Stages of Spiritual Development

"Surely, the true work of man is to discover the truth, God; it is to love and not be caught in his own self-enclosing activites. In the very discovery of what is true there is love, and that love in man's relationship with man will create a different civilization, a new world."

 J. Krishnamurti

The Summer Of Love was just the beginning
That's when the lines started breaking through.
The Summer Of Love is just a memory now
Even though those times are gone
The Spirit still goes on in me and you.

Jefferson Airplane

"Lord make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love."

 St. Francis of Assisi

The teenager worries that in spite of a long search he has not yet found a purpose in life. An older man is impatient with the pace of his spiritual quest. A middle aged woman feels overwhelmed by her many obligations. A dying man wishes he had given more time to his family. Each of us can view our life in terms of the particular challenges we face at the moment. Or we can think of the moment as one point in an evolving lifelong process. It is helpful to know that our challenges are not unique to us-- that perhaps we are on a developmental track shared by the rest of the species.

When we were born we began a journey through developmental stages common to all humans. We learned to hold our head up. We learned to crawl. We learned to walk and talk. We played children's games. We evolved in our relationships with our peers as children do. Our parents may have bragged about how soon we walked or talked. They may have worried that we were behind schedule on some of these things. They knew, though, that there was a process unfolding. Child development has become a popular concept this century, and while we may not understand it perfectly, we accept that it is a process with identifiable stages.

The personality development of adults is discussed rather less often than child development, and many of us don't realize, or we forget, that we are on a life path with stages. One can describe those stages in various ways. In the "American Dream," one graduates from school, gets a job, marries, has kids, buys a house, repeatedly buys various vehicles, gets the kids through school, and then retires from the job to live a few post rat race years of self-gratification before dying.

Another developmental model was described in Hindu scriptures about 1800 years ago. In her book Passages, Gail Sheehy writes,

"In the first stage described by Hindu scriptures, those gloriously suspended years between the age of 8 and early twenties when one is a student, one's only obligation is to learn. The second stage, its beginning marked by marriage, is that of householder. the next twenty or thirty years are the time to satisfy the wants of man: pleasure, primarily through the family; success through his vocation; and duty through citizenship. When time inevitably dims the pleasures of sex and the senses, when achieving no longer yields novelty and discharging one's duty has become repetitious and stale, it is time to move on to a third stage: retirement. Anytime after the birth of the first grandchild, the individual should be free to begin his true education as an adult, to discover who he is and ponder life's meaning without interruption. Traditionally, people in this stage were encouraged to become pilgrims. Man and wife together, if she wished to go, were to pull up stakes and plunge into the solitude of the forests on a journey to self-discovery. At last their responsibilities were only to themselves. The final stage, when the pilgrim reaches his goal, is the state of sannyasin . . . In the Hindu texts, the sannyasin 'lives identified with the eternal Self and beholds nothing else.'"
This ancient description of life's passages can be useful to us now as we look at our lives. We need not defer all our spiritual pilgrimages until old age, but we can be patient with ourselves at the earlier stages knowing that perhaps learning about the ways of the world and living in the fullness of life are appropriate for us in early and mid-life. We can look forward to later years when the pressure of achievement is lighter and we may focus more deeply on self-discovery and the ways of the spirit.

We should accept that if we are young and unsure, that is the way of things. We can study and learn more. If we are struggling to establish ourselves in early adulthood or focussing our energies on career in our middle years, that is normal and healthy. It doesn't mean we have to abandon our desire for greater spiritual depth. If we are in our later years we need not face retirement as an empty time of waiting to die. We can go deeper into life seeking the subtle truths.

In his book The Journey to the East, Herman Hesse's main character pines for the days of the great spiritual pilgrimage of his youth. He mourns the passing of a glorious spiritual movement that seemed to have passed away before its time of completion. He wonders what happened to all those fellow pilgrims who so idealistically walked eastward seeking spiritual truth. The character finds that the movement never stopped, but he had lost track of it in his active life.

Perhaps those of us in the so called Baby Boom generation are in a similar position. We lived a moment of hope in the sixties, when peace and love were where it was at, and the Age of Aquarius was about to dawn. Then families and jobs drew us into mundane lives that looked way too much like the lives of our parents. But now as this populous and influential generation grows older, its mass developmental task will be to look more deeply into the ways of consciousness and spirit. Having already given in to the values of peace and love and having sampled varieties of unusual human consciousness, what impact can we expect this maturing generation to have upon our spiritual culture? Maybe the Summer of Love did not end. Perhaps in our busyness we just lost track of the time.


Take a few quiet moments to think about yourself in the context of your personal development. Where are you now in the span of a normal human life? Are you just starting out as a young adult? Are you a student? Are you trying to establish yourself in the worlds of work and family? Are you in your middle working years? Are you nearing retirement? Are you retired?

Are you doing what you expected to be doing at this stage of life? Is your life much different from others of your age? What do you enjoy about this time of life? What do you think you are missing?

Carry your imagination forward a few years. What do you think you will be like in five years? Ten years? Twenty?

What can you do now to become the person you want to be then? What can you do now to be the kind of person you want to be now?

Imagine you are face to face with a wise teacher-- someone who knows you well and knows the way of truth. What question would you have for them about your life? What answer would they have for you?

Grant yourself the love that you deserve.
Grant yourself the patience to live your life in the present.
Grant yourself permission to grow and develop your uniqueness in your own time.

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© 2002 Tom Barrett