Stages of Spiritual Growth


from the pages of Thresholds

Stages of Spiritual Growth and Where They Lead
by Stephen Hawley Martin

Whether or not one wishes to recognize it, all humanity is on a spiritual journey. This unfolding is one part of the underlying reason for life on earth. An image of this procession comes from W. E. (Ernest) Butler, the founder of the Ibis Fraternity, an organization dedicated to helping and teaching others on the path. He likened the spiritual evolution of mankind to a great crowd making its way along a road that winds up a hill, plodding forward as a flock of sheep might, kicking up dust but moving slowly, stopping now and then, scrapping and biting each other, now and then getting panicky and shifting one way or the other; often hardly moving ahead at all. With this in mind, each of us needs to decide whether he is willing to attempt to break out of the pack. The road can be difficult, especially when all one can see is a cloud of dust in the rearview mirror. It can be lonely out in front, but if a person is a seeker of Truth, he hasn’t much choice in the matter. He must proceed regardless of the consequences.

Several theories have been bandied about in recent years concerning the various stages one passes through as he grows spiritually. One that I believe to be accurate as far as it goes can be found in Scott Peck’s book, Further Along the Road Less Traveled. In order to catch a glimpse of where you personally are on the path up the mountain, it may be interesting for you to find yourself in one of these.

Stage One is the Chaotic/Antisocial. People at this level are unprincipled and antisocial. In effect, Stage One is a condition totally absent of spirituality. While they may pretend to be loving, all of their relationships are self-serving and manipulative. Truly, they are looking out for number one. Being unprincipled, they have nothing to govern themselves except their own wills, which is why people in this stage are often found in trouble or difficulty, in jail, in hospitals or out on the street sleeping on steam vents. It is possible for them to be self-disciplined from time to time and in the service of their ambition to rise to positions of prestige and power. Some evangelic preachers and politicians come to mind.

I was once acquainted with someone I now recognize as a Stage One individual who headed a successful company. Under his direction the firm became one of the fastest growing in its field. The man was a brilliant speaker and strategist. He had a photographic memory. But he was without principles, scruples or anything close to what we might call a conscience. Even though he was married he took pride in himself as a master of seduction of members of the opposite sex. Figuratively speaking, he left the landscape strewn with the bodies of his lovers and adversaries and to my knowledge never felt an inkling of remorse. This man was extremely successful for a time and made millions before the age of forty. But in the end his closest colleagues turned on and ousted him, perhaps because they feared they too would someday become victims of his egocentric nature.

The Stage One person has a difficult time of it if he ever happens to get in touch with himself and realizes the chaos within and the hurt he has caused. It seems possible some unexplained suicides may have come about as a result. Or a happier possibility is that the Stage One personality may suddenly and dramatically convert to Stage Two, which Peck has labeled the Formal/Institutional. Those in it depend on an institution to keep them on the straight and narrow. This may be a prison, the military, or a rigidly organized corporation. But for most in our society it is the church.

Stage Two individuals tend to be attached to ritual and dogma and become very upset if someone challenges it or tries to institute change. We all know of those who take the Bible literally, who believe the world was created in six twenty-four hour days and that man was brought into being as a fully-evolved Homo sapien known as Adam. Rather than seeing the story as a myth recounting the period in the ascent of man when evolved from creatures driven by instinct into self-conscious human beings, these usually well-meaning folk believe that God literally banished the very first man (whose name was Adam) and the very first woman (whose name was Eve) from a real place known as the Garden of Eden.

Stage Two people think of God as an external being and almost always envision Him as up there on a cloud looking down, making a list and checking it twice. More than likely they picture a man who looks like Michelangelo’s depiction on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and they ascribe to him the power and the will to make them extremely sorry for their transgressions. God is seen as “a giant benevolent cop in the sky.”

I want to state clearly, however, that many Christians and followers of other religions are by no means stuck in Stage Two. I personally know many who are well into Stage Four. A characteristic these more advanced believers share is an image of God as immanent in all of Creation.

But let’s consider the characteristics of Stage Three. It’s not surprising that these folks are likely to have been raised in a family headed by Stage Two parents (whether Christian, Buddhist, Jewish or Muslim) and as a result internalized their parent’s religious and moral principles. By the time they reached adolescence, however, they were questioning the dogma (“I looked at Playboy and God didn’t strike me blind. Who needs these silly myths and superstitions?”). To the horror of their parents they eventually fell away from the church and became doubters or agnostics or atheists. This is the Skeptic/Individual stage. Its members are not religious but neither are they antisocial. They are often deeply involved in social or ecological causes. Frequently they are scientists and almost always are scientific-minded.

To my way of thinking they comprise a plurality of the educated middle and upper middle class in America and can be found in large numbers teaching our children and young adults in schools and universities. The media are chock full of them. They are reporters, columnists and commentators. Because they frequently rigidly adhere to mechanistic views of reality and to secular humanistic philosophy they often seem to Stage Two and Four individuals to be misguided. They usually are unwilling to consider the existence of anything they cannot see or touch. Many, however, do tend to be truth seekers and if they seek truth deeply enough and widely enough and get enough bits and pieces to catch glimpses of the big picture they will come to an understanding that the truth curiously resembles the primitive myths and superstitions held so dear by their Stage Two parents. It is at this point of catching these glimpses that the Stage Three individuals begin to convert to Stage Four, which has been called the Mystical/Communal.

Stage Four individuals are referred to as mystical because they see a kind of cohesion behind physical reality. As Dr. Peck puts it, “Seeing that kind of interconnectedness beneath the surface, mystics of all cultures and religions have always spoken in terms of unity and community.” I deal at length with this interconnectedness and the nature of it in my book, Beyond Skepticism, All the Way to Enlightenment. In a nutshell, I present and attempt to prove the hypothesis that the universe is in fact one single living organism of which each of us and every animal, tree, rock or celestial sphere is a facet, just as a nose or a foot is a facet of one’s physical body.

Mystics and spiritual thinkers throughout the centuries and in all societies have believed in the connectedness sensed by Stage Four individuals. In her best-selling book, A History of God, Karen Armstrong writes, “One of the reasons why religion seems irrelevant today is that many of us no longer have the sense that we are surrounded by the unseen. Our scientific culture educates us to focus our attention on the physical and material world in front of us. This method of looking at the world has achieved great results. One of its consequences, however, is that we have, as it were, edited out the sense of the ‘spiritual’ of the ‘holy’ which pervades the lives of people in more traditional societies at every level and which was once an essential component of our human experience of the world.” Indeed, in the television series Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell said that the basic theme of all mythology is the existence of an invisible plane which supports the visible.

Scott Peck does not go beyond Stage Four in his theory of the levels of spiritual growth, but I believe that at least one additional stage exists. Stage Five to my way of thinking might be called the Spiritual/Transient. These are folks who are so attuned to the spiritual side of reality that they are able to slip back and forth between the physical and nonphysical. An adept at out-of-body travel, the late Robert Monroe for whom the Monroe Institute is named, would certainly have qualified. Spiritualists and holy people who are able to communicate at will with those in the spirit world would also fall into this category. It is quite possible, I am told by spirit guides, that at some point in the not to distant future, man will be able to transport himself to far corners of the universe by tapping into the flow of energy which Robert Monroe described in his books and that many think of as “the energy we call God.” This is the same energy experienced in meditation. It is the same energy behind the power of prayer and Grace.

The reality we share might be compared to a giant dream that is dreamed by a single giant dreamer. This dreamer is the energy that supports and gives form to physical reality. Each one of us experiences his own dream within the dream because we each are a tiny part of the energy just as a cup of water in the ocean is a part of the whole. This is why there are no coincidences, why synchronicities happen, how prayer and Grace are able to work and the reason psychic phenomena are real.

When all mankind crosses over to Stage Five on the journey up the mountain, the need for physical bodies will disappear. At this point mankind will have reached the summit and the purpose of this reality will have been fulfilled.•

School of Metaphysics©1999 Vol. 17 No. 4

Stephen Hawley Martin is a frequent contributor to Thresholds. His books include, Beyond Skepticism, All the Way to Enlightenment, a title in spiritual growth, and 2 adventure novels with spiritual themes, Out of Body, Into Mind and The Mt. Pelee Redemption. His most recent book OmniPerception is based upon his experience at a "Manifest Destiny," a School of Metaphysics Spiritual Focus session.

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