Toward a “Common Spirituality”: Scaffolding for Evolving Consciousness by Richard Harmer, PhD

Spirituality is a universal phenomenon. It doesn’t matter where in the world you live or what “tribe” you are a part of; you can be assured that spirituality will be a part of the psychological and social fabric of your immediate world. Why? Humans have a strong will toward meaning. Extensive psychological research suggests that spirituality makes human life more vibrant. Further, spirituality provides us with a sense of morality and ethics and allows us to find a sense of peace in the face of life’s trials and tribulations. In fact, spirituality is central to being and becoming a healthy and well-adjusted human being. Spirituality also plays a role in enabling the evolution of individual and collective consciousness.

It was this final premise – spirituality’s role in enabling the evolution of human consciousness – that led me to complete extensive psychological research into the phenomenon of spirituality. My research focused on the exploration of three questions.

1) What is spirituality?

2) What is the purpose of spirituality?

3) What is a spiritual life?

Several researchers and philosophers influenced my approach. Most prominent was Ken Wilber and his AQAL (All Quadrants, All Levels, All Lines) Framework. Wilber’s Integral Theory provides a “theory of all theories” that encourages the exploration of any topic, including spirituality, from four primary “quadrants” of inquiry: individual-interior (the intentional, or subjective field), collective-interior (the cultural, or intersubjective field), individual-exterior (the behavioral, or objective field), and collective-exterior (the social, or interobjective field). As Wilber describes in his book Integral Spirituality (Shambhala, 2006), the exploration of spirituality and individual consciousness resides in the individual-interior quadrant.

Two other researchers who also influenced my first steps in formulating my research agenda were Susanne Cook-Greuter and the late Jane Loevinger, pioneering developmental psychologists in the creation and ongoing validation of a map for understanding an individual’s current worldview or stage of consciousness development. Their map is grounded in the exploration and understanding of how a person’s ego develops and, ultimately, how one transcends ego. Other researchers (and their maps) who influenced my research included Clare Graves (Spiral Dynamics), Lawrence Kohlberg (Stages of Moral Development), James Fowler (Stages of Faith Development), and Robert Kegan (Stages of Cognitive Development).

The final researcher who influenced my exploration of spirituality – and, in particular, my research question, What is a spiritual life? – was neurologist and psychiatrist Victor Frankl. Frankl was a survivor of Auschwitz in the Second World War and the founder of a discipline of therapy called logotherapy (logo = meaning), which explores what gives meaning to a person’s life. His book Man’s Search for Meaning provides a strong argument that life has meaning under all circumstances, even in a prisoner-of-war camp. Frankl’s work had a two-fold influence upon the direction of my research.

The first was his emphasis that by remaining present to all aspects and experiences of life, we activate the will to meaning and as a result find meaning. The second was his conclusion that it’s not enough to realize that life itself is our spiritual practice; it’s how we make sense of our life experiences that will determine how those meaning-making vignettes influence the trajectory of our consciousness development.

Through the work of these researchers and philosophers, I identified the five following premises, orienting the ultimate direction of my research.

1) Spirituality is a universal phenomenon (therefore experienced by all people to some degree, either consciously or otherwise), whereas religion (organized or otherwise) may not be.

2) Spirituality is a “line” of development that can best be oriented within the individual-interior quadrant of Wilber’s Integral Model.

3) The purpose of spirituality is to support each of us individually (and collectively) to make meaning from life’s many experiences.

4) Spirituality and the spiritual life provide a medium and related mechanisms for the ongoing psychological process of integration and re-integration of our identity toward a more expansive and integrated Self (with a capital “S”).

5) The exploration of one’s spirituality enables each of us (given the right conditions) to understand and expand our consciousness.

The Methodology

When conducting psychological research, one of two approaches can be adopted. The first involves a phenomenological or first-person study of the inner (and subjective) experience of the people being studied. This qualitative approach was arguably the most appropriate for exploring the subjectivity of individual spirituality, but it reduces the replicability of the findings and doesn’t allow for the generalization of research findings beyond the rigid demographics of the initial sample. I therefore chose a quantitative approach, which typically involves collecting large quantities of survey-based data that increases the empirical rigor of the research process as well as the findings generated.

In two separate studies conducted over four years, nearly 900 people participated in my research exploring the what, why, and how of spirituality. Respondents were a self-selected sample recruited via the Internet (largely from my home country of Australia), using a range of approaches such as online advertisements via social media sites (e.g., Facebook) and requests forwarded to administrators of various online groups with an invitation to post details of my research on their member noticeboards. In inviting members of online groups to participate, I made contact with more than 100 different spiritual groups, including monotheistic, dharmic, Indigenous, New Age, Wiccan, Satanist, agnostic, atheistic, and others. I did not recruit from traditionally religious sources such as churches, temples, and mosques because they would introduce a potential bias in the “non-religious” sample I was seeking.

Of the 900-plus people who participated, respondents came from a range of spiritual, religious, quasi-religious, and non-religious backgrounds, with approximately 20 percent of them indicating that they had no formal spiritual orientation or practice. Approximately 65 percent of respondents were female, and 70 percent had at least a bachelor degree–level education. The average age of males and females combined across both samples was 42. Interestingly, this is the same demographic profile globally for people who report being “spiritual” but not necessarily “religious.” All subsequent analyses were completed in accordance with industry standards for psychological research and with enough statistical validity for the results to be generalizable to a wider population and to underpin a “common spirituality” (at least in Australia).

Exploring the core elements that may underpin a “common spirituality” is important given our increasingly globalized world and the fusing of many mainstream and “particularistic” religions. More significantly, given a presumption in the “ultimate truth” of the oneness of consciousness, I believe that it’s time to explore and make explicit the shared set of beliefs and values that are common across all spiritualities, religions, quasi-religions, and non-religions. To do so may enable us to better “think together” in committing to collective wise-action for navigating the global dilemmas we are all facing.

Key Findings

What is spirituality? In addition to asking respondents to complete a range of surveys, my research also involved asking a subset of them to provide a short description of what they thought spirituality was. Not surprisingly, each provided a slightly different definition. I’m sure that this outcome would remain the case regardless of the number of people I had asked, with responses becoming even more divergent if I had asked people across a broader range of geo-cultural contexts.

Regardless of a person’s cultural, religious, or ethnic background, however, the findings do suggest that there are some common elements. For example, most spiritual and religious traditions agree that spirituality involves an emergent and continual process of psychological integration and differentiation – the “transcendence of ego” – toward an expanded consciousness. They also agree that, to a greater or lesser extent, spirituality involves

* a commitment to conduct yourself with authenticity
* an openness to the many mysteries of life
* the identification, pursuit, and fulfilment of your unique purpose in life
* a willingness to develop connections with other people and the planet
* an appreciation that cultivating spirituality is one of your most fundamental life tasks

What is the purpose of spirituality? The key and perhaps groundbreaking finding from my study is that while most research to-date into spirituality has focused on the health and social benefits of living a more spiritual life, becoming a healthy and well-adjusted human being is not in itself the main purpose. The ultimate concern of spirituality is to expand one’s consciousness. More specifically, it is how a person makes sense of him or herself within the context of their world that will influence that person’s progression toward more expansive, inclusive, and integrated ways of thinking and being.

A person’s way of thinking and being is influenced by their worldview – the unique combination of attitudes, perceptions, and assumptions that inform how they personally understand and make sense of their place in the world. My research found that the ongoing exploration of one’s spirituality with an open mind, open heart, and open will (Frankl’s “will to meaning”) can result in fundamental shifts in one’s self-perspective. What is most important to consider is that as a person’s beliefs, attitudes, perceptions, and assumptions about him or herself and the world become more expansive and inclusive, so does that person’s consciousness. (See IONS’ Transformation Study and the book Living Deeply)

At the end of my research, I arrived at the following question: Does one’s consciousness evolve “organically” over time, and if so, how does the adoption of an intentionally spiritual life impact the trajectory of that evolution? Certainly the evolution of one’s worldview occurs across his or her lifespan. Developmental research suggests that there are three important periods when the trajectory of this evolution usually accelerates: during adolescence, during one’s twenties, and beyond the age of sixty. But my findings suggest that simply being older doesn’t guarantee a more evolved and expansive worldview; the evolution of one’s worldview (and therefore, consciousness) occurs independently of life experience.

This finding further reinforces that it is how a person makes sense of himself or herself that will influence that person’s progression toward more expansive, inclusive, and integrated ways of thinking and being; it also supports previous such studies, most notably Cook-Greuter’s research into stages of ego-development. Her research suggests that most people have a relatively immature level of worldview that is grounded in who they know, what they know, and/or what they’ve achieved, rather than who they are, which hinders their capacity to attain later and more integrated stages of consciousness.

In fact, her research found that more than 80 percent of all people fail to progress to a level of worldview where they become “individualized” – that is, when they no longer rely entirely on external validation to reinforce their sense of self or self-worth. Cook-Greuter’s research also suggests that less than 0.5 percent of the world’s population have attained a stage of ego-development where they have transcended ego and experience unity consciousness as a way of being.

According to my research, shifts toward more expansive, inclusive, and integrated worldviews not only occur independent of life experience but often in nonlinear ways. Depicted visually, the spiritual life can be considered akin to an ever-expanding spiral, with each loop representing not just learning or understanding something new but also a completely different way of knowing and being. (See the IONS Change Model.)

To continue to expand one’s shifts in worldview, however, the right conditions also need to be present. My research identified four core ways of thinking (four “spiritual beliefs”) that can be adopted and/or maintained to successfully expand consciousness. They can be considered “common” and provide the right interior conditions for how we might expand our consciousness. They include the following.

1) An openness to the mysteries of life, which means a universal spiritual belief that there is an order to the universe that transcends human thinking. This belief determines how open you are to life’s mysteries and how rigorously you explore spiritual phenomenon (both intrinsic and extrinsic) beyond and outside the ordinary range of human experience and understanding.

2) A belief in exploring life’s meaning, purpose, and direction, which means a universal spiritual belief that there is meaning and purpose to your life that transcends life’s intermediary pursuits (e.g., riding a motorcycle, obtaining an academic degree, etc.). This belief relates to how readily you explore your life in order to find your unique purpose for existing in the world.

3) The belief in fostering wholeness and interconnectedness, which means a universal spiritual belief that all life is interconnected and that it is your bond to all humanity that provides a sense of wholeness. This belief determines how readily you foster connections and commune with all other sentient beings – including nature – in order to experience a sense of wholeness.

4) The belief in self-discovery and inner growth, which means a universal spiritual belief that all people are consciously and unconsciously undertaking a journey toward a transcended ego. This belief relates to how open you are to exploring yourself in order to rise above an ego-driven, fear-based, and external comparison-oriented existence.

Certainly our openness to these four core ways of thinking will ebb and flow over the duration of our spiritual journey, but no matter how open we are to these beliefs, it’s important to maintain a more expansive and inclusive “filter” when trying to make sense of our life and spiritual experiences. What does it mean to maintain such a filter? As a demonstration, read the following four statements and see if you agree with them:

* I believe that there is more to this world than can be seen and physically studied.
* I believe my life has meaning and purpose.
* I believe that, although individual people can be difficult, I feel an emotional bond to all humanity.
* I believe that every experience I have in life allows me to learn something new about myself.

The more you are able to respond “yes,” the more expansive and inclusive your filters and the greater the opportunity to expand your consciousness.

What is a spiritual life? Expanding one’s consciousness through spiritual practice takes time, and the path can be difficult – there are no shortcuts. But my research did identify three key tenets for staying present to one’s life and spiritual journey:

1) Intention – Undertake your spiritual journey with intention and maintain a conscious focus on why spirituality (and the expanding of your consciousness) is important to you.

2) Commitment –Proactively integrate your spiritual journey into all domains of your life (family, work, friends, etc.) and appreciate that exploring your spiritualty is not taboo in any of them.

3) Timelessness – It’s important to remember that your spiritual journey never really ends.

Finally, my research also found that to expand one’s consciousness, it’s essential to establish a daily spiritual practice. This will allow you to align how you understand yourself moment-by-moment with what you experience yourself doing in your day-to-day life. My research also found that no one spiritual practice is better than another. The key is that a spiritual practice is done daily and is ongoing. In selecting an appropriate spiritual practice for yourself, consider the following:

* it needs to provide you with an experience of something greater than yourself
* it should be something you can do over and over again
* it should be something you can undertake within, and as a part of, all of the different aspects of your life

A Final Caveat

The findings and ideas presented in this article aim to provide a holistic approach for considering spirituality as well as some suggestions for how a person might adopt a more purposeful approach to cultivating their spirituality. The ultimate intention is the expansion of one’s consciousness. Of course, nothing is that simple – or, ironically, complex. As a wise colleague recently reminded me, if we already know the location of the destination, we don’t need a map to traverse the landscape. In the same vein, the findings from my research are only scaffolding to support a person as he or she undertakes the spiritual journey. Once someone has begun to connect with their unique experience of unity consciousness – that is, once they’ve transcended their ego – the supporting structures outlined in this article fall away. Travel well.

Dr. Richard Harmer is a strategic consultant, coach, and change catalyst working with individuals and organizations for social transformation. Richard is also founder and Managing Director of The Holos Group, an alliance of experts dedicated to enabling today and tomorrow’s leaders to lead with authenticity, wisdom, and clarity of purpose.

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