Mystical experience is exceptional only in regard to its intensity,
not in respect to its natural availability to human striving for union with God.
– Avis Clendenen
Our real journey in life is interior; it is a matter of growth, deepening and
an ever greater surrender to the creative action of love.
– Thomas Merton
The essential purpose of religion is to accelerate growth in consciousness.
– Jim Marion
I have been studying the relationship between human spiritual development and leadership for nearly 20 years now. Many of us have people in our lives we would call “spiritual leaders” or “spiritual mentors”; people whom we might identify as “spiritually mature.” Who are yours? What makes them so?
I ask people those questions in my workshops. For them, a spiritual leader or role model might be someone like Gandhi; it might also be their grandmother. In their descriptions of these people, they say they are persons who live out of a sense of inner freedom. Jesus said, “The truth will make you free.” They also live out of a sense of deep compassion, particularly for the poor and marginalized. Jesus said, “I have come to bring good news to the poor…and let the oppressed go free.” They often are described as prophetic, meaning they challenge the status quo and oppressive systems. Jesus did that, and it got him killed.
We now have on hand the research of many people to help us understand and appreciate the spiritual growth dynamic, and what that dynamic means for us as human beings. It is a very important part of who we are. Ken Wilber’s integral vision of reality is among the best in helping us to see that evolution happens on the inside as well as on the outside, and that it is an evolution that leads to spiritual maturity.
With the help of Wilber and others, we are beginning to see that spiritual maturity and psychological development go hand in hand, in a sense they compliment each other. To understand how that works for people, and for any organization or society, let us look at just one of the many development schemas now available, that proposed by Abraham Maslow.
Maslow himself was perhaps prophetic in his own right because he followed a different path than traditional studies in human psychology. He studied people who were psychologically well, not sick. He studied people who were happy, not depressed. He observed that individuals who are well and happy appear to move along a continuum of inner development as they go through life and have certain needs met.
The first stage in the process articulated by Maslow focuses around human physical needs – such as food, oxygen, shelter – all those things necessary simply for survival. Then, once those survival needs are met, it is possible for individuals to move to a somewhat similar stage, but one more focused on safety and security needs. In other words, as an individual, I may have enough food, water, and shelter to keep me alive, but there are other dangers to my survival in this world in which we live, and these become my conscious focus until I feel secure that those threats are under control.
Once I experience a safe and secure environment, I am ready to move further along the continuum psychologically to experience and overcome different needs. Maslow identified the needs at the next stage as the emotional needs associated with the experience of love and a feeling of belonging.
Then, with my physical, safety, and emotional needs met, I am ready to move out into the world, seeking esteem and respect. Finally, if all goes well in one’s development, one reaches the last stage on Maslow’s continuum, which is one in which a person’s experiences provide him or her with a unitive sense of connection to the larger reality of which we are all a part.
The challenge for us as I see it today is to focus on how to assist persons as they move along Maslow’s continuum, with each other. In other words, now that we know we are all here on this Earth together, and becoming closer and closer in our connections to one another, how do we manage to all live together at different individual and collective stages of development? That is an enormous challenge, and one we that today we are failing at miserably.
To bring this down to daily life, how do we as leaders manage people within an organization who are at different stages on this journey? Another implication is related to the organization itself, how does it move forward on this journey – handling its own growth in complexity as it seeks to make a contribution to the greater good? By this, I mean how do we as leaders develop an awareness that organizations, as collections of human beings, can be said themselves to have a developmental journey. In organizational development terms, people talk about the “life-cycle” of an organization. In other words, they are aware that organizations go through stages of growth and development, but are they aware that organizations go through internal as well as external stages, just like individual human beings do? Leadership ought to know how to facilitate the process of both internal and external development in the organization, while recognizing that not everyone will go through that process at the same rate.
It is important to note, by the way, that it appears you can go backward as well as forward on Maslow’s continuum. It is not a fixed, linear path. Take away the resources necessary to meet my physical needs, and my focus and behaviors may go right back to that level.
Implications of Maslow for Spiritual Practice
I have been working with people who suggest that there are what we might call spiritual implications related to Maslow’s schema of needs. This seems important to me because our planet currently is wracked with terror and violence associated with the way people understand their God and their religion.
For example, if I am concerned about my physical needs – that is, I am in a dependent situation around those needs – what might my image of God look like in that situation? What might my prayer be like? In my stance of ultimate need, God could become the provider of those needs. My prayer to God would focus on those needs. I might pray, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
Similarly, if I am in a situation where I feel insecure, even frightened, my image of God might be one of an almighty protector upon whom I can call to provide those needs. As a child, I might pray, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.” As an adult, I might justify violence and even war as a means to get what I need and to feel secure by declaring that God, my provider and protector, is on my side.
If, however, my physical and safety needs are all met satisfactorily, and I am able to move forward to a more mature stage, my needs will be focused on love, affection and belonging. At this stage, to maintain my relationships, forgiveness becomes very important. My image of God might evolve to become the ultimate, all-forgiving presence. I might pray, as Jesus taught, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
As I move along further in my development, with all my physical, safety and emotional needs met, I am ready to move out into the world. There I might seek, in a way, to bolster my sense of self esteem and earn the esteem and respect of others through work or ministry. My God image may become the One whom I seek to serve through my work; perhaps my guide or even “Master,” as in the relationship between a master and apprentice. I might pray as St. Francis did, “Make me an instrument of your peace.”
Finally, I may progress to the stage which Maslow speaks of as “self-actualization,” or a stage marked by the attainment of a certain wisdom, generativity, and a giving back. In this stage, as I experience a sense of deep connection with what is beyond myself, my images of God may be those that speak to wisdom, to communion, and ultimately to the mystery that remains at the center of our existence. Words like Spirit, Mystery, Holy One, Ground of Our Being come to mind as ones that I have heard people use. Our prayer in this stage might be as Jesus prayed, “ Abba, protect them….that they may be one as we are one.”
For a PDF illustration of Maslow’s hierarchy in relation to images of God and prayer, click the link here: Maslow and Spiritual Practices.
Jim Marion, who I quoted at the opening of this post, goes on to express how religious and spiritual practices aid in this process of human growth and development:
All the ‘technologies’ of the Christian religion, the New Testament, prayer, Bible study, preaching, fasting, music, Holy communion or Mass, healing services, chanting, rituals, almsgiving, monasteries, convents, pilgrimages, meditation, icons, and sacraments, have only one purpose – to accelerate people’s growth in consciousness…into the nondual vision of Jesus’ kingdom.
Thomas Merton (1973) makes it clear how this path of spiritual growth is so important to our ability to interact in honest and nonviolent ways with one another, and that promote and support the common good:
Those who attempt to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening their own self-understanding, freedom and capacity to love, will have nothing to give others.They will communicate to others nothing but the contagion of their own obsessions, their aggressiveness, their ego-centered ambition, their delusions about ends and means, their doctrinaire prejudices and ideas (pp. 178-179)
We have only to look to the current economic crisis facing the United States and other countries as one example to see Merton’s remarks at play in the behaviors of those responsible for the crisis. Such events, and worse, will continue to plague us until we all embrace the fragile, evolutionary nature of our humanity, and demand that our leaders meet the challenges inherent in it – both personally and communally.
Clendenen, A. (2009) Experiencing Hildegard: Jungian perspectives. Wilmette, IL: Chiron. p. 59.
Merton, T. (1989) The road to joy: Letters to new and old friends. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Merton, T. (1973) Contemplation in a world of action. NY: Image. pp. 178-179.
Marion, J. (2000) Putting on the mind of christ: The inner work of christian spirituality. Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads. p. 23