reach stage 4, the stage of abstract and intellectual thought about spirituality. Most seekers do not. Most teachers do not. The ability to live in a world of ideas makes little connection with the aspirations of most seekers. Anyone can discuss theology, but metaphysics is an unattractive option. ‘Truth’ is a powerful and romantic symbol that most teachers lay claim to, but the reality can be otherwise. Too often the claim to ‘Truth’ allows the teacher to make disciples submit to his authority and his desire for power.
When the seeker at this stage studies the life and works of the great teachers he looks for the spirit behind the image, he seeks to understand the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law.
I seem to be at stage 5, the stage when the possibility of further evolution for me in the next few lifetimes seems to be uncertain. My previous certainty over where I was going has disintegrated. My psychological and analytical approach to spirituality has turned me into an exile from my own tradition, which is the Egyptian one (the motif of which is: to know thyself ).
Three Levels of Searching
These ideas can be re-formulated to show their central themes by dividing the soul search into three main levels :
a). The search for a spiritual identity ;
b). The search for understanding of life ;
c). The search for meaning.
In level (a), the search of a spiritual identity may stop at any appropriate point between stages 1-3, depending on the seeker’s degree of sophistication. At these stages the seeker is satisfied by a few visions or by a few miraculous phenomena, or by the air of certainty of a teacher. [Miracles are phenomena that obey occult laws, not material laws].
Level (b) is a transition level, representing stage 4, where the person leaves behind the search for identity and has not yet begun the search for meaning. It is transitional since a purely rational theory on its own brings no sense of certainty with it. Rationality cannot anchor faith ; only intuition can do that. Hence the seeker will either fall back into level (a), seeking solace in an authoritarian church or a charismatic teacher, or else be propelled by his internal drive into the search for meaning.
Level (c) is stage 5, the search for meaning. This search is the search for the source of one’s suffering.
Generalising Stage Learning
This stage learning applies to the development of every form of ability that requires conceptual skills. I have generalised Piaget’s ideas in order to apply them to the spiritual life. However, they apply equally well to other domains of ideas and beliefs. A person normally keeps his views on life in separate mental compartments. His beliefs about the domains of politics, morality, religion, sexuality, etc, are not co-ordinated but function as separate patterns of thought.
Consider the political domain. Some politicians prefer to fumble along on trial and error whilst others make 5-year plans. Some politicians have only absolute thoughts on policy, other politicians are relativistic. Some politicians can handle responsibility, others cannot.
Consider poetry. Stage 2 is the symbolism of Mallarmé ; stage 3 is the literalness of Masefield’s ‘Cargoes’. Stage 4 is intellectual, perhaps the later Joyce is here.
To this stage theory of any domain we have to consider the depth of experience of each person. Because Masefield was at stage 3, this did not automatically make him a better poet than Mallarmé. Mallarmé seems to have been on a deeper level of thought than Masefield. If Mallarmé had moved on to stage 3, his poetical literalness would most likely have been more profound than that of Masefield.
Stage theory can account for a puzzling feature of the process of spiritual growth. Initially the seeker may experience dazzling states of joy or love, but as he matures over the passage of time he will find that such religious or spiritual emotions will decrease in their intensity. They may even fade away completely. Why does this happen ? . Has the soul-search gone wrong in some way ? . To explain this effect it is helpful to be aware of the Buddhist view of the experience of emotions when in meditational trance.
Within Buddhism is the idea of the change in intensity of emotions as the person progresses up the levels of meditational states of trance. At the first level of trance, emotional intensities are coarse and powerful. As the levels of trance rise to more subtle regions of mind, so the emotions become more gentle and refined too.
These changes in intensity of emotions, especially those of love and joy, are quite likely to confuse the seeker as to his progress. When I first experienced divine love, several years before my self-analysis began, I found it to be an overwhelming event. Paradise must be truly wonderful if a person feels this intensity of love all the time. When I experienced such love near the end of my analysis, it was still a marvellous feeling, but it was nothing like as intense as that first experience years before. Some years after my analysis ended, such love now appeared only as a subtle and gentle mood, nice rather than wonderful.
What is the cause of this change ? . The difference in the intensities of love reflects the change in the intensity of my vanity. When vanity is intense, then other emotions, including love, will also be intense. As the seeker learns to reduce the intensity of his vanity, so therefore other emotions are reduced in intensity too.
When the seeker begins his spiritual or religious search, the first states of spiritual joy or love that he experiences are likely to be overwhelming and gushing. In the course of time, as he matures and his vanity no longer takes centre-stage, the intensities of these emotions will gradually fade until they become refined and gentle. Strong emotional fervour is never a sign of maturity, hence the seeker needs to avoid being stuck at the stage of religious passion. Passion is only the bait to get the person committed to a spiritual way of life.
This process of vanity-reduction highlights the basic reason for the existence of stages. As the child grows from infant to adolescent, its intensity of vanity has to be adjusted in order to match the demands of a physical existence. Therefore each progressive stage is a stage of ‘reality testing’, when the ego has to reduce its concept of self-importance (or vanity) in the light of experience. Self-importance is the centre of the child’s system of beliefs, so each new stage requires the child to alter and adjust its beliefs.
Stage theory is really the concept that a person constructs several stages
of central beliefs in the course of his life.
At each stage, the person constructs a set of core beliefs that enables him to function adequately at that stage. Therefore, in order to move on to the next stage, he has to adjust or change his set of core beliefs. The child can do this much more easily than the adult can. And so most adults will try to avoid such change if they possible can.
This view of stage theory helps to explain the differences in the way that children learn. When a child is slow to progress to the next stage beyond where he is now, this slowness is due to the difficulty that he has in formulating (consciously or subconsciously) the central beliefs necessary to that stage. All average children have gone through the first three stages in their past lives (their past incarnations on Earth), so these stages are easy to re-learn. But they may not have used stage 4, the stage of formal operations, in past lives : the abilities generated in this stage are not always needed in life. The child who does not progress to stage 4 has not learned to place any value on the intellect ; therefore he is not motivated to develop intellectual ability. He is likely to centre his beliefs on the importance either of desire or of emotion, and not on the mind.
What makes a human life so complicated is that a person may manifest different stages of growth in the different domains of his life. Beliefs do not mature at an equal rate in the various domains. For example, a person may simultaneously be at stage 4 in a social domain, stage 3 in a political domain, and stage 1 in a religious domain. These different stages of immaturity allow full reign for the play of self-deception and confusion.
Piaget’s stages in childhood reflect the process of individual and social development of the infant-to-adult. Beyond this process there is the maturation of ethical and political thought, and finally the maturation of spiritual thought.
All cognitive processes indicate that human development is by stages. But just as excessive stress can make an adult regress into childhood, so a person can always regress from whichever political or spiritual stage he has attained. Evolution follows a zig-zag course and is never a continuous ascending level of achievement.
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Copyright © 2002 Ian Heath, owner of a map of psychological spirituality suitable for modern times.
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