This is an article I wrote for the Summer 2009 edition of the EarthTides Pagan Network's newsletter. I have a regular column there, called Starcat's Corner.
As Pagans, we observe and celebrate the notion of cycles: the seasons, the phases of the Moon, the life cycles of humans, animals and other creatures. I’ve observed that our own process of spiritual growth also tends to move in a cyclical manner. As we travel along our path, we move through stages along the way, each marking a particular terrain with its own unique features.
We each begin in a place of seeking, looking first outside of ourselves, then peering within for answers. We find our chosen tools, honing our skills through practice. We then realize that what we sought was within us all along. And finally, we turn outward once again, sharing our wisdom with our communities. We may travel this circle, or perhaps it is more accurately described as an upward spiral, many revolutions throughout our lives. Or we might pause in one of these roles, either enjoying what we learn there, or perhaps feeling a bit stuck, until we reach out (or in) once again and begin to move. If we get stuck, we might move on from where we are, or perhaps start over, seeking new answers for our current questions.
In thinking about these five stages of spiritual progress, I’ve come up with the following descriptions and suggestions. Each step has both positive and negative aspects, which I’ve described below. When you read them, notice if any of them resonate with you – this might be a clue to where you are currently residing on the spiral. I’ve also included some suggestions about how to encourage the positive aspects and overcome the negative aspects of each stage and to help regain your spiritual momentum if you feel stagnant.
As you read, also remember that you are where you are supposed to be. All is well, so there is nothing to “fix.” Our growth will lead us ever onward, exploring this incarnation here on Earth and finding new things to learn and enjoy. All of the roles described here work together in harmony. We need experienced teachers in our community, yet we also need brand-new seekers who are looking for their knowledge. We need people who are out in the world, taking action, as well as folks who are holding a contemplative and meditative space
Here are the phases of spiritual growth as I currently perceive them. Please feel free to add your own wisdom, and adapt it to your own experience.
“As our lives become more hectic and hurried, more fragmented and isolated, we long for something without knowing what it is.” – From The Twelve Wild Swans by Starhawk and Hilary Valentine
The place of seeking begins with a longing for answers. We begin to explore the realm of the spirit, perhaps reading books or attending workshops. We seek out a teacher or religion. Looking outside ourselves, we study the wisdom and knowledge that other seekers have left behind.
We might find what we are looking for right away, perhaps in an existing religion or tradition. We find a coven that is just the right fit for us, and begin training with them. Or our search may lead us over numerous hills and through many valleys, the answers we find inspiring further questions. That which we seek seems to be just over the next hill.
The negative, or shadow side, of seeking is that we may become perpetual students. Either we absorb some of the teachings and then move on, never content to delve deeply into a particular source of wisdom, or perhaps we continue to study one area so intently that our life becomes imbalanced. We are so focused on the seeking itself that we never allow ourselves to come to any conclusions about what we believe. In order to avoid being stuck in this mode, you might devote yourself to a particular set of teachings for a year and a day. If you are studying on your own, write an article or research paper that encompasses what you’ve been learning. These actions will help you shift from a mode of constant movement and passive receiving into a place of more depth and active sharing.
The positive part of seeking is the innocence of the beginner’s mind. In yoga, we are encouraged to approach each pose, or asana, as if it is the first time we have practiced it. This keeps the mind on the present moment. If we are truly seeking, and open to finding wisdom, we are never jaded or cynical. We are able to take in that which we see, fully and with an open mind and heart. By practicing mindfulness, or being fully in the moment, no matter what task you are involved in, you can cultivate this sense of innocence and wonder.
The phase of seeking, as we begin to evaluate what we’ve found, naturally leads to the second stage, that of:
“Know that your seeking and yearning will avail you not, unless you know the Mystery: for if that which you seek, you find not within yourself, you will never find it without.” – from The Charge of the Goddess
The next phase of spiritual growth involves going deeply within oneself. We turn inward, and discover a marvelous world of thoughts, ideas, feelings and dreams. We take time to meditate and find our own unique voice. Realizing that our own experience is valid and valuable, we take the time to explore our inner being.
To some people, the place of contemplation comes naturally. For others, it may seem scary at first. In this culture, we are not encouraged to be alone with our thoughts. Allowing ourselves true quiet, unstructured time can be an amazing gift. We begin to explore our own gifts of creativity and find the things we most enjoy.
The shadow side of contemplation can be isolation and over-analysis. We may, like a hermit, draw apart from the daily activity of the world. While this is valuable to do, taken to the extreme it can become a lonely place. If we are constantly philosophizing and analyzing our inner experiences, we can forget to live, to enjoy the simple pleasures life offers us. As an antidote to being stuck in that mode, remember that having a social network is healthy. You don’t need to become a social butterfly, but having a few friends to get together with on a regular basis is a fun and interesting part of life, and all the more so if you can relate to them on a spiritual level.
Being in a space of contemplation has many positive aspects. We are each unique, and a deeper understanding of our own thoughts and ideas benefits everyone. Even if we choose to keep our discoveries to ourselves, the energy that we radiate will shine out into the universe. Contemplation often leads us to capturing our ideas in writing, music or other compositions. That which we create will be well thought out and will radiate our depth. To encourage your inner exploration, purposefully set aside time to accomplish it. If you were attending rituals and classes, those times would show up in your calendar. Do the same for yourself, and schedule blocks of time when you can simply be, without having to do anything in particular.
Once you have charted the terrain of your inner world, the next phase is:
“Religions don’t exist within theories and ritual plans; they come to life only when they’re being practiced and lived.” – from Living Wicca by Scott Cunningham
Now is the time when we take the tools that we’ve learned through seeking and contemplating, and work with them as we travel along the path. This is a lively phase, when we focus on skill-building and taking action in the world. We are really “walking the walk,” living our spiritual ethics on a daily basis. We choose to do the things that will help us achieve our goals and our purpose on the Earth.
We might become active in causes that are deeply important to us, from environmental justice to helping feed the hungry. We pursue our calling, perhaps by changing careers or starting a coven or other spiritual group. We are the ones who show up for volunteer days or take notes at meetings. A regular practice of meditation, yoga or prayer is formed and nurtured. Our spiritual fire sustains us as we continue to show up in meaningful ways.
The down side of practice is that we can burn ourselves out. We are constantly on the go, always busy, never slowing down. Unless we pause to nurture our bodies and spirits, we won’t be able to keep up this pace for long. To make sure you have enough energy to do all of these important things, be consistent about taking “down time” for yourself. Turn off the phone for the evening, grab a good book and take a long bubble bath. Do this more than once a year.
The blessings of practice are that we are able to master those things we love. We are also able to contribute to the world in a meaningful way. We make connections, build community, take action to make changes. Our society expands as we bring this new energy to it. We reach our goals, and then set new ones. We work with others of like mind. One way to encourage yourself in this work is to write, or at least formulate mentally, a personal mission statement. This is a statement of your deepest values and spiritual goals, summed up in a sentence or two. Then, once you’ve written it, revise it once each year, perhaps at Imbolc. Post it on your bulletin board or computer desktop, so you’ll be reminded why you do what you do.
As practice becomes mastery, our confidence expands and leads to the state of:
“The real reason you chose to be here – your purpose and mission in life – was to simply be who you are now. Good reason.” – from Notes From the Universe by Mike Dooley
At some point, we become a bit weary of our constant activity. We are drawn inward once again, and long to find an even deeper meaning to our lives. In the course of this process, we come to an epiphany. While it is different for each of us, the essence is a recognition of our own wisdom and perfection. It is a feeling of “I’m already there!” Our striving and reaching ceases, and we understand that just being ourselves is truly enough.
The drive to seek and to do recedes, and we are powered by the sheer joy of life. We focus on discovering anew all those things that we truly love – not as a way to get somewhere else, but for fun. This stage is full of self-discovery, but in a much more relaxed way. We may study, contemplate, and practice what we are discovering, but we do so in a more conscious way than before. We are awakening to our true nature.
The danger of this stage lies in thinking that our way is The Way. If we start thinking like this, we may try to convert others to our path and push our truth onto them. We become evangelists for our own flavor of spirituality. Remember that everyone will eventually come to discover those things that are their personal truths. Yes, as humans, some of these will be in common, but it’s not your job to drag others up the mountain. Remind yourself of this whenever you’re tempted to give an impromptu lecture or sermon.
On the positive side, awakening brings our powers of creativity to new heights. We discover that not only can we create a poem or quilt or garage, but that we are creating our entire experience. We are flourishing as we live our life’s purpose. Even when we experience challenges, we see them as an important part of the process of our lives. As you explore this phase of your spiritual growth, support yourself by purposefully surrounding yourself with positive voices, images and media. The mass culture worships negativity and bad news. To avoid getting distracted and dragged down, listen to inspiring speakers, play beautiful music, and plant flowers. Enjoy being in nature and playing in the elements.
Our awakening brings to us a fullness of spirit, a light that overflows our own lives and leads us to the stage of:
“The master’s task is to teach us to receive, without any obscurations of any kind, the clear message of our own inner teacher, and to bring us to realize the continual presence of this ultimate teacher within us.” – from The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche
Now we turn outward once more, and share our wisdom with the community. At any of the stages described above, we can decide to teach what we know. This phase, however, is where we embody the archetype of an elder or wise one. Our teachings are genuine and open, and come from a place of wanting to share with those who are truly interested in what we have to offer.
We might never lead a workshop or teach a class, but simply teach by being. We are living our own purpose, and our joy radiates outward to others as we move through the world. The very act of following our calling, of living our spirituality, begins to change things, and people, wherever we go. Now we are a spiritual master – which is not to say that we are perfect, for we are still human. But we have realized our own version of enlightenment, and can share that energy with the Earth and all her beings.
Of course, we will still have an ego, and the shadow side of this phase is becoming addicted to the respect and adoration we may receive. There are numerous stories of the guru who takes advantage of his or her disciples. The way to avoid this is to remain grounded. Wash your own dishes, work in the garden, go places where no one knows who you are. Continue to do things by yourself, taking time to stay active in exploring your truths.
The positive side of being a teacher includes not only the benefit to our students, but also the feedback and inspiration we receive from our interactions with them. We teach that which we need to know, so often we receive as much from our chosen lessons as our pupils will. To encourage this sharing of energy, it can help to practice when to speak and when to remain silent. Active listening is an important skill as a teacher or role model. Often those we interact with simply want to be truly heard. Those who seek us out have been inspired to do so from their own deep longing, so observe their actions and words as a source of new knowledge. They, and we, are parts of the universe wanting to know itself better.
As we move up the spiral, traveling through these five stages, our sense of personal responsibility for our own lives increases. We teach our own wisdom, and then we move on, seeking new vistas from which to view the world. Like The Fool card in the Tarot, we begin anew, starting over with a fresh beginner’s mind, yet containing all the wisdom of all that we have explored, in this life and others.