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Seven stages in spiritual evolution

12 May, 2011

This presentation on the stages of spiritual evolution is by Fr Korko Moses SJ (Swamy Saranananda) who runs a Christian ashram in India. His thought is in the line of the mystical tradition of St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross, especially along the third, fourth, and fifth stages.


1.1 Stages of mind evolution
From womb to tomb we experience different levels of growth within us. Physically we grow from babyhood to old age through various stages of pre-adolescence, adolescence, adulthood and middle age. Our intellect grows through gathering information, thinking and analyzing and decision making to intuitive direct perception. We also grow into emotional maturity by learning to balance our feelings with reason. Similarly the spiritual awakening also takes place within us through various stages. In the initial stages of our growth we think of ourselves as the physical body, then we become aware of our mental capacity to think and to feel. This level of awareness of oneself as the body-mind unit is called body consciousness. As we keep growing we also become aware of the promptings of the spirit within. When we keep attending to it we slowly become aware of our real identity as the spirit, as children of God. This is attaining spirit consciousness. Spiritual evolution or evolution to spirit consciousness in a person goes parallel with the development of one’s mind. For our purpose we see it in seven distinct stages.

First Stage – Instinctive mind
We are born programmed with an instinctive mind for survival. As babies we instinctively eat, sleep, play, cry and so on to meet our basic needs of food, love, protection, rest and enjoyment. It is part of the wisdom of the body. This mind is chaotic, undisciplined, inconsistent and unpredictable. It has no identity. It lives in the present. It expresses its emotions freely and spontaneously. No moral judgments arise in this mind whether something is right or wrong. Even after reason develops the instinctive mind continues to operate in us until we die.

Second Stage – Social mind
As we grow from childhood to pre-adolescent the thinking process starts. We become more and more ‘civilized’. We begin to realize that we are not an isolated island but members of a family and a society. We begin to identify ourselves with the family, neighborhood and church community, with our culture, nation and social groups. This sense of belonging gives a security and an identity. We learn the rules and norms of these social-units and make their values our own. We begin to act according to the expectations of the elders, in trying to win their approval. These social units try to socialize us by the reward and punishment method: approval means promotion, heaven; or disapproval means ex-communication, the threat of hell. We want to turn out to be the best boy or best girl in the school, parish and society. Soon we appropriate the thinking pattern, traditions and values of these social units. We do not ask if these are all right or not. With love and respect to the elders on whom we depend so much for our survival and growth, we take them in good faith, taking them to be the best values for us. In fact elders usually resent any questioning. They expect us to accept these norms and conform to them. Everything seems to be well worked out within the social system; there is an answer to every question and a solution for every problem. We only have to understand and conform. This is the stage of idealism, loyalty, commitment, achievement and martyrdom for a noble cause.

Third Stage – Individual mind
As we come to adolescence and move on to adulthood, many questions arise in our mind that the social system is not able to answer to our satisfaction. The explanations given by religion concerning the meaning of life, the cause of suffering and other such human issues are far from convincing. Failures, disappointments, tragedy, death of dear ones, accidents and natural calamities make us think seriously about life. Besides, we come in contact with other social groups who seem to think and act in a different way and propose different solutions to human problems. We want to know who is right. If we start thinking a little more deeply more serious questions arise in our minds  with regard to our existence such as – who am I?, where do I come from?, where am I going?, what is my relation to the rest of creation? is there a God?, what is life?, why do innocent people suffer?, and so on. We do not want to accept any one particular solution on the basis of the authority of the elders or of Scripture alone as we did in our previous stage; rather we want to explore and find out for ourselves.

With these questions we enter into a painful period of search, confusion and uncertainty. There are many obstacles on the way of this inner search. We could get into serious difficulty with our elders who would condemn us as rebellious, disloyal or bad, and prevent us from pursuing these questions. On the other hand, it is frightening to think for oneself. We do not know where it will lead us to. It is troublesome and risky. There is also the problem of having the time and the means to reflect and search. On account of responsibilities and struggles of life, one may not get sufficient time to think seriously on these vital questions and so may resolve to live with the ready-made answers given by society even if they are not fully satisfactory. Naturally very few are able to pursue these questions with patience and persistence. Restlessness, cynicism, breaking the social rules, roaming about, spending time with people of other social units and extensive reading are characteristic features of this stage and these features are not generally appreciated by the social system.

Fourth Stage – Universal mind
From this stage onwards an internal movement starts. It is basically a movement from a self-centered life to a God-centered life. It is a process of progressively being freed from the clutches of selfish desires to a life of self-less service. The self-centered worldly life can express itself either in conventional piety finding fulfillment in ritual, moral and social observances or in religious indifference and an insensitive and sinful life. Through life experiences of suffering, disappointments and sickness gradually one may come to a realization of the futility of one’s thoughts and actions, and of the things that gave satisfaction so far. There arises a desire for spiritual knowledge, a desire to know the ultimate truth of existence. This process is called conversion. Those who take a risk and dare to pursue these questions slowly begin to understand themselves as part of a larger unit of humankind; they see themselves as members of a family consisting of all living beings. They see every family and every religion or group as their own. They are in wonder and appreciation of other cultures and religions and ready to learn from them and enrich themselves.

Fifth Stage: Transcending mind
But even beyond this newly discovered identification with the universal family, the questions still persist: who am I really? where does the universe come from?, what is the force behind all these things that we see? The search continues, but by a different route. By now one realizes that there is a mystery that cannot be grasped by the mind, one which is beyond the capacity of the mind to fathom. Only faith, intuition or direct experience can help fathom these questions. We start searching for spiritual masters, sages or gurus who have found answers to these questions and who are willing to lead us to the same goal. One now loses interest in the attractions of the world and sets oneself totally to find and taste the Ultimate reality. The desire for the realization of the Ultimate can be so strong that one may stake all of one’s family, religion, wealth, health and even one’s very life. This again is a very difficult passage. So far one has walked safely under the dictates of one’s reason. Now one comes to a space where reason fails. Faith alone is our hope (as we sing in Tantum ergo, “senses cannot grasp this marvel, faith alone must compensate”). Reason has to give way to intuition born of discrimination and spiritual sadhana (intense spiritual pursuit). In taking an experienced person as guide one takes to a serious sadhana of introspection and of bringing the mind to one-pointedness where one can experience the reality for oneself. This demands total renunciation, serious effort and faith in a guru or a spiritual system. Bringing the mind under perfect control, to go beyond all concepts, symbols, name and form, to perceive the essence and unity of all things is the hardest of all tasks. It is at this stage one settles down in an ashram or monastery or in some quiet place and meditates under the guidance of some enlightened master.

Sixth Stage – Christ mind
When one does serious sadhana with renunciation and faith unmediated by the senses and mind there then emerges a direct experiential knowledge of the ultimate reality. This is beyond the powers of description of human language. Symbols are used to point to this experience. Those who have gone through this experience see their very self in all beings, recognize God in all beings and see all beings in God. They attain God consciousness. This is the height of spiritual perfection.

In the Sermon on the Mount according to Mathew, Jesus says, “Be perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Mt 5:48). The perfection of the Father is that he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. Luke has a slightly different version of the same teaching, “Be you compassionate as your Father also is compassionate” (Luke 6:36). The compassion of the Father here is, “He is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil”. Putting these texts together we see the perfection of the Father is in fact compassion, that is perfect equanimity, having the same loving attitude towards the good and the bad, to the just and the unjust, to friend and enemy. This is possible only when one attains the sama-darshana or same-sighted-mess, which is seeing one’s very self in all beings or seeing God in all beings. For this one has to realize oneself as Spirit: this is the final stage of spiritual perfection. Having realized the Truth of oneself as Spirit, one is able to worship the Father in Spirit and in Truth (Jn.4:23). In fact realizing oneself as Spirit is the true worship of the Father. This is ‘being born of water and spirit’ that Jesus speaks of in his conversation with Nicodemus (Jn.3: 5); this is the life in spirit that Paul speaks of again and again in his letters. To be transformed into Christ: this is the height of Christian perfection. Those who have reached this final stage of “Christ mind” see themselves as transformed into Christ. With Paul they can say, “I live, not I, Christ lives in me” (Gal.2: 20) or “we have the mind of Christ” (Cor.2:16).

This stage cannot be reached by mere will power, brainwashing or self-programming; or through great learning or erudition. People following the path of religion often try to reach this stage by self-control, penance and effort. This way could do violence to oneself. Such people, though outwardly appearing saintly could be quite judgmental and violent to others. This stage is a stage of transformation that comes out of an inner perception, harmony and integration with the whole of creation. Compassion, love and service of all are the end product of this experience. Much hard work on oneself is needed to come to this stage. Yet it is a grace; we have to do our part of the search and meditation and yet we have no claim over this experience. It is a gift freely given.

Seventh Stage: Service
Filled with the unending joy of union with the divine, and compassion for all beings the the enlightened ones now take to alleviating the sufferings of humanity. They try to help people attain God consciousness which suffering. consciousness which alone can put an end to their suffering. They work for the unity and harmony of creation. They may be in one place or move about; they could be in some cave all alone, but they are always for others, always doing good, by action or through their very being which sends out strong positive vibrations of healing and integration.

Every stage in this process of spiritual evolution is a preparation for the next stage but this seventh stage is the final stage. This stage is not the monopoly of any one religion or group. Within the parameters of Christian theology we call this the Christ mind or arriving at Christhood, but the same thing could be called by people of other religions by other names, such as Krishna-consciousness, Nirvana, Brindavan. Every human person irrespective of caste, creed, sex or nationality is destined to arrive at this stage. (See: Osho, I say unto you. Vol. I. p 120-153)

1.2. Some characteristic features of these stages

1. Except for the seventh stage every other stage is a preparation to the next stage. It is like a womb. The child grows in the warmth and security of the womb. When the growth proper to the womb is completed the child leaves the security of the womb and takes a leap into the unknown, taking a big risk. If the child does not take this risk, the very womb that so far nurtured the child will strangle it to death. Similarly if one does not keep growing and moving into the next stage one will end up in spiritual death. Most people get stuck with the second stage.

2. When we are growing in one stage we tend to idealize or give absolute importance to that stage, like a mother idealizes her child. But when we reach the saturation of the growth proper to that stage we then relativize it and move to the next stage. When we move from one stage to the next, we can still keep the link with the previous one. For example, when one reaches the third stage of questioning or the fourth stage of intense sadhana, one can now and then come back to the second stage of religion and benefit by attending the rituals, Scripture reading, etc.

3. We can identify different yoga-margas (yogic paths) being active at different stages of this evolution. Bhakti (devotion to the Lord) is dominant in the second stage. Jnana (knowledge), dhyana (introspection and meditation) and karma (selfless service) can be seen in the third, fourth and fifth stages respectively. For those who are at the second stage, besides bhakti, religion prescribes actions of rituals and service. These are done by devotees for reward such as winning the favor of God, obtaining health and wealth and ultimately to get to heaven. These actions cannot be put under the category of karma yoga (union through action’ ) unless they are undertaken to obtain God-union.
Karma yoga proper is at the seventh stage, when one having identified one’s ego with all, comes forward to serve without expecting any reward.

4. The four branches of the Indian tradition that is, brahmacharya (studies and strict discipline), grihastha (social responsibilities and relationships with the family and society), vanaprastha (introspection and meditation in solitude) and sannyasa (wandering in total renunciation), could be seen as going parallel with these stages. Brahmacharya and grihastha fall under the second stage; the later part of grihastha could be the third stage; vanaprastha the fourth stage and sannyasa the fifth stage. The set of five koshas or sheaths referred to in yoga, is also similar to the spiritual evolution in the five stages; they are: annamaya kosha (sheath of gross matter), prnamaya kosha (sheath of life), manomaya kosha (sheath of mind), vijnanamaya kosha (sheath of intellect)  and anandamaya kosha (bliss sheath), These also show the progressive unfolding of spiritual awakening.

5. The spiritual classics such as The Imitation of Christ, Cloud of Unknowing, Spiritual Exercise of St. Ignatius, The Interior Castle of Teresa of Avila, Ascent of Mount Carmel of John of the Cross, The Way of the Pilgrim from the Hesychasm, The Bhagavad Gita, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, Bhagavata Purana and so on describe in detail the dynamics of the spiritual transformation that takes place in the third and fourth stages.

6. The second stage produces heroes, saints and martyrs. These are people who lived out faithfully the principles and norms of a social system such as religion and attained perfection in it, or people who defended the social system from attacks from within or without, perhaps even giving their very life. These people are venerated by the social system and held as models to imitate. Those who reach stage five are called mystics. Their individual consciousness has merged with that of God, so they are one with God. While a saint is well programmed by the social system to do “good”, the fully transformed mystic radiates goodness without any effort. The mystics fear nothing. Sometimes they deal heavily with the social system for its rigidity and oppression of common people. These are called prophets. Only mystics can become true prophets. Mystic-prophets are often persecuted and even killed by the vested interested groups in a society or religion that try to maintain injustice and domination. Jesus himself is a very good example for this. With the passage of time some of these mystic-prophets are taken and venerated as saviours or saints by society or religion. And so sometimes the word saint is also used to denote the mystic.

(Ken Wilber describes at length the spiritual development in seven stages.)