The basis of all spiritual growth may be said to be the understanding of the relationship between Oneself, God and the Universe. A practical application of this understanding would of course be highly beneficial in living a life of happiness in all ways.
The path of spiritual development can be said to follow certain possible patterns. These patterns are by no means fixed, but information about them can be very helpful in understanding where we fit in, and also to begin developing spiritually.
Before we get to how spiritual development can happen, let's briefly examine the difference between the words “religion” and “spirituality.” For the last many years, these words have come to be used quite interchangeably in common parlance. But in fact, these words are not interchangeable, and the concepts they stand for are not synonymous. In very simple terms, religion is formal and institutional, whereas spirituality is very personal, and though can be, and very often does draw from formal religion, it is very individual. So individual that each person may have her or his own definition.
In practical application, religion is generally a group activity, with set rules, rites and rituals, following defined belief and ethical systems. Religion uses all of these together to get people moving in a direction towards God, through the agency of an intermediary such as a priest, minister or mullah.
Spirituality, being very individual, takes one on a personal journey of self-discovery, and necessarily culminates in realizing the full potentiality of the connection with the Source of all creation. In many cases God as a personal focal point may be replaced with merging with the Source on an Impersonal level. There are no intermediaries on the spiritual path, though of course, there can be a guru and many teachers to provide personal guidance. At its very best, religion can be a stepping stone or a doorway to spirituality, leading one from the general to the specific.
Very often a spiritual seeker may begin her or his personal journey with a change from the standard religious practices of the family and society in general. In some instances, there can be an outright rejection and disavowing of anything religious leading one to become atheistic in thinking and behavior. In other instances, there may be a gradual transition into atheism. There is no place for God in this model, the Universe is thought to be mechanistic and natural or accidental in origin, as is the human being. The development of this overview may be a sign of a fresh beginning, and not something detrimental in the broader spiritual context. It can be helpful in clearing the mind of preset concepts, ideas and notions, in time opening one up to other possibilities.
But this stage does not usually last indefinitely as the spiritual seeker develops intellectually, perhaps not knowing yet that she or he is seeking growth. In time dissatisfaction may set in with the rigidity of atheism. Denial of the existence of God has a finality to it that a growing person may deem a challenge to being open-minded. An intuitive prodding occurs which stimulates the seeker to feel a need to know more about the relationship between Oneself, God and the Universe, even if it be hypothetical at this stage.
However, proceeding only intellectually, it becomes impossible to truly know whether there is even such a being as God or an impersonal Source of all creation, also whether human beings and the Universe are accidental or natural creations. This impossibility of knowingness brings one to the stage of becoming an agnostic. The agnostic thoroughly examines the concepts related to God, and finds that it is impossible to either prove or disprove the very existence of God or an original Source of the Universe. It is also impossible to prove whether human beings and the Universe are accidental or deliberate creations. This stage is very significant in that the intellect is found to be inadequate by itself in providing answers to such profound and basic existential questions.
From this stage, one may transition into a phase of religious exploration. It should be recognized that this type of religious phase is quite different from any earlier experience with religion. Gradually one starts to deeply analyze religious texts, tax one's intellect to understand and apply the wealth of hidden wisdom that can be found in these texts. One often seeks out proper instruction from those more well-versed, and the company of others to discuss religious and spiritual precepts, experience and opinion with. One makes a serious dedicated effort to understand the meaning of rituals and their corresponding relevance. But even this phase is temporary and gradually gives way to spirituality.
Now one craves personal evolution, investigating the personal validity of what has been learned in the religious phase, and daring to formulate one's own ideas and opinions. Again, there can be a systematic rejection of various religious rituals and precepts, selectively keeping and applying only those which one feels are most personally relevant. Daily spiritual practices take the place of religious rituals, to enhance mental clarity, emotional management, and connection with the Divine if one is so inclined. Such practices include japa, meditation, etc. Intuition greatly develops in many seekers, and one comes to rely on this more than intellect. The need for social interaction diminishes, and a need for solitude increases. Turbulent pent up emotions can rise to the surface to be dealt with, and values and principles change, giving way to strength, gentleness and tolerance. Awareness and perception grow considerably; hand-in-hand an automatic deeper understanding of Oneself and the Universe sets in. The fortunate ones attract their guru in this phase, and are led to great levels of personal advancement, even to the highest level of Self-Realization.
It should be emphasized that not all of these stages or even such a progression occurs with all spiritual seekers. However all seekers generally do experience such stages during their development, and benefit greatly from the insights that follow.
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