I have been asked to talk to you today because I have written a book on how to nurture spiritual development. This is a very brief outline of the stages, concepts and holistic model of human development that are described. The main impetus for writing the book in the first instance was to inform other adults – particularly other parents and teachers – about a number of outstanding breakthroughs in the realms of psychology and education .Although I had taught for more than 20 years in schools and had attended several inset days and many conferences, it was only in 2005, when I began to study full-time for an MA in Religious Education that I heard about these new ideas.
When I was first trained to be a teacher in 1980 the only theory of human development which we were taught was Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development and the final stage which he described – when a person is able to think using abstract concepts – is possible, he suggested, from the age of about 11 years old. In contrast, Lawrence Kohlberg’s 6 stages of moral reasoning, Erik Erikson’s 8 stages of identity formation, Lev Vygotsky’s framework of conceptual development and James Fowler’s 6 stages of faith development – all of which are based on fairly extensive empirical research – together present a much fuller, broader and more substantial vision of human development. The insights of these four renowned experts make a valuable contribution to the holistic model of human development which is described in my book - a model which is founded on the concept of evolution - the idea that every human life is potentially the progressive unfolding of a unique and yet universal spiritual journey. It is also backed up by neuro-scientific research, autobiographical accounts, the wisdom of other recognized professionals as well as Biblical doctrine.
What is spirituality?
My first task was to reflect on this question: and after reading what many other people had said about it, there were four formulations which I felt came fairly close to elucidating the essence of the concept – an essence which can alternatively be called the ultimate truth, the ultimate reality as well as God.
That, without which no thing can be, or even be thought.
The third quotation is very thought-provoking
That was said by Einstein - and it began to clarify, for me, the error of assuming that the transient and ever-changing physical world constitutes the whole of reality because it is evidently possible for people to penetrate beyond what has been called the barrier of the senses if their intellectual and emotional faculties are sufficiently focused and well-integrated. This is not to suggest that we would all be Einstein’s were we able to do so!
The fourth statement is in many ways even more thought-provoking, because it implies that spirituality is my self and your self and the self of every other person. As such, it can never be perceived by the senses or be accurately defined as an exclusive concept that is external to anyone.
What is the goal of spiritual development?
This was the second question which I considered and this question can be answered in both non-religious and religious terms as it is a central concept within every religious tradition. All of the following answers suggest that there is an ultimate aim of a human life that can be fulfilled, none are materialistic and the ones I quote have all been formulated by people who strongly support the vision of a holistic education – an education which provides the means by which young people can realize the goal of spiritual development as well as wisdom – during their adult lives. The first answer – the realization of a person’s full unique human potential - highlights the importance of being able to recognize the talents with which we have each been endowed as well as the self-discipline to develop them fully. The next three have been suggested by psychologists. Abraham Maslow described self-actualization as the sine qua non of psychological health and he explained that the more we make efforts to become fully human the more often we enjoy spiritual or peak experiences in our everyday lives. He suggests that only a self-actualizing person is able to love another person fully.
Carl Rogers emphasized the importance of congruence – being the same on the inside as we are on the outside – and of not presenting a false mask or persona to other people or ourselves.
Carl Jung suggested that there is a universal quest for psychic wholeness and balance and that this could be attained by heeding the prompts of our self, not the desires of our individual ego. I found his distinction between the self and the ego incredibly useful because before I had read his work, in my own mind, I had believed that the two words meant the same thing. He described the ego as just a small part of the human psyche in contrast to the self which is its nucleus and totality.
The 3 final answers are from different religious traditions. Self-realization is a key concept within the Hindu Vedic tradition and whilst there are different schools of thought, it is generally agreed that the veils of human ignorance can only be dissolved when a person has practiced selflessness, love of God and yoga.
The Buddha described an eightfold path as the way to enlightenment and the practice of righteousness and harmlessness are the principle characteristics of this path - right speech, right action and right livelihood directly concerning our moral conduct in the world.
Jesus, of course, spoke of the importance of practising the two commandments and of seeking the kingdom of God and his righteousness.
I was deeply struck by the wisdom of both the psychologists and the different religious traditions and my current understanding is that at any stage of human life a person’s spiritual development is – to a considerable extent – dependent upon the degree to which they follow the prompts of their own conscience.
So when does our spiritual journey begin?
When we are born - but upon reflection, it is clear that spiritual development is not a straightforward, linear progression in terms of the state of being and awareness which people experience and consequently enjoy. As this picture indicates, a baby is completely at one with the world when he or she is born.
All very young children whose basic needs have been satisfied are bright, happy, honest, open, uninhibited, loving and confident and this state of being closely resembles that of a person who has realized their universal, spiritual identity. Beginning to feel that I have a separate existence is a critical event in everyone’s life and yet one that is not generally understood, I believe.
Temper tantrums which begin at about two years old indicate the emergence - as well as the power - of the ego, but for much of the time young children are free from its domination and they are generally eager to please, to obey, to help others and to learn. As the will of the ego generally opposes the prompts of conscience, gently but firmly training a young child to practise following wise precepts such as the Golden Rule – or ‘Do as you would be done by’ – the cornerstone of all humanitarian principles as well as to practise obeying the adult who is responsible for them - is likely to make it much easier for them to follow their conscience when they are unsupervised or when they are older.
Many years ago now, I had noticed that there was a change in the perspective of children that I was teaching at the time but it was only when I read ‘Thought and Language’ by Lev Vygotsky, the Russian educational psychologist, that I began to really understand the significance of the change that occurs when we are about seven years old. He explained that even when young children speak to others, they believe that their speech belongs to everyone and that they are participating in a communal monologue – not participants in a dialogue between different people. His research demonstrated that this monologue, or self-talk [which has also been translated as egocentric speech] is internalized to form inner speech and that this process is complete when a child is seven or eight years old. From this age onwards, we begin to believe that our spiritual identity is located inside our own physical body and a positive outcome of this is that we then have the capacity to think independently and to solve problems. As such, it is a natural and universal occurrence although as individual people we may or may not remember the exact moment when it took place.
This, then, is the beginning of the next key stage which may continue for many years or even for the whole of the rest of our life. During this stage it is as if only the temporal, diverse, transient physical world exists and the spiritual realm – a realm in which everyone and everything is connected - is easily forgotten. Only when, like the prodigal son, who came to himself and remembered the abundance of his father’s house, I think, do we really begin our spiritual journey home to the place where we all belong.
A human being is evidently not just their physical body and whilst the body is the most tangible and measurable aspect of a person the soul or spirit is the most intangible, unlimited, creative and potent.
Recent neuro-scientific research would indicate that except for higher conceptual processes, what had been thought of as the whole mind and commonly associated with thinking and the head is primarily the functioning of the verbal, left hemisphere of the brain and that what had been thought as the heart and commonly associated with feeling and the chest region of the body is primarily the functioning of the nonverbal, right hemisphere.
This diagram is a simple way of representing these four dimensions of every human being: their body, their mind or intellectual realm, their heart or emotional realm and their soul or spiritual realm. Each one operates in a different sphere or domain – the body being – as it were - the outermost and most physical and the soul or spirit being – as it were - the innermost, deepest and most substantial aspect of our being. Higher conceptual thought processes physically take place in the frontal lobes of both the left and the right hemispheres and these lobes are more highly developed in humans than they are in any other living species. Their functions include decision making, planning, visualization, discernment, attention control and working memory and they also enable us to take our feelings into account – complex emotions such as regret, guilt, loyalty and empathy.
My current understanding is that the penetration of the barrier of the senses was the original aim of every religious tradition and in fact some scholars believe that all the main traditions arose as a direct consequence of a ‘great awakening’ which took place five centuries before Jesus of Nazareth was born. Bede Griffiths, for example, who studied both Eastern and Western doctrines in considerable depth and who [as far as I am aware] first formulated the ultimate aim of human life in this way, suggested that ’in India and China, in Persia and Greece, a movement of thought began, by which mankind finally pierced through the barrier of the senses and discovered the mystery of the world which lies beyond.’ I think Jesus was referring to this world when he spoke of the kingdom of God and the Kingdom of heaven.
The faith of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who was both a palaeontologist and a Jesuit priest was also trans-religious in that he tried to reconcile Christian theology with the scientific theory of evolution. He reasoned that there must be an end and a purpose of evolution, suggesting that mankind as a whole has the capacity to further evolve, thus fulfilling its ultimate purpose - a Golden Age of brotherhood, reason, peace, love and harmony. Carl Jung’s faith was also trans-religious and his theory of how – as individual people – we can become whole – is perhaps the simplest and easiest to describe. He suggested that a person becomes whole when the four faculties of sensation, thinking, feeling and intuition are equally well-developed and integrated within their personality because they are then aware of Unus Mundus [one world] - a world in which there is no division between an inner and an outer world or a spiritual and a physical world. He explained that each faculty provides an important aspect of knowing. Sensation and sensory perception tell us that a thing is. Thinking tells us what it is. Feeling tells us what its value is – what it means or what it is worth. Intuition he called a divine faculty because it makes up for what we cannot perceive with our physical senses. His description of this process very much reminded me of the call of Jesus to his first disciples primarily because he used the same metaphor – that of a fisherman.
Due to the relative densities of water and ice, one fifth of the volume of a free-floating iceberg is visible above the surface of the water whilst four fifths lie below and the theory of the whole human psyche described by the psychologist Sigmund Freud, whom Jung worked with for several years, is often represented as an iceberg in that human beings tend to only be aware of a small part of their mind [what is called their conscious mind - the ice above the surface of the water] whilst the vast subconscious spiritual dimension of their mind [which includes their deepest desires, aspirations, feelings, intuition, undiscovered talents, innate instincts and conscience] lies below the surface of the water and is relatively unobservable. After several years of working together, Jung found that he fundamentally disagreed with Freud and it was then that their close association ceased. His theory can be visually represented as islands because although they look distinct and separate from one another above the surface of the sea, they are in fact all connected together at the level of the ocean floor. In addition, whilst Freud believed that people are primarily motivated and dominated by the desire to satisfy their libidinal needs, Jung believed that people are primarily motivated by the desire for spiritual liberation and wholeness.
It is now generally accepted that the cognition of the left hemisphere directly corresponds to what is called the conscious mind [one fifth of the iceberg] and that the cognition of the right hemisphere corresponds to the subconscious [four fifths of the iceberg - all that lies below the surface of the water]. It is of increasing concern that there is overwhelming evidence that whereas the functions of the left hemisphere receive extensive training in our schools those of the right hemisphere do not. The spiritual journey towards wholeness, fulfilment, happiness and liberation necessarily requires the development and integration of the emotional, creative, intuitive aspect of a person as well as the awakening of their spiritual intelligence.
Our spirituality, then, is that aspect of ourselves which does not change as our body, mind and emotions change and whether or not as individual people we acknowledge or believe in its existence, it is eternally omnipresent. When Jesus spoke the sentences ‘I am the light of the world’ and ‘Ye are the light of the world’ , ‘Before Abraham was, I am.’ [as well as many others] I believe that he was referring to this true light – the light of God - which illumines and pervades every aspect of every person that is born into the world and I think that a deeply religious person – of any faith and of any denomination – has a distinct advantage over those who have little or no faith – in the sense that like Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama and Sir Jonathan Sacks – they are much more likely to complete the spiritual journey. When we identify that spiritual light with our physical body, a thought in our mind or a concern of our heart, our true light [the universal ‘I’ that lives alongside our individual egos] is substituted by a lesser light [that of a comparatively small, separate independent self] and as a consequence of this we do not perceive reality as it really is or experience freedom, wholeness, fulfilment, happiness, peace, fear, awe or wonder.
As a person’s spiritual development proceeds there is therefore effectively much more individual freedom of choice available to them and the claim of having a separate and finite existence is willingly surrendered, once they have attained the highest stages of faith and reason.
I think that when a person follows the calls of their conscience, their godhead within, their spiritual development naturally unfolds and proceeds. There may then come a time during their life when this light of man shines through their mind as universal reason and through their heart as universal love and I believe that only then is it possible for anyone to have sufficient intellectual and emotional strength and stamina to stand alone [when this is necessary] or to stand together with others as a single one.
The human heart seeks the infinite because that is where the finite wants to rest. In the infinite it finds its fulfilment.
The second definition emphasizes the brilliance, immanence and power of spirituality. Every person of any age is likely to have experienced some moments when they suddenly feel more open, free, awake, engaged, fully connected and alive