Chapter 6: Spirituality


How Might Such a Transformation Happen?


I have treated hundreds of patients. Among those in the second half of life—that is to say, over 35 years—there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not finding a religious outlook on life. It is safe to say that every one of them fell ill because he had lost that which the living religions of every age have given their followers, and that none of them, really has been healed who did not regain his religious outlook.


The above words were written by Carl Gustave Jung (1875-1961) in his 1933 book, Modern Man in Search of a Soul. Jung had originally trained under Sigmund Freud, then eventually parted ways with him because of  Freud’s belief that frustrated sexuality is the cause of almost every psychiatric problem.  Jung also rejected Freud’s dismissal of religion as having largely contributed to what Jung saw as the modern neurosis or lack of a sense of meaning in our lives. Instead, Jung saw religion, or more exactly spirituality, as being the key to the achievement of psychological maturity.

Everything we’ve already considered, all the way from the origin of the universe to the evolution of humankind, suggests that the potential for life after death can only be in terms of progressive change during this life.  Mature oak trees do not spring from acorns overnight.  While there are such things as sudden conversions or change of outlook, the kind of human psychological and spiritual maturity that one could reasonably hope would make the surviving of death possible is generally the result of only many years of growth.  This is not to say that some influx of divine origin could not make up for what nature lacks, for example, in the case of those who die young. But here we are trying to confine ourselves to the natural and logical order of things, as well as account for the particular sorrow that we have when a person, so full of potential, does not live long enough for that potential to be realized.  The same might be said even of the death of unborn children.

No doubt it is the realization that full spiritual maturity is rarely, if ever, seen, even in older persons, something which has given rise to such ideas as a “purgatory”, a state in the next life where the often unfinished business of achieving spiritual maturity is taken care of.  Given the human tendency to procrastinate, this is quite understandable.  All of us would like to believe there is always the possibility of a second chance. Yet no matter how comforting such beliefs might be, psychologically speaking, they can severely retard serious application to the task at hand. 

      There is a serious logical problem with that idea as well.  When one speaks of such a concept, is not one speaking of a passage of time?  Indeed, could anyone of us really undergo or experience anything that exists outside of or apart from time except by some kind of loose analogy with our experience of time, or in other words, with something that lasts “forever” or continues without end?  So if “eternity” is, by definition, beyond  time, while change is something that happens only within time, then it stands to reason that once we have died, we are beyond any capability of change, therefore of any growth.  No doubt this is at least partly why some cultures came to believe in reincarnation, seen as a series of lifetimes in which one had successive chances to advance to higher stages of spiritual growth, or on the other hand, regress to a lower stage depending on ones behavior in a previous life. In other words, according to Joseph Kitigawa (1974, p. 118, 124), we are dealing here with ones karma—literally “deed’ or “act”—understood as “the moral law of causation” with “its inevitable results”.

      It should be pointed out that here we are considering the laws of normal human development. That there may be a another kind of providential arrangement or dispensation by which those who, though no fault of their own, die young or without the chance to mature, yet still find themselves alive in “heaven”, is quite another matter.  It is one that I will leave to pastors to try to best explain.  However, returning to the more normal or less tragic course of nature, we have to realize that we all begin life as tiny bits of protoplasm and only gradually reach, over eight to nine months time, that physical stage at which we can be safely born into this world.  And just as our psychological maturity takes many years to achieve, can any one seriously believe that spiritual maturity can normally take anything but a whole lifetime, or even possibly beyond even that, to achieve?

       Either way, regarding reliance on a purgatory or even belief in another lifetime given to us to shape up, it should be added that theologically speaking, this kind of thinking could be rather presumptuous, amounting to what the prophets used to denounce as testing divine patience or “tempting God”.   There may well be such a perfecting stage beyond death.  It just doesn’t seem very wise to count on it!

This task of achieving spiritual growth, which is generally spoken of as “spirituality” today, has long been considered one of the principal tasks of religion. Regrettably, for various reasons, many religions, or at least the institutions that claim to speak for them, have often neglected to carry out this task very well. No doubt part of the reason for this is that the more established they are in a society or culture, the more the institutional energy is taken up just providing basic care for those persons, usually the majority, who are, in a sense, spiritually immature. So the institution itself becomes less attuned to, or even somewhat threatened by the challenges of cultivating a more mature spirituality. As a result, modern popular psychology—much of it prone to fads of one sort or another—and various New Age religions have tended to fill up the gap left by churches that have failed in their primary mission. Or as it has sometimes been said, “Religion is for those who are trying to escape hell: spirituality is for those who have gone through it!” 

All this is unfortunate, because if you dig deep enough, you will generally find, in the depths of your own religious background, more than enough spiritual wisdom to keep you challenged with the task of growing spiritually for a whole lifetime. In fact, as Bergson insisted in his 1932 book on The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, both a solid religious tradition as well as the periodic refreshment of that tradition through prophecy and mysticism are necessary for advance.

Nevertheless, underneath all the varieties of spirituality, the process of spiritual growth, just like growth of any kind, is very similar. Even though this process can be divided into many stages, they all can be generally reduced to three, corresponding more or less to what we might call spiritual infancy, prime, and maturity. However, it must be stressed that this process of spiritual growth, unlike our physical growth, is not automatic. In fact, more than even psychological growth, we must make a sustained and consistent effort.

These three stages have been variously named in the literature of spirituality, for example, depending on how much progress one has made: thus one might be characterized as being a “beginner”, an “adept”, or “proficient”, or, with more emphasis on the activity characterizing each, seen as being in the “purgative”, “illuminative” or even “unitive” stage.  In any case, regardless of the terminology used, one must progress through the following steps or tasks.

First: you must know yourself, warts and all.  Self-deception, self-justification, making excuses for ones own failings, and all the other evasions of the truth, much of it caused or at least aided or abetted by compulsive activity and addictions of one sort or another, have to be squarely faced and renounced or given up. Thus, it involves a major element of “purgation” that can only come from an initial moment of truth, followed by a decision to do something about it. The traditional word for this moment was “conversion” or in the Greek of the gospels, metanoia, which literally translates to “change of mind”.

       Second: we must embark on a program of self-improvement by seeking an ideal and working for a level of performance that tries to measure up to that ideal.  This involves a great deal of thought as well as practice.  It means serious study, meditation on what we have studied, and constant efforts to apply the insights—thus it is called the stage of “illumination”—and applying the fruits of such study and meditation to all our duties and circumstances of daily life.  When we fail to measure up to the ideal, as we all inevitably do—otherwise we’re probably not human—we must not give up.  This second stage is usually the longest one, and because it requires such perseverance, by far the most difficult. 

Third: finally, and hopefully, one eventually reaches the stage at which some kind of real spiritual maturity, thus “unity” with God, or with whatever is considered the highest or most ultimate reality, has been achieved. Most compulsions will have been overcome, good habits will have become second nature, and a certain amount of inner as well as outer peace and wisdom will have become manifest.  While idealism may still run high, at this stage there is now usually a good measure of tolerance and compassion for those who are still struggling, and a spontaneous willingness to reach out to those in need.

However, there is still more. Quite often, even in the earlier stages, there is some evidence of some occasional, even if fleeting, experiential contact with the ultimate, thus some kind of foretaste of what an afterlife might have to offer.  In the Western world, this experience has often been referred to as mystical “contemplation”.  In Asia, the term most often used is “enlightenment”. In some ways these experiences may be like the “peak experiences” described by the psychiatrist Abraham Maslow, which are not nearly as extraordinary as one might think. Or they may be even a bit like the “near death experiences” described by Dr. Raymond Moody in his book on the subject, or even more recently, by the neurosurgeon, Eben Alexander, M.D., who, after a long period of being convinced that biology explains everything, believes that his own near-death experience, which happened during a week-long coma, constitutes a “proof” that heaven exists!

However, even aside from such extraordinary “near-death experiences”, so common are the more ordinary—and certainly less dangerous—peak experiences, that maybe they should be seen as incentives for greater spiritual maturity rather than evidence that it has already been achieved.

       Do such peak experiences—such as feeling a certain oneness or unity with the whole universe, or with ultimate reality—really prove that there is an afterlife or an ultimate reality that people often call “God”? If by proof we mean a logical argument that necessarily convinces people―other than those who have actually had the experience―beyond any doubt as to the objective reality of the soul or of God, then probably not. These are, at best subjective experiences, about which a researcher, like Maslow, could report that many people claim to have had. As such, they might be called “intuitions of immortality” or foretastes of ultimate reality.  No doubt, some will, like Sigmund Freud, who apparently never experienced one, write the whole thing off as an illusion.  In fact, Freud thought that such an experience of oneness or unity, which, in his 1930 book on Civilization and Its Discontents, he called an “oceanic feeling”, was the opposite of religious experience, which he associated with feelings of helplessness.

      To be fair, however, it should be noted that in Chapter VI in his earlier book, The Future of an Illusion, Freud made a careful distinction between illusions as being different from outright delusions. While the latter are clearly out of touch with objective reality, the former are not necessarily so.  As Freud saw it, the problem with illusions is that, on that subjective level, they remain the object or goal of wish fulfillment, thus, at least in the eyes of scientists, without objective or scientifically verifiable evidence. Accordingly, Freud concluded that the testimonies of those who claim to have had such experiences are of little value to those who have not had them. On the other hand, Maslow—who once admitted he’d never had one either—took the phenomenon very seriously, as any open-minded researcher should.

      As for “near-death experiences”—such as seeing one’s own body from a distance, experiencing the passing through a tunnel towards a bright light, etc.—there is an additional problem. No doubt these are outstandingly “peak experiences” to those who have had them and very often have changed a person’s whole attitude towards death and subsequently their whole course of life.

 However, the obvious flaw as a supposed proof is that they really didn’t die, and that some medical researchers have argued that such experiences may be very much part of the normal physical phenomena associated with brain death. Nevertheless, in his 2012 book, after citing the attending physician’s estimate (Appendix A) of his having had a 97% chance of dying, Dr. Alexander rejects (Appendix B) nine different neuroscientific hypotheses as being either impossible or highly improbable in any attempt to explain his own experience.

In any case, perhaps it is needless to say that any effort to deliberately cause such an experience could be, to say the least, rather dangerous to one’s health. What we can say, at most, is that such an experience is usually highly convincing to the person who has undergone it, enough so, it would seem, to prove that the process of dying need not be nearly as frightful as one might think, at least if one is well-prepared and has the right attitude.

However, it is not just a matter of physical danger.  It should be cautioned that attempts to arrive at some kind of habitual enjoyment of such ecstatic experiences are what have too often given mysticism a bad name. To seek such a goal without mastery of the preliminaries, that is, without serious commitment to the first two stages of spiritual growth, is a very dangerous delusion. Thus the chemical or drug-induced shortcuts that some have used in the past to produce some kind of imagined mystical “high” deserve not only ridicule but condemnation. This temptation to try to induce or bring about mystical experiences at will is the subject of strong warnings, or outright condemnation by classical masters of the spiritual life whose writings are filled with warnings against what they call “false mysticism”. Thus, to expect the reward of faithfulness without undergoing all the work and passing all the tests of what it takes, might be seen as a form of cheating. It is also a very insidious and not too subtle form of egotism when you think about it—a matter to which we will have to give special attention in the next chapter.

A similar confusion of ends and means concerned Viktor Frankl, the founder of the “logotherapeutic” school of psychoanalysis―the logos in logotherapy standing for meaning or purpose. So while Frankl did  not go quite as far in his more well-known books as did Jung did in his prescription of religion as a cure for the “modern neurosis”, nevertheless in the introduction (p.13) to the 1979 English translation of what was actually his first book―the writing of which had been interrupted by his internment in a Nazi concentration camp―Frankl defined religion as “the search for ultimate meaning” and faith as “trust in ultimate meaning.” 

Nevertheless, I think that the psychodynamics that are outlined in Frankl’s better-known books go a long way toward explaining the pitfalls involved in spiritual growth, as well as the warnings against them. Simply put, as Frankl emphasized again and again, in every possible way, that the search or quest for happiness or fulfillment cannot be successful if our own happiness and fulfillment or the pleasure or joy that accompanies it is the primary goal of our efforts. We can achieve happiness or fulfillment only by seeking a goal that is greater than ourselves or which transcends our own happiness.  This “paradoxical intent”, as Frankl called it, is essential. As he saw it, Freud’s “pleasure principle”, the seeking of ones own satisfaction, is faulty because it is fundamentally selfish, and not only that, it turns out to be eventually unsuccessful.

As Frankl often put it in his lectures,  “The ‘pursuit of happiness’ just doesn’t work: happiness can only ‘ensue’—that is, come as a by-product of the pursuit of something greater”—presumably meaning something greater than our own happiness. So, while the instinctual drive for pleasure and satisfaction may have been programmed into us by evolution to ensure that our own or the species’ basic needs are met, to seek that pleasure, whether it be aesthetic, gastronomic, sexual, or whatever, simply for our own satisfaction, is a formula for eventual disaster or at least frustration.

It is this same psychodynamic of self-transcendence that explains how it is that, as we saw in the last chapter, the Catholic Church came to the conclusion that even atheists and agnostics, when dedicated to a goal greater than simply their own self-satisfaction, might eventually find themselves, probably to their great surprise, sharing the next life in the company of the saints.

This rather paradoxical possibility also throws some light on the stark warnings of the Spanish mystical theologian St. John of the Cross (1542-1591).  As he summed it in his masterwork, The Ascent of Mount Carmel (Book I, Chap. 13:11):


To reach satisfaction in all, desire its possession in nothing.


To come to possess all, desire the possession of nothing.


To arrive at being all, desire to be nothing.


To come to the knowledge of all, desire the knowledge of nothing…


To grasp St. John’s meaning, however, one must understand that the “all” (todo) stands for the ultimate, that is God, while the “nothing” (nada) literally means “no [that is, mere] thing”. Thus, he went on to say:


To come to the knowledge you have not,

       You must go by a way you know not.


To come to the possession you have not,

You must go by a way that you possess not.


To come to be what you are not,

       You must go by a way that you are not.


When one thinks about it, these stark warnings are not all that different from Guatama’s (that is, the historical Buddha’s) warnings against desire as the cause of all our suffering. But it is not a question of cultivating passivity or indifference, as Buddhist spirituality is sometimes misinterpreted to mean. Instead, as the renowned Zen philosopher D. T. Suzuki once pointed out, one can hardly dedicate oneself to the alleviation of suffering without desiring something greater.  Rather it is question of ridding oneself of selfish or self-centered desire.

Nevertheless, despite all these warnings, to ignore the challenge of reaching this final stage, or to simply shrug and fain indifference, with the excuse that, after all, are not such things supposed to be left to a future life, could be a big mistake. It is one of the reasons, perhaps the major one, that religion has so often become ineffective in reaching people or has become corrupted into rival, often warring sects. Likewise, to scorn this level of spirituality as useless or impossible, or as a distraction from our real tasks in life, is foolish and ultimately self-defeating. It would be like setting out on a journey without a map or a guidebook, or even without any idea of where you wanted to end up. Without the inspiration or goal provided by this third stage, there would be no spirituality to begin with!

        However, a final caution is in order here. While the first two stages may seem to be a matter of our own doing, or our own deciding to get moving on the path of spiritual development, when it comes to the third stage, we must be patient, because it is something, like happiness itself, which can only happen to us. It is not something that we can cause just by wanting it. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t prepare ourselves to be receptive, primarily by careful attention to the first two stages. But there are also many people (perhaps even most people) for whom this final stage remains elusive. Humanly speaking, the process of spiritual development must begin with us and our own determination to achieve it. Yet, at the same time, we must always remember that it is only God, or that “Power” higher than ourselves, that can bring our evolutionary potentials to their complete fulfillment.


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