For a while now I’ve been working towards a unified theory of human development that doesn’t merely annex spirituality onto one of the conventional models, but rather affirms it as essential to what we are. To do this successfully I’ve had to draw clear distinctions between spirituality and religion, between healthy religion and pathological forms of religion, between religion oriented on a separate deity (theism) and its evolutionary breakthrough to the liberated life on the other side of god (post-theism).
Because deformities and perversions in religion are so common these days, we can easily get caught in the trap of analyzing the problem. Psychotherapy and the mental health industry have fallen into this trap, to the point where diagnosing disorders and designing treatment plans (talk therapy, drug therapy) around the goal of managing or eliminating symptoms leaves undefined exactly what mental order might be.
What is it to be a healthy, happy, and fully self-actualized human being, and how can we get there? As far as spirituality is concerned, the answer must go beyond tinkering with religion and trying to fix its pathologies.
What we need is a positive and comprehensive model that can shed light on where we are now, as well as show us the opportunities and challenges of the path ahead. Such a vision of the possible human should inspire each of us to dig deeper, reach higher, and give ourselves fully to what we can yet become. I believe I have such a model; see what you think.
Given that human beings came on the scene just a second before midnight in the 14-billion-year-long ‘day’ of our universe, we need to move quickly through all the important events that preceded us and made our arrival possible. The graphic on the right should be read from the bottom-up, which will guide our ascent through the distinct epochs and organizational stages of the universe.
The first and all-encompassing epoch/stage is energy, which transformed next into matter, and then provided the conditions for life (organic) to emerge. Each step in this process defined a smaller horizon of existence, so that the quantum field of energy contains everything else, the atoms and nuclear forces of matter are within that, whereas cells and living things represent a much, much smaller horizon inside matter.
It was billions of years before the organic horizon of living things on Earth incubated a further transformation, in the evolution of sentient life. Sentience refers to the capacity for sensation, awareness, perception, and suffering which is most developed in the animal kingdom. By virtue of possessing nervous systems with some form of central ganglion (leading eventually to brains), sentient creatures also have the ability (in relative degrees) to adapt their behavior in response to the environment. In short, they can learn.
Later still, the family of primates acquired an additional power as an epiphenomenon of sentience, enabling them to be self aware. In our own species this virtue of self-awareness would reach its climax in ego formation, where an individual is not only sensitive and responsive to the environment and reflexively aware of his or her subjective experience, but psychosocially occupies a separate center of personal identity.
Healthy ego development establishes the personality on a stable nervous state, in what I call positive embodiment. Here self-awareness feels ‘at home’, centered and grounded in the vital rhythms of the body. A coherent nervous state oscillates around a baseline of calm, responding appropriately and adaptively to situations as they arise while maintaining composure. A base of stability, then, provides for the emotional balance of mental health.
These are the provident conditions that give rise to a unified sense of self. Altogether the three traits of a stable state, balanced mood, and an executive center of identity comprise what is known as ego strength.
But our story isn’t finished here, even though this is where many of us stop or get stuck. Despite the fact that conventional society and religion (particularly theism) are organized around personal identity and ego needs, self-awareness is still only a stage. The question remains about a likely evolutionary intention behind the formation of a separate center of identity.
A young child impersonates her parents (taller powers), personifies reality with imaginary playmates and the characters of storyland, and is supported in the habit of personalizing her world and taking things personally – all for what? The culture might say: For no other reason or higher purpose than becoming the center of everything, a dedicated consumer looking for happiness in the next purchase or next attachment, and blessed assurance for the life to come.
As a stage, however, and not only a curious innovation of sentient life, egoic self-awareness represents a critical breakpoint – a threshold and not a final destination.
The spiritual wisdom traditions, and now increasingly some secular “fourth force” schools of psychology (after behaviorism, psychoanalysis, and humanist paradigms), regard ego consciousness as a new point of departure – assuming, of course, the provision of adequate ego strength.
Roger Walsh & Frances Vaughan (1993) define the transpersonal as “experiences in which the sense of identity or self extends beyond (trans) the individual or personal to encompass wider aspects of humankind, life, psyche or cosmos.” Whereas the separate ego generates a worldview where body and soul, self and other, human and nature are divided and frequently in conflict, there is a way to reconcile such divisions and become whole again.
A healthy ego makes it possible for the individual to break from the bondage of “me and mine,” to be liberated from the consensus trance of society and religion, and to enjoy the flower and fulfillment of life. Inwardly consciousness drops away from the ego center, into the nervous system and organic processes of the body, both of which of course lie below the threshold of self-conscious personal identity.
By such a meditative descent, the individual ceases to experience him- or herself as an individual at all, but surrenders more completely to the grounding mystery of being itself.
As this transpersonal path inward and downward breaks through deeper centers, their corresponding outward horizons are transcended as well. By outward leaps, consciousness ascends past the boundary of ego concerns and farther out to include all sentient beings, all living things, the material cosmos, and the whole of reality. At this level of awareness, the turning unity that we casually name the universe is experienced – not just imagined or conceived – as our home.
Such is the breakthrough realization that has inspired an enlightened ethic in various periods and places around the planet, promoting genuine community: We’re all in this together.
Healthy ego formation, then, makes possible the experience of a new reality beyond the limiting horizon of “me and mine,” by the transpersonal breakthrough beyond ego.
The grounding mystery of no-thing and the turning unity of all things are two aspects (inner and outer) of what I call the present mystery of reality.
Spiritual intelligence (SQ) reconnects consciousness to its ground and home after a long and complicated adventure into identity. The symbols, stories, rituals, and rites of passage that facilitate this adventure to its intended fulfillment constitute the essence of religion (from the Latin religare, to link back, reconcile, or reconnect).
The present mystery of reality is now more than just a concept in the mind, and has become a transpersonal experience of boundless presence. But neither is this an end in itself, for now the real work of genuine community can begin. Now that we have gotten over ourselves, nothing more stands in the way.