How do we keep our spiritual life alive? How do we keep moving forward? Embrace life in all its beauty and ugliness: treat all things with equanimity, seeing what is real and not what is superimposed by our beliefs and opinions. Seek the unknown: approach fears with fierce resolve to understand them. Find harmony through chaos: allow your world-view to be turned upside down. Let effort uncover awareness: through seeking comes understanding and harmony.

To walk outside on a sunny day, one might be fooled into thinking that the plants and earth are self-luminous. They are, it seems, bright with light and heat.
Looking down at your body, you find that, upon first glimpse, you too are bright and warm. "I am Luminous and Warm of my own devices!" you exclaim.
You live your life by this false understanding, until one day, for some reason, you inquire into the source of heat and light. You inspect the plants, the earth, your own body and find the same light.
-- Drew Dixon

Some years ago I began correspondence with a young man seeking spiritual guidance, having become disillusioned with the religion he had been raised with. He seemed happy that someone would take the time to discuss his situation and offer help from the Zen school of Buddhism, even though it was a school he knew little about. Our dialogues began with questions about faith, but not spiritual faith - religious faith. He wanted to know what we "believed in." I would tell him: "We believe that through various spiritual disciplines like meditation we can become fully liberated - enlightened - human beings, as the Buddha was." "But what do you believe in?" He would ask in return. "We believe that all humans are intrinsically enlightened but few realize it. Our path is a path of Self-realization. We believe we can become liberated through the disciplined practice of Zen." "But what do you believe in?" he would ask again and again.

Realizing at this point that Zen was very alien to him, I gave him some introductory texts on Zen Buddhism to read. He read them eagerly, with gusto.  When he finished reading them he returned to his very first question - "but what do you believe, as a Zen Buddhist? What do Zen Buddhists believe?"

I was stumped. There was something amiss with the situation, or at least something that I didn't understand. I began questioning him in some new directions and he finally opened up. "The religion I was raised in teaches that Jews are evil, that they are the 'arms of the devil.'" He described so many more extreme views of this version of a popular religion that I would have thought he was making it up if he didn't seem so sincere. "There is so much hate in that religion that I can't believe these things anymore. I'm done with my family, with my church." He was so excited to finally be talking about his real issues, although I could also sense a palpable fear - fear of abandoning the security of the past, albeit a morose one, and leaping into the unknown. He sent me a package from half way around the globe containing his only copy of the religious scriptures he grew up with. He wanted me to understand exactly where he was coming from. It was old and full of notes - a contemporary re-write of the original. It contained much political and social propaganda. After reading through it I finally understood more about his predicament.  He was a seeker of religious truth who was stuck in the beginning stages of the spiritual path and was struggling to break free - he was stuck in that base stage of spiritual development we more normally associate with young children rather than with mature adults.

In Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, psychologist James W. Fowler examines in some depth the sometimes extreme disconnect that occurs between people in different stages of spiritual growth. From his decades practicing developmental psychology he has become a leader in this area and his Six Stages of Spiritual Growth became a common reference for many people interested in the subject. It seemed to me that my friend from the other side of the globe was in a transitional area between Fowler's Stage 2 and Stage 3. Unfortunately, it wasn't until years later, after I had lost touch with him, that I felt I had some understanding of the root of his problems in a way that might have allowed me to help him.

Fowler describes Stage 1 as Intuitive-Projective Faith - that belonging to the fantasy world of the very young child, and Stage 2 he calls the Mythic-Literal Faith, which encompasses that psychological mode where we personally identify with the social/political/religious belief system given to us by our family and community, but it is perceived as fractured and discordant. For the person in this stage to make sense of it "…beliefs are appropriated with literal interpretations, as are moral rules and attitudes. Symbols are taken as one-dimensional and literal in meaning." Fowler further continues, "A factor initiating transition to Stage 3 is the implicit clash or contradictions in stories that leads to reflection on meanings. The transition to formal operational thought makes such reflection possible and necessary. Previous literalism breaks down, new 'cognitive conceit' leads to disillusionment with previous teachers and teachings. Conflicts between authoritative stories must be faced."

A critical factor for health is growth: as children, we grow taller and heavier; throughout our lives new cells in our body are replacing older ones; psychologically we grow in our understanding of the physical world around us; spiritually we grow in our understanding of the core nature of what it means to be human. When growth stops, our health takes a downward trajectory. As children, if we stop growing our doctor will be concerned about a number of diseases - physical as well as psychological and psycho-social. As adults, if our bodies stop regenerating healthy new cells, cancer or other types of diseases may be suspect. If we fail to continue to learn about our physical environment - such as learning how to use new computer technologies - we may feel "left out" of important social interactions that lend stability and a sense of belonging to our lives. When our spiritual growth is impeded, serious psychological and physical disease may occur because we lose the very connection to ourselves.

In retrospect, I realized that my far-away friend suffered terribly as he was struggling to crash through the barriers separating him from Stage 3.

Stage 3 Fowler calls the Synthetic Conventional Faith and he characterizes it as a conformist, unquestioning adherence to values and beliefs which, taken together, form a consistent holistic view:

Stage 3 typically has its rise and ascendancy in adolescence, but for many adults it becomes a permanent place of equilibrium. It structures the ultimate environment in interpersonal terms. Its images of unifying value and power derive from the extension of qualities experienced in personal relationships. It is a 'conformist' stage in the sense that it is acutely tuned to the expectations and judgments of significant others and does not have a sure enough grasp on its own identity and autonomous judgment to construct and maintain an independent perspective.

He should have moved into Stage 3 when he was much younger, and not as a grown adult. He had been suspended in a state of spiritual disease. After reading the religious texts he had sent me I realized his predicament had not been his fault. It was the effect of a system he had been bound to because of tight family and social bonds, bonds that prevented him to freely grow. The fact that he was now willing and eager to confront the emotional and psychological instability that comes with such a dramatic shift in world-view was both courageous and noble. Yet I didn't feel properly prepared to intervene and support his transition. It was unfamiliar territory for me.

The reason I was unable to connect with him was because I was unable to see him at the stage of development he was in - I had become accustomed to interacting with people who were in later stages of their spiritual lives. I was also of the belief at that time that anyone could enter Zen's precincts from wherever they are if only they put their will and effort into it. I later came to realize that this idea was foolhardy if not a bit arrogant. I wondered how many times Zen teachers have used this notion to justify an attitude of dismissal toward students who they have a hard time connecting with? What is important is not at what "stage" we are, on the spectrum of spiritual development, but that we are continuously moving forward - or at least that when we stop, we don't stop for too long.

Spiritual development is a continuum: we cannot skip over developmental sages; our psyches must have time to process and develop the new insights that each stage contains and reveals to us.  Not everyone is ready for the raw insights acquired through zen practice, but we can all move toward that place where Zen is ready for us.  This is the most important aspect of a spiritual life - not that we've "attained" some higher level of spiritual insight, but that we are moving always forward.   The leap into Zen comes naturally only when we're ready for it - when we've followed the path, without skipping any parts, which takes us to its threshold.

My far-away friend was looking for a secure and safe place to take refuge, a place where he could safely construct a new world-view. The system he was indoctrinated in from birth had become a virtual prison for him. Yet psychologically he could not move from that prison to a new place unless he felt the security of an alternate structure and a group of like-minded people that would allow him to trust. I told him " . . . in Zen we want to shed all our beliefs - belief closes the mind, and it closes the spirit to new things - we want to substitute awareness for belief. And that awareness is the origin of insight, of wisdom. . . " Despite my good intentions, such explanations were of no value to him.  At his current stage of development he was still looking for belief.  He needed belief. He was not yet ready to substitute awareness for belief, much less ready for the unabashed insights that come with letting go of belief.

We must remind ourselves that we can never know about the spiritual path that's in front of us - that we haven't yet experienced. We cannot know what we do not know. We can only hope to see where we are and maybe where we have been. A person in Stage 2, for example, will not be able to easily relate to a person in stage 3 (unless they are transitioning to that stage) and much less to a person in Fowler's Stage 4 or Stage 5. Conversely, a person in a higher stage often has limited ability to "connect" with a person in a much "lower" stage. Scott Peck, author of The Different Drum and many other insightful books posed that, realistically, we can only hope to relate to another person who is no more than one stage away from where we are [Peck's concepts of the stages of spiritual growth are similar to Fowler's but he groups the stages into four instead of six].

I still ask myself what would I have done differently for my friend had I identified his situation sooner. Zen Buddhism, being the mystical arm of Buddhism doesn't concern itself with the early stages of spiritual development because it is the last leg of the spiritual journey, encompassing what Fowler terms stage 6. But Buddhism could help him. As discussed in another article, The Buddhism of Zen, Buddhism, in its full glory, offers people a spiritual path regardless of which spiritual stage they may find themselves. But the "full glory" requires an environment comprised of a mixture of people in all the different stages, working together and moving forward together despite the fact that they are moving forward from different levels of awareness. Scott Peck emphasizes the importance of this in The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace. To achieve a healthy, nurturing, spiritual environment, all members must recognize that each are at different stages on the spiritual journey and not judge others by whatever stage they may consider them to be in. That we are all moving forward, and doing it together, is the important thing. When groups form to propagate their own ideals and agendas which are based on any one particular developmental stage (knowingly or not), spiritual growth effectively becomes arrested at that stage. This is what happens so often with cults, new age groups and even many Zen groups that have separated from their Buddhist roots. We must always remember that it is not where we are that's important, but that we are moving forward.

Fowler describes Stage 4 as the Individuative-Reflective Faith, common to those in young adulthood and characterized by a "critical reflection on identity (self) and outlook (ideology). For those who get stuck here, it can lead to "an excessive confidence in the conscious mind and in critical thought and a kind of second narcissism in which the now clearly bounded, reflective self overassimilates 'reality' and the perspectives of others into its own world view."

Stage 5, Conjunctive Faith, Fowler describes as being unusual before mid-life and is marked by an "opening to the voices of one's 'deeper self.'" It entails "--a capacity to see and be in one's or one's group's most powerful meanings, while simultaneously recognizing that they are relative, partial and inevitable distorting apprehensions of transcendent reality." He continues, "But this stage remains divided. It lives and acts between an untransformed world and a transforming vision and loyalties. In some few cases this division yields to the call of the radical actualization that we call Stage 6."

Fowler describes 6 stages of faith that the "healthy" person will traverse in the course of his or her lifetime. He is quick, though, to point out that people who linger too long in any one stage get themselves into trouble.

While many people struggle being stuck, others seem to move through the "stages" at seemingly lightning speed. Very recently I corresponded with a young man who had had a long and avid interest in Zen. His relatively young age did not prepare me for his advanced spiritual development, yet I knew the amount of time one spends in each "stage" will be different for each of us and dependent not only on our environment but on the effort we put into it, and on our innate aptitude for spiritual growth. Our speed through the stages can also vary over the course of our lives - sudden bursts forward can be triggered by life events - often tragedies that shatter our lives, destroying our complacency.

In his first email he wrote:

The only practice I now perform is one without movement. In my ignorance, the only thing that remains for me to study is the phenomenon of Self. Or, perhaps more precisely, the sense of Being. 'Being' being 'awareness of Being.'. . . However, to remain in this state of Being-focus takes a certain amount of sustained stillness. After focus is trained to the sense of Being, it remains without much effort, but ebbs and is forgotten, (quite literally, forgotten as a possibility, much like remembering oneself in an involved dream) if not practiced throughout the day. . . . I am reluctant to settle down until Being-awareness becomes permanent, effortless and sustained.

In this early correspondence, his description of "being" sounds very much like a transitional zone between Fowler's Stage 5 and Stage 6 - Stage 5 being, in Zen terminology, a tenuous struggle between Master and Self. The Self sees the Master and the Master sees the Self but there is no unity - the glimpses go back and forth creating a tension that must resolve.

Fowler describes stage 6 as a state of awareness in which one's personal identify "is inclusive of all being." In this stage we no longer identify ourselves as separate from all that is.

Lex Hixon describes nicely the entrance into stage 6 [from Coming Home, The Experience of Enlightenment in Sacred Traditions]:

In the fourth dimension, nothing is excluded from our contemplation. Primal radiance and the infinite expressions of Life are fused. Our ishtadeva or Archetype is everywhere. The holy sacraments of all cultures have become our sacraments, the ways of all beings have become our ways. Every content of consciousness proclaims the fusion of forms and the formless radiance that is their essence. At this moment, with open eyes, each of us is directly perceiving the fusion of all phenomena as primal radiance. It is not simply a contemplative notion. Even our physical senses, functioning in an ordinary manner, record this fusion. All is fusion. The four dimensions are one.

In very short order, after some simple coaching to help him move into "Stage 6" (although it's not clear that he needed any coaching), he wrote:

I practiced your advice to feel the being. This time, I tried to feel being outward, and was surprised to discover the range that being seemed to extend. This went on until I "remembered myself," the social-image arose and I felt a kind of terror, like being swallowed, or tipping on the edge of insanity. The terror passed as I "gave myself" to the being felt outside my expected boundaries.

It was a bit like a dirt clod that was blocking a trickle of water dissolved, and the end of the trickle touched the rest of the pool. . . . The water dissolved a clot, and the water remained.

As to the feelings after this point, they were overshadowed. It wasn't so much feeling, but being, which is, and that is... shrugs off everything before it, like a determinedly confidant man looking out from a sunset mountaintop shrugs off the beginning of a conversation.

Not to under emphasize this point, what is important here is not so much the "stage" at which he finds himself but the obviously intense drive for spiritual growth that he expresses, along with his clarity of insight generated from his efforts. An intense, unrelenting, effort to uncover that which we do not know is essential for spiritual progress at any stage. When we stop seeking, we stop growing, and when we stop growing we succumb to illnesses of all kinds - physical, psychological, and spiritual. There is no universal formula for Zen, or for spiritual growth because it depends entirely on us: on our sincere effort to unravel ourselves from the inside out. When the willpower is there, we can just as easily progress on the path while we change the oil in our car as we can while sitting full-lotus in a temple for hours at a time.

Stage 1. Undisciplined - from Zen's ox herding picture series: With his horns fiercely projected in the air the beast snorts, Madly running over the mountain paths, farther and farther he goes astray! A dark cloud is spread across the entrance of the valley, And who knows how much of the fine fresh herb is trampled under his wild hoofs!Zen has its own "stages of spiritual growth" in the famous ox herding pictures. These are most often accompanied by short poems explaining each stage. But these stages, too, are just as arbitrary as those we find described in modern literature by authors such as Peck and Fowler. Even in the Zen tradition, different people see a different delineation of the stages, giving sometimes 8 stages, sometimes, 10 stages, and the most famous Chan master of the 20th Century, Hsu Yun himself, assigned 11 stages!

So there really are no absolute "stages" of spiritual development - it's just natural for us to try to organize and categorize our experiences, both personal and observed, to help us make sense of things on an intellectual level. If we're doing our work, motion forward never ceases so we could say that either we are never at any particular stage, or that we are traveling through infinite stages. Regardless, it becomes moot.

How do we keep our spiritual life alive? How do we keep moving forward? Embrace life in all its beauty and ugliness: treat all things with equanimity, seeing what is real and not what is superimposed by our beliefs and opinions. Seek the unknown: approach fears with fierce resolve to understand them. Find harmony through chaos: allow your world-view to be turned upside down. Let effort uncover awareness: through seeking comes understanding and harmony.

Delve into the nature of being until your being becomes the sun.

All that is needed is to look in a certain direction, in which you find the sun. Plants, ground and body, it seems, are only bright and warm due to the nature of being in the path of the sun's rays. Similarly, we go through our lives thinking that the image of self, the I Am, is the source of Presence, Being and Reality. However, upon further inquiry into the source of these, one comes to discover that it's Being that lends, by its nature, Presence and Reality, to the perceptions of Form and self-image.
        -- Drew Dixon

A very thought provoking article. I am having difficulty in accepting the premise that effort, and "intense, unrelenting, effort" at that, is a prerequisite for spiritual growth and maturity, going counter, as it does, to the concept and practice of Daoist Wu Wei [effortless non-action] which, along with other Daoist concepts, has been serving me well for a very long time. Of course effort like zazen, reading the scriptures, reading your articles and engaging with masters are rewarding and can make one feel and believe one is a good student, that one is making progress, that the investment in effort will eventually lead to attaining such goals as wisdom, liberation and enlightenment. But does not spirituality then become just another desire-driven project with a serious attachment to the achievement of these goals? Can that not become counterproductive and delusional too?
People approach "spirituality" from many different directions. Some are looking for a "feel-good" experience (in the words of Stuart Lachs), some are looking for belonging in a group of like-minded people, some are looking for status within group ... Chan/Zen both derive from Buddhism which, at it's foundation, are the four noble truths. The path of Chan/Zen is the path that leads out of duhkha (simplistically translated usually as "suffering"). To get out of the ego's domain, that domain that causes suffering in the first place, it takes a lot of effort. Effort to break bonds of attachment. Now, once one has succeeded in doing this, then the Daoist Wu Wei comes naturally. But one can not enter effortless non-action (nor even understand what it means) when one is governed by ego-desires. Ideally, the desire-nature of the spiritual path is the desire to get out of samsara. Spiritually, we never know where we are going; and yes, if we take something as a goal, like enlightenment, then we'll never get there. But if we work to get out of where we are, out of samsara, by moving into the unknown, then we may be fortunate to experience enlightenment.