ForgivenessNet Home Page
| 1 Introduction
This article seeks to set out the main areas of human spirituality, seen from the perspective of deepening or going further. It isn't a "How-to-grow" article - but at the same time, by attempting to give an overall shape and direction to spirituality, it suggests how we can identify what is superficial or peripheral in our own lives and journeys.
2 Using the 'N-curve'
I first came across the image of an "N-curve" in the work of Alice Mann, a church consultant with the Alban Institute, describing the management of different sizes of congregation. Since then I have come to see that has a wider usefulness, in representing a common and very important pattern in spiritual growth. For example I have used it in the foundational articles on this site, The dimensions of forgiveness and The power to initiate forgiveness. The main feature of viewing growth in this way is that it makes it easier to see that growing will involve - at some point - a significant change in perspective of the whole issue, a change that may well at the time seem like a reversal, a backwards or sideways step.
Not everyone finds that diagrams and graphs communicate as well as linear words, so both will be used here. Anyway, think of the capital letter 'N'. Let growing be symbolised as moving upwards, starting in the bottom left-hand corner of the letter and going up the left-hand vertical. After a while, for some forms of spiritual growth, the movement upwards is replaced by a "back-to-basics" kind of move, in which it may even seem like we have gone back to a beginner's level, only in a new area. We move downwards and diagonally, before growing upwards again.
The particular strength of using an N-curve or N-shape is that it emphasises the transition from one kind of growth to another, a transition which may well be or seem to be the hardest part of growing. For example, when using this model for forgiveness, the biggest transition is from passive assumptions about forgiveness (which will be expressed in terms of healing, coping, moving on, getting on with one's life) to active motivators (where initiating 'undeserved' goods for other people becomes the new dimension).
3 Spirituality and growth
Today 'spirituality' is no longer seen as the provenance of organised religion, and increasingly religious groups are learning from other religions and from non-religious spiritualities. Twelve-step programmes for those who can admit addictions, women's spirituality, New Age wisdom movements and Jungian psychological individuation all illustrate the diversity of non-religious spirituality today. One of the great prophets of this spiritual humanity was the Jewish thinker Martin Buber. He explicitly wanted to break down the barriers between sacred and profane, and he discovered in the Hasidic traditions in Judaism the command to be humanly holy. (See What motivates us to forgive? §6)
Spirituality is often described in two dimensions: awareness of transcendence, and involvement with fellow human beings - a vertical and a horizontal pair of axes. In this view, spirituality is an awareness of something beyond the world, which may or may not be personal; and also a sense of connection or involvement with other worldly things, particularly other people.
Nicholas Twigg, a professor of management at Louisiana University, has posted a very sane and helpful article on the Spirit at Work website, in which he and two colleagues try to set out a working definition of spirituality based on this two-dimensional approach. (See A Redefinition and Reconceptualization of Spirituality at Work.) They give a good overview of approaches to spirituality in the 20th century, and importantly they are not concerned to belittle religion, referring to it as " the mother of spiritual giants, an incubator, and a reservoir of the most vital spiritual values." (D N Elkins)
The two-dimensional framework is valuable as far as it goes, but gives too much attention to individual human experiences. (Extraordinary, even transcendental, experiences can also be one of the initial attractions in using recreational drugs.) The alternative seems to be a religiosity which is highly intellectual, and against which new experiences understandably seem liberating and refreshing. As we shall see, both approaches overlook the primary dimension of transformation of values.
World religions have built much of their own approach to spiritual growth by building onto personal experience, adding various aspects of intellectual knowledge, including reason/reflection, primary texts and traditional teachings. In doing so they have gradually substituted rules about prescribed rituals, doctrines and personal labels in the place of spiritual growth.
Indeed, one of the constant and most difficult issues for spirituality is that it wants to quite rightly express itself in some religious or quasi-religious activities. A new form of spirituality may think it has gone deeper than established religions, only to find that it is becoming its own religion. Even praying can be ritualised in this way.
The rituals are essential expressions of growing spirituality, but for many practitioners they come to be 'sacred objects' which they feel can be owned or defended, and gradually become the chief end of one's spirituality. Knowledge and judgement can easily become seen as the highest level of spirituality, in two very familiar ways:
It is important to give some attention to this tendency, because it is the level of spiritual growth which most people find hardest to move on from. In the N-curve diagram, it lies at the top of the first movement of growth, but also therefore before a sideways step where it seems much might be 'lost'. The possessive, defensive and judgmental reaction comes before a new level of growth. To enter the perspective which helps us go beyond this, we need to see what kind of goal spirituality has has - namely personal transformation. Transformation is the inner life of what - seen from the outside - is beyond the day-to-day world of categories, labels, techniques, skills and control.
The great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, a contemporary of Jung and Buber, constantly sought for the spiritual depth he did not find in organised religion. He commented in his first work, the Tractatus Logic-Philosophicus, that a representation of the visual field does not include an eye in it. But he then spent much of his life trying to include it to place himself under scrutiny. To put this in a way Wittgenstein did not use, mature vision must include the seer in the vision, interrogated by a constant dimension of personal transformation.
Transformation is the inner life of what - seen from the outside - is out of the reach of our day-to-day world of categories, labels, techniques, skills and control. What Wittgenstein did say was that, from the point of view of knowledge and judgement, the realm of spirituality and the meaning of life cannot be summed up in words. He loved Tolstoy, and would say that art may use words to point towards spiritual life, but not in a judgmental way. The Tractatus ends with the enigmatic and extraordinary sentence, "That whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." To put this another way, the American composer John Adams uses a metaphysical poem by John Donne, "Negative Love" in his 1981 choral masterpiece Harmonium, which explores the paradox in Christian love, and includes the words:
Our overall representation of spirituality must not miss the crucial importance of personal transformation - expressed in different ways and traditions as becoming a new person, being born again, becoming 'god' or an enlightened one, and so on.
And at the same time, we need to be realistic about our starting places: when trying to get an overall view of spirituality it also seems very easy to overlook or discount what is far and away the most common manifestation of spirituality, namely personal seeking and wondering - actually using the books, videos, tape cassettes, media programmes, conferences and courses which in various ways stimulate us to journey further.
So we can quite legitimately express spirituality in four areas, which I will title: Stimulus, Bonding, Awareness and Transformation. In this view or model growth is along the path of an 'N-shape', and the deepest, or fullest, aspect of spirituality is personal transformation. The key transition is from a 'this-worldly' to an 'other-worldly' mode of experience:
Of course, different people will grow - in practice - in fits and starts, and perhaps going on to awareness of God or a higher power quite quickly, before connecting up with like-minded seekers. A St Paul-like Damascus-road conversion, which may need some years of reflection, preparation and meeting with people to make sense of the wonder of what has happened! But most spiritual journeys follow something like the Buddha's path through journeying, study, community, and ascetic striving towards a final enlightenment, the Great Awakening under a fig tree (bodhi tree).
The boundary between 3 and 4 - Awareness and Transformation - is sometimes blurred. Revelation - for example the Showings of Dame Julian of Norwich - clearly work transformationally on the person. A less-well-known example comes from the Mexican / Toltec wisdom book The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz, who tells the Toltec myth or narrative of "a human just like you and me" who, though studying to be a medicine man, dreamed in a cave and had a vision:
So we should emphasise that using an N-curve to describe the pathway into deepening spirituality is not describing every human being's history, week into week, year into year. It describes what 'going deeper' involves. And in this representation, the major change in perspective comes when one lets go of the action-based, controlled component of one's journey, and is impacted by the awareness or experience of a new reality, a new realm or presence.
Sometimes the effect of revelation can be so intense that one "storms heaven" and believes that the only the new realm exists. For example, A Course in Miracles says, "Forgiveness recognizes what you thought your brother did to you has not occurred. It does not pardon sins and make them real. It sees there was no sin. And in that view are all your sins forgiven."
This is an impressive vision, yet it does not make room for the strength in forgiving which requires that we as it were wear spectacles with a type of bi-focal lens. (See Good judgement and bad judgement §§ 3-4.) One the one hand, we can focus on the scale of the wrong that someone, or we, have done. There is realistic judgement. Yet - at the same time - we can see and contribute to the loveliness, life and wellbeing of the wrongdoer(s), as well as on any victims other than ourselves.
Growing, and journeying, means that spirituality does not replace one reality with another, but connects the two more and more strongly.
For more introverted personalities the costliness of getting involved at a complex social level with other like-minded people will seem 'harder' than an intuitive or inward leap into new awareness. In psychological terms, growth may be more like an 'S-curve' than an 'N-curve'. But while tackling one's own 'hardest part' may seem a virtue from a psychological perspective, from the perspective of deepening spirituality the shift into another 'realm' is the most powerful and radical movement. Spirituality begins with controlled, achievable steps, and includes virtues of the human will, such as courage. But the further one journeys the more wonder and newness replace achievement.
What about organisational transformation? Other articles on this site consider organisational transformation - for example Communities, institutions and belonging and Should forgiveness be unconditional?
Religions are immense organisations which originate in intense spirituality, but tend to institutionalise themselves to move from inspiration to legislation and self-preservation. In Being religious, American style, C H Libby examined how religion operates in practice in the US, and summarised it as "an official, formal tradition with a systematic structure of beliefs and practices nurtured by an elite corps of religious professionals." In practice, and with the best of intentions, members of religious groups give most of their energies to institutional survival, keeping the show on the road, not to being interrogated and transformed by a supernatural power (which might change everything!).
Here we may note that while some aspects of organisations can be transformed, particular strategic and/or managerial ones, spiritual transformation for an organisation will be an aggregate of individual, personal transformations. The personal transformations precede any organisational ones. A change in number or size becomes at a certain point a change in structure - something which seems to be rather wonderfully mirrored in cosmology in what is believed to be the way primal stars and planetary matter are created.
For example, an organisation cannot be structured to be fully open and inclusive, because the values and features that give it organisational identity also exclude people with differing priorities. However, where a lot of members are open, inclusive, forgiving people, their organisation will have a much stronger level of tolerance and much wider range of members.
Judi Neal, the Director of the Association for Spirit at Work, describes how recent thinkers formulate a model or paradigm of management working towards transformation of an organisation's values and ethos:
6 Transformed into what?
Although we noted above that the goal of spirituality is 'beyond words,' though its internal dynamic is one of transformation, it is still helpful to ask whether there are common features which all or most spiritualities encourage.
In some instances it will be necessary to ask whether something claiming to be a process of transformation is something very different from a form of spirituality. Changing people or improving them is not always spiritual. Nietzsche said about the universe's processes of transformation, "Becoming aims at nothing and achieves nothing" (The Will to Power p 12).
For example, partners in long-term relationships often find that - deep down if not on the surface - they want to change their partners. Parents very often want to do something to 'improve' their children. The state psychiatric treatment of political criminals in communist countries had the intention of improving them. So did the Catholic Inquisition. Some representations of the mind of a serial killer convey a dark and disturbing belief in personal transformation, the kind of mystical "becoming" illustrated in Thomas Harris' first novel, Red Dragon. These ideas about changing people view them as objects for others - or powers - to operate on, like the surgical transplant of a new organ.
In trying to identify the heart of deep spirituality, we might want to give emphasis to some great word like 'love' - but though 'love' and 'compassion,' for example, are key terms for Christianity, Hinduism or Buddhism, they are not universal terms, anymore than 'God' is. Living out a spirituality towards another person always begins from an assumption of the worth and truth of that other person's freedom, as well as my own. It is always possible to destroy that freedom; but by doing so I would also make it impossible to bring any hope of transformation to them.
The fable of Beauty and the Beast is certainly a story in which change occurs through love. And a valuable point to take from the story is that Beauty does not know what she wants Beast to change into. The whole point of the story is that she loves the Beast as he is, and the love (plus, of course, adventures and a race) allows the change to take place. It is a wonderful illustration of the insight Henri Nouwen brought to his teaching on the real meaning of spiritual hospitality, when he said in his book Reaching Out,
Change occurs at the level of personal values. What are transformed - when we are born again, or become gods, or attain enlightenment, or become the Self - are the fundamental beliefs, priorities and life-assumptions which we act on and through which we interact with other people.
A transformed person has a different, new set of values about life, work and other people. Forgiveness will feature strongly in this, alongside always creating rather than destroying, freedom for all persons (not just oneself), and dedication to the lovely mystery in each person (not their labels). Some of the article The values implied by forgiveness (§3) gives a fuller idea of this aspect.