According to Richard Rohr ~ his thorough and in depth exploration of the 9 stages of spiritual development.
Levels of spiritual development ~ part 1
So many of our problems can be resolved if we understand that people are at different levels and stages of growth. The importance of levels of development has come to be recognized by teachers as diverse as Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg, Abraham Maslow, James Fowler, Clare Graves, Ken Wilber, and Bill Plotkin. Some speak of six levels, some eight, and some ten, but in general they move in a very similar direction. There is a rather common description for human maturation.
Thomas Aquinas said, “Whatever is received is received according to the manner of the receiver.” As a preacher and teacher, I have found that whatever I teach will be heard on many different levels, according to the inner psychological and spiritual maturity of the listener. It is rather obvious once you say it. Jesus was teaching the same in his parable of the four different kinds of soil that received the seed (Matthew 13:4-9).
My own attempt to correlate the various schemas of development has resulted in nine levels or stages, which I will be describing over the next two weeks. Note that this is merely a teaching tool. In real life, the spiritual journey is much more subtle and complex. Progress through the stages is not usually linear or completely chronological. Also, there is an inherent danger in teaching about levels of growth as the ego will try to use this information to place itself at a higher level than it is! So I invite you to read these meditations with openness, humble honesty, and a desire for the wholeness only God can give.
Levels of Spirituality part 1 ~ Similarities
There is remarkable overlap and agreement among the various schemata of development, and we find psychology and spirituality beautifully coming together here. What they are all trying to say is that growth is going somewhere, and the trajectory is toward union: union with God, with the self (of mind, heart, and body), with others, and with the cosmos. All seem to agree that the lower (or beginning) levels are dualistic, while the higher (or perhaps I should say “deeper”) levels are non-dual and unitive. The early stages are egocentric; the later ones are cosmocentric.
On a good day, the most you can stretch yourself to understand is toward people one step beyond yourself. It shows how narcissistic we all are, I am afraid. People at the higher levels look ridiculous, wrong, heretical, or even dangerous to people at lower levels. Now you can see why the Jewish prophets, Jesus, and Martin Luther King, Jr. were killed. On the other hand, people at the higher, non-dual levels have the breadth and the depth to understand, to accept, and to forgive people at the earlier or “lower” levels. Their honesty allows them to see that they were once there themselves.
The way you move from stage to stage is basically by some form of wounding, failure, or darkness. John of the Cross called these experiences “nights.” The old system that worked for a while has to stop working for you, and it will. All seem to agree that you have to go through a period of unknowing (sounds like faith to me) to know at a higher and more mature level. You have to go through a period of confusion and shadowboxing, dealing with your own conflicts and contradictions. And to be honest, we have little good teaching on how to walk in darkness, which is the very essence of Biblical faith.
If you do not have someone to guide you, to teach you, to hold onto you during the times of not knowing, not feeling, not understanding, you will normally stay at your present level of growth. This is the work of a good spiritual director or teacher, or even an effective homily.
Stage 1 ~ My body and my self image are who I am.
At the first stage a person tends to be totally identified with their body and their image of their body: “I am my body,” the infant believes. They are not yet connected in any enlightened way to their heart or their mind. Each part—body, heart, and mind—is dangerous if it’s largely disconnected from the other two. Integration is opening all three spaces so that they can enlighten and inform and balance each other.
Think of little children. They poop and pee and cuddle and eat without shame or defense. They are their bodies, and, in a way, that’s what makes them so dear, because they haven’t made it complex yet by thinking too much. They run into the room naked with no embarrassment whatsoever. We teach them shame by our shocked reaction.
At the first stage my body, its image, and the pleasuring and protecting of it is who I largely am. Many people in a secular, non-wisdom culture like ours may never move past Stage One. People at this level tend to be preoccupied with pleasure, security, safety, and defense—of their material state. If it makes me feel secure, it is moral. Life is largely about protecting myself. (This is seen in endless need for war and guns, little need for education, culture, the arts, and spirituality.) Stage One people are rather dualistic, either/or thinkers, and frankly represent a rather sizable minority of humans. Their morality largely has to do with maintaining their group, and their group as superior.
I believe life, God, and grace nudge most people at least to the next stage. But first they have to allow some of their security and pleasure absolutes to be taken away.
Stage 2 ~ My behaviour is who I am
Most of human history up to now has been at Stage Two, and, frankly, much of Jesus’ teaching is most aimed at this level because it is all about purity codes, debt codes, dogmas, and external rituals—because that was the stage where most of his listeners were. At Stage Two, your concern isto look good outside. Your concern with pleasing the neighborhood, the village, your religion, or your kind of folks becomes such a way of life that you get very practiced at hiding or disguising any contrary evidence. That’s why it is so dangerous.
This becomes the birth of the shadow self. Eventually your shadow side—your denied motives, your real self—is actually hidden from you. You have to start pretending that you are what looks good to your group and your religion. Your whole identity becomes defending your external behavior as more moral than other people, and defending your family, your community, your race, your church or temple or mosque, your nation as superior to others.
This is tribal thinking. It is a necessary stage, however, so that you can feel like you are Chosen, are significant, or have dignity. It gives you a strong sense of your identity and boundaries, which serves you well as a child. But many people remain trapped here, in a worldview of win/lose and good guys/bad guys. Far Right-wing thinking—the false conservative, in any country and in any religion—largely proceeds from Stages One or Two.
Eventually, your own behavior or group is going to have to disappoint you. You will begin to see that you yourself, or some people in your group, are, in fact, unkind, dishonest, or violent. That is the beginning of integrating the negative, of a necessary shadowboxing. If you are incapable of such appropriate critical thinking, you will not go through the darkness, the necessary deeper faith journey that will move you on to Stage Three.
Stage 3 ~ My thoughts and feelings are who I am
Thank God, many people are nudged by life itself and by basic common sense and honesty to the bare beginnings of critical thinking. People at Stage Three believe “My own thoughts and my own feelings are who I am.” But I do not yet see that most of my thoughts are self-referential and to my advantage and preference, and my emotions are usually “all about me.” (Did you know that the word “empathy” did not even enter the English dictionary until 1915?) I have read a few books; I can quote some authors; I have become a bit more educated. But it is not really the Big Picture yet. I am still trapped at an egocentric level without knowing it. At this point, education is usually a substitute for actual transformation. Beware of college students who are invariably at Stage Three while thinking they are at Stage Six or Seven!
If Stage Two is more common among conservatives, Stage Three is more common among liberals. Stage Two creates groups; Stage Three creates individuals, and thus it is very hard for Stage Three people to really work together for long. These individuals cannot die to themselves enough to actually seek the common good; this requires a very real death to the ego self, which most will not endure.
Most of educated America and Europe is stalled at Stage Three. (I think of many Democrats and many Vatican II Catholics at this level.) They are good people; they are easy to make friends with. They are dialogical and conversational. But do not ask them to go very far beyond their own comfort zone or their own egocentricity.
The Space between 3 & 4
If a death is required between every stage—a period of darkness and not knowing—then surely an even larger letting go is necessary to move from Stage Three to Stage Four. This is probably why most Western cultures are at Stage Three. Without great love (and I mean great love of someone beyond myself) and great suffering, where there is a major defeat, major humiliation, major shock to the ego self, very few people move to Stage Four. This is the great dying that all spiritual teachers are talking about. As Jesus puts it, “Unless the grain of wheat dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it will bear much fruit” (John 12:24).
Historically, classic initiation rites were programmed to move people toat least an initial experience of Stage Four; if you can get people to Stage Four, normally growth will continue to happen from there, because now you know that dying to self is central and necessary. You have begun to learn the art of letting go. You have learned that you do not need to be certain every step of the way. The meaning of faith is slowly becoming clear for you: walking in darkness and trust. A certain tolerance for ambiguity and paradox is learned in the movement from Stage Three to Stage Four. But to be honest, many backslide from Stage Four when they see how high the price is (1960s hippies, the broad-minded but arrogant liberal, etc.).
So many of our problems can be resolved if we understand that people are at different levels.
Growth is going somewhere, and the trajectory is toward union: union with God, with the self (of mind, heart, and body), with others, and with the cosmos.
Stage One: My body and my self-image are who I am.
Stage Two: My external behavior is who I am.
Stage Three: My thoughts and feelings are who I am.
Without great love (and I mean great love) and great suffering, where there is a major defeat, major humiliation, major shock to the ego self, very few people move to Stage Four.
Choose a favorite or new piece of music—classical, world, contemporary; anything that calls you to move!—and find a place in which you can listen and move uninhibitedly, barefooted if possible.
Allow your body to lead, following the invitation of the music. Let mind take a back seat and tune in to the sensations of each part of your body. Feel your feet connect with the ground. Limbs and joints turn and bend as they will. Swing and sway head, shoulders, hips. Sink deep into your body, remembering what it is to be a human animal.
Dance until you are pleasantly tired and gradually slow your movements, perhaps to another musical tempo. Continue moving in smaller, gentler ways: breathe deeply, stretch arms and legs, roll head. Come to a seated position and rest in stillness.
Stage 4 ~ My deeper intuition and felt knowledge in my body are who I am
I describe Stage Four as this: My deeper intuitions and the felt knowledge in my body are who I am. People who have been trained to keep the heart and head spaces open and to live grounded inside their own bodies and feel their real feelings are able to pass to Stage Four because they have the greatest capacity for presence, and presence to what actually is!
For some, this is such a breakthrough, so enriching, grounding, and self-validating after wallowing around in ego and confusion for so many years, that it feels like enlightenment itself. Thus, very many become stymied here and think it’s the whole spiritual journey. They have “depth” compared to all these hopeless others around them! This can lead to individualism, self-absorption, and inner work as a substitute for any honest encounter with otherness or with The Other. In such a place, there is little real social conscience (beyond verbal political correctness) and usually a lack of compassion or active concern for what is happening on this earth. This kind of spirituality is all about my enlightenment andmy superiority.
But if you are authentically present at Stage Four, you will begin to see your shadow self in sometimes humiliating ways. Without humility, you will run back to Stage Three, and many do. You’ll see your phony motivation: that you are not as holy as you think you are; that you are largely doing this for your own self-image, to think of yourself as moral, aware, and enlightened. Politeness and political correctness pass for actual love. Ken Wilber calls it “Boomeritis” since it is so true of a certain age group in America and Europe.
Yet this struggle and humiliation is what is going to lead you to real non-dual thinking: when you face the enemy and the enemy is you, and you recognize that you can’t project evil onto other religions, races, classes, political parties, or genders. I’m the problem. I’m petty, needy, self-absorbed, or whatever it might be.
If you are unwilling to do some shadow work, to wrestle with the shadow and see it in all of its humiliating truthfulness, you will not go to Stage Five.
Stage 5 ~ My Shadow is who I am
At Stage Five, my shadow self is who I am. This is not an easy time, and thus most avoid it. This is what John of the Cross called “the Night of the Senses.” Here you meet yourself in your raw, unvarnished, uncivilized state, and you start dealing very realistically with your own shadow self, phoniness, mixed motives, and actual unlovingness.
As a young man I thought I had become a Franciscan and a priest to teach and talk about love, that I had left everything to love God and neighbor. But by my forties and fifties I had to be honest and say, “Richard, have you ever really loved anybody more than yourself? Is there anybody in particular that you would die for?” My celibacy was based on the utterly false premise that if I did not love anybody in particular, I would automatically love God more. I realized that that was not at all true. All I did was love myself more, but in a very well-disguised form. Much of that middle period of my life I spent shadowboxing, seeing my own inability to believe and to practice the very things I was teaching to others. And this continues!
The work of Stage Five can go on for quite a long time, and if you do not have someone loving you during that period, believing in you, holding on to you—if you do not meet the unconditional love of God, if you do not encounter the radical sense of grace that touches your unconscious level—the spiritual journey will not continue. You have to experience God’s grace as unearned favor, unearned gratuity, or you will surely regress.
In Stage Five, more than any other stage, you learn to live with contradiction and ambiguity. This is true non-dual, or unitive, thinking. Stage Five allows you to find God in what John of the Cross calls “luminous darkness.” It is a real darkness, but somehow inside of the darkness, you find light—a much truer, kinder, and softer light. Mostly, you learn patience.
Stage 6 ~ I Am Empty and Powerless
Alcoholics Anonymous would call Stage Six the First Step! Stage Six is: I am empty and powerless. Almost any attempt to save yourself by any superior behavior, technique, belonging system, morality, role, strong ideological belief, or religious devotion will not work. It will actually lead to regression. What the saints and mystics say is that some event, struggle, relationship, or suffering in your life has to lead you to the edge of your own resources. There has to be something that you by yourself cannot understand, fix, control, change, or even begin to deal with. It is the raw experience of “I cannot do this.” All you can do at this point is wait and ask and trust.
This is where you learn real patience, compassion, and forgiveness. I don’t know how else you learn to forgive other people until you see seventy-times-seven your own brokenness, your own incapacity to love and, in this stage, your inability to do anything about it except throw yourself into the arms of mercy and love (Luke 7:47).
This is the darkness of faith, and now you can trust that this darkness is a much better teacher than supposed certainty or rightness. God is about to become very real. Some even call this “God’s Waiting Room!”
When you finally accept your own powerlessness, you learn to plug into a different outlet and draw upon a Deeper Source. This is conversion. This is radical transformation. It is like an identity transplant. St. Paul describes his own conversion in this way: “I live no longer, not I, but I live in Christ, and Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). You will experience a much larger sense of self, and it is not all about “you” anymore!
At Stage Seven, you have a qualitatively different sense of your self. “I am so much more than I thought I was!” you might feel. The false self has died in a significant way and the True Self is starting to take over. But because you are not yet fully at home here, it will first of all feel like a void, an emptiness, but hopefully an okay emptiness. You begin to act for the sake of the action itself because it is true, because it is good, because it is beautiful, and not because it is popular or even because it works! There is no felt consolation most of the time, and there is lessening social reward. Yet there is great peace. You are being weaned of your reliance upon your feeling world, which means very little at this point. Because you are living in the Larger Self, all is okay. You know Another is now holding you. You do not need to hold yourself. You are at the heart of faith, and in a certain sense true spirituality only begins at this point! (Most of Jesus’ teaching proceeds from this level or higher, which is why much of the church has not been ready for Jesus.)
Stage 8 ~ I and The Father Are One
Eventually, you are led by grace into the non-dual state (“not totally one, but not two either!”). I do not know anyone that is in conscious Stage Eight a full twenty-four hours a day. To describe this stage, I use Jesus’ words: “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). This is unitive consciousness, where you live in conscious, loving communion and trust with God and everyone else. God is no longer out there or over there or separate from you. Henceforward, as Teresa of Avila says, “You find God in yourself, and you find yourself in God.” This is largely an inner experience, an inner knowing. It is truly following Christ, who is a mixture of humanity and divinity. You know that you are the Body of Christ and that your source is Divine, while you are still quite ordinary and human.
Every other aspect of your persona—your roles, your titles, your functions, even your bodily self—is seen as a passing form, a passing ego possession. At this point, you know your body is not fully you. You have found your soul, your True Self, who you are “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3), who you are before you did anything right or anything wrong. Frankly, you have discovered your soul, which is that part of you that already knows, already loves, is already in union with and can quite naturally say “yes” to God.
When you learn how to trust this Divine Indwelling (and that’s what it is—it’s God in you doing the God-thing through you), when you learn how to draw from that place, you can find happiness any hour of any day, and anywhere. You can “pray always.” You also realize this is what you were created for. Heaven is not later. Heaven and salvation are whenever you live in conscious union with God, which means conscious loving union with everything else, too.
Stage 9 ~ I Am Who I Am
Stage Nine is what we mean by the freedom of the children of God (Romans 8:21, Galatians 5:1). At Stage Nine, I am who I am. I have nothing to prove or to project to make you think I am anything more than who I am. Stage Nine is the most radical critique of religion possible. It sees religion as the fingers that merely point to the moon. And now I am sitting on the moon! So, thank you, fingers, it was great being a Holy Catholic finger for so many years, but I really don’t need to prove that the Catholic Church is the only way to God, because I know better now. I do not need to deplete the resources of the earth and the world to militarily protect the USA, because it is only one small part of God’s kingdom.
There is no need at Stage Nine to appear to be anything other than who you really are. At Stage Nine you are fully non-dual, fully detached from self-image, and are living in God’s full image of you—which includes and loves both the good and the bad parts of you (Matthew 22:10). This is total non-duality. You are living in God’s gaze: I am who I am in God’s eyes, nothing more and nothing less. This is the serenity and the freedom of the saints.
This is the goal, yet there is no non-stop flight to this goal; you must in some way traverse all eight stages to get here, and you cannot skip one of them! But don’t try to engineer this journey; you are being led, and God will make sure you get what you need and when you need it. (You only fully know that for yourself at this last stage!)
Maybe this is what Jesus meant when he said it is “those who become like little children who will enter the Kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). At this final stage you return to that early little child that you once were—running naked into the room of life. I am who I am who I am. God has accepted me in that naked being, and I can happily give myself back to God exactly as I am. I am ready for death, because I have done it now many times, and it has only led me into Larger Worlds.