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  • Writer's pictureMarcelo Aguirre

The Spiritual Aspect of Personal Growth



Looking at the Western philosophical tradition, the ancient Greeks postulated that human beings carry inside the body 'psyche' and 'nous.' The term psyche, commonly translated as soul and modernly as mind, comprised both vital functions like nutrition, body growth, reproduction as well as—in human beings—language and 'logos' or rational thinking.


On the other hand, the term nous, traditionally translated as spirit, alludes to a purely immaterial and everlasting instance, present in human beings but beyond the biological needs and the scope of rational and symbolic language. So that noetic or spiritual experiences are commonly apophatic, that is, intuitive and difficult—if not impossible—to express in words.


This distinction between psyche and nous is in the background in Abraham Maslow's proposal. At the same time, in his hierarchy of human needs, he distinguishes biological needs (food and clothes), materials (shelter, access to health), socio-affective (belonging groups, friendship, couple relationships, and social recognition), and finally, spiritual needs. Spiritual needs, according to Maslow, imply an active orientation of each person towards values—immaterial dimension of life— which give transcendent meaning to one's existence such as freedom, creativity, altruism, justice, honesty, beauty, etc.


When individuals fail to satisfy their needs—any of them—pathology arises, whether somatic, psychic, psychosomatic, or spiritual. Physical pathologies are medical diseases. Psychic or psychosomatic pathologies are emotional/mental. Spiritual pathology (called by Maslow 'metapathology') is rooted in some dissatisfaction with the field of personal values. This means the person has not yet identified what values give meaning to her life, or, after clarifying her values, she has not actively committed to cultivating them.


A life without values is like a boat with no rudder on life's waves. Viktor Frankl (1959) called 'noogenic depression' to feel that life has nonsense. That sort of axiological deprivation leads to existential disorientation and nihilism due to a lack of recognition of one's values and no orientation towards them.



According to Maslow, there is no dichotomy between basic—or lower—and higher needs. Each human being needs to be satisfied on each level, which means having integral health and a general balance in his body, mind (including the individual and socio-relational fields), and spirit.

«If we try to define the deepest, most authentic, most consti­tutionally based aspects of the real self, of the identity, or of the authentic person, we find that in order to be comprehensive, we must include not only the person's constitution and temperament, not only anatomy, physiology, neurology, and endocrinology, not only his capacities, his biological style. not only his basic instinc­toid needs but also the Values (...) They are equally part of his "nature," or definition, or essence, along with his "lower" needs, (...) They must be included in any ultimate definition of "the human being," or of full humanness, or of "a person.» (Maslow, 1971; pp. 304-305)

Neglecting the plane of values can lead to harmful consequences for each individual's life. Just as ignoring basic needs leads to suffering from various pathologies in the body and mind, ignoring the axiological dimension of life leads to suffering from existential emptiness, nonsense, cynicism, nihilism, extreme materialism, and ultimately living an unsatisfactory and superficial, and empty life.

«The 
state
 of 
being 
without
 a
 system 
of 
values 
is 
psychopathogenic, we
 are learning.
 The
 human
 being
 needs
 a
 framework
 of
 values,
 a philosophy
 of
 life,
 a
 religion
 or
 religion‐surrogate
 to
 live
 by
 and understand
 by, 
in 
about 
the 
same
sense 
that 
he 
needs 
sunlight, 
calcium
 or love. (...) The
 value‐illnesses 
which 
result
from
 valuelessness 
are 
called
 variously 
anhedonia, anomie,
 apathy, 
amorality,
hopelessness, 
cynicism,
 etc., 
and
 can 
become somatic
 illness
 as
 well.» (Maslow, 1962; p. 189)

It is no coincidence that The World Health Organization considers depression and anxiety disorders as the most characteristic mental illness in our time. We cannot deny that depressive and anxious syndromes are complex pathologies with diverse causes ranging from biological neuroendocrine factors to psychological and socio-environmental (such as traumatic experiences and their consequent post-traumatic distress; poverty, unemployment, etc.). To which we need to add spiritual or axiological factors, such as existential nonsense due to the absence of values:

«At the beginning of human history, man lost some of the basic animal instincts in which an animal's behavior is imbedded and by which it is secured. Such security, like Paradise, is closed to man forever; man has to make choices. In addition to this, however, man has suffered another loss in his more recent development inasmuch as the traditions which buttressed his behavior are now rapidly diminishing. No instinct tells him what he has to do, and no tradition tells him what he ought to do; sometimes, he does not even know what he wishes to do. Instead, he either wishes to do what other people do (conformism) or he does what other people wish him to do (totalitarianism). (...) many of these will not know what to do with all their newly acquired free time. Let us consider, for instance, "Sunday neurosis," that kind of depression which afflicts people who become aware of the lack of content in their lives when the rush of the busy week is over and the void within themselves becomes manifest.» ~(Frankl, 1959; pp. 128-129)

From all the above, it is evident that spiritual well-being is part of the integral well-being of the human being. Now, what implications does such well-being have?



«Spiritual well-being is an important contributor to mental and physical health; a large research literature attests to that. This is true whether one is religious and believes in God or not. (...) While there is no one universally agreed-upon definition of spiritual wellness, a wide range of sources describe these essential characteristics: a feeling of peace of mind, being in harmony with oneself and others, a deep sense of connection with others, compassion toward oneself and others, the sense of a domain of life that transcends the bounds of the material world and the confines of self, a feeling of living with meaning and purpose, being able to trust oneself, reverence for life, and having faith or hope in life.» (Hayes, 2019; p. 330)

Let's see briefly what I consider the five basic levels of personal growth.




1. Self-knowledge


In the ancient temple of the god Apollo, it was written that maxim which points out the beginning of the personal growth process: «Know Thyself.» This process named 'personal growth' means seeking to understand who we are, how and why we function the way we do it—that is, to know our automatisms and patterns of thought, emotion, and habitual behaviors—briefly, to understand our personality and also what is beyond it, our authentic being or essence. Although there are many personality typologies, the Enneagram is maybe the most complete system so far. It extensively describes human types, including their lights and shadows, the dynamism of change and transformation, emotional biases or passions, cognitive fixations, pathological functioning, etc.



2. Healing Emotional Wounds


Although the process of healing our emotional wounds is part of the psychological dimension of personal growth, it is also a condition for authentic spiritual development. And so, it is crucial to identify and take care of the eventual emotional consequences of extremely painful or traumatic experiences, such as all forms of abuse and violence, unexpected losses of loved ones or unresolved duels, and so forth. Suppose we do not first enter the process of healing our emotional wounds. In that case, the search for spiritual experiences—like meditation and detachment practice, among others—could harmfully turn us into an indirect attempt to evade the internal pain or a way to try just to 'forget' something painful from the past. Evey worse, the effort to cover up the emotional pain through external compensations—like all kinds of addictions or an insane clinging to things, substances, people—could get in the way of the minimum hope of transcendence and sink us deeply into cynicism and materialism in all its forms. If we really need to heal certain emotional wounds and recognize that we have not managed such healing on our own, maybe it's time to ask for professional help such as an adequate type of psychotherapy.



It is also essential to firmly decide to stop repeating harmful patterns. Let's keep in mind that our brain is neuroplastic; that is, we can change the consequences of negative experiences by deliberately generating different, positive experiences in our lives:

«Schore’s
 theory
 highlights
 how
 our
 interactions
 play
 a
 role
 in reshaping
 our
 brain,
 through
 neuroplasticity—the
 way
 repeated experiences
 sculpt
 the
 shape,
 size,
 and
 number
 of
 neurons
 and
 their synaptic
 connections.
 Some
 potent
 shaping
 occurs
 in
 our
 key relationships
 by
 repeatedly
 driving
 our
 brain
 into
 a
 given
 register.
 In effect,
 being
 chronically
 hurt
 and
 angered,
 or
 emotionally
 nourished,
 by someone
 we
 spend
 time
 with
 daily
 over
 the
 course
 of
 years,
 can refashion 
the 
circuitry 
of 
ou r
brain. Schore
 argues
 that
 nurturing
 relationships
 later
 in
 life
 can
 to
 some extent
 rewrite
 the
 neural
 scripts
 that
 were
 encrypted
 in
 the
 brain
 during childhood.
 (...) These
 new
 discoveries
 reveal
 that
 our
 relationships
 have
 subtle,
 yet powerful,
 lifelong
 impacts
 on
 us.
 That
 news
 may
 be
 unwelcome
 for someone
 whose
 relationships
 tend
 toward
 the
 negative.
 But
 the
 same finding
 also
 points
 to
 reparative
 possibilities
 from
 our
 personal connections
at
any
point
in
life.» (Goleman, 2006; pp. 28; 418).

3. Going Beyond the Conceptualized Self


As we move through our lives, we become more and more attached to a certain self-constructed image or concept coming from vital experiences and social contexts. To identify our self-concept, we can answer the question: What is the way I am? We could say something like: "Well, I am a responsible, funny, moody, or very patient person..." If we know what our personality type in the Enneagram system is, we need to be mindfully careful because it could be dangerous to get over-identified with a particular type. Whatever our self-concept is, let's remember that it is just a mental construct that describes our personality traits—habits we have built, some descriptors of how we usually behave. Also, it is vital to remember that our self-concept—including our enneatype—will never define our 'being' completely. Otherwise, that conceptualized self we have built will become a trap or a limit that prevents us from making changes, getting in the way of our personal growth.



«It is not too difficult to help clients recognize the essential connection between the person they are today and the person they were last summer, the person who once was a teenager and the person who once was 4 years old. People can often remember being behind the same eyes in earlier times and can contact that “person” even now. Contact with this perspective-taking sense of self is critical to acceptance work because it provides a sanctuary in which there is no existential threat from entering into the pain and travails of life. This perspective enables the person to know in a truly experiential way that no matter what comes up, the “I” is not threatened. This is not because the “I” is permanent but rather because the “I” is not thing-like. Instead, it is the perspective from which verbal activity is observed. To borrow a metaphor from Baba Ram Dass, behind the cloud of language is a small bit of blue sky. There is no reason for humans to blow the clouds away every moment in order to be reassured that there is a blue sky. It envelops and contains the clouds themselves. Contact with this aspect of self is thus contact with a sense of personal wholeness, transcendence, interconnectedness, and presence.» (Hayes et al., 2012; p. 548)

That's right, behind our conceptualized self—one of the 'clouds of language'—there is a bit of the 'blue sky' of our transcendent, authentic self. Which is the 'process' we are—for we are a process in constant deployment and learning much more than a fixed and determined 'thing.' This experience of our being as a process and as an 'observer' of all the contents of the mind—like thoughts, emotions, sensations—is a truly liberating experience, since it places us beyond the traps of language we build. and which we got often trapped in.



4. Bringing Attention to the Present Moment (Mindful Mindset)


As all spiritual traditions do, Mindfulness insists on the great importance of practicing paying attention to the present moment. The more deliberately we connect with the present, the more we can find peace and appreciate what life offers us minute by minute. If peace and happiness are somewhere, they must be in the present because only the present exists; the past no longer exists, and the future does not yet exist—past and future are like shadows and mirages in our minds.

«Be aware of the tendency for your mind to jump to conclusions before all the evidence has been presented and the final arguments made. (...) If you find your mind wandering a lot, you can always bring it back to your breathing and to what you are hearing, over and over again if necessary.» (Kabat-Zinn, 2018; p. 320)

Remember that bringing the mind back to the present moment, again and again, is not an isolated act but a habit that we need to be practice and develop throughout life. That way, we can change the switch of our brain, more and more easily, from problem-solving mode—or 'doing mode'—to contemplating mode—or 'being mode'—which are the two ways our brain works. Learning to move on purpose from the doing mode to the being mode is vital to avoid falling into the downward stress spiral in daily life.


According to the Enneagram tradition, at this level of the inner work, we need to focus on getting rid of the mental narrowness of the Fixations to experience reality from the perspective of the Transcendent (Holly) Ideas.



5. Appreciating and Being Thankful


The practice of appreciation and thankfulness is one of the keys to our mental and spiritual growth. To do so, we need to constantly exercise in getting out of our minds and reconnect with the five senses. By paying attention to what the senses offer us moment by moment, we can come back home; we can come back to here and now.

«Our hurry-hurry lives narrow down into tunnels of greyness with just the odd glimpse or impression of wonders. But if you think about it, you are a consciousness passing through time. We only exist in this moment. (...) A key message of many of the new approaches in psychology and spiritual practice is the importance of learning to appreciate and generate feelings of joy through experience ‘in the moment.’ How many of us really stop and look at the beauty of the sky and its ever-changing patterns or the beauty of flowers or trees in the park or spend time really exploring the tastes, smells and feel of things? How many of us actually experience joy in our ability to see or to hear or focus on the pleasure of seeing and hearing, knowing that there are some people who have been robbed of these senses?» (Gilbert, 2009; p. 414)

According to the spiritual roots of the Enneagram, the more we work on identifying the passions in daily life (anger, pride, vanity, envy, stinginess, cowardy, gluttony, lust, and spiritual laziness), the more freedom we experience; which allows us to decide the way we want to respond instead of reacting on autopilot. And the more freedom inside, the more contact with the present moment, which lets the essential Virtues arise (serenity, humility, authenticity, equanimity, strength, moderation, compassion, and mindful action).


In short, complete personal growth requires working on both psychological and spiritual levels. Taking for granted the work on a psychological level and quickly jumping into spiritual practices could be as dangerous as covering up a wound with a colorful band-aid. Otherwise, taking care first of our emotional needs will help us then unfold our full potential through spirituality.


Marcelo Aguirre



References

  • Frankl, Viktor E. (1959). Man's Seach For Meaning. Washington: Washington Square Press.

  • Gilbert, Paul (2009). The Compassionate Mind. A New Approach to Life's Challenges

  • Goleman, Daniel (2006). Social Intelligence. The New Science of Human Relationships. New York: Bantam Dell.

  • Hayes, Steven C., Kirk D. Strosahl & Kelly G. Wilson (2012). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. The Process and Practice of Mindful Change (2nd ed.). New York: The Guilford Press.

  • Hayes, Steven C. (2019). A Liberated Mind. How to Pivot Toward What Matters. New York: Penguin Random House LLC.

  • Kabat-Zinn, Jon (2018). The Healing Power of Mindfulness. A New Way of Being. New York: Hachette Book Group, Inc.

  • Maslow, Abraham H. (1971). The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York: The Penguin Group.

  • Maslow, Abraham H. (1962). Toward a Psychology of Being. New York: Start Publishing LLC.

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